In an industry that resists change, Gene Woodard is the exception to the rule. Currently the director of building services at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, Woodard is always willing to implement change that will improve the safety of the 300 employees he oversees and better the cleaning processes of roughly 11 million square feet of cleanable space.

"I look forward more than I look back," says Woodard. "We are looking at more ways to increase efficiency and improve processes."

With Woodard at the helm, the building services department has undergone ongoing, positive change over the last 26 years. And to his credit, those changes are often well ahead of the industry innovation curve.

"Gene is a person who isn't afraid to strategize and dream about the future of our industry," says Beth Risinger, CEO and executive director of IEHA. "When he comes up with ideas or programs that will improve processes, he makes them happen."

Early Innovator

Woodard was put to the test when he began at UW in 1985 and was faced with cleaning expectations out of proportion with the budget he inherited. He was forced to rethink and re-examine departmental procedures and processes.

As a former director of environmental services for a large hospital, Woodard used what he had learned from managing the 24-hour facility and incorporated many of his hospital strategies into the university day-to-day.

"We cleaned the hospital during the day and saw both financial and energy savings," he says. "Day cleaning also addressed cleaning quality and productivity concerns."

Those successes were exactly what Woodard was looking for at the university. Even though the concept of day cleaning in educational settings was rare in 1985, he was willing to give it a try if he thought it would pay dividends for UW.

Within six months of arriving on campus, Woodard had eliminated the graveyard shift and began transitioning to day cleaning. His risk-taking paid off. The new cleaning schedule addressed budget concerns, cleaning quality and productivity issues plaguing the department.

"Day cleaning has helped position us in a way where we could overcome the significant budget cuts we have endured," says Woodard.

With budgets under control, Woodard next concentrated on looking out for the welfare of his employees. He began assessing personal safety concerns and took a close look at cleaning products and processes.

"Twenty years ago, our whole focus was to improve the safety of our staff and we realized we were using some pretty harsh cleaning products," says Woodard. "We thought that if there were ways to safeguard our employees' health and not expose them to these harsh chemicals, we should do it."

Identifying these safer products is easier today, thanks to third-party certifications and green product innovation. But to achieve his goals in the early 1990s, Woodard sought help from the resident industrial hygienist and other experts at the university in identifying replacement products that were safer for workers. Together, they outlined alternative options to harsh chemicals and streamlined processes in order to reduce employee hazards.

As years went by and new products entered the marketplace, Woodard solicited the services of manufacturers and worked together with distributors to slowly develop safer product alternatives for the department. As the industry began catching up with UW programs, Woodard realized that the safety measures he developed were already in line with industry benchmarks.

Woodard has maintained his goal to consistently improve his program at UW. From the development of floor pad recycling programs and the implementation of more efficient equipment, to his most recent endeavor of cooperative cleaning and stronger recycling (See box), he is always looking for ways to improve the department.

Overcoming Resistance

With any change, though, comes the potential for push-back from staff and building occupants. And although some might see this resistance as an obstacle, Woodard sees it as a challenge.

"The concept of working on a day shift created strong opposition from a number of our employees who could not imagine ways to make the adjustment," says Scott Spencer, assistant director of facilities services custodial department. "Some of that resistance was fierce, despite the considerate, careful steps we made to assist staff in a necessary transition."

To say that departmental changes were met with mixed reviews is an understatement, adds Michael Nguyen, training and special project manager for building services. "We were flat-out rejected from the staff, initially. But, Gene persisted and made it happen."

With a drive to constantly make progress, Woodard relied on his passion and determination to champion programs such as day cleaning and improve the safety of his employees. Even when met with resistance, he continued training and educating staff about the benefits of the changes within the department. After a few months, most of the affected staff were comfortably acclimated, says Spencer.

"I now hear comments such as, ‘I wish we had done this a long time ago' and ‘I like it,'" says Nguyen.

Selling the staff on change is one thing, but winning over the building occupants after change is implemented is another. Faced with numerous budget cuts throughout his career at UW, Woodard was forced to design programs that accepted attrition and restructured workers in an effort to capitalize on what funds were available, while meeting cleaning expectations.

Many of these changes were covered by local media and resulted in the occasional disapproving letter and scathing picket sign from UW students. In response, Woodard offered documentation to university and union officials that outlined program specifics and the successes achieved as a result of the changes.

"We demonstrated why the changes were made," says Woodard. "It is amazing how those who initially resisted have come full circle and love the programs. It wasn't totally smooth, but it all came together."

Sharing His Ideas

Woodard's passion for innovation is not limited to his work at UW. That loyalty carries over the industry, in general.

In 2000, Woodard was elected as the first African-American president of IEHA. During his two-year term, Woodard challenged the association to make improvements that would better every member of the facility services industry.

"Gene is certainly one of the most innovative members that we have," says Risinger. "As president, he got us on the road to approval for many new initiatives."

Woodard is credited with developing programs such as IEHA's "Master's Program" — an educational designation designed to raise awareness of the knowledge, professionalism and skill levels of professionals in the field. He was also instrumental in technological advancements — online educational tools and forums — made within the association.

In addition to his presidency, Woodard served four years on the IEHA executive committee and remains an active member. He also shares his expertise as a member of the advisory board of the Healthy Facilities Institute and is actively involved with APPA. He credits his involvement with the associations and his network of peers for the valuable training, education and idea-generation that continues to drive his thinking.

"Over the years, I have personally benefited and improved my leadership and communication skills by holding various leadership positions," Woodard says of his association involvement. "I have a network that has no borders."

A Look Ahead

With copious successes behind him, Woodard looks to the future of his department and highlights four areas of innovation slated for 2012.

As a final frontier in his green cleaning program, Woodard is taking a close look at floor chemicals and cleaners and disinfectants. He is currently conducting a pilot program to explore floor care chemicals and finishing systems in order to determine whether they can hold up to UW's high standards.

Woodard is also keeping a close eye on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's pilot program for greener disinfectants, hoping to adopt safer alternatives into his department. Plus, he is currently testing the effectiveness of ionized water technology as a way to minimize fragrances.

"We are always exploring new technology," says Woodard. "We want to do what we can to help improve the environment."

Woodard is currently looking for ways to reduce the waste UW deposits into landfills, as well as the time custodians spend emptying trash. He is researching the possibility of adding outdoor composting collection receptacles to existing waste/recycling stations. The three-tier stations will be tested in eight to 10 locations throughout campus and in areas where students and faculty congregate for meals.

In addition to adding outdoor composting, Woodard is exploring the use of solar-powered receptacles for composting, trash and recycling in the aforementioned areas. These new receptacles will offer compacting capabilities as well as sensors, which will be used to notify building services when receptacles are full.

"We are always trying to be on the forefront," says Woodard. "It is risky being first, but if we are going to be first, we want to make sure we do it right."

University of Washington Stats

• There are 300 employees in Building Services.
• Students make up 41,538 of the University population.
• There are 29,870 faculty and staff on campus.
• UW has 175 buildings on campus.
• Building Services is responsible for cleaning 11 million square feet throughout campus.
• As of December 2011, UW had 15 certified buildings, 21 in process, and 41 LEED-accredited professionals on staff.
• Every campus building erected since 2006 has earned LEED Gold certification.
• All appliances purchased on campus are Energy Star rated.