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UVM Is: Physical Plant Director Salvatore “Sal” Chiarelli Motivates and Innovates

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Sal Chiarelli strives to bring out the best in people.

As director of UVM’s Physical Plant Department, which maintains 6 million square feet of facilities, Chiarelli is on the go as he leads a team of 160 full-time employees as well as part-time employees, student interns, and contractors.

His department handles everything from building maintenance, operations, energy codes and historic preservation to stormwater permitting, engineering, utilities, and setting up for commencement. Since arriving at UVM 20 years ago, he’s worked on various projects, including the conception, engineering design and construction of the central chilled water plant, and the strategic planning around campus expansion such as the Davis Center, Jeffords Hall, and the STEM complex, to name a few.

“It’s hard to judge your success daily in my work. But when you look back a year, two years, or five years, and you see a steady stream of continuous improvement and success, that’s very rewarding,” Chiarelli says. “Part of my job is also to create a positive environment that promotes innovation, safety, and trust so people want to do a great job and keep motivated. The greatest part of my job is when I visit my people working and seeing how proud they are in accomplishing their tasks. It’s all about bringing out the best in people.”

He adds, “It’s a thousand little changes and improvements which everyone makes as a team that makes the machine run smoother. It’s not one big change, by one person, just for the sake of change of the day.  You have to trust your people and empower them to make decisions. Otherwise, nothing gets done and things get stalled.”

According to Chiarelli, the power of trust is a productive tool. He does that by delegating work to his employees, recognizing innovative processes, and also mentoring and providing support.

“I try to meet with my staff as much as I can. I have many one-on-one meetings as well as group discussion round tables, summer morning informal coffee sessions, and yearly “all hands” meetings,” he says. “I get to talk about all the great things we are doing. I also get a chance to explain some of the limitations we face as the climate is constantly changing here.”

Chiarelli grew up in Brooklyn and studied engineering and machine technology at Brooklyn Tech High School (Tech 76), New York Technical College, Binghamton University, and earned a master’s in engineering management from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He started his career at Con Edison in New York as an engineer and worked in 12 areas of concentration in eight years, including assembling a nuclear reactor. He later worked as facilities plant manager for the New York City Board of Education and director of physical plant at Union County College in New Jersey before arriving at UVM in 1999.

For two decades, he’s fine-tuned the department with his management team to make it a more efficient operation. Under his leadership, the department has developed maintenance teams to serve different parts of campus, improved the campus grounds, and developed more of a customer service approach.

“My time gets divided up in so many varied topics,” he says. “There are operational issues, technical issues, budget issues, hiring issues, and hundreds of other things that come up when you’re trying to run a little city of 15,000 people and 6 million square feet of buildings—including some that date back over 240 years.”

Chiarelli takes pride in being a resource to the UVM community and often finds innovative solutions to help employees and the University. Two years ago, what were once a stand of bleachers facing the old football, soccer, and lacrosse fields at Centennial Field were transformed into a roofed storage facility for the Physical Plant Department. The facility, which Chiarelli proposed, now houses snow removal and lawn care equipment, tools, electrical and plumbing supplies—all items that used to be stored outdoors and were subjected to the elements.

“We never had a good place to store equipment, grounds supplies, or snow removal plows,” he says. “I saw this as an opportunity and felt strongly and pursued it. Now I see how happy our folks are being able to focus on working professionally instead of wasting time looking for tools, supplies, and equipment scattered around. That makes me feel good.”

When Chiarelli is not at the office, he enjoys spending his time with his wife, Janine, and their three grown children, Salvatore Chiarelli, Jr. UVM ‘08, Nick Chiarelli UVM ‘10, Northeastern ’19, and Alison Chiarelli UVM ’14, who also earned her master’s degree from UVM in May.

At home and off hours, Chiarelli stays busy by working in his garden, hiking, kayaking, and playing racquetball. He’s also an accomplished wood worker specializing in bowl turning and building unique birdhouses including the one recently installed in the Jeffords Hall garden.

“One of the main reasons our family moved to Vermont 20 years ago is that we enjoy the outdoors,” he says. “I also like to make things. It helps me with the ‘what did I accomplish today’ dilemma, and that brings out the best in me.”

The “UVM Is” series celebrates University faculty, educators, and the campus community.