Construction and building trades experience has led Virginia Emery Fullwood to college facilities management positions with Sodexho, Inc (Gaithersburg, MD), the management services company. The bulk of Sodexho's business is ongoing food and facilities management services, Fullwood explains, but there are also some important construction-related projects.
Fullwood's first Sodexho job, which she started in 2002, was restoring campus services and grounds at Bennett College for Women, the historically black college in Greensboro, NC. Fullwood managed a staff of twenty-seven people.
"When I took that job my friends thought I was a little bit insane," Fullwood says. "Bennett was about to lose its accreditation. The campus was in chaos; it really looked like a low income tenement. But Dr Johnetta B. Cole had just become president and everything was improving on the education front. Her support meant I could make a change in the campus facilities.
"I stood in the middle of the campus and cried a few tears, asking God if I could really pull this off and put it back together. Then I got to work.
"Some people had become complacent, and I could see that a lot of my new staff had given up hope. They were just sitting around with their feet up on their desks.
"I didn't know of any other way than to take the bull by the horns and try to straighten things out. So in a very dogmatic and focused way I cleared out the bad seeds," she says.
Making a difference
Managing, Fullwood reflects, "is not always pleasant or a popularity contest. My philosophy with anyone I lead is that it's up to you to keep your job, follow the rules and be accountable. If you're not going to do that I'll have to replace you with somebody who is."
Once she had Bennett's campus back on track, Fullwood faced a career decision. She could go on managing day-to-day services, but there would be few special challenges to whet her appetite.
"I'm like the fire lady who puts a fire out," she says. "I wanted to go where I could make a difference. My mother calls me nomadic, but I believe I just want to be challenged and do good things." So she took on Saint Leo University.
Management style at Saint Leo
Saint Leo University (St. Leo, FL) is a Catholic four-year liberal arts college that has sixteen campuses around the world. Its main campus population of 1,200 students is expected to grow to 1,500 over the next three years.
It's also the second largest online college in the country, with an online student body well over 12,000. Nearly a thousand students are on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For the past two years Fullwood has managed day-to-day operations for the maintenance, housekeeping and grounds department of the school's growing main campus.
"They were having an issue of management style at Saint Leo," Fullwood explains. "The school interview team chose me unanimously. They were looking for something different, and I'm nothing if not different! They wanted me to help them rock the boat and we did, but we rocked it in a good direction."
"I had knowledge"
Saint Leo's service employees had never had a black manager or a woman manager, let alone a black woman manager. "Everyone figured the maintenance guys would revolt, and they had a pool on how many people would quit.
"But I have knowledge," Fullwood says, "and if you have knowledge you get respect. I've done every job I've asked them to do, so I have a good relationship with my staff. I know what they're talking about, and if they're frustrated about something I hear them."
Fullwood oversees fifty people, including a grounds manager, housekeeping manager, maintenance manager and supervisors. She brings in contractors for the big projects.
"I handle construction project management for all projects under $1 million, and I consult on everything above $1 million," she notes.
The 175-acre campus has thirty-five buildings. Three were purchased over the last two years, and two dorms have just been completed. A new student union and another building are now in progress.
"You get satisfaction from working in education that you don't get in corporate America," Fullwood says. "Saint Leo is a small, private university that is very community and family oriented. You're part of that family and you watch the campus grow."
She herself is a Saint Leo student, taking classes toward a degree in technical business management.
Starting in Job Corps
Born and raised in Detroit, MI, Fullwood dropped out of high school early. "My mother said, 'Do something! Work, school, whatever.' So I went to Job Corps, and that's where I got interested in the building trades."
She learned roofing, air conditioning and stone masonry and got certified in building maintenance in 1981. At the same time she finished her GED.
After her daughter was born in 1984, Fullwood worked as a custodian for the Detroit Board of Education for nine years. "But it didn't take a lot of brain power to do what I was doing, so I decided to go back to school. I moved to North Carolina because it was cheaper to go to school there."
Central Piedmont CC
She attended Central Piedmont Community College (Charlotte, NC), taking classes at night and on the weekends while she worked at housekeeping and related jobs. Then Central Piedmont's maintenance department took her on as an HVAC mechanic for the campus buildings.
"The State of North Carolina didn't pay a whole lot, but it worked out," she says. "It took me three and a half years to finish a two-year program, but I did it." She graduated in 1997 with an AAS in air conditioning and heating service technology, and now holds commercial and residential HVAC contractors licenses. Then she moved to California in search of better opportunities.
HVAC on the Coast
"Everybody wanted to see what a woman who works in HVAC looks like," she says, "but it took me six months to find a job."
Fullwood went to work for Barr Engineering (Santa Fe Springs, CA), a small company that retrofitted HVAC systems. As a technical dispatcher she supported field technicians and customers and learned about the business. She learned the company's computer system quickly and began to reconcile billing. "The things I learned then I use now in dealing with contractors," she says.
Eighteen months later she came back east, updated her resume and landed a position with Jefferson Pilot Communications as their buildings and grounds manager. Her new boss, the general services admin Frances Harkey, "was always in my corner," Fullwood says. "She taught me how to present a capital budget and how to sell a project to people who don't want to do it.
"She's retired now but I still call her and talk to her. She's wonderful."
Finding their strengths
Now, deep into management with Sodexho, Fullwood has a clear-cut on-the-job philosophy. "You're supposed to get the job done, and you're supposed to look good doing it.
"I can't always pull off looking good, but I can always get the job done," she says with a laugh. "I try to develop my people, find their strengths and bring them along. Then they become part of the team I can't function without.
"I do tend to look to women and minorities because that's who I am, but I reward anybody and everybody who is exceptional," she says.
"I love the company I work for," Fullwood declares. "Opportunities abound at Sodexho for a person like me. They have supported me in everything.
"Wherever I am, I'm working for the benefit of that Sodexho client. It's Saint Leo today, but it could be Notre Dame tomorrow, or someplace else."