For the last two and a half decades, David Fifer, senior director of engineering at Hyatt Regency New Orleans, has worked at hotels in Vancouver, California, Wyoming, and Louisiana. What keeps him in this industry? The variety.
As the director of engineering, Fifer manages capital budgets and projects along with day-to-day building operation and efficiency – plus any requests that come in from hotel guests. “It’s never the same,” he says. “It could be plumbing issues one day, and life safety issues the next.”
To give other Hyatt employees a first-hand look at what his team does, Fifer lets staff members from other departments spend a day shadowing his team so they can witness the behind-the-scenes infrastructure that keeps the hotel going.
Q: How did you get started in facilities management?
I started out doing maintenance for the college I attended; that’s how I paid for my college education. After college, I decided I liked maintenance, so I went to go work for the Hilton hotel chain in 1985 (that property eventually turned into a Hyatt). I began as a line associate. When I talk about my work history, I tell my employees that I started out just like they are: working graveyards and swing shifts. But it was a great way to break into the hotel business. Within a few years, I had worked my way up to assistant director. Within seven or eight years, I had worked my way up to director of engineering. I’ve been with Hyatt for 25 years now.
Q: What are some of your biggest career accomplishments?
I consider it an accomplishment to work my way up to this position, and to maintain it. But my team and I have worked on many great projects over the years.
The 31-story Hyatt property in New Orleans was heavily damaged during Hurricane Katrina. It sat idle for several years while owners changed, and new ownership decided how to reposition the hotel. I got to come into the hotel about a year and a half before it opened, and participated in the construction process. I had worked at Hyatt New Orleans previously, so I had a history of the property. I came back to see it rise to a new, modern facility that has repositioned itself in the market.
Q: In your decades of experience, how have you seen the industry change?
The position has morphed more from being the guy who knows how to fix equipment to the guy who knows about building systems, plus the financial and people side of things. In the hospitality industry, we’re looking for individuals who can fix things right the first time, and who can also interact in a polite and efficient manner with guests.
Technology has also brought about a lot of change. We’re able to use it to make things run more efficiently, which also allows us to get things done with a more manageable number of employees.
Q: What advice do you have for facilities management professionals based on lessons you’ve learned?
I always say that you learn the most by observing and listening to your mentors. There’s a lot to be learned from experience. I’ve been at seven or eight properties, and worked for several different general managers and directors of engineering. You take something from everywhere you’ve been, so you take the good things you learn and pass them along.
And don’t be afraid to ask questions. There are managers and directors who get into trouble because they aren’t willing to reach out and ask someone else who might have the answer – whether it was the person in the role before them, or someone at another hotel in the city they know who has been down the same road and can point them in the right direction. Asking questions helps you to keep learning. Facilities management isn’t stagnant, but if youstart becoming stagnant, then your career will as well.
Q: What does the future hold for the industry?
In my opinion, there are always going to be opportunities in facilities management, but we’re going to have to continue to be smart about making decisions that make good business sense. We have to learn to look at the big picture vs. being fixated on one product or system. And we need to make ourselves of such value that our function shouldn’t or couldn’t be phased out.
People graduating from college aren’t necessarily looking at a hotel as a place where they can get a well-rounded start to their career, and I hope to see that change. In the hospitality business, high-rise facilities are where it’s at when it comes to maintenance and facilities management.