Gilbert strives to be a good steward for the Jones Trust, provide ‘safe harbor’

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 440 views 

Mike Gilbert is a behind the scenes kind of guy. As chief operating officer of the Jones Trust in Springdale, he stays busy managing The Jones Center facilities, as well as the nonprofit's commercial real estate properties and capital projects.

Every day presents new challenges and new opportunities, but with each task, Gilbert keeps his eye on the numbers, looking to stretch valuable donor dollars and make the most efficient use of The Jones Trust's funds and equipment.

Gilbert came to The Jones Trust in September 2010, after spending  nearly two years working on renovations at the Center for Nonprofits (CFN), a Jones Trust initiative, in Rogers. With a 30-year background in the construction industry, Gilbert served as a shareholder and senior vice president for a commercial general contractor in Little Rock, bringing with him knowledge about property management and logistics.

"While working on the Center for Nonprofits at St. Mary’s, I had no plans or idea that I would be moving to Northwest Arkansas and changing careers," said Gilbert. "It was near the end of the project when I was approached about joining the team at the Jones Trust."

By that point, Gilbert had been "bitten by the nonprofit bug."

"I had worked with so many great organizations and had learned a great deal about giving back and serving others," explained Gilbert.

His initial responsibilities included management of all of the Trust's nonprofit center real estate properties. In 2011, his role expanded to include The Jones Center for Families.

Established in 1995 by the late Bernice Jones, The Jones Center was built in the former Jones Truck Lines (JTL) terminal in Springdale as a community center designed for enrichment and recreation. Jones' mission in creating the Center was "to serve families, strengthen community and glorify God," and to provide a place where "all are welcome."

Tens of thousands of families visit the Center annually, utilizing its high-quality, low-cost recreation services, innovative youth programming and affordable community meeting space. The facility includes two indoor swimming pools, an indoor ice rink, gymnasium, fitness center, conference center, auditorium/chapel and numerous classrooms. The Jones Trust, founded in 1994, oversees the operations of The Jones Center, as well as the Center for Nonprofits campuses in Springdale and Rogers.

No two days on the job are the same for Gilbert. And he likes it that way.

"There are no average days for me, which I view as a blessing," said Gilbert. "Since I am managing commercial real estate properties, our capital projects, and select activities within The Jones Center, there is always something popping up that needs care or attention right away."

Gilbert starts his morning reading over numbers and examining everything from fuel prices to the forecast.

"I look at certain things every morning like our building controls and the price of natural gas, because we buy our gas in bulk and forward weather patterns. Then I review our schedule for the day to make sure that our facilities team is prepared for all guest activities and that the needs of our tenant partners in the center have no scheduling conflicts. From there, it is off to the races, either working on lease proposals, community collaboration projects, community project workshops, and responding to the needs of the day."

In addition to facility management, Gilbert oversees operations of the Center's upper concourse, which includes the classroom, meeting and conference space. He also works with fellow staff on special projects and events including the Spring Creek Festival, The S Fest, National Night Out and other activities that bring the community together at the Jones Center.

Always with the Jones mission in mind, Gilbert views his role as COO as an opportunity to help be a "good steward" of the Trust's assets.

"I think the most important aspect in supporting the mission is in the efficient operation and long term care of our facilities," noted Gilbert. "Efficient operation of The Jones Center allows us to direct budget dollars toward community and youth programs which we believe to be a critical part of the mission."

One way he and his colleagues accomplish that is by looking for ways to streamline expenses, such as high energy costs, at the Center and other properties managed by The Jones Trust.

"All of our buildings have a little age on them, and when I came on board, there was a great deal of work required to bring these facilities to a more efficient and sustainable operating model," said Gilbert. "This is a critical focus of our sustainability plan."

As part of that plan, The Jones Center is undergoing an overhaul of its heating equipment, converting it from a steam to hot water system.

"This involves changing our boilers, replacing the heating coils in all of the air handling equipment, replacing building controls and all associated piping and valves," said Gilbert.

Once completed, the project will save the Center approximately $90,000 to $110,000 annually in energy costs. The project follows a long-line of energy makeovers the organization has undergone in recent years. Major projects for The Jones Trust have included a lighting, energy and mechanical renovation to the Center for Nonprofits campus at St. Mary's in Rogers in 2008. The project included a complete conversion of the former hospital into commercial office and clinic space for nonprofit organizations, involving $3 million in energy renovations, and $5 million of interior alterations, elevator upgrades and accessibility improvements. Lighting retrofits were completed the following year at the CFN Springdale campus.

"The lighting project had a cost of $500,000 and a simple payback of 3.2 years, resulting in reduced expenses on the entire campus of approximately $150,000 annually," said Gilbert.

Such savings are crucial to the success of the CFN and in allowing The Jones Trust to maintain below market lease rates for the more than 75 nonprofit organizations that utilize the space.

"Our nonprofit community partners (tenants) need cost effective space to deliver services to the community and we strive to hold the lease structure as low as possible.  Utility expenses are a large portion of the building operating expenses, so energy conservation has been a natural area of focus for the Trust."

To say that Gilbert finds his job rewarding would be an understatement.

"Simply put, I love the work we do at The Jones Center, especially where it comes to children," explained Gilbert. "I consider myself fiscally conservative and socially liberal, so I find working in nonprofit service to be very fulfilling. I love to see the potential of the children and youth we work with and I strive to find ways to empower these students and help with motivation and encouragement with their education."

Gilbert also loves efficiency and parlays that into making important connections between service providers in NWA.

"My favorite thing to do is to try and connect dots — something I am learning from our CEO Ed Clifford," said Gilbert. "Someone needs to be the person who says 'why not?' Ed allows me to explore the possibilities of 'what if we do this?' This allows me to try and connect our partner organizations and other groups in the community to work efficiently to accomplish common goals. I love efficient operations and hate duplicated efforts, so collaboration is important to success in the area of service to community. Working with our community partners helps me to get to know more about each organization and how they serve clients…then when I hear of initiatives that fit with another group, I try to connect them so that everyone wins, primarily the clients."

Such connections are also evident through The Jones Center's partnership with Camp War Eagle and Youth Strategies, character building programs that emphasize faith, service, and unlocking students' potential.

"Outside of the energy projects that save us money I think I am most honored by the opportunities I have had to expand capacity by developing strategic alignment of some of our community partners," said Gilbert. "Bringing these organizations into the Jones Center to collaborate on common goals and needs is both efficient for us and empowering for our community partners. It makes me smile inside when I look around the campus and see Youth Strategies taking care of the grounds and the children of Camp War Eagle singing during their breakfast or lunch meals," explained Gilbert.

Although his job may be "behind the scenes," Gilbert works to give as many children as possible the same guidance and opportunities he was fortunate to have growing up.

"I recognize that what energizes me is providing growth opportunities for children and teens," said Gilbert. "I am very blessed in my family life. My mother and father are both alive and together. I grew up in the best environment with both parents there to mentor and guide me in the right direction. They were always there to both support me and discipline me when it was needed. I see a lot of children growing up without these gifts. … I really want to be part of providing them opportunity and safe harbor."