How Phyllis Meng Became a Leader in a Male-Dominated Field

By Stephanie Stevens

Name: Phyllis Meng
Occupation: Facilities Management Consultant and Educator
Education:  Bachelor of Science in Business Management from Cal State Northridge, Certified Facility Manager and Sustainable Facility Professional
Course: Facilities Operations and Maintenance

When Phyllis Meng shifted from working in accounting to facilities management in the late 1970s, she found herself immersed in a male-dominated, blue-collar profession. At the time, knowing how to turn a wrench, keep a building clean and secure the premises were her profession’s most highly-valued skills. As technology advanced and cost savings became a priority in the 1980s, companies started outsourcing more traditional, hands-on jobs like maintenance, security and repair to local vendors. With those changes, facilities management began to evolve from doing hands-on maintenance work to earning managers the attention of those in the C-suite.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m an educator and facilities management consultant who has been in the field for more than 30 years (including 28 years with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority or LA Metro). 

At LA Metro, I was responsible for the 628,000 square foot headquarters building with 1,800 occupants, mail services, records management, copy center, travel and rideshare. I had over 100 staff members reporting to me and I was responsible for a $51 million in capital project to replace all of the building equipment (cooling towers, boilers, chillers, new generator, etc.).

How did you get started in your career field?
When I graduated from high school, I wanted to be a certified public accountant (CPA), even though women weren’t CPAs at the time. However, life and family got in the way. Instead, I “fell into” facilities working for the County of Ventura. The county had just completed and moved into a new government center. There were thousands of pieces of furniture and they needed to handle inventory control, tagging and keeping track of assets.

It wasn’t long before departments wanted to make some changes. To help plan, I obtained the furniture templates from Herman Miller and quarter scale draft paper and started doing space design. This was long before AutoCAD and I had no background in design. I learned on the job, creating bigger reconfigurations on bigger draft paper.

A couple of years later, I was hired by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (which merged with RTD in 1993 and became LA Metro). I started keeping track of the furniture and doing space designs and writing scopes of work for services. After the LA Metro merger, everyone moved into the 628,000 square foot headquarters. I continued to learn by asking a lot of questions and made my way to Supervisor, followed by Deputy Executive Officer of General Services in 2009.

What has your experience been as a woman working in a male-dominated profession?
Very interesting. The field is slowly changing, with more women participating and making their way up the facilities ladder. Many times I was the only woman in the room. But the men respected me because they knew that I knew what I was talking about. After I became Deputy Executive Officer of General Services, I was now the boss, which helped.

How has being a member of the International Facilities Management Association (IFMA) been helpful to your career?
I joined IFMA in 1989 and became active in the chapter and public sector council. The council members — who were also public sector employees — really helped when I asked questions.

Since there were no facilities management courses available at the time, I learned everything through on-the-job training, making errors and asking questions. That’s when I became passionate about educating others and relating my experiences. I started instructing the IFMA courses for the Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego chapters in 1996. Each class I taught helped me to learn how others dealt with their issues and I think I learned as much as my students. 
What advice would you give someone looking to enter this career field?
Become a facilities manager if you like variety. Make sure that you’re the type of person who doesn’t mind writing your to-do list and then not be able to complete anything on that list. For people who thrive on structure and consistency, facilities management is not the field for you. 

Most of the current facilities managers in the field are now 50 or over. Most will be retiring soon, so there is a big demand for both technical expertise, the hands-on wrench turners, and management staff. There will always be buildings and companies who need facilities professionals to manage them.

How is your field changing?
It is growing rapidly. It used to be that senior management did not think about facilities until something went wrong. That’s changing. Now with the automated equipment and space costing so much, executives are getting a different perspective of facilities management. Some day we will be recognized and have a position in the C-Suite as well because we maintain and operate the most expensive component of the company’s budget, other than salaries.

The field is also changing because there is so much more technology available and it is increasing exponentially. Not only are there automated controls for the equipment so that it practically operates on its own, but also integrated technology explicitly made for facilities managers to ensure the building and its equipment operate efficiently. 

What do you like most about teaching for Extension?
I really like teaching online. It allows me to check in with my students and provide feedback to them wherever I am. It also allows my students the freedom to do their studies and homework when they want to. I also like that the students learn from each other when they read each other’s posts. They can learn a different way of looking at an issue or the homework from each other.

What are some of your most important professional accomplishments?
There have been several accomplishments and awards that I’ve been honored to receive over the years, including serving as the chair of the IFMA Foundation and on the IFMA Board of Directors, as well as being awarded an IFMA Fellowship in 2002. Teaching led to my receiving the IFMA Award of Excellence as Educator of the Year in 2019. And earning my IFMA Instructor certification in 1996 gave me the confidence I needed to teach and share the wisdom of my experience with the younger facilities professionals. So far, though, I think my greatest achievement is seeing my students go into the facilities field and blossom.

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