Réal Tessier, McGill's new executive director of facilities management and development


Ex-mayor chosen to lead physical plant

BRONWYN CHESTER | He's only been on the job for four weeks and already he's suffering from "réunionitis." (Translation: meetingitis, or a compulsion for being in meetings.) But, given his job, the malady probably comes with the territory.

Réal Tessier is McGill's first executive director of facilities management and development, a newly created position designed to take on the massive task of maintaining, renovating and cleaning the university's 241 buildings (including those on the Macdonald Campus), not to mention overseeing the construction of new buildings.

But it's not the number of buildings that impresses Tessier; Provigo Distribution Inc., where he worked as buildings manager for five years, had more than 600 buildings throughout the province. No, it's the age and poor condition of so many of the buildings which makes McGill the biggest challenge Tessier has taken on in his 30-year career.

One of the hitches with old buildings, Tessier points out, is that when they are renovated, they have to be brought up to the standards of today's building code which is vastly different from the one of 50 years past, let alone 100 years ago.

Where fire regulations are concerned, sprinklers and more emergency exits may have to be installed and the distance of offices from exits may have to be reduced. This makes tending to McGill's buildings a more complicated and costly task than those of a relatively new university like the Université du Québec à Montréal, where Tessier was manager of facilities in the 1970s.

Nevertheless, Tessier is no stranger to old buildings. While he worked for SODIM (Société de développement industriel de Montréal), he oversaw the conversion of the enormous century-old Northern Telecom building along the Lachine Canal into commercial units.

Managing the buildings of a large institution which serves thousands of people requires good planning and good coordination, says Tessier, if maintenance is to be carried out in the optimum way and at the optimum time. It's a job that requires a solid understanding of both material realities (what's the sturdiest concrete?) and social needs (what are the community's priorities?). Tessier seems to be amply qualified in both areas. A mechanical engineer by training, he also had a career as a politician. From 1981 to 1991 Tessier was mayor of Val-David which he still calls home.

"My political experience will be of help in this job," says Tessier, leaning back on his chair in his spanking new office. "As a politician, you have to learn to accept criticism. You also have to keep the human element in mind all the time so that when you're undertaking a construction project, you warn people of the coming noise, dust, etc. and do your best to make it tolerable."

Customer service is Tessier's credo and he underlines the point that building management is an auxiliary service at McGill. "We're not the core business. Teaching and research is and the people involved in those activities comprise our clientele."

Vice-Principal (Development and Alumni Relations) Derek Drummond, who sat on the committee that selected Tessier, believes that the ex-mayor's varied work experience is his greatest asset. "His range of experience gives him an ability to handle the extremely diverse number of situations he will face on a daily basis," says Drummond, noting that when dealing with large or small building, repairing or cleaning contracts, "there are always difficulties."

"A university has many diverse uses for space and there is a tendency for groups to defend their turf, so there has to be lots of coordination."

For the moment, Tessier, now in his third week on the job, is getting acquainted with the campus, his department and some of his roughly 200 employees. He'll have no shortage of items to contend with in the months ahead. For instance, several voices on campus have complained about the state of McGill's cleaning services -- some argue that the outsourcing of the management for janitorial services, coupled with budget cuts, have resulted in deteriorating service in recent years.

Using all the human and material resources available, Tessier's foremost mandate is to restore McGill's buildings and grounds to a safe and attractive state. In the memo sent announcing his appointment, Vice-Principal Phyllis Heaphy wrote that "hiring Mr. Tessier is a first step in addressing this concern [the state of McGill buildings due to years of so-called deferred maintenance in response to budget cuts.]" But, is his job to try to do more with less?

"No, we have to do more with more," she says, adding that there may be as much as $200 million worth of deferred maintenance. Heaphy doesn't know yet where the money will come from. "We have contacted the government but have yet to have a response," she said in a telephone interview, adding that money may have to be taken from elsewhere but this is not a sure thing. If students wanted to take up the cause of the relatively poor state of their buildings like they did last year for libraries with the student library fund, Heaphy would have no objections. "I'd be delighted if students thought this was important enough to rally around."