Knowledge Universe’s facilities team takes care of 2,000 learning centers that care for 130,000 children every day.
You may not know the name, but if you’re a working parent, chances are you are familiar with one of our brands. Portland, Oregon-based Knowledge Universe®, the largest private provider of early childhood education and care in the nation, operates under three brands — KinderCare® Learning Centers, CCLC® and Champions® — and serves more than 130,000 children every day in 39 states and the District of Columbia. Each of our 2,000 locations has to be maintained, too, in ways similar to — but also very different from — traditional retail facilities.
In a traditional retail setting, it’s no secret that one of the most important jobs a facilities team can do is to keep systems running so that store managers and associates can get back to doing what they do best: making sales. In this case, our front lines are our 24,600 teachers. Each day, these teachers share millions of meaningful moments with the families who entrust us with the privilege of educating and caring for their children. For more than 40 years, they have cheered as children have taken first steps, watched in awe as children first counted to 10, and made millions of different silly voices during story time. Our teachers create a safe and nurturing environment — and behind the scenes, our facilities team keeps each center running safely, smoothly and efficiently.
To be the best, however, one must always keep improving. Over the past 12 months [in 2013], Knowledge Universe’s facilities department has undergone a major restructuring effort. The intent of the restructure was to streamline the department and position it to bring better overall value to the organization, reduce expense wherever possible, and better support our centers. I believe we have successfully achieved all objectives.
One of the first and most impactful changes was to introduce a facilities management software application called fmPilot that gave us visibility to everything related to facilities management. We are now able to understand the volume of work we have, what trades that work represents, and how well our service providers perform. This change has brought a renewed perspective on our business and allowed us to make informed decisions that save our company money, better deploy our resources, and allow us to better serve our children and families.
We use the clear and accurate information from our system to drive decisions around capital investments, management of expense lines, and adherence to budget targets. We have the ability to accurately forecast expense, and keep our financial group abreast of any significant changes. We have come a long way from working in the dark, unable to understand how and where we were spending the company’s resources and how well our centers were being maintained. Our old system was a project management application that had a work order system as a feature. The old system’s limitations required us to have our field technicians receive service requests and dispatch from the field to a variety of service providers. This process severely limited our ability to control costs, monitor vendor performance, and worst of all, consumed the valuable time of our service technicians. With fmPilot, our technicians are now able to spend more time in the centers doing what brings the most value to our centers, and we have a system that gives us control and visibility.
Our department is structured with a support team at our Portland office of about 20 people. Our field team is much larger with close to 100 service technicians, 10 regional facilities managers, and three directors. As part of our restructuring effort, we consolidated our field team into areas of responsibility within a 30-mile radius per technician and approximately 15 centers within that radius. This consolidation dramatically improved our technicians’ overall in-center time; today we average approximately 80% in-center! Our goals are to visit each center two times a month for routine maintenance needs, and our technicians respond to work requests within their area of responsibility and skill set to drive down expense. Our strategy of consolidating the areas to make the technicians more efficient and their ability to respond to service requests in a defined area has dramatically tilted the cost/value benefit of our field program in our favor.
My background is the restaurant industry and traditional retail, so coming to Knowledge Universe has been somewhat different. Our centers must be maintained to the highest standards possible. There are numerous repairs that in a traditional world would seem insignificant, but in our world become much more essential — for example, cabinet doors that don’t lock, gates and fences that are not secure, and anything that might jeopardize the safety of a child. That’s why an in-house field service team fits so nicely into our service strategy. Our technicians become an integral part of the center team, and the children in the centers come to know them on a first name basis. In some cases our teachers will ask our technicians to assist in teaching and learning opportunities around how things work and how things are put together. Technicians develop a good working relationship with our center directors and are much more available and knowledgeable than any outside service provider could be. Having a safe and secure center is paramount in all of our decisions related to service. In many cases, there are services that cannot be done while children are present, and must to be done after hours and weekends. All service providers must have a thorough background check completed before they are allowed on our premises.
Other than the challenges we have with safeguarding our precious children, maintaining one of our facilities is similar to retail or restaurants. We still have commercial mechanical systems that need to be maintained. We have small kitchens within each center that have refrigeration and food process equipment that must be maintained, and we have plumbing and building repairs that require regular maintenance. We also have playgrounds that must be kept safe and secure.
Knowledge Universe has re-invested in our facilities over the course of the last 2 years; we embarked on a major remodeling strategy and will complete more than 1,800 projects this year. The projects range from full exterior and interior repaints to new parking lots, landscape upgrades, new flooring and new playgrounds. Our facilities team administers all of the capital projects. We work closely with our operations team to prioritize the projects they feel are important; their partnership is critical in making the right decisions about where and why we invest our capital dollars.
We are also very active in the energy management world; we are currently testing EMS systems in six of our centers with Philips/Teletrol. Our centers are closed on weekends and holidays and typically operate about 12 hours a day, giving us a great opportunity to get our arms around lighting and HVAC controls to make sure we are not using more energy than necessary in off hours. I have installed thousands of these systems in retail and the simple payback was great, typically less than 2 years, and we are looking for the same results here. We are also planning a major proactive HVAC replacement program in 2014. Our current portfolio of HVAC equipment is all over the board in terms of equipment manufacturer and the majority of our equipment is in excess of 15 years old, so we have lots of opportunity and expect a decent ROI, by establishing an equipment standard, choosing systems that cost the most to maintain, and those that are in the most costly energy areas. We plan on tackling lighting retrofits in the near future utilizing T8 lamp and ballast technology along with some LEDs where feasible.
We work with Ecova who pays and manages all of our energy bills, and delivers critical energy data to help us make informed decisions with everything energy related. We are also active in the deregulated energy markets and take advantage of buying energy when and where possible.
The Knowledge Universe facilities department is poised to be one of the premier departments in the industry. Our leadership team is one of the best, and our technicians are dedicated to our cause and love what they do. I am very fortunate to work for such a wonderful company that impacts the lives of thousands of children every day, preparing them for the future and instilling a love of learning. I am thrilled to come to work each day and have the privilege of developing great leaders in a company that encourages great leadership. Tom Wyatt, our CEO here at Knowledge Universe, is one of the most dynamic leaders I have ever worked with and he truly values great leadership and creates an environment that allows leaders to thrive and grow. At the end of the day, we can put all the right plans and initiatives in place to make our department serve the needs of our company, but the great differentiator is how well we distinguish ourselves as leaders and how well we influence the people around us. Great leadership makes all the difference.
— Steve Eddings is vice president of facilities & energy for Portland, Oregon-based Knowledge Universe, the largest private provider of early childhood education and care in the nation. The Knowledge Universe family of brands includes KinderCare® Learning Centers, CCLC® and Champions®.