Profile of Salisbury University’s Nancy Birch: Continuous Improvement Through Communications
Physical Plant Service Center Manager
Nancy Birch’s ascent into facility management began at NASA, Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, where she worked in logistics, accounting, and procurement to provide institutional services to support base operations. In her roles as Contract Administrator and Help Desk Manager, she gained experience in the building trades, construction, and engineering. After her son was born, she decided to return to work at her Alma Mater, Salisbury University in Maryland which had a job open for a Physical Plant Service Center Manager -- an excellent fit given her experience.
Salisbury University has about 9,000 students and more than 100 buildings. There’s a fair amount of action and activity that Birch’s tightly knit service center team handles. When Birch started her job seven years ago, there was no call center. People would call individual departments, which generated handwritten paperwork orders. Birch’s job was to improve communication within the Physical Plant and with its customers by creating a call center for students, faculty, and staff. All requests funnel in through there and then go back to the different departments. Over the years, Birch also implemented a robust facility maintenance management program.
“Implementation never ends. You’re always trying new processes and incorporating new people,” Birch said.
“We have lots going on all the time, year-round, and we have all the classic building trades, but anything big like additions and renovations, we'll contract out. For small projects on campus, we have HVACR techs, carpenters, painters, electricians, and plumbers.”
Birch has one part-time person who works 19 hours per week and six student employees on her team, who are receiving real-life lessons about facility management as a career direction. While things generally run smoothly on campus, there are “little fires” that must be put out, usually involving communication, e.g., somebody didn’t get something needed for an event like tables and extra trash cans. Then, there’s scrambling to catch up when someone gets behind on other tasks.
One of the scariest things to hit Salisbury was a tornado that touched down on a corner of the campus near a dormitory. The whole thing happened very quickly, and no one was hurt or killed.
“A few years back, we didn’t have notification systems and things like that in place, but we have them now, so we’ll be better prepared for the next one, but these kinds of things are rare in this part of the country,” said Birch.
Birch is a big believer in education and networking with peers and colleagues, so through Salisbury University she belongs to APPA, the Association of Physical Plant Administrators.
“I worked to get my certified educational facilities professional certification by taking their test. Recently, they’ve offered some good virtual professional development opportunities. I’ve attended in-person events and meetings in the past with our local group, MD/DC APPA, and our regional group, ERAPPA.” said Nancy.
“I think it provides really great networking because I needed that help when I was looking into how other people were running their service centers at other universities. People are very willing to meet and talk. I went to visit some of them, some of the other schools, things like that,” she added.
On the topic of communication, tone and varying voice are important skills for facility team leaders. “I definitely do a lot of writing – status reports, documenting procedures, instructions, reminders. You’re trying to make it clear and concise, but human and not boring.” One thing Birch doesn’t spend a lot of time doing is going to meetings. Because she has such a small tight team, they communicate and update each other throughout the day.
As a woman in a male-dominated industry, Birch believes it’s important to have a good sense of humor and be very approachable and listen, but it’s been a challenge being the only female in the room. Birch uses active listening to make connections and offer suggestions.
“I'll approach the subject and let them talk. And then, then it's sort of like, well, I'm agreeing with you. How about “why don't you try this?”
As for Salisbury’s future, one of Birch’s big challenges is improving communications not only within the physical plant, but also with customers. There continue to be concerns that people are retiring and leaving all their documents stored in personal computers. That’s something that has directly affected her and her thinking about what areas need improvement at Salisbury, to get information off their Excel spreadsheets, so everybody has the same records and access to it using an integrated facilities management program.
“We’re still struggling with technology and getting everybody up to speed. It’s a constant battle, and the people that have been here the longest are the biggest resisters because they don’t want to try something new. And yet it’s so helpful to have their information available to everybody,” said Birch.