A Physical Plant for the 21st century

In September of last year, Mark Helms took on the role of Assistant Vice President for the Physical Plant Division. Helms came to the position with more than 30 years of university-related operations and maintenance experience and most recently held the position of Director of Facilities Operations at Virginia Tech.

During his career, Helms has held progressive and strategic planning responsibilities for operation and maintenance of educational and general assignment space including operations engineering, university design standards, building trades, storm water management and permitting, non-capital renovations, utility infrastructure, utility master planning, deferred maintenance, a cogeneration energy plant and much more.

In his role at UF, Helms oversees direct services for UF buildings, common areas, streets, sidewalks, landscaping, utility systems and more in support of the Physical Plant Division’s mission to maintain and improve a physical environment conducive to learning, teaching, research and service for UF students, faculty and staff, and visitors to campus.

Helms holds a Bachelor of Science from Bluefield College and is a member of various professional associations. He and his wife, Kym, have four grown children and one grandchild.

We sat down with Helms to discuss the role of the Physical Plant Division at a preeminent university and look at what he sees for the future of PPD.

What is the role of the Physical Plant Division at the University of Florida?

Our primary goal is maintenance – trying to keep equipment running today as it was intended to run when the building was built. We’re introducing new technology and other things as we go, but really, just that general mission of trying to keep a building functioning as it was the day it was built. Our coverage includes the 12.5 million square-feet of E&G (Education and General) assigned space. That includes most of the academic and administrative buildings. We can also assist auxiliary units from a utilities standpoint. We provide utilities “to the wall,” so to speak, with electrical, domestic water, sanitary sewer, sewer, chilled water, steam – those commodities that keep buildings hot or cold, and the lights on.

Our role also includes the custodial staff within the Building Services Group. We have 2,000 acres of grounds that we maintain and lots of conservation areas that we also maintain.

How many employees are with the Physical Plant Division? 

We have roughly 900 employees.

With such a large campus and so many buildings, how does PPD keep up with it all? How do you know what needs to be done and how it is all coordinated?

We have a pretty robust building automation system, which is telling us what the buildings are doing and when they’re doing it. It’s giving us alarms of various kinds.

We also have a number of ways that people can submit requests to us to tell us if there’s a problem. We have somebody available on the phone 24/7. If there’s an issue, anyone can call the number and get someone on the end of the phone that answers, promptly responds and seeks a solution for the issue.

Really, it’s just about transparency and quality customer service. People want to know that you’ve heard what their problem is. And it goes a long way for them to know that we are working to resolve it. It’s when they don’t know if or when any action might be taken is that they can get upset, understandably. So we’re always working to maintain a culture of communication and transparency out to the university community. We’ve got nothing to hide.

People just want to know they are being heard.

Yes. Say, a door’s not working. How do you communicate out to them that you know it’s not working and that you’ll have somebody there before it’s time to lock the building up and that you’re going to take care of their need?

So you’ve done an assessment over the past few months and you’re looking at making some changes at PPD, including some rebranding efforts. Can you talk a little about that?

Yes. I think it’s time for us to evolve to the physical plant of the 21st century. Lots of what happens here today is very much like how physical plants were run in years past. It was very behind the curtain, work done at night. I want to change that culture. I want people to see a Physical Plant truck and understand what it’s there for. Even the name, Physical Plant – you don’t find a lot of places that are still calling it that. These types of operations are often more accurately described as a facilities management group or a physical services group.

To that end, we are working with [UF branding campaign shop] The Agency on some re-branding initiatives, and that includes developing a new name that will bring us into the 21st century and accurately reflect our role at UF.

Can you tell me a little bit about the work The Agency is doing with PPD?

The folks that we send out to buildings on campus are professional tradespeople doing maintenance in world-class facilities. We need to promote the professionalism of the PPD staff, whether they’re a housekeeper or somebody mowing the lawn. They’ve been trained and they are the very best that we could find for the job. So let’s make sure they’re treated like professionals. They need to be applauded. If someone does something great, we want people to hear about it.

The Agency can help us learn from our mistakes and promote our successes. We’re going to be increasing our social media presence, all sorts of things. The Agency will help us to stand up those social media platforms so we can better communicate with the students.

They’ll also help us look at what our name might be and what our logo might look like. How will the employees dress? Do they all wear the same colors or should different shops wear different colors so they can stand apart and become more visible? Those are some of the questions we’re asking.

What’s the timeline for some of these efforts?

The timeline is for us to roll out new stuff during the summer. New logos on trucks, new uniforms by the time students return in August.

It seems like a lot of this comes down to what you mentioned before – transparency, communication and customer service. 

Absolutely. We want everybody to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. 

What does this all mean for the University of Florida as a whole?

I would tell you at the end of the day what it does is it ensures a streamlined staff that is responding quickly and professionally to the problems in the building. It helps others stay informed and understand why they heard a noise or why something is or isn’t working, and I think it just keeps people happy. I think it’s a more satisfied student or faculty member and a more satisfied PPD employee when everyone understands what the mission is, what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.