This article is part of a series shining a spotlight on the personalities and priorities of Dal's senior leadership team. Revisit previous profiles at the Leadership and Vision website.
After three decades overseeing major capital construction projects in the private sector, Peter Coutts was given the opportunity to return to his old stomping grounds — at a time when campus was anticipating a burst of new buildings, including the Sexton Campus where he’d studied at what was then TUNS – The Technical University of Nova Scotia.
“When I went to school there in the mid ‘80s it badly needed renovation then,” says Coutts of the Sexton transformation. “I’m proud of all the work I’ve done in my career both here at Dal and elsewhere, but the work on my old campus holds a special place in my heart.”
Construction has been in his blood since he was a youngster growing up in Amherst. In his spare time, he’d hang around construction sites asking questions and figuring out how things were built. As soon as he was old enough he started working on job sites, and hasn’t looked back.
“I started from the ground up, when I was wet behind the ears as a carpenter’s apprentice and general labourer. I climbed ladders and lugged lumber and did whatever else I needed to do to learn all aspects of the trade. I’ve even dug ditches.”
That knowledge of the tiniest details involved in major construction projects has earned him a place as one of the most respected professionals in Atlantic Canada. His experience in the private sector included stints with Walter Construction, Panigas Group of Companies, PCL and Armour Group where he held progressively senior positions.
He’s had a hand in some of the biggest construction projects in the Maritimes, including the $100-million Halifax Infirmary, the $70-million Cavendish Farm Plant in PEI, the $57-million Halifax Shopping Centre renovation in 1992, the $44-million Maritime Helicopter Training Centre at 12 Wing Shearwater and the $40-million Lake Major Water Treatment plant. Those are some of the bigger ticket projects he’s worked on, but they barely scratch the surface of the jobs he’s touched in his career.
A commitment to quality and safety
Peter credits his success to many things — mainly his intensity and drive to deliver a project on time, on budget and, most of all, with the highest attention to quality and safety. He’s also a people person with a down-to-earth sensibility that allows him to be a straight shooter with everyone from those in the boardroom to those on the bulldozers.
“I’m not one of these managers that sits in an office and tells people what to do. I like to be in the field with them, seeing what they are seeing,” he says. “I’ve seen projects get out of control and we need to dig into the designs and the budget and challenge the team to make sure we are doing the very best job we can for every single client — especially the ones I work for now: the students of Dalhousie.”
Since June 2017, Peter has taken on even more. When fellow AVP Jeff Lamb (Facilities Management) retired, Peter took on both roles in an acting capacity. Before the year was out, he was confirmed in the position. Now you’re just as likely to see him on a job site in a hard hat as you are on a coffee break with custodians.
“Until now I’ve worked in a field where I build you something, hand over the keys, and move along and build something else,” he says. “I love this job now because I learn every day what it takes to maintain those buildings, to clean them, and lock them up, and keep them running and warm and comfortable for the students, staff and faculty.”
So much to manage
With 5.5 million square feet to manage, and more than 160 buildings on our four campuses, it’s a job that keeps him and his team hopping. He now manages a $22-million budget along with the biggest administrative unit on campus with more than 500 employees. Aside from the day-to-day operations, there’s always planning for the next big project — in Dal’s case the Arts Centre Expansion, the Thermal Plant Renewal, a potential new arena, and renewal of the Agricultural Campus in Truro. Peter says the success of such projects are due to the whole team, and he plays just a bit part.
In his spare time, Peter shares his time and expertise with organizations like the Mental Health Foundation and Sacred Heart School. You can also find him tinkering on a motorcycle (sometimes even in the kitchen!), working on a project in the shed, spending time with his grown children or hanging out at the cottage with his partner throwing the ball for Pepe the dog.
“Our role here is to balance the many daily requests that come in from all over the place — Dalhousie is basically the size of a small town. We have to work with stakeholders across the university to be sensitive to everyone’s needs, while being thoughtful stewards of our limited funds.”
“Oh I love a challenge. And there is never a boring day in this business. I love the challenge of solving problems right away. I get bored easily so a job like this suits me well when there are lots of balls in the air. Chaos excites me.”
On constructing on campus versus elsewhere…
“It’s a balance to get these new buildings up and running while being sensitive to the classes going on at the same time, and exam times and whatnot. At the end of the day, the students are our clients — we work for them. It’s satisfying work to give them the facilities they need.”
When you were a student, what was your favourite course?
In my Civil Engineering elective we studied a book called In Search of Excellence about what makes companies great. It was inspiring to me to learn how to achieve success. It’s not about widgets, it’s about people. My favourite professors were Dr. Ron Gilkie and Des Cousins. Great mentors and kind people who inspired me.
What’s your favourite hobby or pastime?
Fixing stuff — motorcycles, chainsaws, you name it. I like taking old things and working on them to keep them going again. Also getting out in the woods with a tent.
If you could only bring one artist’s music with you to a desert island, who would it be?
Taj Mahal or Howlin’ Wolf — any of that gritty, earthy gut-knocking blues music. I find it humbling to listen to lyrics about overcoming hardships.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
From my father: go with your gut.
If you could have dinner with one person — living, deceased or fictional — who would it be and why?
Tie – my parents who are both deceased. They pushed me to get through school and I’d love to chat with them. Or Barack Obama and Martin Luther King. I’d like to hear their different perspectives on the challenges they each faced and their efforts to improve things. They’ve both inspired me.
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