A Profile of Cabrini University's Patty Smith
Problem-solver, communicator, educator, industry advocate
Director of Facilities
Patty Smith's career in operations and maintenance started with a list of problems that needed to be solved and took off from there. The assignment came to her when she was a student who worked in operations planning at a small college in Georgia.
By being organized, observant and focused, she produced a long list of work orders for items that needed attention from facilities in student housing. Her team was overwhelmed, but appreciative, and sent her a pitcher of beer to celebrate and cement their relationship.
"It was summer when little to no maintenance took place in residential halls," said Patty. "My goal was to develop a maintenance plan for residential halls, including a sequence of concurrent and consecutive actions. I learned about how projects are done through this experience."
Now, Patty is the Director of Facilities at Cabrini University in New Jersey, responsible for maintaining 600,000 square feet of facilities, and she's worked in facilities in higher education for several years with stints at Rutgers, Princeton, and Clemson. She's learned the lingo of engineers, technicians, and other trades people so she can talk the talk, but she doesn't come from a construction or mechanical background.
She's used to having a lot of people around, though, as one of six kids in her family, so she's probably seen and heard her share of youthful noise.
Patty enjoys Cabrini's collegial atmosphere, teaching facility management, troubleshooting campus concerns, and responding to requests and issues from parents and students, like the time the 400-gallon water heater went out right around Thanksgiving. There was a happy ending to this story as the vendor responsible for the unit provided a replacement the next day, a credit to Patty's excellent relationship skills.
Along the way, she's earned advanced degrees in business and administration, tapped into the tremendous potential of young people's desires to learn real-world experiences, and help keep their campuses safe, comfortable, and functioning for their friends and families.
Not one to shy away or ponder solutions to problems, she quickly "put out" a "fire" while we talked on the phone having to do with finding a key to an area with an overfilled dumpster, not a dramatic situation, but one that would have generated complaints about potential rodent problems.
Being part of college life at a small university means Patty has the opportunity to get to know students well. She and her team pay special attention to make sure the elevator is working for a handicapped student to do her laundry.
As for women considering a facilities management career, a traditionally male dominated field, Patty believes in helping everyone, not being afraid of egos and learning how people in the industry speak, even if you're not a mechanical engineer.
"This is a great profession, one that grows your brain through conversations with engineers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and many others," said Patty, who has advanced her knowledge by being active in both regional and national conferences offered by APPA and ERAPPA. Patty especially appreciates hearing from those who've overcome adversity, broken through the glass ceiling, and developed themselves from the ground up. Patty has received 3 awards for her service to the profession including the APPA 2018 Unsung Hero Award, the 2019 ERAPPA President's Award, and the 2019 NJAPPA Service Award.
"I find inspiration and education from success stories," said Patty.
One concern on Patty's mind these days is the impact her team will feel when experienced staff retire. One electrician who knows where everything is buried, will be gone in three years. Patty is wisely taking steps now to fill positions with young people and promote from within where possible. One incentive she's offering is technical training and a free college degree.
"I'm looking to fill empty positions with young people, mold them, and retain them long-term," said Patty.
Working with a small team, Patty keeps a pulse on on-campus activities and equipment maintenance. She's excited about the potential of technology like handheld devices offering the ability to read bar codes on each piece of equipment, having all their mechanical equipment in a database linked to floor plans, and robotic floor cleaning machines so housekeepers can focus on classrooms and labs.
There's one final bit of advice that Patty tries to tap into every day. It's important of showing empathy, concern, and action when dealing with frustrated building residents, friends, and families.
"Tell them everything you know, speak from the heart, tell them you're doing your best, and use a lot of reassurance," said Patty.