LOS ANGELES — He’s not the type of person who says one thing but does another. He isn’t someone who does just enough to get by. In fact, Los Angeles District Program Manager Robert Klein’s impressive dedication was recognized by headquarters when they selected him as the Corps’ Program Manager of the Year for 2013 in July.
Klein oversees six project managers, each of whom manage numerous projects at five Veterans Affairs hospital facilities in Southern California. Since the VA program inception, there has been more than 250 VA projects with District involvement at a combined cost of about $500 million. He said the work often involves renovation, like moving walls, expanding rooms and putting in specialized equipment, but working in a hospital environment presents several challenges.
“As examples, our construction sites are always occupied, they often have infectious control needs, negative air flow requirements, and there are patient privacy issues,” Klein said. “Additionally, we are the Army and they are another federal agency, so there are terminology and other differences in how we each legally do work.”
A veteran himself, Klein served in three wars and accumulated more than 44 years of military service. He was enlisted for nearly 10 years and then transitioned to the officer ranks for more than 34 years, retiring as a colonel. While an officer, he commanded an engineer company, a signal battalion, an engineer brigade, an infantry brigade, and a tactical counter-drug task force.
He has been a long-standing customer, as a patient, of the VA, so he is able to personally experience some of the improvements made via the projects that he and his team help complete.
About two years ago, Klein retired from the military, but he wanted to keep working for the Corps on VA program management, so he applied to continue doing the same work as a civilian.
Klein said the secret to ensuring the VA projects stay on track and within budget is having a thorough understanding of the customer’s desire, which often means doing homework.
“I have to understand the customer’s intent and what it is that they really want,” Klein said. “When I’m working with any level of customer, I like to figure out what is pressuring them and see how I can help. My whole job is to service the VA, and I try to read about what is going on in their organization and relate that information to our projects. They are sometimes too busy to see trends going on outside their hospital.”
Klein doesn’t shy away from challenges in his personal life either. He decided to run for congress in 1997 in the Torrance and Redondo Beach areas of California, which required him to temporarily retire from active duty.
“You can’t be in the Army and run for Congress, so I had to get out for 90 days to run,” he said. “It’s hard to do, but it isn’t impossible. I wasn’t elected, but I got to meet a whole lot of people.”
This drive Klein has for being involved in change or social movements actually caused him to retire from the Army several times. After the short retirement to run for congress, he formally retired in 2004, but he asked to go back on active duty to participate in the war in Iraq, and then he retired again but asked to return for the war in Afghanistan. Before he ran for congress, he participated in the combat operations in Panama. He retired for good in 2011, but he obviously hasn’t stopped working.
What Klein said he has learned throughout his career is that it is very important to lead by example.
“There is a lot of mandatory training we have to do in the Corps, so whenever a new one comes out I do it personally to see what it is all about before I ask my team to do it,” he said.
When asked about what he still wants to accomplish in the future, he said he wants to continue working for the Corps on VA program management, but eventually write a book or two. He’d also like to continue doing some “extra” work in the movies and writing movie scripts. He said, all in all, he is pretty content.
“I just happen to be the manager of a great program with excellent project managers who make me look good,” he said. “Matt Shun, Jenn Rivo, Captain Daniel Feldpausch, Captain Jonathan Parot, Monica Eichler, and Brian Childers, are the project managers, and Mark Harvey is a budget analyst. I’m proud of the effort this team continually puts forth.”
Klein noted that, besides the VA, the District assists many non-DoD federal, state, local and tribal governments by providing engineering and construction expertise. Known as Interagency and International Services customers, these entities can hire the Corps to undertake programming, engineering, construction, real estate acquisition, contracting, and construction management functions.