Steve Hoffner (right), associate vice chancellor for operations, looks over the Grizzly Grill station at the new Bear’s Den with WUSTL Dining Services employee Sandra Wheeler. “(Steve) values each person in our community — whether that person is a student or parent or colleague,” says James E. McLeod, vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. “If someone has a problem, he does his best to respond and try to solve it or make things better.”
Postcards sent from far-off study abroad locations. Wedding invitations. Birthday salutations. At Washington University, student and Dining Services employee relationships go beyond the typical “please,” “thank you” and “You want fries with that?”
From knowing students’ names to how they take their hot chocolate, employees make an effort to meet and be friendly with students. Students, in return, often get to know their favorite eatery’s workers, keeping in touch while away from campus or after graduation.
Of all the improvements to Dining Services in the past 10 years — from the quality and variety of food offered to the shiny new campus eating facilities — Steven P. Hoffner, associate vice chancellor for operations, is most proud of its deserved reputation for outstanding customer service.
Hoffner — who oversees campus operations, including WUSTL Police, Parking and Transportation Services, Dining Services and emergency management — seeks to create an environment that provides the campus community the support it needs to flourish and to truly feel at home at WUSTL.
“Dining Services employees know students by name,” Hoffner says. “On the same token, the students care deeply about the Dining Services employees. That, to me, is how it should be.”
That relationship didn’t happen by accident. Hoffner values student interaction and input and has initiated several committees to keep students informed and engaged in university operations. Student Union recognized Hoffner’s efforts by twice selecting him as Administrator of the Year — in 2000 and 2005.
“Steve has an excellent reputation among students because he is very responsive,” says James E. McLeod, vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. “He values each person in our community — whether that person is a student or parent or colleague. If someone has a problem, he does his best to respond and try to solve it or make things better.”
Making an impact
In high school, Hoffner — who describes himself as “inherently shy” — was a three-time class president and informal lifeguard city representative in Salem, Ill. Hoffner represented the pool’s lifeguards during negotiations with the city manager for a raise, and he succeeded in increasing their wage 10 cents — to $1.10 per hour. It helped that Hoffner had an inside track: He taught the city manager’s kids’ swim lessons.
As a student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Hoffner majored in political science but wasn’t sure where his career interests lay. A senior-year internship with the Champaign city manager made everything clear.
“As a city manager, I could work to help improve the everyday lives of people in my community,” Hoffner says.
Hoffner earned a master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University in 1976, and, in 1980, got his first city manager position in Petoskey, Mich., after serving as an assistant manager for four years.
Hoffner compares the city manager job to the chief executive officer of a corporation. “City managers are responsible for financial management, department heads and carrying out policies,” Hoffner says. “City managers report to the city council, just as CEOs report to a board of directors.”
In 1992, after stints in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Carbondale, Ill., Hoffner was hired as the city manager of WUSTL’s western neighbor, Clayton, Mo.
Once a month as city manager, Hoffner would meet with Richard Roloff, then executive vice chancellor, for breakfast to discuss matters concerning both WUSTL and Clayton. One morning, Roloff said the university was reorganizing; it needed someone to oversee its operational side. Roloff described a position that, to Hoffner, sounded a lot like city manager of Washington University.
Finding a solution
Hoffner was hired in 1997 as assistant vice chancellor for students and director of operations. His charge: Make the operational side of the university — Dining Services, the Police Department and Parking and Transportation Services — as good as its academic side. Also, McLeod was tired of getting complaints about the food.
Hoffner put the WUSTL contract out for bid and selected Bon Appetit, a company that emphasized high-quality, fresh food and a commitment to customer service. Hoffner also established an advisory committee for students and student satisfaction survey programs. More than 10 years later, the number of complaints received is “miniscule” compared with the amount of meals served each day, Hoffner says.
Solving problems is one of Hoffner’s fortes. When the university needed someone to lead the creation of Quadrangle Housing Co. in 2005, Roloff enlisted Hoffner. In 2008, Hoffner was needed back in operations. His original responsibilities were returned to him, and then, a few years later, emergency planning and management, summer conference planning, and Whittemore House were added. With those additional responsibilities came the title of associate vice chancellor for operations. This past summer, he also began to oversee the university’s sustainability programs.
Steve Hoffner (center) with daughters Elizabeth (left) and Laura.
“The volume of issues Steve handles is enormous, as is the diversity of projects and programs,” says Henry S. Webber, executive vice chancellor for administration. “Most people would drown under the weight; Steve thrives.
“How is he successful? Because he is an excellent manager, he has great judgment, he has very good implementation skills, and he knows exactly where to go from where he is to a solution.”
Creating a culture of excellence
It’s Hoffner’s ability to find the solution that makes him so valuable. When WUSTL needed to reduce the amount of parking needed on campus, Parking and Transportation Services initiated programs such as the U-Pass, WeCar and Bearly Drivers. From 2006-2010, the number of parking permits requested fell by about 12 percent — while the number of faculty, staff and students rose about 4 percent.
When the university needed to improve its emergency preparedness, Hoffner was named chair of the Crisis Management Team. Under Hoffner, WUSTL’s emergency communications capabilities have greatly improved, and the Crisis Management Team of high-level administrators regularly meets to discuss and implement emergency management strategies.
Hoffner’s calm demeanor, organized leadership and clear vision fosters an environment that brings out the best of his colleagues, says Nadeem Siddiqui, resident district manager of WUSTL Dining Services.
“Steve has created a culture of excellence, taking calculated risks for improvements that meet the needs of our students and campus community and enhancing their experience at this wonderful university,” Siddiqui says.
“It’s an environment that helps staff flourish and connects staff to this amazing campus.”
Fast facts about Steve Hoffner
Family: Daughters Elizabeth, 28; Anne, 26; and Laura, 21, a WUSTL senior majoring in international relations and Spanish in Arts & Sciences
Pet: Rosie, a 12-year-old dachshund
Most recent book read: Game Change, about the 2008 presidential election. “I’m a political junkie,” Hoffner says.
Can’t stand: Milk. “My father was a salesman for Borden Milk Co.,” Hoffner says. “I haven’t been a big fan of milk in my adult years because I had so much growing up.”