After reporting a $1.6 million loss for the 2016 academic year, Marymount California University, a small, private Catholic college in Rancho Palos Verdes, needed a big change to stay afloat.
Enter Kathleen Ruiz, who was named Marymount’s chief financial officer in July 2016. In one year, Ruiz, who had a long history in business management in the private sector – including stints with Boeing and Disney – turned the institution's fortunes around, and Marymount closed its 2017 fiscal year with a $4.7 million profit.
Ruiz talked with Education Dive about her move from the corporate to the nonprofit world, working for Disney and the loss of her oldest son.
Many colleges are struggling to balance the books. How did you approach the financial losses at Marymount to execute the turnaround?
I started in for-profits, so I applied those ideas to a nonprofit. I began at the front end: What are we spending? A lot of departments planned for more students than we had. They were planning for 1,700 students rather than 1,000, and they had opened new sites in anticipation of having a lot of new students that never materialized. We needed to right-size departments that were over-staffed.
Then I looked at contracts, including the facilities contract. We were signing an annual contract for someone to take care of our grounds and buildings. The contract had been in place for a while and went up every year. We did an RFP and got four quotes. We got better prices and could customize the contract for what we need. The service improved, for example, students who called with a complaint of a sink not working would get it fixed more quickly. We saved money and got better service. I did that with quite a few contracts.
We also restructured the campus IT department to save $250,000 annually and to improve network security and productivity.
We also were able to reduce our debt in half. We had two housing sites that were half filled. I sold one, paid down debt, and was able to finance more amenities for the other site, including a new swimming pool, air conditioning, a renovated interior and high-speed internet. That was a really good feeling.
I think the biggest thing colleges can do is look at how money is being spent, if things are running efficiently and if external contracts are at the level you need. If you really want to invest in academics, which we do, there are ways to save money without effecting students.
Why did you move from a corporate job to higher education.
I wanted to be in a place where what I was doing was making a difference. When I came to Marymount I was more curious than anything else, and now I feel really good about what I can do. I like being able to help people who didn’t think college was affordable. Seeing students walk across the graduation stage is a great feeling. Sometimes they’re off working now, and I will see them, or meet them for lunch, and it’s good to hear how they are doing.
Tell us about your Disney job — and who is your favorite character?
The Disney job was very rigorous. My job was to audit, and I spent a lot of time in Europe and Spain, I had to work with an interpreter and make sure the translator understood what I was trying to ask. At Disney, they let you take on as many responsibilities as you’d like and they encourage growth. They also work you really hard. I love all the travel I did and everything I learned. It gave me a skill set that allowed me to succeed later in life.
I’d say Mickey Mouse is probably my favorite character, because he’s everywhere.
What are your future goals for you job and for Marymount?
My next big project is campus software. We need to use data strategically, to help determine where we are going in the future. With the number of high school graduates declining, how do we grow? We are looking at adding programs. We are reaching out to employers in the L.A. area to see if we can work together to help build job skill sets, for internships or training opportunities. We want families coming in to be confident that their student is leaving campus both employable and well-rounded.
We are really bracing ourselves for the future and making sure Marymount continues to be a great place to go to.
Where is the last place you traveled and where would you love to visit?
The last place was Cabos San Lucas with my son for a summer vacation to celebrate his senior year of high school.
I would love to go to Vietnam. I’ve been to Japan, and with Disney I have been all over Europe. I would love to see Vietnam before it is spoiled.
What have you learned from things you have watched or read recently?
I just finished watching “Game of Thrones.” My son got me hooked. I learned I am happy I live in this era and not then, when everything was so violent. It was a nice escape from work, a way to get away and relax.
I just finished reading “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” (by Harold S. Kushner). I lost my 20-year-old son, and I have been reading a lot of how-to books to get through that.
My son and I have decided that being sad isn’t what we want to do. Doing something good for someone else, that is how we are going to get through this. ‘What am I going to do today to put a smile on someone else’s face?’ My 17-year-old son and I will wake up and say, ‘What can I do to make life better? What is a random act of kindness I can do?’ And then we will talk about our experiences later.