Leading by example

As chief facilities officer in the School of Medicine, Walter W. Davis Jr. insists that teamwork is the cornerstone to success

Last year, Walter W. Davis Jr.’s staff processed 4.16 million pieces of mail, received 280,978 deliveries, contracted for $3 million in services — and used enough trash bags to reach from St. Louis to Oklahoma City, if tied end-to-end.

And those are just a few of the department’s responsibilities. Collectively, the staff manages 4.3 million square feet of labs, clinical areas, classrooms, office buildings and parking facilities on the 40-acre Medical Campus.

Tracy Brodt (left), microbiological and laboratory safety manager in environmental health and safety, explains the features of a full-faced chemical respirator to Walter W. Davis Jr., the School of Medicine’s assistant dean for facilities and chief facilities officer in the facilities management department. The respirators are used as emergency protective equipment in laboratories. — Photo by Bob Boston

“I like the thrill of making it all happen,” says Davis, the medical school’s assistant dean for facilities and chief facilities officer in the facilities management department. “But it’s not about me. It’s about the 300 or so employees, all with different talents and skills, being brought together so they can support the School of Medicine in all respects.”

Plaques highlighting employees of the year and other honorees line the walls of Davis’ office. They remind him that world-class results are best achieved through teamwork, which he considers the cornerstone of his success.

“Walt is the least egotistical person I know,” says Denise McCartney, associate vice chancellor for research administration. “When he manages an organization, he’s really interested in making sure that his staff’s accomplishments are recognized.”

William A. Peck, M.D., executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the medical school, adds: “Walt Davis’ knowledge, experience and leadership have combined to secure and sharply enhance the medical school’s facilities and infrastructure. He is wonderful with his people — effectively motivating them to do their best. I am most grateful to him for these accomplishments.”

Davis’ staff has been divided into six divisions, including administrative services, business operations, design and construction, the physical plant, protective services and environmental health and safety, which recently became an institution-wide program under the direction of Michael R. Cannon, executive vice chancellor and general counsel.

In addition to his team, Davis manages a $50 million annual capital construction budget and a $30 million operating budget. Since he joined the University, he has been involved in the construction of a handful of new buildings, including the Eric P. Newman Education Center and the McDonnell Pediatric Research Building.

The Davis family
Walk Davis’ family: (in back, from left) daughter Deborah, son Byron, wife Virginia and (in front, from left) grandchildren Carson and Cassidy. — Courtesy photo

His days are often varied. In between addressing a problem in the physical plant and rushing off to a Building and Grounds Committee meeting on the Hilltop Campus, he might be checking on a faucet that’s running full tilt.

To provide facilities management for one of the nation’s most highly regarded medical schools is a tall order. And Davis and his team are always trying to improve the process.

“The excitement is that there’s so much we can still do — we can always go higher,” he says.

Lee Fetter, former associate vice chancellor for administration and finance and chief operating officer at the medical school, recruited Davis to the University. For Davis, he says, reaching this year’s goals just means raising the bar to establish loftier ones.

“He’s the embodiment of continuous quality improvement,” adds Fetter, now president of St. Louis Children’s Hospital and senior executive officer of BJC HealthCare.

Known for his honesty, high standards and strong self-discipline, Davis also is a hard person to surprise, says Richard A. Roloff, executive vice chancellor.

“He’s always thinking and always thinking ahead,” Roloff says. “Walt has brought a degree of professionalism to the facilities area at the medical school that has been of tremendous benefit to the whole University.

“The planning he does has saved the University a lot of money — things happen on time and within budget.”

Always on the move

Walter W. Davis Jr.University title: Assistant dean for facilities and chief facilities officer in the facilities management departmentDegrees: B.S. in engineering from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (1964); M.B.A. in management science from Fairleigh Dickinson University (1978)Family: Wife Virginia; son Byron, daughter Deborah; grandchildren Carson and CassidyHobbies: Reading, attending the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and The Repertory Theatre of St. LouisYears at the University: 11Davis, whose father was an officer in the U.S. Army, was born in the Panama Canal Zone. Before he graduated from high school, he attended 10 schools and lived in 12 states — some as many as three times. Three years of high school in Berlin, which was behind the Iron Curtain at the time, was a great experience for him.

“I always enjoyed the diversity of different parts of Europe and of the Unites States and meeting new people,” Davis says. “Moving around really was a very expansive experience, and I think it translates well to the various cultures and people at the School of Medicine.”

As a child, Davis focused on academics and sports and always dreamed of going to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He also wanted to learn to fly — another dream that would come true.

After graduating from West Point in 1964, Davis went to flight school and then flew surveillance missions over Vietnam for a year.

Two years after returning from Vietnam, he left the Army to work in manufacturing operations for Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, N.J.

“It was a very high-charged, very demanding environment,” Davis says. “It was well-suited for the background that I had.”

After several promotions, he became facility manager for the corporate headquarters. He also earned a master of business administration degree in management science in 1978 from Fairleigh Dickinson University in East Rutherford, N.J.

Davis was then recruited to the former Ralston Purina Co. headquarters in St. Louis, where he traveled the world, consulting to operating divisions.

“The principles are universal,” Davis says. “You have to know how to walk into a plant-engineering or facilities-management organization, understand quickly what’s going on and then be able to come back and say what needs to be done to improve the performance.”

He then served five years as director of Ralston Property Management, where he managed all support services for the company’s corporate headquarters, before joining the medical school.

Inspiring leadership

Some of the leadership skills he was taught at West Point have helped him along the way, Davis explains.

“I think leading is a step beyond managing an organization,” he says. “There’s a quality of being able to do something with a purpose and leading people in a more inspired way.”

Roloff says everyone who comes into contact with Davis has enormous respect for him.

“He’s a man of excellent character,” Roloff says. “Davis leads by example and is a man that, without going to any great lengths, can inspire the people around him to follow.”

In his private life, Davis and Virginia, his wife of 37 years, have two children and two grandchildren. Daughter Deborah is a public-relations consultant and lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband, son and daughter. And son Byron frequently travels in his job as a site coordinator for a nonprofit organization based in Washing-ton, D.C.

Davis and his wife enjoy and support the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, the St. Louis Children’s Choirs and the Missouri Botanical Garden. They also enjoy art films.

He reads a wide array of books, ranging from management texts to biographies.

Joseph A. Kanabrocki, Ph.D., biological safety officer and assistant director in environmental health and safety, calls Davis the perfect boss.

“He really wants your opinions and is open-minded about different ways to do things,” Kanabrocki says.

“But most of all, it’s his support. He really does stand behind his people. It does a great deal for morale. There’s truly a sense that we’re all in this together.”