Herd’s Unsung Heroes: Wonder Woman Tonja Smith
By Doug Carroll
The engine is always running for Tonja Smith, GCU’s corporate travel manager and senior event planner. There is no “off” switch.
It’s running when she shows up for work at 5 a.m. in Annex II, ready to jump on the phone and dash off emails from her cubicle.
It’s running when she’s talking to you and her Blackberry never stops detonating, like firecrackers on the Fourth of July.
It’s even running when she’s delivering a baby and the Antelopes’ head baseball coach is trying to reach her to make a change in plans for a trip. (True story. Happened four years ago, and she got kicked out of the hospital’s recovery room over it.)
On this point, everyone at GCU agrees: Without Smith in at-the-ready mode, moving about the country would become exponentially more difficult.
“The thing that’s unbelievable is that she’s always available — and it’s for anybody,” says Dan Bachus, the University’s chief financial officer. “If it’s 8 at night and you have a travel problem, she answers her phone and fixes it for you.
“I’ve never worked with someone who’s so helpful. That’s just who she is.”
Smith, 40, a Phoenix native and mother of five, came to GCU six years ago when a friend told her the University needed someone to book events for online marketing. She had been in the travel industry for 15 years.
“I’d had enough of booking tickets,” she says. “I was over it.”
Imagine her shock, then, when she learned that no one at GCU oversaw travel. There wasn’t even a travel policy on file. Everyone bought their own plane tickets, booked their own accommodations and submitted receipts for reimbursement.
“This is like a free-for-all,” she remembers thinking.
Before long, she had taken charge and begun to sort things out. Although GCU saw a boom in travel in 2006-07 by its staff and athletic teams, Smith found ways to actually save the University $300,000 during that period.
“I always knew how to negotiate numbers because I’m cheap and I’m frugal,” she says. “For example, I’ll always book with a carrier where we can reuse the money. I realize that some things truly are last-minute. But I think of things the normal person doesn’t think about.
“People think planning seven days in advance is good, but it’s not if you knew about that meeting 30 days ago. I tell our people to spend GCU’s money as if it were their own. That’s good business practice, because in the end it all works out to be our money. If we can cut corners, that might work out to be a raise next year.”
Another thing about Smith: She works fast. Really fast. As the GCU women’s basketball team was wrapping up a second victory in the West Regional in Pomona, Calif., last month, she was already working on arrangements for a turnaround bus trip two days later for the championship game. By the time Antelope fans had returned to Phoenix, they knew all the details.
“I like turning around an itinerary in five minutes,” Smith says. “It’s important to me that you can trust my details. The joke around campus has been, ‘This chick is crazy.’ It’s not in my job description to be available 24-7, but you shouldn’t have to wait for me.”
In performance reviews, her supervisors have shown concern about her family-life-work balance. Now that she has an assistant, Bill Hutter, things have settled down. A little.
“He’s phenomenal,” Smith says of Hutter, who came on as temporary help last year and is now full time. “He’s available 24-7, too. He’s like my husband — he knows to ignore me when I’m ranting and raving.”
Don’t get her wrong. She loves her job and wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“I wear a few hats, but I wouldn’t know how to wear just one,” she says. “I thrive off of being busy. I like to find a rock in a pile of dirt.
“People in the education business always have been underpaid and overworked. The ones who stick are the ones who love their job. If I’ve got to do something for 10 to 12 hours a day, I’ve got to love it. And I do.”
Reach Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.