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Back Story

Bikes, Skates, and Trains: Oh, My

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When Brian B. Shipp retired from Memphis and Shelby County Schools after 28 years, he decided he wasn’t quite ready for a rocking chair. He was 49.

He opted to leave his secure K–12 career as director of facilities maintenance because he had become a bit complacent. “I developed a program in the maintenance division that could run by itself,” he says. “All 16 of my departments could stand on their own. My job became simply a trip into the office, because everything was running efficiently. I became bored and a little complacent. I kept thinking, ‘There is something else out there for me to do.’”

The “something else” turned out to be a position at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville as director of facilities and administrative services. He says that the position “gives me a jolt of energy. The truth is I just enjoy solving problems.”

You supervise large capital construction, routine maintenance, and custodial and grounds services. What function is most likely to keep you up at night?

My biggest concern is the amount of critical deferred maintenance that we have on campus. I worry that we could have a possible mechanical breakdown of our HVAC systems and not have readily available funding to provide a solution. That keeps me up at night.

What kind of improvements have you recommended?

We have a master plan that was put together by the university president and board of trustees before I got here, which is my road map.

To achieve our goal, the Vice President of Business and Finance Clayton Gibson and I have been able to secure funding to build a new residence hall that allows students to have a more positive experience on campus. For example, students in the new residence hall no longer have to deal with communal showers. The new dorm rooms house two people, with one shared bathroom.

You led the restructuring of the outsourced facilities contract. Explain that process. 

Yes, when I arrived in 2015, it was a renewal year. I was able to structure the contract in a way that benefited the university. For example, we now pay for services after they are rendered. We also put more responsibility on the contractors to handle, without charge, routine maintenance, such as replacing a doorknob, repairing a lock on a door, fixing a floor tile, or painting a spot on the wall. Those items should not be chargebacks to the university.

Has this saved money? And what’s the plan going forward? 

Indirectly, yes. We haven’t really put a pen to paper because of all the other critical issues that we have on campus, such as our IT infrastructure, mechanical systems, electrical power structure, and road paving.

I would love to say that we have a few hundred million dollars coming in next year, but I can’t. We have been able to prioritize our most critical needs in buckets of anywhere from $5 million to $10 million a year to meet those needs over time.

Unfortunately, with the amount of money that we can put toward facilities, by the time we get to the end, it will be time to start over.

Alabama A&M University

What have you done in the area of preventive maintenance? 

Soon after I got here, I noticed that we were changing a lot of air conditioning compressors. I asked, “What is our maintenance plan for filters?” The answer: “We don’t really have one.” We started a preventive maintenance program using an outsourced vendor for filter changes. By doing that on a monthly or quarterly basis, depending on the unit, we have reduced the number of breakdowns and extended the life of our units.

Changing a filter is so simple that people often forget about it.

What mistakes are institutions making with their buildings and facilities?

Most colleges do not go out and do a major facility assessment because it can be costly; depending on the size of the institution, it can be $100,000 or more. The going rate is 1 cent per square foot, which can add up very quickly. What ends up happening is that most universities skip that step because they know it will be expensive.

Once you get the assessment, you can start to develop a plan to take to your board and say, “Every year we will need this amount of money to start correcting problems that are overdue.” You need to start the dialogue about the need with key stakeholders. I’ve been fortunate to have the support to be able to have a facility assessment. The numbers are staggering, but it allows us to have a plan for moving forward.

How many staff members report to you?

I currently have a total of 12 direct reports. When I was at the Memphis City and Shelby County School District, I had more than 3,000 employees reporting to me.

Tell us about your management style?

I am open. I want dialogue, involvement, and everybody to be part of the solution. I’m not a micromanager. I believe in making sure that I have the right people doing the right jobs, and I empower them to make decisions.

What challenges have you encountered in your career?

As one of the youngest African American directors for a K–12 facilities department, I had to bring about a paradigm shift in how we provided maintenance. I had to get employees to understand that labor was all we had to offer and if we didn’t do that right, we were not needed.

I was a young minority running a division that had been managed for 30 years in a way that did not lend itself to change.

How did you overcome that?

I let people see that I was transparent and fair, and that I would judge people on their abilities, not on who they were or who they knew. Once they saw that I was willing to put in the work, people started to rally around and get on board. I earned their respect.

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?

To an area of the world with the least amount of technology. We now have a society where we are always accessible—no matter what—which means we never stop working. In my position, there is no weekend. It’s 24/7.

I would go to an island for two weeks where the only way you could reach me is through smoke signals.

What event in you life might have changed your outlook or sense of purpose?

When I lost my grandfather, at 22 years old, I realized that I had to become the man he always expected me to be. It was a sobering moment. My grandfather always told me to put money aside, invest, and be ready to change when it’s time. I was able to retire early because I invested in my retirement a long time ago, based on the advice he gave me.

What about other family?

I’m married and have five lovely children, all adults, ranging in age from 33 to 19.

How do you unwind from the pressures of the job?

I love to cycle on a daily basis. I often ride in events with bicycle clubs from different areas to raise money for various causes. We might ride 40, 60, or even 100 miles. I enjoy being out in nature—just me and my road bike trying to get from point A to point B. It’s serene. It keeps me healthy and keeps me from thinking about daily pressures.

The other thing that I love to do is roller skating. I met my wife, Theresa, 14 years ago at a roller skating rink. I was living in Memphis, and she was living in Nashville. I traveled to Nashville to roller skate, and we’ve been roller skating together ever since. On weekends, she also bikes with me.

Tell us something about yourself that your co-workers probably don’t know.

I have a passion for model railroading, which I find relaxing. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. Those three things—biking, skating, and model railroading—allow me to manage my stress levels on a daily basis.

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

Credit: Alabama A&M University