Look around you. Chances are good the view out your office door isn’t of rare Mesopotamian Fallow Deer. Not everyone is as blessed to be working around such exotic wildlife as Bruce Thurston, associate director of facilities at the San Diego Zoo. “When you work in paradise with world-renowned experts [that] entertain and educate people from all over the world who are on vacation, it is easy to have a lot of things to like about your job,” says Thurston.
After spending 20 years as a general contractor in southern Arizona and three years as director of facilities at the Tucson-based Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Thurston has brought his skills to the San Diego Zoo and has been improving operations and managing a staff of 50 people (and a budget of about $3.5 million annually) since 2001. The zoo’s reputation is known worldwide, and Thurston and his team take their maintenance and operational responsibilities seriously. “What we do affects not only the health and well-being of rare and critically endangered animals, it also impacts the experience our visitors have at the zoo,” he says.
While the environment differs greatly from more traditional facilities nationwide, Thurston and his team face many common challenges. Budget constraints were tight last year, and in 2004, the team was asked again to do more with less. “The budget is the budget, whether it’s the state legislature that gives an institution funding or, in this case, it’s society that sets the budget. It’s still a budget battle. The facility doesn’t care how many people came in today or yesterday. It’s still deteriorating at the same pace. We may not have as many people rubbing the handrail today, but the base of the handrail is still rusting,” expresses Thurston.
To help communicate the capital needs of the zoo’s facilities and animal enclosures, Thurston and his team are working to recreate a building inventory database that became extinct with Y2K. A new system will help demonstrate to the zoo’s administration why and where capital investment is necessary. “The long-term future is as much or more important than our day-to-day dispatch of work orders,” he says.
A big part of Thurston’s job is developing and managing relationships with the zoo’s other groups, such as administration, animal care, food serv-ice, and merchandising. “I’m real good with people and I let my staff and those around me do more of the detailed work. That allows me to build these relationships with the various groups here [and] give them some confidence in what we’re doing,” he explains. With a new work order management system in place, the team is able to keep track of requests and schedule appropriate work. “We started over with work order No. 1,” explains Thurston. “That’s a real positive step.”
In Thurston’s three short years with the San Diego Zoo, he has tried to reallocate staff to best suit needs; encouraged group members to gain new skills and grow professionally; and set in place computer systems to ensure that current and future needs are addressed. You could say that Thurston just doesn’t monkey around when it comes to his group’s contribution to the zoo’s success.
Jana J. Madsen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing editor at Buildings magazine.