Philadelphia, PA –
From its first contract in South Carolina to its near global reach today, the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support’s facility maintenance, repair and operations program affects almost everyone that lives or works on a U.S. military installation.
The MRO program, part of DLA Troop Support’s construction and equipment division, provides customized support for facilities maintenance, public works and civil engineering for military installations and other federal customers around the world.
Although dedicated to the upkeep and maintenance of facilities, the program got its start as a result of facility closures in the mid-1990s. Due to the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure Act, management of building materials in Columbus, Ohio, and general supplies in Richmond, Virginia, was consolidated at DLA Troop Support, then known as Defense Supply Center Philadelphia.
Soon thereafter, a group was assembled to study how best to support customers, said Lin da Gruber, who supervises the MRO prime vendor integrated supplier team. Separate teams were initially created for different commodities like lumber and electrical supplies, but market research showed crossovers between what were previously thought of as stove-piped industries, she said. An electrical supply company could also provide plumbing materials, for example.
At the same time, Marines stationed at Parris Island, South Carolina, were benefitting from the DSCP’s prime vendor program to fulfill their subsistence needs.
“[The Marines] asked us if we could do something like for their facilities folks, their public works guys, and our market research was showing that there was integration among those kinds of supplies in industry and maybe that was something we could do,” Gruber said.
Soon the MRO concept, designed to integrate the commodities and provide comprehensive facilities maintenance support, was formed and a business case analysis was developed using Parris Island and neighboring Navy customers as a test site.
“They [Marines] were the first customer,” Gruber said. “They were the ones that got us looking in that direction because it was something DLA was already doing in another area.”
To further develop ideas for the MRO program, the team looked at businesses with similar challenges that would allow them to support customers on a global scale.
The team met with several universities and electric supply companies to learn about how they conducted their programs. The team also looked at hotel chains and airlines that had geographically dispersed facilities to maintain.
Gruber also looked into one company that her teammates thought was out of the box.
“They thought I was kidding when I said I would call Disney,” she said. “I called for market research because they have giant facilities that they support.”
After contacting Disney, Gruber was able to set up a meeting pending one special request: an autographed photo of her then-commander, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Geoffrey B. Higginbotham.
Although Higginbotham was curious as to why an autographed photo of him was needed, he was accommodating once Gruber explained that the team was traveling to meet with Disney personnel for market research and that Disney had made the request.
“We went down to Orlando, met in the Jessica Rabbit Room and all their male procurement guys had Disney ties when they showed up,” she said.
Through their meeting, Gruber said she learned that Disney had much more control over its internal customers than DLA. Disney could direct their internal customers on where to buy their supplies, for example, but Gruber’s team still had to sell the base’s military commanders on the concept of participating in the fledgling MRO program.
In one instance, the commander of an Air Force base at the time was so skeptical of the program that Gruber traveled there to try and convince him to become an early customer.
“It was really tough in the beginning. I don’t consider myself to be a salesperson, but I had to be a salesperson and convince them to try something that I wasn’t sure was going to work,” she said. “But we knew we were committed to make it a success, so we had to convince our customers to do that, too.”
One tool that was used to sell the program was a videotaped episode of ABC’s “World News Tonight.”
“At one point, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings had a spot called ‘It’s Your Money,’ reporting about how your money was being wasted by the government,” she said.
Occasionally, Jennings would report on a government program that was good. One such program was DSCP’s subsistence prime vendor program used by Marines at Parris Island. The segment reported that the subsistence program was saving both taxpayers and the military money, calling it a one-stop shop for all of their food needs. Gruber said the team would often use the taped segment to demonstrate that the MRO program would have the same effect.
“We got a copy of the program and we would take that with us to show our customers that this is what we’re trying to emulate, and we believe this will work,” she said.
The Air Force commander, still very skeptical, told Gruber to leave the tape with him, telling her that he would watch it overnight and make a decision on the MRO program.
“So I came back the next day and he wasn’t available,” Gruber said. “But the tape was there for me to pick up, and on the tape he had put this little sticky note: ‘Linda. Thanks. Good luck.’”
He still wasn’t signing up for it. Gruber kept the note for inspiration.
“I took that as a challenge,” she said, adding that today, that same Air Force base is a customer of the MRO program.
Despite some early setbacks, the MRO program soon got a boost in an unexpected place: from Higginbotham, Gruber’s former commander.
Higginbotham had moved to an assignment in Okinawa, Japan, and saw that not everybody there was aware of what the MRO program had to offer. In September of 1997, the MRO team flew to Japan and Korea to expand the program overseas.
Today, there are MRO contracts that cover U.S. military facilities throughout Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Wherever there is a U.S. base, there can be an MRO contract, Gruber said.
If a mission takes place in another location, MRO contracts are able to get materiel and support to the various locations where U.S. military personnel may be deployed. In 2014, the MRO program supported Operation United Assistance, the Defense Department’s operation to help contain the Ebola virus in West Africa.
“We did provide some support there for some things because they had to build little tent cities, and generators were a big thing,” Gruber said.
In the United States, the MRO program also provides material that reaches federal agencies outside of DoD.
In San Diego, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific uses a DLA MRO contract to purchase hardware for microwave antenna installations for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The arrangement started in 2014, when DLA was contacted as an alternate source for material procurement, said Tom Wessels, project manager for the migration.
“The microwave systems provide a critical link for the various communications and surveillance technologies used by CBP field personnel,” he said.
Voice, video and data systems used along the southwest U.S. border, in particular, rely heavily on microwave systems, Wessels said.
“These wireless systems route voice from tactical radios, video imagery from remote video surveillance systems and data from ground sensors, to the key decision makers in central command and communications centers,” he said.
Based on the positive contracting experience, Wessels said DLA has been recommended for other projects at the center that also need fast, efficient support.
As the MRO program grows and changes over the years, it continues to adapt to the evolving needs of its customers, Gruber said.
The program’s flexibility is a result of striving for constant improvement, she added. At times, a customer that has transferred from one base to another will reach back to DLA to request MRO services at their new duty station, she said. And since the program is tailored to customer needs, what may have worked one way, in one location, might work a different way in another.
“We really listen to our customers, take to heart their feedback, and make adjustments based on our interactions with them, based on our understanding of what improvements they’d like to see,” she said. “The program you see today is not the program we began with; it continues to evolve.”