Owner’s Representative Services: Giving Greater Peace of Mind – Friday in the Field

Melissa Grzymala
I sat down with Marketing Manager Courtney Buckley to discuss my career in delivering project management and owner’s representative services and how the industry has evolved in the more than 25 years since I started out. Our conversation weighed the value of a reliable third party representing client interests in their projects.

Courtney Grill: What drove you to a career in project management? 

Well, I got my degree in Mechanical Engineering, which has proven to be a real asset to my work today; however, I became interested in this career path by chance when I attended an on-campus interview with a construction company while I was still in school. A friend recommended me, thinking I might enjoy working with the more hands-on elements of construction and I ended up being called in for a second interview where they brought the candidates to 1540 Broadway, which was under construction at the time. The excitement of being in a high-rise under construction really piqued my interest and I ended up working for that construction company as a project manager when I graduated. 

CG: What kinds of projects have you worked on primarily? Do you have a particular industry or type of building which you prefer to work on?

In my career, I’ve worked on projects for numerous building types, including projects in the corporate real estate, education, healthcare, hospitality, retail, residential, transportation and government sectors. As for what’s been my favorite, I’m hesitant to answer that question because I think the important thing as a project manager or owner’s representative is to be able to adapt and go where you’re needed. I’ve been in the industry more than 25 years at this point and I can tell you that projects are projects. Obviously, we tailor our services to suit the particulars of different industries based on the client, and there are areas in which we each have the greatest level of expertise, but the fundamentals of the work we perform for our clients remains the same.

As owner’s representative, it’s my job to work as an extension of the client so I can oversee that their vision for the project is being adhered to by all involved teams...

CG: What are you working on at the moment?  

My current project is a research facility that was initially constructed in 1982. At this stage, the majority of the building systems are approaching the end of their life and the client is looking to have the entire facility - central plant, HVAC, lighting, etc. - be automated under a site-wide system. The goal is to achieve a high level of optimization in order to create energy, maintenance and manpower savings. As owner’s representative, it’s my job to work as an extension of the client so I can oversee that their vision for the project is being adhered to by all involved teams.

CG: This being a research facility, I imagine there is a lot of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) work involved. Does your background, with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, help in this regard? 

Absolutely. Of course, on a literal level, that understanding helps greatly when working on MEP aspects of projects. However, my project consists of many elements outside of that so the mechanical engineering degree itself is less of an asset than the engineering mindset, coupled with experience. The problem-solving capability that my background has provided me is at the core of my expertise. It makes it exciting when at the end of the day I can solve a problem for my client.

CG: You’ve been in the industry a long time. How have you seen project management change over the years?

It’s funny but the most significant change has been the capacity in which these owner’s representative services are delivered. When I started out in this industry it was not nearly as common to have an independent owner representative working on a project. Many companies would do this work in-house, with a lot of the services coming from the architects and developers themselves. There weren’t as many “layers” on the team. The service has blossomed over time and today, project management and owner’s representative services have become a fusion of design, real estate, construction and facilities.

It’s a more holistic service overall, with owner’s representatives working directly for the owner, rather than relying on the architect to make decisions on their behalf.

The key to providing this type of assistance is establishing a trusting relationship with your client...

CG: What do you think drove that change?

It’s hard to say but I think it’s really been tied to the overall movement to outsource work, with clients looking to scale back on square-footage. With an independent owner’s representative, they can cut down on their headcount without sacrificing someone overseeing the work.

CG: Why is it so important to have someone working in that capacity?  

It’s crucial that the owner have someone that they are confident will work to represent their best interests involved throughout the duration of the project. I’ll give you an example. A few years ago, I was working on a project for a client that had their heart set on a particular building for their site. It had a gorgeous view and on the surface appeared to fit their needs. However, through our appraisal process, it was discovered that the site had significantly deficient infrastructure and would not suit their purposes without significant upgrades. Updating this infrastructure would have cost millions of dollars, not to mention months of labor that would have thrown off their schedule. Those costs would have fallen on the owner directly and might have gone overlooked without an owner’s representative, there would have been no one to present these issues, and alternative options.

The key to providing this type of assistance is establishing a trusting relationship with your client so that they know that their interests are being represented.

CG: How do you go about facilitating that mutual trust so that you can effectively work as the go-between for the project manager and your client? 

When all is said and done, it really just takes time. You must demonstrate your worth directly to the client and show, not just tell, that you can be trusted to carry out actions in their best interest. Mind you, that doesn’t necessarily mean always agreeing with them, quite the opposite. Voicing your honest opinions just shows you are watching out for their best interests and wishes. Your client is relying on you to guide them and that may mean sharing some opinions that will differ from what they are expecting.  

CG: Can you give me an example?

As the client’s eyes on the project, you need to be able to take a step back, and observe what the right course of action is. That will not always be exactly what the client envisioned and may require adjusting some of their plans, as my client above had to when selecting their site. To be a truly effective owner’s representative, you need to be able to listen to your client and fully understand not just what they want but how to realistically deliver it to them. You’ll need to speak up and present all their options and in order to steer them in the right direction, keeping their overall big picture in mind.

CG: What would you say is the most valuable element of this service’s expansion to this more holistic offering?

At the end of the day, it’s that piece of mind that we can give the client by delivering owner’s representative services effectively. Even when a company has some in-house assistance, adding in an independent owner’s representative allows clients to be confident that their interests are being carried out. They will not need to worry and can focus on their project’s overall success.

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