#42 Laurel Brooks, CFM: Money Talks!

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Episode Summary

Laurel Brooks, CFM of the United States Golf Association (USGA) is this weeks guest. Laurel has spent over two decades in #facilitiesmanagement, and has extensive experience on the financial side of FM. On this episode, Laurel dives into best practices surrounding budgeting and financial management for a facilities organization. This includes:

- Building relationships with your F&A department
- Systems to capture financial data
- Financial metrics to track


Episode Transcription

Laurel Brooks

Intro  00:00

Welcome to another episode of The Modern Facilities Management Podcast brought to you by Stratum. I'm your host, Speaker: Griffin Hamilton. This is the show where I interview industry experts who share their stories, strategies and insights into modern day facilities management from hospitality, to commercial real estate and everything in between. We'll learn what it really takes to succeed as a facilities manager. 

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  00:27

Welcome to another episode of The Modern Facilities Management Podcast. Today's guest, it has been several months in the making but I've got Speaker: Laurel Brooks with the USGA on. Laurel, how are you doing?

Speaker: Laurel Brooks 00:37

I'm doing well, thank you for having me. I really think it's great what you're doing and when you reached out, I was very excited about it. So, I'm looking forward to this conversation.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  00:47

Absolutely. I'm excited to have you on and I appreciate you making the time. I know you've got a lot on your hands as the most facilities managers do. And so with that, we'll just kick it off and I'll toss it on over to you, watch tell the audience who you are and how you got into facilities?

Speaker: Laurel Brooks 01:02

Sure. I am the Budget Project and Building Manager of Campus Operations for the United States Golf Association for the last 22 years. I'm also involved with fleet management, energy management, sustainability planning, business continuity planning and promoting internal communication strategies for the department and my name is Speaker: Laurel Brooks, A.K.A Wonder Woman, just kidding. Sometimes it feels like that though, it really does. Obviously, the last few years has brought in additional component for COVID related strategies and handling the height of get people back in the building and some of the stuff that goes with that. As for how I got into facilities management, I basically fell into it. My primary background was in business and accounting. Prior to working for the USGA, I was a buyer for a company that was going into bankruptcy. They were in the paging telecommunications industry so obviously we know how that panned out for them but I needed a new job and I found a coordinator position with the Golf Association specifically in their facilities management department, now known as Campus Operations. Over time, I decided to fill in some education gaps both for myself and also within the department, there were some spots where we had some blanks that needed to be addressed. Going forward from there, that included coursework with Rutgers for project management, via Training Centre for phone systems, Johnson Controls for HVAC, BOMA for building security planning, New York University for the big one, which is facilities management and completed FEMAs Community Emergency Response Team Training. Most recently, I also completed the Watershed Institute's Green Infrastructure level one course centering on Storm Water Management and Sustainable Landscape Design. And the reason I'm sharing all of that with you is because it's important for folks to know that jobs in facility management requires so much knowledge. It's not necessarily the education people assume like, engineering or architecture, right? Facility Management is just so much more and it feels like it's growing all the time, what you need to know to be successful in Facilities Management.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  03:17

Yeah, that's one of the topics we've covered, many a times is just where does it start and where does it end? And there isn't really an answer for facilities, right, there's just so much that goes into it and it's great that you listed off everything that you got, that you accomplished to get into Facilities Management and then recognized the gaps there. And it's something that's constant training and constant learning as you continue to improve your skill set in the industry, it just keeps evolving.

Speaker: Laurel Brooks 03:45

Yeah, it really does and you know, we had talked a little bit on where we thought the industry was going. And it's funny, if you read some of the white papers, you have folks out there who don't even consider it a profession or an industry. So, getting consensus is tricky, you know, to say, where is it going by what standards do you measure it by and getting that, you know, consistent buying from everyone to kind of figure it out?

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  04:12

Yeah, and I guess that's a good segue here as far as, just FM in general and just the overall maturation of the organization. And I wanted to just kind of toss it over to you and get your feelings and your thoughts on what that really means for an FM organization to mature and to get to that, I guess, level of maturation that we've talked about?

Speaker: Laurel Brooks 04:35

Sure. I mean, when you talk about maturation, you know, you have both the people within the industry itself, right? Which we know from the numbers that we've seen, you know, being part of [unsure 04:46] International Facility Management Group, we know that there's a lot of people retiring from the industry, right? A lot of people are going out and they don't nearly have enough coming in so there's definitely going to be gaps. So, you've got that level of maturation but then you've got the industry itself, which again, it's in question, is it really considered an industry or is it a sub industry of something else? My way of thinking is it's definitely its own unique entity, right? Because if you look at somebody who's from architecture or from mechanical or electrical engineering, those are very specific. Right? They're very specific disciplines where when you look at Facilities Management as a whole, you've got that and then some and everything in between, whether it's building services, whether it's HVAC, whether it's, you know, capex projects, you've just got so much in there. And you need someone who can kind of pull from all those bits and somehow make these puzzle pieces come together nice and neatly. And like we said before, there's so much changing, so much evolving, so much and growing that I would be dumbfounded to hear anybody say, we're reaching the peak, we're reaching that maturation where we've got it all figured out. Maybe somewhere, someone has that figured out but like I said, you know, just COVID alone brought so much to the table. Right? And you had everybody leave the office, now you have to figure out, okay, what are we going to do with this space? Do we keep it? Do we lease it? Do we sell it? You know, do you just sit on it? Do you re organise it? All these questions come bubbling up and then you've got you know, your cleaning programme. Everybody wants to know what you're doing and how you're handling it and how you're encouraging people to come back to the office who a lot of people don't, a lot of people were like, you know, I'm comfortable at home, I know what my day to day is at home. I can go down to the fridge and get a snack like, why do I want to go to the office and then there's people who are just afraid, right? Who when you look at the very human element of it, they're just afraid, they just don't know and so you want to take whatever measures you can to make them feel comfortable in that. So again, you've got all these moving pieces to say, you know, we're reaching maturity as an industry, I would question that. I think there's still a lot to learn, a lot of growth to do and again, it's one of those constant things, I mean, you heard me list off all those things. All of that Centre Campus Operations, all of that's under Facilities Management and that's just, you know, for me, that's just me, I can't even imagine what other facility managers have to do in their day to day, who are national or who are global. I'm none of those things, I'm local, I'm in the state of New Jersey, I don't have you know, 500 buildings, I have four buildings. I have a nice campus, there's a museum that we have, there's a test facility which again, both of those are very unique from a class A office space. But still, you know again, I look at these managers who have a national business or an international, I cringe at how much they probably have on their plate too.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  08:01

Yeah, and I think the moment that someone does feel as though they've got it down and their organization is ‘mature,’ something like COVID is going to pop up where there's going to be something you didn't see. And that's the whole point of having all of these different contingency plans in every aspect of your just day to day, right? Making sure you're planning for the unknown and you know, you've got that plan in place so absolutely love hearing that. And I guess switching gears here for a second, I know that your background, you mentioned that you kind of fell into facilities and you had a more, I guess, finance focused background, is that right? 

Speaker: Laurel Brooks 08:40

Yep, that's correct.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  08:42

So, I guess walk me through that because that's something that a lot of folks don't really think of when they first think of Facilities Management, right? They think of you know, turning wrenches, you know, getting your hands dirty out in the field but they're not thinking of the proposals that you're writing up and the budgets that you're managing. So, I guess let's, like I said, switch gears and dive into, headfirst into budgeting and managing the finances there. What are some, I guess, what are your experiences in that aspect of facilities?

Speaker: Laurel Brooks 09:11

Well, so you know, clearly as a newbie into facilities when I started, I really didn't have much exposure to it. But what I started noticing over time was when it came time to budget planning, my manager at the time, had a very interesting and unique philosophy, you know? It was this tried and true method of add 3% and I questioned that and I didn't really have an impact in the beginning, obviously, as low man on the totem pole. But I started to dig you know, I started to get involved, I started to take on more projects, ask for more and I really started with utilities and also copiers. So, asking and making friends with the folks in the finance department was my first step in saying, hey, I want to understand this better so I can plan for the budget better. And they all lit up, like literally light bulbs, everybody wanted to talk about it and wanted to say, wow, you want to do it right and I was like, well yeah? I mean, I want to do it right because obviously, it's important and they were grateful to take me under the wing, they were grateful for the opportunity to actually, somebody wanted to be more involved and have more accurate numbers and have that feedback. And so really became an introduction into how finances played out because prior to the USGA as a buyer, you know, you have your cut sheet, you look at the numbers that you're selling and then you figure out what you're going to buy to make that market work and then you've got the ebbs and flow and market demand. This was completely different, I was trained to do analytics, you know, for accounting but you know, hadn't really gotten into it like I was about to here. So now, it became a story of charts and graphs and then it was becoming about, knowing about coding, knowing about the monthly reporting, knowing about the budget and because I liked the story that the numbers told, I got really good at it. And so again, it just started to evolve that that was my niche and it gave me more credibility and then in turn more responsibility. So then, you know again, growing from the utilities and being able to tell the story, okay, like say, we went over budget one year, okay well, was it because of demand or was it because of cost? You know, and being able to tell those stories gave me the credibility I needed to continue to move up those ranks and get more and learn more and it just became this snowball effect. Really, you know when you put together a good budget, it's your guide through the year, right? In most cases, you've got some sort of financial constraints, you've got variables that either some people want to know the details on. And for a good budget, you know, generally it's thought of that you have a low impact but if you have a great budget, right, that's very spot on, it's very tactical you know, you are then at that point given the responsibilities to perform monthly reconciliations, right? You're expected to perform re forecasts, you have oversight of multiple functions within your department, you know the details, you know you have the direct impact and you can talk about it with expertise and say, well I know why. I know why these things are happening and again, when you partner with your finance department, right, you're not only developing your business acumen, you're developing or learning their language and this builds trust. So, that say, later on, I need to pitch to them and say, hey, I need to spend $50,000 because two of my air handlers failed and they say, ‘okay well, I trust you but now back it up.’ So, I could go in there with the metrics, which is kind of boring, I see people's eyes glaze over when you go into, you know, Performance Analytics. But when you give them numbers and you say, well, for the last three years, this machine has cost us X amount of dollars and corrective maintenance now you've got people's attention because you can say, well, I've already spent that to keep those machines running. So again, you know, knowing those stories, knowing how to present the finance side of it, it holds people's attention better, right? If I go outside of facilities and I talk about the metrics, it doesn't always resonate with people but when you can talk dollars and cents and you can talk about the history and you can talk about the variances and you can talk about the deferred maintenance numbers, that carries impact. And the more you know and the more you take time to be able to explain it and you can just cut it down into just that one little sentence say, well, I spent $50,000 in three years, just to keep that machine running. I really don't have to say anything else because it just sold itself. Right? It's not easy but you have to know, you have to know your numbers. If I didn't have a specific line item in my budget designated as Corrective maintenance, I might not know that number. So again, knowing how to put those numbers in your budget, how to lay it out is key. And then knowing how to reconcile it, knowing how that stuff gets coded, these are all facets that you learn through your partnership with finance, you don't just go into Facilities Management, knowing how the processes work together, right? Because again, you've got your account codes, your purchase orders, your monthly reporting, your annual budget, your capital expenditures, which puts right other expenses into your budget, if you don't know how to capture it, if you don't know how to delineate it, if you don't know how to read it, God forbid somebody comes up and says, hey, I need a free forecast. And you're looking at those numbers and saying, well, what have I and what haven't I spent? Do I have enough money to give back or don't I? Again, you want to build your credibility, you want to be a knowledge master on that subject, you want to create those partnerships, you want to create those relationships, you want to learn that language and it should be second nature to every facility manager.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  15:31

Absolutely. And I love hearing that, I love hearing the big picture of the importance of this, right? Because so many times we hear that facilities it's a cost center, right? And something where everyone is always, you know, scratching and clawing for additional budget, it's so hard to come by but if you have that type of relationship. And you have that type of data to back it up, then it makes your life that much easier to go and have that 50, 100 million dollar ask whatever it may be. Where it's not a question of do we need to do this, it's when do we need to do this?

Speaker: Laurel Brooks 16:06

Yeah. And you know again, this all kind of goes hand in hand, you know, you've got the partnerships with the people in finance, you've got the partnership with the people in the building, the other departments. And that's important because you need to be the biggest busy body there is when you're in Facilities Management because of the type of work that we do. It's very supportive in nature, right? So, we support all the other facets, it doesn't take much for somebody to suddenly be like, well, we're doing this project and we need you to do A, B, C. Well guess what, there's an A, B, C cost to your bottom line now but if you have those good relationships and you extend yourself to say, hey, we're doing some budget planning, just want to talk about what your plans are for next year, you may get some of that information in advance. Same thing, it's very critical to have those partnerships, right, to make sure that you're not missing something big. And sometimes it can come from the most unexpected places, like I know one year, I spoke to our communications department about a launch that was going to happen, right? And you look at the timeline of all that and then you look at your timeline and say, this isn't going to work because you've got A, B, C happening at the same time they're doing X,Y,Z. So, those partnerships for financial benefit is really just so strong and I couldn't emphasize that enough how much people just need to you know, when you're talking about money and budget and finance, that it's not numbers sometimes, it's the relationships, right? Because that's how sometimes you get those numbers and if you don't have good working relationships, people aren't going to communicate with you.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  17:48

Both internally and externally and I think that’s something else that I want to dive into, of just the best practices for getting to this point, right? And so, you've harped on the importance of relationships and having those internal relationships but we also have mentioned the data. And so I guess, going on that front, how could someone begin or what should they be on the lookout for from a data perspective to go and back those requests as you're going to those relationships you've developed? Whatever that request may be, it's, hey, here are the numbers. So, how could someone start establishing and really documenting that type of information?

Speaker: Laurel Brooks 18:24

Well first off, you know, if people don't have one already, they really should have a computerised management system, right? A BMS system, something where they can make some correlations to the telling you what the building's doing, how its operating, you know, the corrective preventative maintenance, right, so you've got that segment of it? But then, you want to have those reports from finance and a lot of people don't get those reports and they don't know that they can ask for those reports and just say, hey, how did we perform against budget this month or this quarter? And so again, you're just getting the information and just looking at it and then from there, I know with us, we did a complete restructuring with our financial processes. And this was so critical to our success because nobody ever bothered to figure out when you put in a purchase order, right? You have a line that says what is it and how that translates onto a financial report and you need to find a way to get the two to connect, so that when you get that report, it has really value driven data, you know, specifically what it is. And again, this all comes down to the conversation with finance and I know you know, you said you harp on it, I will harp on that all day long because it's really important to see the documents, right? If you don't know what your annual budget is, ask your finance department. If you don't know what a monthly report looks like, ask your finance department. They absolutely get overjoyed when people want to know when they want to do the job right The last thing anybody in finance wants to see is just that straight line 3% because it means nothing, it has no thought behind it and it's not right. You know, there's no relationship to 3%, other than you're saying, well, we'll probably going to have a 3%, it could be 1%, it could be 5% but overall, the average is going to hold. Yeah, but when you go to try and plan out your next big project, you know that maybe it doesn't qualify as a capital expenditure but it's still a substantial say, $15,000 impact line item on your budget, how are you going to justify that, with what? You could say in your BMS, well we're performing X percent under and we're doing this, we're doing that but there's no money behind it, there's nothing to say it's this kind of caliber of a job.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  20:57

Yeah and I guess on that, I guess dive into the weeds beyond, just the idea of we have the relationship, we have the data and then from there taking that data to have these different requests but I mean, how in depth should one get when you're tracking this type of information? Because I've heard countless times where it's like, okay well, it's less than $500 or $1,000, don't worry about it but those things could certainly add up. Is that something where you've seen that come back and kind of bite you at the end of the year or is that where you see a certain threshold where it really starts to matter when you track it?

Speaker: Laurel Brooks 21:37

I'll say no with a ‘but’ and the reason I can put that ‘but’ in there and I can say no is because, a, the size of my budget, right? Two, I have the highest accuracy rate in the organization. Okay, so I know my numbers and the only time that I ever have an issue, right, comes from generally either security or HVAC, those are usually where we'll have you know, the hiccup in the whole system, the monkey wrench, that big financial monkey wrench, something will go wrong that you didn't plan for. But in the big scheme of things, it's justifiable, it's a variance that stands out on its own and we also have a, well I’ll term, a master audit sheet, which tells me the cost of every component, not small components but say, you know, an air handler or a chiller tower, it tells me the life span of all these things. So, I have this big spreadsheet with a 40-year graph that charts all these expenses, right, you've got these ebbs and flows when you expect things to happen. So, being able to present that and then have something go wrong, it's usually in that a reasonable time frame where you would assume things could go wrong. So usually, there's a lot of prep work that has gone into, so I'm not scared when something breaks, I'm not scared when something fails. Because we have a good plan in place, we do a lot of preventative maintenance, right, that we do on the daily or the weekly or the monthly or the annually to take care of our stuff. So generally, if something fails, it's a radical kind of failure. You know, it's not something that well, this has been creeping up on, you know, because we have that kind of maintenance program that we would know well in advance before something you know, needed to be replaced unless it was like an epic failure. And then again, you've got the paperwork, you've got the audit, you've got everything's mapped out so that you're coming to the table well prepared to say, okay well, this was not a plan or it's critical systems components. No one's ever going to say no to critical systems components, you know, you can't run a building without your HVAC. You can't run a building without your security, there's just certain things that you're going to be able to absorb, right? And when you talk about the little dollar figures adding up, again I think what that boils down to is the size of your overall budget, right? I mean, I'm not going to quibble over $100, I'm certainly not going to quibble over $1,000. When we get to maybe 10,000 you know again, I would at least want to be able to have a proper explanation to say, hey, heads up. We needed to spend $10,000 over budget, here's why. Again, because I've built up that credibility for myself, I don't get that kind of pushback because the folks know I have gone out of my way to learn their language, to provide open transparency with my budget. Literally when I go to the table during budgeting time, I'm giving them the whole background, I give them access to the details, you know, they get a summary sheet but if you open up that Excel file, it's massive. And I have almost all my vendors in there and I can tell you every month, what our planned expenditures are, for everything. So, I know as soon as something doesn't line up in the monthly reconciliation, it stands out like a sore thumb and I'm on it. I'm like, you know, digging in there, I need to know why are we off target and it's usually either because something build early or build late or it's new and it's really easy to find out what it is. And again, when you have that level of trust with your finance team, a lot of that stress and anxiety goes away because they know they've seen it, they've seen the details, they know you're not pulling a bunch of ‘hoo ha’ on them, you know? You're not giving them garbage, you're giving them real authentic numbers and you're justifying it, you know, seven ways to Sunday.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  26:03

Yeah, absolutely. Well, I love all of that and I think that is something where it aligns quite well with what we're doing in facilities and just one, just being prepared, right? And having that data that you are preparing with, it is just so crucial but to just diving into and understanding the ‘why’ when something does stick out like a sore thumb, you could dive into it and you're setting yourself up to really easily identify where the outlier is there and so I absolutely love that. And I guess with one final question there for someone listening that you know, this could be a little eye opening of how much or how in depth you've gotten with the finances. If someone is listening that may have been in a little lac in that area, to say the least, what do you think would be the best, first step someone should take to really get the ball rolling on having this nailed down?

Speaker: Laurel Brooks 27:04

Well, I'll just tell you this, as soon as I understood what was going on, it was a two-year process to correct. Okay, and I know that sounds daunting but at the same time, if you're already lacs and there's no pressure on you to make these changes, then you know, spending two years to really kind of drive the details into a budget is nothing. You know, I would just encourage everyone to deep dive those budgets and maybe just take it one step at a time. So, I'll take an easy example, preventative maintenance. Right? Every facilities manager knows they have preventative maintenance, it's done regularly. It's one of the easiest things to encapsulate in a budget, you basically take your list of vendors, it could be 10 vendors, right? You look at the spend pattern from last year, you asked your finance department, hey, can I see the month to month for the last 12 months of 2021 and you literally just plot it down and plug it in an Excel spreadsheet that shows January through December. Johnson Controls, here's what they spent every month, you know what their contract is, you plug in every single one of those numbers and then next year or at the end of the year, you can see how those numbers compare, if they're way off, then you know something is wrong. Right? Or potentially something's mixed coded and should be in corrective because I've had that happen too but again, it's a process, it's a learning, just dig in with your vendors. I would definitely say this kind of exercise with both corrective and preventative maintenance is one of the best exercises any facility manager can do especially because those are very big buckets, if something fails or you need to plan your next project and then you know what to add for depreciation as well as you go into that. But capex is a whole another world as well.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  29:11

Yep, no, that's a whole different conversation there. Well, one, I lied to you earlier, I do have one more question and this is what I asked everybody and I never prep anyone so bear with me but who or what has had the biggest influence on you in your career in facilities?

Speaker: Laurel Brooks 29:31

Wow, okay, who or what? So, in my 22 years, I've had multiple directors that I've reported into and one of those guys, he insisted on cross training, everybody in the department and when that happened, not only did I feel more like part of a team but it was just a great eye opener to all things facilities, right? Because up until that point, I'd been very focused but now it was, how to reset the generators on the fly, how to reset the HVAC systems, you know, where are all the security cameras looking? I mean, he covered everything, he was committed to everybody being able to fill in the gaps and give us the most amount of flexibility in that department. And because of that, I definitely would say that propelled my interest another step forward.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  30:40

I love that. Yeah and that is something where I mean, goes back into facilities, right? Where there is no clear line where this is facilities to this is not and so having to have a complete understanding of absolutely, I mean, absolutely, everything is hard to have a good understanding of but, you know, you just never stopped learning. And that I can imagine and clearly has had a huge impact on how you've gotten to where you're at right now.

Speaker: Laurel Brooks 31:07

Thank you. Yeah, I love it and like literally, we could sit here and talk about it all day long because it is so vast and so broad.

Speaker: Griffin Hamilton  31:15

Absolutely. Well, that's why we've got a show that goes out every week but Laurel, thank you so much for coming on. It's been an absolute pleasure, love picking your brain about facilities and we'd love to have you on again sometime.

Speaker: Laurel Brooks 31:28

Thank you. This has been a treat, I loved it. Thank you.

Outro 31:31

Thanks for listening to another episode of The Modern Facilities Management Podcast. Make sure to subscribe for future episodes and visit our website stratumcommunity.com for more Facilities Management content.

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