A Day in the Life of Howard E. Gelfer

08/05/2002 |

Shaping Destiny, Mastering Fate


With unwavering determination and strength of character, Howard E. Gelfer pursued a dream that began as an idea – one that led to over 20 years in facility management. “I moved to San Antonio with a wife and two little kids back in the early ’70s, when the construction industry in New York was in a recession. I saw this huge building across the street from where my sister was living and I said to my wife, ‘Someday, I’d like to be in charge of running that facility,’ and she said, ‘Go for it,’” recalls Gelfer, vice president, Facility Management, Corporate Real Estate, USAA, San Antonio, TX.

The building Gelfer had set his sights on was then the largest, single-occupant private office building in the world, and headquarters to USAA, a large financial services company that today owns and manages nearly $65 billion in assets. Gelfer began his career there as project specialist – accepting greater responsibilities with each promotion. Today, he is responsible for overseeing facility management in all of the enterprise’s corporately owned facilities – including offices in the U.K. and Germany. “You can’t do anything if you don’t get an opportunity,” he acknowledges. “The highlight of my career has been recognition on the part of superiors and senior management.”

Like many others in the profession, Gelfer enjoys the challenge of wearing many hats. As a self-proclaimed people person, he also likes positively affecting the lives of both colleagues and building occupants everyday. He holds high expectations for the 230-some USAA facilities employees he oversees. “We keep raising the bar every year. If you perform the same that you did – and you might have been an excellent performer last year or two years ago and you maintain that level of performance – next year you’re going to be an average or sub-par performer. We can’t afford anymore to have average performers,” he explains.

Being passionate about the job and showing constant improvement are essential at USAA – especially during the last two years when a new philosophy spread across the enterprise. Referred to as “working the weave,” Gelfer explains that no longer are singular groups or departments assigned aspects of facility management. “We’re transitioning from a traditional, singular facility management approach to more of a process-oriented, integrated group,” he says. Now, the USAA facility operations “weave” centers of excellence (i.e. safety, security, electrical, building maintenance, central plant, or design/construction groups) through the requirements of a process. “Everybody works toward an outcome, which is the total outcome of the process – not the specific outcome of any particular department,” Gelfer adds.

Although the change has met some resistance, the overall buy-in from the group has been positive. “This is truly the best way to become a world-class facility management/

property management organization – what we refer to as ‘We’re going to Chicago.’ We’re on a journey to world-class,” he notes.


Jana J. Madsen (jana.madsen@buildings.com) is senior editor at Buildings magazine.

Related Coverage