Beyond Bricks and Mortar

Bob Harrington has engineered a turnaround of Missouri Southern State University’s physical plant with a tangible change of culture

Bob Harrington has served as the physical plant director at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Missouri, for the past fifteen years. When he arrived on campus, his new office and staff were known for a lack of availability and an inability to complete work orders in a timely fashion. The campus’s cleanliness and the condition of its grounds reflected that shoddy reputation. These days, the physical plant enjoys a positive status for managing a beautiful campus. The story of that turnaround is more about attitudes and responsibilities than facilities and grounds.

The lower level of the $9 million, 48,000-square-foot facility connected to the university’s existing football stadium will house a weight room, the athletic trainers’ facility, and locker rooms for football, baseball, softball, their coaches, and visiting teams. Upstairs, the building will feature offices for the athletic director and the football, baseball, and softball coaches along with a host of meeting rooms and an alumni room.
The lower level of the $9 million, 48,000-square-foot facility connected to the university’s existing football stadium will house a weight room, the athletic trainers’ facility, and locker rooms for football, baseball, softball, their coaches, and visiting teams. Upstairs, the building will feature offices for the athletic director and the football, baseball, and softball coaches along with a host of meeting rooms and an alumni room.

Harrington realized that he could solve a lot of his initial problems by replacing an autocratic method that routed every decision through his office with a system that gave his employees more responsibility and the ability to make their own decisions. “Within a week of getting here, I sat down with each of my eight supervisors and told them that I didn’t have the time to do my job and theirs,” Harrington says. “My expectation was that they would do whatever they needed to do to take care of our customers.”

Customers? In an organization that deals with buildings and grounds? Of course, according to Harrington. “Our customers are faculty, staff, students, and any visitors to this campus, and it’s our job to do the best we can to create the environment for them to be successful,” he says.

Just to the north of the new residence hall complex, physical plant director Bob Harrington has overseen the construction of a FEMA shelter, built with the assistance of a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The approximately 13,000-square-foot facility is designed to hold 2,000 people and is wired into Joplin’s tornado siren system so that its doors automatically open when the city activates sirens on the north side of the city.

Once Harrington showed his supervisors that they’d never find trouble for taking initiative or demonstrating responsibility, both he and his customers saw results. “My staff does an outstanding job,” Harrington says. “I’d compare the cleanliness of our buildings and grounds favorably to any campus in the country.”

Harrington’s organizational and leadership skills were put to the test during the tornado that destroyed one-third of Joplin in 2011. The Missouri Southern campus was spared, but it served as a Red Cross shelter and an important home base in local rescue efforts. “We had just agreed to become a Red Cross disaster shelter three weeks before the tornado struck,” Harrington says. “We didn’t have any training yet. But, we set up the shelter the best way we thought to do it, and after it was all over, the Red Cross changed a lot of its policies on how to set up a shelter based on how we handled it. I was very proud of my staff and administration.”

Harrington’s vision for Missouri Southern involves helping the university bring an excellent education to more students by increasing enrollment in the future and enhancing the on-campus experience for both current and future students.