Q&A with Gwen Glattes,  Director, Facilities and Real Estate Services/Construction Audit, University of Pennsylvania, and COAA Secretary/Treasurer

By Randy Pollock

One of the first people you meet at a COAA Owner Leadership Conference is almost always Gwen Glattes. At least that was my experience. She walks right up, introduces herself, welcomes you to the conference, and makes you feel immediately welcome – especially for first-time conference goers like myself in 2010. And at almost every conference since, she has been there, waving the flag and continuing to serve COAA in so many ways.

Compared to most COAA leaders and members, Gwen has had an untraditional career path. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she attended Penn State for her B.A. and Saint Joseph’s University for her M.B.A. Early career stops included ENSR Corporation as a business manager, Henkels & McCoy as a financial analyst, the Philadelphia Food Network where she was CFO, to Johnson & Johnson in internal audit.

Then in early 2004 she joined the University of Pennsylvania as Director, Facilities and Real Estate (FRES)/ Construction Audit, where she has been ever since. In her role at Penn, she provides primary leadership for the FRES/Construction Audit function within the Office of Audit, Compliance and Privacy while supporting the vision and goals of the department.

“My career has been a blast!” she says. “ I’ve always worked on the financial side of the construction business but have changed perspective many times: First, working for a subcontractor, then construction managers, both on-site and in office, and finally for Owners. Working for Owners has provided me the opportunity to focus on contract compliance and financial controls.”

Since 2008, she has served as a director on the national board of COAA as Secretary/Treasurer.
We talked with Gwen recently about COAA and what it has meant to her and her career. She shared her thoughts and insights about what’s going on and what she does at Penn.

On COAA
How long have you been a member of COAA and what prompted you to get involved?
I joined COAA in 2006, based on my manager’s suggestion. While I specialized in construction audit and had a background in related financial processes and controls, it was difficult for me to find an appropriate professional development path to continue to grow my skills.

I continued to stay involved with COAA because after my first conference, I realized professionals in the industry were talking about concepts I didn’t know (e.g. alternative delivery methods, 3- and 4D drawings), and I wanted to understand where the industry was heading. Ten years later those “new ideas” keep pushing the industry forward.

How has your involvement with COAA impacted you professionally and personally?
Professionally, I couldn’t have been more fortunate than to have had the opportunity to stay connected with COAA. I think there is a tendency to view an auditor as an “after the fact” project necessity, but the role can also to be used to identify internal tools that may need to be tweaked in order to incorporate the shifting industry.

The educational content that is provided at conferences and chapter meetings always challenges me to think about the impact on the Owner; specifically, what the Owner can do to be proactive to incorporate things like alternative project delivery methods, collaboration and changing technology. Personally, I have always enjoyed connecting with my COAA colleagues, as they have respected my day job and helped me dig deeper into industry topics that were not grasped at first pass.

What would you say is the biggest benefit of belonging to COAA?
Certainly one of the biggest benefits is the networking opportunity this organization provides. With the variety of Owners, projects, and delivery methods, no two projects will likely be the same; however, COAA members are always willing to share lessons learned or best practices to help others succeed.

What do you see as the biggest challenges for COAA and the industry in general?
As we all know, design and construction is a very fast-paced business, and because of this it can be difficult to find time for professional development, one of COAA’s strongest benefits. It is the ultimate “Catch-22”: too busy to explore how to do something different, but perhaps doing something different may actually be more effective.

What do you see as the role of COAA going forward; how do you see it evolving?
The growing number of Chapters and their corresponding events is making COAA much more accessible to Owners and their staff. COAA will continue to be an educational and knowledge-sharing platform for Owners and industry partners who want to see the industry evolve, and for those who are willing to share the successes and pitfalls encountered along the way. Change takes time, and not all institutions can embrace evolving project delivery methods fully, but the dialogue within the COAA community helps many identify achievable increments of change.

On trends in the construction of facilities for higher education
In terms of construction auditing, what are the most significant changes in the implementation of your projects at Penn? Which contract structures do you typically audit, and why?
The GMP structure is the typical focus for construction auditing due to the reimbursable cost nature of the contract. The focus of the audit is contract compliance, and while cost recovery opportunities may be identified, these are really just symptoms of internal controls not working as they should (for example: missing segregation of duties, lack of familiarity with contract, and ambiguous contract language).

How does Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) impact construction auditing?

Fundamentally, the approach is the same with regard to contract compliance. However, this now extends to multiple firms. IPD encourages the audit activity to begin earlier in the project and to continue for the duration. One of the fundamentals of IPD is cost transparency, so the sooner this can be confirmed the better.

On trends that are impacting the future of your organization
How does your background shape your understanding of the work Owners do?

My time at Penn and involvement with COAA have definitely given me an appreciation of the diverse and complex world that Owners navigate. It is important to balance the needs of the capital project while supporting the institution’s core mission. In addition, Owners have both internal and external clients, and satisfying both can be difficult and at times complicate the design and construction process.

With the proliferation of so many various technologies involved in every phase of the construction process, how essential is it that an Owner has a strong understanding of all those technologies and their applications? It is important that an Owner understand both the project delivery and the capital program management technology that are available. The Owner needs to have a strategy to incorporate technology into their internal operations, and this strategy must be incorporated into individual projects. However, due to the duration of some capital projects, technology on a specific project can actually drive the Owner to incorporate technology into their operations. For an Owner, increasing the use of technology will likely have ripple effects, such as staff training, contract modifications, or additional infrastructure in order to maximize the use of project specific technology (e.g. BIM to FIM).

On what you are doing now
Do you feel any need to emphasize “buying local/ regional”?
Engaging locally is a core component of the “Penn Compact,” issued by the president of the University of Pennsylvania. In support of this guiding principle, the University has an Economic Inclusion Committee which focuses on local procurement, human resources, and capital construction activity.

With respect to the construction activity, the subcommittee monitors inclusion for both workforce and subcontracted services, for projects in excess of a pre-determined threshold. Our construction managers and general contractors understand the importance of our program and continually strive to support our program.

What is your advice to the next generation of COAA Owners?

Being an Owner isn’t limited to the Project Manager track.
As capital projects become more collaborative, the Owner’s project team must collaborate as well. Change “in the field” requires internal coordination with finance, legal, and information technology.

About the Interviewer
Randy Pollock is a member of COAA’s national Editorial Committee since 2010 and Program Chair of the COAA- Texas Chapter. Randy can be reached at pollockrandle@gmail.com.