Woman of Industry: Fennell farewells federal service after 33 years

Mary Beth Fennell

Mary Beth Fennell

Oct 2, 2017

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MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. (Sept. 30, 2017) — Sifting through the details of patents for “pipeline pigs” and “holding devices for painting things” was not the fascinating engineering stuff Mary Beth Fennell imagined she’d be doing right out of college.

Yet the dispassion felt in performing such a job was integral in putting the chemical engineer on course for becoming a respected leader in Naval Air Systems Command at Fleet Readiness Center East and enjoying a 33-year federal service career.

“I was a patent examiner, but that wasn’t engineering in my sense of the word … I was ready to do some stuff,” said Mary Beth Fennell, outgoing Corporate Operations and Total Force Group head, Code 7.0 of her job as a patent examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. “… It was fine, but it made me appreciate, what I consider, getting into a real engineering job, even more.”

The Syracuse native accompanied her Marine husband to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in 1984. She began work at the Naval Air Rework Facility in the Polymers Branch with rotor blade repair, adhesives, sealants and fabric, and gradually transitioned into composite repair.

“This place was cool because they had real airplanes and you could touch them, and they had a lab and all that fun stuff … it was the kind of stuff I went to school for,” she said, recalling the enthusiasm she had at the time.

She returned to the area after being away for less than two years. “I was very surprised to be stationed right back here, and since we were, I came back to work,” she said, working part time, five hours a day for two years.

She began again in composite repair, but stepped over into the area of environmental science to work in pollution prevention, where her efforts netted an Environmental Protection Agency award. And while she was regarded as an expert in science and things environmental, she soon realized she was more impassioned about leading and taking care of people.

She took a rotational assignment, as part of the Senior Executive Management Development Program, as a supervisor in the Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point Environmental Affairs Department, which roused her desire and led her to change course in 1996.

“I had never been a supervisor … and I really, really liked dealing with the people side of things,” she said, “and I kind of got that bug, and I thought, ‘maybe I don’t want to go back to doing the technical engineering stuff.’ That narrow specialty I was in really didn’t suit my personality. I’m much happier to look at the broader, bigger picture. That was such an ah-ha moment.”

From there, she began the climb up through depot leadership roles.

First it was three years as the Command Support Department head, which included at the time Safety, Security, Environmental and Regulated Commodities. Regulated Commodities was the first among the divisions of the entire organization to receive International Organization of Standards, or ISO, certification.

However, as a member of an indirect review team she recommended dissolution of the position.

“I don’t believe in a lot of layers of management, and even if one of them is me … you just don’t need a lot of layers,” she said explaining that the position was extraneous and lengthened communications flow to the commanding officer. “It was logical, it would save money. A flat organization seemed good. I felt I worked myself out of a job. Each of those divisions was operating very independently, so I felt like it could work.”

Breaking through production culture

Maintaining a good attitude about the position being eliminated, she accepted a job offer to work as the branch head in production for the 930 Division, now the Industrial Processes Integrated Product Team, which comprised 600 blue collar employees.

Despite sensing the objection of some in the division to its first female leader, she made a break in the way the production workforce perceived the engineer in a noncompetitive appointment.

“It was a phenomenal learning experience for me,” she said. “I’ve always had a tremendous respect for the folks that make things happen out there on the floor.

“And a lot of the people in the processes shops feel undervalued, so it was a great opportunity to make sure they knew that somebody cared and that what they did was important. They definitely responded well to that,” she added, crediting the tactic of holding quarterly meetings with the individual shops to her success of breaking through and connecting with the employees of her division.

“It was hard to break through some of that culture,” she said, “but I learned so much. I gained so much respect for everything they do.”

After winning the hearts of the production workforce she moved on to head up the Business Department, then became the N42 Industrial Processes IPT director, and ultimately the Corporate Operations and Total Force Group head.

The numerous lessons learned, and the variety of encounters at the depot, and community engagement affected Fennell’s outlook over the course of three decades.

She spoke of how the experience of surviving Base Realignment and Closure in the 90s cemented her loyalty for the depot.

“I’ve always had a tremendous passion for this place,” she said. “Once I become invested in something, it’s family. This place is family.

“I’m glad I was here during the BRACs of the 90s. The camaraderie, the compassion and the loyalty of all the people just impressed upon me and I didn’t think (that feeling) was just going to leave.”

An unshakable relationship with the surrounding community reaffirmed her commitment of calling the area home.

“I recall the great support the community gave us when we were presenting a defense against BRAC. The other FRCs were jealous of our relationship with our community. Members in the community were willing to do anything we asked of them. … We valued the community, but that also pressurized us to make sure that we did everything we could to protect ourselves because the community relied on us too.”

The benevolence of her production colleagues reaffirmed her confidence in the human spirit.

“The production people will give you the shirts off their backs if they think you need it, and they make no bones about it,” she said. “It reinforced my faith in mankind that they’re really a great bunch of people who work here.”

And that enduring spirit gives her hope.

“This has been an incredible place to work. I’m looking forward to hearing great stuff about how it transitions into the next generation, of all the new weapons systems. … It’s a very exciting time here and I think it just offers so much opportunity for people.”

If there were one parting wish for Fennell as she departs FRC East, she said it would be “for people to feel the pride and passion … that everybody would share that common vision and pride and passion and put everything they’ve got into it, because the place can be really good to you; and you can get out of it every bit you put into it.”

Fennell’s officially retired at the end of September. In retirement, she plans to keep active with volunteerism in the local community, staying active as with the Eastern Carolina Aviation Heritage Foundation and continuing work as a board member with the Coastal Women’s Shelter.

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1 Comment, Please review our Feedback Guidelines.

Jerry Lagemann said

The very best of Luck Mary Beth in the next episode of your Life..Retirement..Thanks for helping to Steer our Depot into the Future.

October 5, 2017 at 9:46:22 PM EDT


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