Facility Managers Cope With Challenging Economy

October 30, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — In a simpler, less costly era, the facility manager was not necessarily regarded as a key person in the hierarchy of the typical corporation or institution.

Times change.

Today, operating and maintaining buildings and property is a major investment and thus, today, there is IFMA — the International Facility Management Association.

The existence of IFMA, founded in Ann Arbor in 1980, is a reflection of the important role now played by facility managers. IFMA is the largest and most widely recognized professional association for facility management, with about 18,750 members in 125 chapters, in more than 60 countries around the world. According to IFMA, its members represent $100 billion in annual purchasing power — everything from light bulbs costing a few dollars to energy for HVAC, new roofs, and other repairs costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Next to the human resources, facilities are the largest asset that a company has," said Keith "K.C." Mitchell, who has been director of facility management at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park for eight years. Mitchell is also the president of the West Michigan chapter of IFMA, which has 124 members, representing companies and organizations from Traverse City south to the Michigan/Indiana border.

Facility management is "not just a maintenance person position any more," said Mitchell. The scope of responsibility, the technology, workplace issues and the money at stake all combine to require an educated professional.

Meijer Gardens is the second most popular cultural destination in Michigan, after The Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village in Dearborn. It draws more than 500,000 visitors a year. Its 132 acres include about 135,000 square feet of structures, including the Lena Meijer Conservatory, the largest glass conservatory in Michigan, which stands five stories high and has 15,000-square-feet of floor space. The conservatory offers a changing display of the Gardens' extensive orchid collection, and in March and April, it is the focal point for the Foremost's Butterflies are Blooming exhibit, the largest living butterfly exhibit in the United States.

One of Mitchell's major responsibilities is the automated energy management systems and sophisticated technology needed to keep all the plants healthy and all the people happy. "Our greenhouses run under one control system, called Argus, and our people spaces run under a control system called Novar," said Mitchell. "As long as everything is working — that’s my biggest issue."

Although facility management at Meijer Gardens can be a challenging job, there are even larger commercial greenhouses in West Michigan, and some of the larger industrial companies here involve many plants that require substantial facility management staffs.

Throughout West Michigan in general, the economy is having an impact on facility management, due to employee cutbacks, manufacturing downsizings and outsourcing of some functions, such as cleaning.

A common question facility managers face here is, "Can we get by with less people?" said Mitchell.

Another situation experienced by facility managers at many area manufacturing companies lately are "empty buildings that have to be dealt with" — secured and maintained, or sold or leased for some other use. They can't just sit there indefinitely, unattended.

"Throughout West Michigan, the biggest thing we face is: How do we, as facility managers, help our businesses deal with the ever-changing economy?" said Mitchell. Making it harder for the facility manager is the fact that the facility management process is "not up front generating money for the company," said Mitchell. "That makes it tough when you need to ask for money for repairs."

IFMA helps its members in many ways. It certifies facility managers — there are currently more than 3,670 IFMA certified facility managers, including Mitchell. It also conducts research, provides educational programs, recognizes facility management degree and certificate programs, and produces World Workplace, the largest facility management-related conference and exposition.

The local chapters provide valuable networking opportunities — a chance to learn from facility managers at similar businesses or institutions.

The West Michigan Chapter of IFMA includes representatives from almost every type of business and larger nonprofit institutions and organizations. Whirlpool Corp., one of the largest corporations in Michigan, is a member. So is Alticor, airports and architectural firms, banks, Bissell, Ferris State University, Kent County government, medical centers, insurance and utility companies, the Van Andel Institute, law firms and Wolverine Construction, among many others.

Virtually all the major office furniture makers are active members and supporters of IFMA because facility managers are usually responsible for making the key decisions about purchase or lease of office equipment and furniture.

The West Michigan chapter is very active and highly rated among IFMA chapters. At this year’s IFMA World Workplace, held last week in New Orleans , IFMA presented the West Michigan chapter with the Small Chapter of the Year Award and the Newsletter of the Year Award.

An active member of the West Michigan chapter of IFMA is Wayne Veneklasen, a highly educated professional who holds a lifetime CFM (certified facility manager) — most CFMs have to be renewed every three years. Veneklasen was a facility manager at Steelcase for 21 years, until his retirement a few years ago. Though semi-retired, he still works as a consultant, doing business as Facility Solutions. Recent clients have included Kent County and Priority Health.

Veneklasen started working in facility management "before it was a recognized profession." That was in 1975, when he was working for the Army Corps of Engineers at a research installation in Illinois. He was part of the "habitability group, looking at Corps facilities and how they worked for the people who used them," he explained.

Veneklasen earned a degree in psychology from Western Michigan University. Then he added a master's degree in industrial psychology, and finally a Ph.D. in architectural psychology at the University of Utah.

He said one of the major interests among facility managers now is the green building movement, utilizing minimal energy and sustainable resources whenever possible and with minimal impact on the environment. Green building ranges from minimizing waste originating in buildings, to using environmentally friendly carpet- and window-cleaning chemicals, non-toxic inks in printing presses, certain types of paint on interiors, and energy-efficient lighting and HVAC.

"It's thinking green — just being smart about what you do with your facility, making sure you don't dump stuff in a landfill if you don't have to, recycling as much as you can. ... It's the right thing to do for the right reasons," said Veneklasen.

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