Emory Report

March 27, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 26

Cleaning up with Vernon Thompson


A clean whiteboard. A garbage can that's emptied every day. A neatly arranged podium and chairs.

All these things are taken for granted at Emory. Life without them would be pretty unpleasant.

Custodial services, recycling, waste management, staging and pest control employ more than 220 people at the University, and all fall under the umbrella of Building Services. And that umbrella is held by Vernon Thompson.

Prior to Thompson's arrival on campus in January, the department's setup wasn't quite so all-encompassing. Each of those five areas, while all part of Facilities Manage-ment, was run independently. Still, they often worked together; one area would start a job, then hand it over to another once their tasks were finished. Not anymore.

The new organization fosters better communication across all areas, infusing a positive attitude throughout FM, and Thompson is at the forefront praising the changes.

"Most of the staff I have here are outstanding­­they're hungry and they're eager," said Thompson, assistant director for building services. He worked in a similar capacity at Georgia Tech for two years before coming to Emory.

He took over a department that is FM's largest and one that touches the lives of most every Emory employee and student on a daily basis. The University's campus covers approximately 7 million square feet, according to Thompson. Of that, buildings occupy 4 million square feet, and his employees are responsible for every inch.

They mop the floors, kill the bugs, recycle, dump the trash and perform dozens of other tasks to keep Emory clean and ensure a pleasant learning environment.

"I didn't come to reinvent the wheel; [our employees have] been doing an excellent job. I'm not some whiz kid who's going to change the way things are done. But the way management was before, employees didn't have a chance to voice suggestions upward. That's there now," Thompson said.

"In most areas, an older facility like Emory­­it's been around for eons­­the train of thought is that, 'We've always done it this way before, and it worked well; why change it?' The concept here is you build on the old and work toward the new."

For several years, Building Services workers were managed by an outside contractor. That contract was allowed to lapse earlier this year and FM turned to internal management. According to Thompson, the reaction has been uniformly positive. Employees now have upward mobility and an open door to superiors; a definite morale boost. It's something Thompson is able to see directly; one of his secretaries was promoted internally after starting as a custodial worker.

The artistic centerpiece of Building Services' new direction, a mural hangs in the FMD conference room. It also decorates the hall on the way to the break room. Eventually, once copies are made, every office branch of the Building Services division will have one.

The mural covers three-quarters of a wall in the conference room and resembles a third-grade art project. It's the product of a management consultant brought in from Thompson & Associates (no relation).

It illustrates FM's Vision 2003: the division's new management strategy and timetable to reach its goals, which stress employee empowerment, career development, the creation of a respectful and open environment, and meeting or exceeding the expectations of its customers.

The plan's focal point and defining symbol is a winding highway that bisects the mural and leads to the Association of Physical Plant Managers (APPA) Baldridge Award, a nationwide honor given to exemplary facilities departments. Thompson said winning the award is a specific goal, but it would not signify the end of improvement. He hopes the division would build on its successes and continue to grow.

Surrounding FMD's Vision 2003 highway are dozens of doodles. Each represents some sort of goal or objective for the FMD management team. How close is Emory to the end of its road to success? Thompson gestures about six inches from the start point. The road is roughly 10 feet long.

The department's improved communication is not limited to internal issues; it is attempting to reach out to the campus as a whole. On March 15, FM invited each of its building contacts (each campus building has an FM contact person) to a meeting where it opened its doors of communication a little wider. The idea was to instill more of a team philosophy, and Thompson said the initial reaction was positive.

Thompson said the system at Georgia Tech was similar to what Emory has now­­with one significant difference. Each Tech building also had a recylables contact person with FMD; Emory does not. And one subject Thompson is particularly passionate about is recycling.

His viewpoint is directly related to his upbringing. Back in his hometown of New York, a person could get ticketed if he or she threw a recyclable in with the regular garbage. The culture in Georgia is much different, he said. With thousands of acres of landfill space available, the incentive to recycle is not as great here.

Fortunately, Emory is a progressive campus­­as was Georgia Tech­­and Thompson meets many people who feel as strongly about the subject as he.

He also discussed future ideas about lobbying the legislature to widen recycling efforts throughout DeKalb County, praising some of his student workers in the process. Their job of gathering recyclables out of the trash in all sorts of weather is hardly glamorous, he said, but an integral and valued part of the process. In all, 10 percent of Emory waste is diverted from landfills and recycled.

"Sometimes it's not even profitable to recycle," Thompson said, citing plastics as a low-demand item. "We want to keep a green campus­­a green city, for that matter. We as a department are trying to be more conscientious about our recycling efforts and at the same time trying to promote it on campus to both the students and the faculty.

The FM department is dedicated to enhancing the quality of life on campus and in the community."

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