Alan Dessoff is a freelance writer who has interviewed many APPA presidents for Facilities Manager. He is based in Bethesda, Maryland and can be reached at email@example.com.
Raised on the same farm in Warrior, Alabama where he lives now, Brooks H. Baker III became well grounded early in his life on what it takes to achieve success. “You learn a lot of good stuff growing up in the country with nobody around to talk to except farmers and small-town folk,” says Baker, associate vice president for facilities at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).
One lesson came from a friend, who told Baker one day, “Brooks, you have to stay hungry” to become successful. Baker took the advice to heart and says “Stay Hungry” will be the core of his agenda as APPA’s new President.
“Being hungry equates to never letting yourself get into a position of being satisfied or complacent,” Baker explains. “It also means having an intense sense of pleasure when you are reaching for a goal. As with our appetite for food, staying hungry in other ways can bring tremendous satisfaction when you begin to satisfy that hunger.
“You must learn to stay hungry in all areas of your life, especially physically, mentally, spiritually, and in your career. My goal will be to encourage our membership to stay hungry.”
Career development for APPA members is one area that Baker says he will emphasize. He uses another farm analogy to describe what he means: “Back on that farm, we cleared a lot of trees to get more ground for growing crops. We used axes and chain saws to do the cutting. Occasionally, the saw or axe would get dull and we had to make the decision—do I keep on cutting wood or stop and sharpen my axe? In our careers, we have the same dilemma: Am I too busy chopping wood to stop and sharpen my axe? We must keep educating and motivating ourselves to be innovative, energetic, and effective, and APPA is here to help in that regard.”
APPA as an association also must stay hungry to be successful, and that means having the support of its members, Baker says. “We are seeing our institutional membership inch downward. To turn that around, we need our members to recruit our counterparts in nonmember institutions to become members.”
He calls for a “grassroots membership” effort and cites another farm experience from his youth. “We have a type of Bermuda grass in Alabama that has roots that can go four or five feet deep. We would plow and plow, thinking we had rid ourselves of the grass, but guess what? It would spring back after the first rain and grow through the fields.” Similarly, at APPA, “we have membership roots that we can call on to bolster the association and help us move forward to new records in membership this year.”
Also, “as an association, we need to be sure that we aim our services at the typical member institution, not just large institutions or those members who have been fully engaged and involved in APPA for years. The small institution or member new to our industry must be able to plug into what this great association is and be able to grow rapidly through the use of the tools we offer.”
“APPA is a strong player in the facilities arena and will continue to provide value to its members,” Baker continues. “One of its strengths is its wonderful staff and another is its vice presidents. They are the ones who do all the work and make things happen.”
Baker says APPA has a particularly strong role to play these days because of economic stresses the facilities management industry is experiencing. “The industry is being pressured in most of our states to continue to provide quality services to our customers—faculty, staff, students, patients—while decreasing our budgets for operations,” he says.
“In times of budget crisis and other difficulties, most executives in the facilities business realize that cutting off communication to the larger pool of resources provided by APPA and its members is not a wise decision,” Baker asserts. But it is more difficult, he acknowledges, “to convince our bosses that maintaining APPA membership and dialogue with peers in our industry is critical for becoming more effective and efficient.”
Funding for travel to APPA educational programs “is often a source of conflict when budgets may not be able to provide the bare necessities,” Baker says. But APPA’s Educational Forum and other programs “are undoubtedly the most intense and power-packed events available to facilities managers. Our task is to help these managers convince their bosses that a ban on travel for educational purposes must be weighed against the value received for that travel expense. In every case, the cost of APPA programs surpasses the expense of attendance.”
In his own state, Baker relates, “we have been fortunate to escape some of the drastic budget cuts, but this year we are looking at a 6 percent cut in state funding, which will translate to cuts in facilities budgets. That means some services may have to be cut back.”
At UAB, the cost of maintenance is less than half what it was in the 1980s, Baker says. “Our first approach as we began to get squeezed was to reduce management staff. That worked for a few years, but when we had reduced managers to the minimum level possible, we began to look for other ways to economize.”
Technology advances in housekeeping and maintenance have improved efficiency in those areas but budget reductions demanded more. “Reluctantly, we began to reduce the level of service provided by the various facilities-related departments. I am sure this is a common scenario among colleges, universities, and medical centers across this country and others,” Baker states.
Baker also wants APPA to become more of an advocate on code issues related to facilities design, construction, and operations. “The association will work in the various code-making bodies to have an impact on what these various codes require us to do,” Baker says. As an example, he cites the codes established by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). These are “consensus codes,” Baker says, which means APPA members “have the opportunity to have input and vote” on them. “Helping to bring common sense” to these and other code requirements “can have an impact of millions of dollars annually in our industry.”.
Baker is recognized for his expertise in the fire protection and life safety arena and has been involved in NFPA for many years. Among his achievements at UAB, Baker lobbied NFPA to remove “overly burdensome” code requirements, resulting in savings of millions of dollars annually in healthcare and higher education.
Baker has spent his entire career in his native state. Following early experience as a plant engineer and then a superintendent at Phifer Wire Products in Tuscaloosa, he joined the UAB facilities staff as a maintenance engineer in 1979. He was promoted the next year to director of hospital maintenance, then to executive director of facilities management. In 1995 he became assistant vice president for operations. He has been associate vice president for facilities since 1997.
The two senior positions are similar in their roles and responsibilities, which include facilities planning, design, and management of maintenance, janitorial services, energy, and grounds and landscaping; design and construction of capital projects; in-house design and construction up to $1 million per project; facilities standards and code compliance; and occupational health and safety. Baker has managed operational budgets of more than $79 million annually; managed the design and construction of projects totaling $400 million over six years; implemented numerous large computer systems; and implemented Total Quality Management (TQM) within the Facilities Division, resulting in substantial improvements in customer as well as employee satisfaction, even during periods of economic stress.
Baker is particularly proud to be associated with several major construction projects that have been completed in recent years. He cites one underway now—a new 14-story biomedical research building that he says will be “a jewel” for the university. Baker authored and assisted in lobbying for passage in the state legislature of a measure to allow the use of owner-controlled insurance programs (OPIC) in state entities. He designed and implemented an OPIC for capital construction projects that will save UAB $7 million over five years.
To evaluate the cost and effectiveness of facilities departments, Baker benchmarked against outside companies such as Trammel Crow, ServiceMaster, and Johnson Controls. But all facilities functions remain in-house at UAB “because of the excellent cost and performance comparisons,” Baker says.
Baker started an apprentice program at the university that graduates air conditioning mechanics, plumbers, electricians, and others each year. He also encouraged professional development among facilities management staff. As a result, several employees received college degrees and MBAs.
One of them was Baker himself. Already the holder of a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering that he received in 1971 from the University of Alabama, Baker went back to school, this time to Vanderbilt University, where he earned a Master of Business Administration degree, with honors, in 1997—at the age of 48. “I got the Methusaleh award,” he says.
He is not finished yet. He is preparing his dissertation to complete work on a Ph.D. in civil and environmental health engineering at UAB. He also has completed architectural design courses at Harvard, the APPA Executive Development Institute at Notre Dame, and numerous other continuing education courses.
In addition to his service on APPA’s Board of Directors, Baker has been involved extensively in other professional organizations. He is a Past President of the Southern Regional Association of Physical Plant Administrators.
“Brooks is an excellent manager. He is organized, he listens, he delegates, he is very interactive. He doesn’t just sit in his office; he is out in the field,” says his boss, Richard Margison, vice president for financial affairs and administration at UAB. “He is a dedicated and decisive leader who leads by example. During these tough fiscal times we all face in higher education, it’s getting more challenging to keep our aging physical plants operating with fewer dollars, and he is doing a great job of that.”
“His real strength is dealing with people. He has books on how to manage people, help people develop. And he practices all those ideas,” adds one of Baker’s employees, Jim James, executive director of facilities planning and design and university architect at UAB.
Baker relates just about everything about his career and life’s experiences to his 250-acre farm in Warrior, where he grew up. “Farming the land has always been a joy of mine,” he says. He moved away for 15 years and says he and his wife, Virginia, and their three children lived comfortably in a well-to-do urban neighborhood in Tuscaloosa. But he decided that “I didn’t want to raise my kids that way. I wanted them to learn to work for everything they got and see what it was like to live off the land.” For that reason and because of the illnesses of his father and father-in-law, he “quit a good job” at Phifer Wire Products, went to work at UAB, and moved his family back to the farm.
The children are away now, pursuing their own educational and career goals. The youngest, son Hop, is studying horticulture at Auburn University “so he can keep on farming,” his father says. With Hop’s help, Baker raises hay and up to 150 head of cattle on the farm. In a garden they grow okra, corn, beans, watermelon, tomatoes, and peppers. Baker also enjoys quail and deer hunting and bass fishing on several beautiful lakes in the area.
While his professional goal at APPA is to encourage the association’s membership to stay hungry, Baker says his personal goal is to stay hungry in every aspect of his life. Physically, he has been a runner most of his life. Before sustaining an ankle injury last December, he had been running four to six miles a day, up to a high of 40 miles in one week. He says President George Bush, who also runs, “is my hero” in terms of staying hungry physically.
For Fathers Day in 2000, his wife bought Baker an 1860 log cabin located far back in the Alabama woods. They disassembled it and moved it to the farm, then began restoring it. A Creek Indian friend who was helping ran across an even older 1826 cabin that was about to be torn down to allow construction of a shopping center. Baker bought that cabin’s logs and with his friend and their sons put them back together next to the 1860 cabin, adding such modern features as a kitchen and bath, central heat, and air conditioning. The cabins “have become a real labor of love for us,” Baker says.
Whether he is restoring old log cabins or building a state-of-the-art 14-story biomedical research center, Baker finds that staying hungry helps him achieve success, just as his friend told him it would.