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5 Minutes with Chuck McCullagh: Pulling in the Same Direction

By Net Assets posted 17 days ago

Pulling together

Leadership |

At each stage of his career, from running a small business to 25 years in the business office, the new NBOA board chair has found strong relationships with colleagues a key to success.

Interview by Cecily Garber

From the September/October 2019 Net Assets magazine

Chuck McCullagh is chief financial officer at The Williston Northampton School, a grades seven through 12 boarding/day school with 490 students in Easthampton, Massachusetts, and the new chair of the NBOA Board of Directors.

Net Assets: Your first job out of college was in industrial distribution and manufacturing. What was that like and was the experience relevant to your work as a business officer?

Chuck McCullagh

Chuck McCullagh
Chief Financial Officer, The Williston Northampton School 
Chair, NBOA Board of Directors

Chuck McCullagh: I was a marketing major and started my career working for my family’s business, Parts Service International (PSI). The company acquired a smaller business, an industrial insulation contractor in Utah, that had outstanding debt to PSI. The debt was forgiven when PSI took it over. I went to Salt Lake City to turn the smaller company around.

In just a year and a half, we ended up selling that company, and I got some terrific, on-the-job experience — like working with human resources and having tough conversations with employees about performance reviews. For someone who was young, it was definitely a valuable opportunity to learn. Also, the skiing nearby happened to be really great, and I was inclined to partake!

These experiences easily transferred to the school business office. My first school, Christchurch School, was a smaller school, where you had to do it all — accounting, HR, operations — just like when you’re responsible for a small business. You’re exposed to just about everything, and you may not be an expert, but you have good working knowledge about many different parts of the operation.

Net Assets: How did you transition into the independent school business office?

McCullagh: I returned from Salt Lake City to Massachusetts to work for the family business and later pursued an MBA. My wife Martha was a teacher at Suffield Academy in Connecticut, so we lived on the boarding school campus. Each morning I’d commute from Suffield to Westfield, Massachusetts, then return home to a dorm where we were in charge of about 20 junior or senior girls or boys, depending on the year. I was having so much fun being part of the school community. At some point my work in the family business had gone as far as it would go, so Martha and I packed up everything and moved to Christchurch, Virginia, where I became the business officer at Christchurch School.

Net Assets: What are some notable challenges you have faced over the years and what lessons have you learned?

The can-do attitude makes everything so much easier. Everyone is pulling in the same direction, and that starts with the head of school.

McCullagh: Most schools now have to be vigilant about the sustainability of their financial model. A great number of schools have been tested over the last 20 years, from the technology sector meltdown of the early 2000s to the Great Recession of 2008-9 and its lingering impact. I work closely with our admissions director to clarify enrollment projections, and we constantly check in with one another. I’m regularly talking with the advancement director and learning how to best support those efforts. Gone are the days when everyone can work in a silo.

The head of school at Williston Northampton is outstanding and cultivates a team-oriented environment. When he asks for it, we all rise to the occasion. I can’t say enough good things about the team we have at Williston right now. The can-do attitude makes everything so much easier. Everyone is pulling in the same direction, and that starts with the head of school.

Net Assets: In your 25 years in the field, what has changed about your work as a business officer and what has remained the same?

McCullagh: What remains the same is that you have to establish good working relationships on campus. For example, right now [summer 2019] I’m working on how we’re going to move faculty into new housing for the upcoming year. I have to be clear about the schedule; I email faculty and talk with them and make sure they’re okay with the moving dates and the work being done in the various residences. Whether or not I work directly with someone, I try to make sure we’re all on the same page.

The biggest change is that the business officer role has become much more complicated. Examples are the updated human resources requirements, new regulations and technology’s impact on school operations. What I did at Christchurch 22 years ago and what I do today are very different.

Net Assets: What are you looking forward to presently in your role as business officer at Williston Northampton?

McCullagh family
McCullagh with his wife, Martha, and daughters
in Washington state, where his oldest
daughter, Sarah (in yellow), is a boat captain
and whale naturalist in the San Juan Islands.
Laura (in turquoise) works in the theater and
lives in New York City. Both are graduates of
Williston Northampton.

McCullagh: We’re doing a lot of good things at Williston Northampton, one of which is completing a residential quadrangle. We developed a master plan in 2001-2 and purchased property. We had to move tennis courts and tear down buildings. The plan was updated in 2005 and 2016, and now we’re constructing the last of several dorms.

All these new dormitories are geothermal buildings. We have had a number of visitors at Williston from schools and colleges in our area come to see what we’ve done. In the new dorms, we do not use fossil fuel to run the heating systems, and we are heating water with solar.

Net Assets: Massachusetts recently passed laws allowing the recreational use of marijuana, and some dispensaries have opened up near Williston Northampton’s campus. Can you talk about how the school has handled this development?

McCullagh: Each municipality in Massachusetts had to set its own policies and goals. Some cities and towns did not want dispensaries in their town; our city happened to be one where people did want them. It was essential for me to be present during the planning process. I worked with the public-school department and others to ask local leaders to consider carefully how we establish the policy, how it relates to local schools and what oversight there will be, so that we were all prepared for this new reality. How many shops should the town allow and what might they look like? What about signage? After much discussion, the city settled on a reasonable approach, but the school needed to be present during these deliberations. I was a fixture at these meetings for more than a year.

I’m the school employee who is responsible for the relationship with the local government, and it is important I provide the Williston perspective on many issues. The town-gown aspect of the business officer role is important, particularly when putting up a new building. For example, we’re in talks right now with the city to trade some land. The city is building a new preschool-grade 9 school and would like some of Williston’s land for a turnaround entrance. We are interested in a piece of the city’s property that would be beneficial for the new residential quadrangle. It takes time to be involved, but it pays off for the school, and usually it is a fun part of the job.

Net Assets: What most excites you about your new role as chair of the NBOA Board of Directors?

McCullagh: First of all, I look forward to the opportunity to work with board colleagues, Jeff Shields and the NBOA team. I can’t imagine a group more committed to working together to support independent school business officers. The NBOA strategic plan is such an important roadmap for the organization. It’s rare that an organization is so focused on following through with the work that it outlines to be done. The best example of this is BIIS [Business Intelligence for Independent Schools, NBOA’s data collection platform]. NBOA is focused on making the platform the best it can be.

I also appreciate getting the chance to work with really smart people and hearing good ideas. I gain so much professionally from meeting and talking with my fellow board members. I am always hearing creative ideas from this group, whether it is, “This is what I do with the budget,” or “This is how I work with X company.” I often find myself thinking, “That’s a really good idea. I’ll implement it at my school.”

In most cases, we’re in a position where we can move the needle and make a difference at our schools. Take advantage of that. 

Net Assets: What advice do you have for new or aspiring business officers?

McCullagh: It’s a great job, particularly if you are inclined to be involved in a lot of different things. In most cases, we’re in a position where we can move the needle and make a difference at our schools. Take advantage of that. Try not to be overbearing, but be an active and willing colleague who can contribute in many different ways.

To do that, get out of the office and make your way around campus. As an example, I always make it a point to walk through the dining facilities kitchen every day. I like seeing the staff, and I think they appreciate seeing me. Another example is when we were planning to renovate an academic building this year, I visited the teachers in the history department office and got their opinions on the proposed work. I will show up in places where the employees may not expect to see me, like in a boiler room of the mechanical room of the hockey rink. 

Net Assets: What advice do you have for surviving cold weather?

McCullagh: I love to ski, and I cannot imagine living in New England without enjoying the outdoors during the winter. My advice is to get outside and embrace it!

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