The DiGirolomo File
- Current senior vice president at St. Barnabas Hospital, Bronx, N.Y.
- Director of facilities, plant operations and construction at Englewood Hospital & Medical Center, Englewood, N.J.
- Director of facilities management, Health Research Inc. at Helen Hayes Hospital, West Haverstraw, N.Y.
- 2020 ASHE President’s Award winner.
- Certified Healthcare Facilities Manager.
- Certified Healthcare Constructor.
- Certified Healthcare Physical Environment Worker.
- Healthcare Facilities Management Society of New Jersey past president.
- Co-authored “Exploring the Life Safety Chapter of The Joint Commission” course for Joint Commission Resources.
- Associate of Science, electrical technology, College of Staten Island (N.Y.).
- Bachelor of Science, economics, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, New York City.
- Master of Business Administration, finance, Wagner College, New York City.
John DiGirolomo, MBA, CHFM, CHC, CHSP, FASHE, has played witness to the growth of the American Society for Health Care Engineering (ASHE) and, by extension, the health care facilities management field itself. This month, the 2020 ASHE President’s Award recipient reflects on his career journey and how ASHE and others have helped in his success.
What role has education played in your career journey?
My first job in facilities was in a power plant at a sugar refinery. While there, I got my stationary engineer and refrigeration system operator licenses. For a high school graduate who didn’t go to college, I was making a very good salary for that time. Thankfully, my wife convinced me to go to college. I give her all the credit in the world for my educational progression and subsequent success. Once she got me started, I was insatiable. I obtained my associate degree, then a bachelor’s degree and then my MBA.
After I got my first degree, I began asking myself what type of field has a need for someone with technical training and a formal education. I started looking at the want ads, and it turned out that hospitals were great places for me to use all of my background and skills.
In my first health care position, I was hired as chief engineer of the boiler plant at the Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., which is the hospital I was born in.
How did your career continue to progress after that first position?
Working in the hospital for the first time was a great feeling. It was uplifting and gave me a sense of pride to be a part of a management team. I was not only part of the team running the central plant, but now I was in a place to make decisions.
In each role, I learned that I was working for the next position. In my earlier days, I had a five-years-and-out theory. Often when a new position opened, a hospital’s first reaction was to search for someone from the outside. That is not an aspersion on any one hospital; it was the hiring culture in the 1980s. Therefore, I developed the mentality that to move up, you have to move out.
After being chief engineer of the boiler room, the next step was assistant director of engineering leading a maintenance team. Following that, I moved on to be director of engineering and was then promoted to assistant director of operations. That was a vice president level position where I not only managed the facilities, utilities and maintenance department but also managed telecommunications, security, food and other support services. I learned about different service lines, which helped my career. Today, I am senior vice president of facilities, construction and real estate at St. Barnabas Hospital and a member of the C-suite.
What are some factors that make you proud to be in your current position?
My responsibilities as senior vice president of facilities include construction, utilities, safety, security, emergency preparedness and the physical grounds. I have been fortunate in my 13 years here to manage a significant number of prominent construction projects of greater than $20 million each. I am proud to have played a role in rebuilding an aged urban facility suffering from deferred maintenance and lack of capital investment. For a safety-net hospital, that is impressive. Some of my peers who work at large systems manage $200 million construction projects, but we just do not have access to that level of capital. As a safety-net hospital, we take care of a highly disadvantaged population. Our community is among the poorest and sickest in New York City covered by Medicaid. Medicaid covers 75-80% of our patient population.
However, people are impressed when they visit my 9.5-acre campus. It is not your typical New York City facility. People tell me it’s like an oasis in the Bronx. We have extensive plantings, rolling hills and a sycamore grove with hundred-year-old sycamore trees. It’s a lovely campus for our community
Who are some of the major influences that helped you build your career?
I was fortunate to find two very memorable mentors who were key to my success.
As assistant director of engineering at St. John’s Queens Hospital, I worked for a man named Larry Penza, who was the director of engineering. As my first mentor, he imparted so much knowledge about how to operate anything from a technical end. He was a brilliant engineer with fantastic people skills. He taught me that we really run little cities. We make sure that there is power, we make sure you have water and so on. He taught me more than anyone else about how to operate those systems. He also taught me how to stay calm when things happen. He taught me to draw upon my skills and work the problem.
Another major mentor in my life was the CEO at St. Clare’s Hospital, Richard Yezzo. He taught me about hospital administration and how to work with the boardroom and the politics. He took me to the state authorities having jurisdiction and health department meetings. He exposed me to the board of trustees and the hospital sponsor. He brought me there to watch, observe, listen and learn. I treasure the memory of these men daily. Anyone after those two folks were just honing the foundations they gave me.
How did you find out about ASHE, and what encouraged you to get involved?
When I got a job in New Jersey, a devoted ASHE Life Member and now my dear friend Bill Anderson would send me letters asking me to join the local ASHE chapter. Eventually I went, and I was amazed. They were a dedicated group that really cared about your career, strove to educate the members and the handshakes were hearty. I joined and, within a couple years, I was president.
The local chapter opened my eyes to ASHE. As an officer at the local chapter, you participate and attend the annual conferences. The education and networking opportunities are the best. Some of the greatest personal relationships I have with my peers are the ones I developed at ASHE. I have been fortunate to make presentations at ASHE conferences, and serve on countless committees, the ASHE faculty and on the ASHE Advisory Board.
How has ASHE evolved over the past couple decades from your perspective?
One of the biggest changes that I love has been the focus on advocacy. ASHE has earned a seat at all the major authorities having jurisdiction and code-writing organizations. We are a national health care industry influencer.
Personally, I am thrilled with the amount of training and education that is available. What the organization has done with the website is astounding. The course offerings for our members are designed to provide the most current information available. You can be assured that you can go to the website and find a resource, a monograph, a lunch and learn, or a virtual learning session.
How did it feel to be honored as the ASHE 2020 President’s Award winner?
It was a great honor, but I missed being able to be there in person, due to the pandemic, to accept the award. I missed the opportunity to share the moment with my ASHE colleagues and staff.
I was also humbled. When Jeff Henne called to tell me I would receive this award, it was a unique moment for me because I was speechless. Those who know me know that is a rare occurrence.
They sent me a beautiful glass obelisk that sits on my desk right next to my board membership recognition plaque. I keep them very close to me. I will treasure them forever.