Tony Cobb brings lessons from the hardscrabble to key leadership role

As a leader, Tony Cobb said his goal is to see employees succeed and thrive in the jobs. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Tony Cobb has been grinding since he was just a child, growing up in eastern Virginia and the greater Washington D.C. area.

“I started pushing a lawnmower and a weedeater when I was 8 or nine years old,” Cobb said. “I was working for my dad and my uncle with their landscaping business. And I learned from the beginning that you have to be detailed and you have to go all out.”

It’s a lesson Cobb carries with him as he takes over as associate vice chancellor for the Office of Physical Planning, Operations and Development at UC Santa Cruz – a job that encompasses the oversight of all planning, design and development on the campus and its other locations in the region.

“I am already heavily involved with my team members to understand the magnitude of all these different projects on campus, whether its housing or maintenance,” Cobb said. “The one thing I have noticed is the passion that people have for their jobs here at UCSC.”

Whether it’s planning for future student housing, overseeing the physical planning and operations, or finding ways to help employees professionally develop, Cobb is in charge of it.

“I’m boots on the ground,” Cobb says, as he continues to tour the campus.

Cobb says UCSC’s location in the hills and amid the redwoods creates new challenges, but he says he will continue to refine processes and approaches as he takes over the helm.

“It’s one of the most unique campuses I have ever been on in a good way,” he says. “We’re intent on finding the right processes. Facilities have traditionally been viewed as different from the academic side of the institution, but our goal is to be looking at these issues through the same lens.”

Cobb will also lean on his roster of project managers, as he oversees five direct reports and about 400 total employees in the planning, design, maintenance and operations phase of the campus.

“My goal is to see other people succeed,” he says. “I’m a life-long learner and I am dedicated to continued professional development, but at this point in my life, it brings me more joy to see others thrive.”

Cobb knows the importance of mentorship.

Early on in his career, he transitioned from working at his dad’s landscaping business to facility maintenance for a hotel chain on the East Coast. He was learning the intricacies of how utilities, HVAC, plumbing and electrical components of large buildings interact. After gaining competency in all components of maintenance requirements he moved to Oklahoma to take a similar maintenance job with Oklahoma State University.

There he met his wife of 18 years, who was studying for her degree at the time. The couple has since had a daughter, who currently attends Howard University, a historically black research university located in the Washington D.C. area.

After a couple of years, Cobb was getting ready to move back to Virginia when his friend Sean Rains called him with a job offer to work in the Oklahoma State University Athletic Department on facilities and maintenance. For a young man who was also an avid sports fan, the opportunity was once in a lifetime.

“I got to travel with the football team, and build a bond with the coaches and staff,” Cobb says. He was eventually promoted to assistant athletic director of facilities and was in charge of engineering, the HVAC infrastructure, custodial, a suite of subcontractors, events staff and keeping the athletic fields and courts in top condition.

“I enjoyed that time very much,” he says.

He also received critical guidance from mentors, one of whom encouraged him to take a job as the facilities manager for the Tulsa Community College.

While the step back in institutional prestige was a risk from a career standpoint, the large step up in responsibility, paved the way for Cobb’s gradual but steady ascension to his current position with UC Santa Cruz.

“I was in charge of operating an entire campus and I really wanted that experience,” he says.

He parlayed that experience into a job with Notre Dame, overseeing their research facility which presented a host of logistical challenges that also provided a foundation for his current role.

“I was able to expand my knowledge about the unique needs of research facilities, whether it was utility requirements or certain types of flooring for buildings where experiments were carried out,” he says. “Also Notre Dame allowed me to oversee every aspect of facilities management, including designing and implementing my own policies around safety and infrastructure.”

From there Cobb ventured onto Stanford, where the pandemic made his new job difficult but rewarding. Firmly established on the West Coast, Cobb is now looking forward to guiding development, renovation, planning and maintenance on UC Santa Cruz for the foreseeable future.

“I came from the bottom, where I was cutting grass and digging ditches to lay utilities,” he says. “But I had people pulling my hand and guiding me and it’s my turn to return the favor. I just really love teamwork and bringing out the best in people.”