FM Frequency: Who Needs An “Expert” Consultant?

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By Jeff Crane, P.E., LEED® AP

Published in the July 2007 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Once upon a time in a land far away, I reported to a very frugal finance officer. This guy was so cheap, he counted his fingers after shaking someone’s hand. While reviewing corporate travel statistics, telephone bills, staff projections, office supplies, and even the cost of the dreadful (free) coffee for employees working 60 to 80 hours per week, he would often become disgusted, wringing his hands and removing his glasses to contort his face as though he were in pain or just about to be sick.

(You know the type. You might even work for—or be married to—someone like this!)

Anyway, about 18 months after our relocation and consolidation to a newer and much larger corporate headquarters, our senior financial hawk wanted to confirm we were doing everything possible to control utility expenses. This was a sensible request, since the monthly power bill often exceeded $30,000 and required his signature for payment. The utilities budget captured the man’s attention like a rare steak tossed into a shark tank.

Although I had previously explained most of the tasks and procedures used by facilities in the diligent management of these costs, he probably never fully grasped the details. When speaking the alphabet soup of facilities acronyms—KW, GPM, KWH, BTU (you know, things that make fms ideal dinner guests)—his eyes would glaze over until I uttered the most important pair of syllables for finance types—dollars!

I confidently answered “yes” to his inquiry and spent the next 15 minutes patiently summarizing (again) our tools to monitor and manage electricity and water consumption carefully. Not satisfied, he resolutely decreed, “We must hire an ‘expert consultant’ to audit our operations and determine if additional savings are to be found.”

Now if your eyes are rolling, you’ve probably had a similar experience. You may have learned that an “expert” is often defined as anyone traveling at least 90 miles to reach your facility. You’ve probably also heard that a “consultant” is someone who will borrow your watch in order to tell you the time. Meanwhile, back to our story…

Well, as a licensed mechanical engineer and facility manager who had spent his career designing, maintaining, and managing large and complex mechanical and electrical heating/cooling systems, I was not pleased. I shouldn’t have taken it personally, but at the time it felt like a vote of “no confidence” in facilities management. I already had far too much to do and not enough resources. (Sound familiar?)

Spending an entire day telling an expert consultant how I did my job never even crossed my mind. I also found it incredibly ironic that an intensely frugal accountant was requiring me to engage an expensive expert consultant to tell him what I had already explained several times. This was a man who constantly preached about not spending money. It would be like Rosie O’Donnell and Donald Trump suddenly falling in love!

But as a good corporate soldier, I decided to make the best of it and identify a top notch expert consultant. “Who knows,” I told myself, “maybe I’ll learn a few new tricks…or find a future employer!”

After seeking references from the Internet and several colleagues, I identified an expert consultant with an impressive resume and experience in a wide variety of energy and water conservation initiatives. We talked by phone for over an hour, and I quickly recognized that we spoke the same language.

Maybe this wouldn’t be such a bad project after all! I explained my marching orders, and he offered to e-mail a proposal confirming a scope of work and specific deliverables.

I spent a full day with the expert consultant at my facility and explained everything about our operational tools, practices, and strategies. My new colleague shared details about fascinating projects he had completed for clients around the world.

It was wonderful talking shop with someone who had such variety and depth of experience. If not for the extensive travel requirements, I probably would have asked him for a job.

About two weeks after the visit, the expert consultant e-mailed his formal report. It was quite complimentary and stated that our facilities were extremely well managed. He confirmed that we were doing all that could be expected in a commercial office facility and noted a few potential capital projects (that had been previously researched, budgeted, and found to have insufficient return on investment). My boss was unusually pleased, and I think the report helped improve the facilities team’s standing with senior management.

My experience with the expert consultant didn’t result in any groundbreaking tips for improving operations, but I learned a priceless lesson. In addition to being the punch line of a few good jokes, a knowledgeable expert consultant can be a valuable resource.

For fms without an engineering background or technical facilities experience, expert consultants can provide guidance on free/low cost operational improvements and assistance calculating return on investment from capital projects. For veteran fms with technical backgrounds and many years of experience, expert consultants can suggest or validate state of the art operational practices and share relevant experience in other types of facilities—and we can all live happily ever after!

Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast.

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