Locate Finger Lakes Business Journal

Joe Remillard: He keeps AgriTech humming

“LOCATE Finger Lakes is pleased to re-print the following article which originally appeared in the Finger Lakes Times as a part of their monthly series on CornellAgriTech.”
– Mike Nozzolio, Chairman LOCATE Finger Lakes

Joe Remillard

Joe Remillard has worked in radio, dabbled in politics, and fronted a punk rock band. He was vomited on as a paramedic at Woodstock ’99, washed dishes at a Friendly’s restaurant, and drove a van delivering floor mats and urinal cakes.

“My list of professional goals then was a bit shorter,” Remillard said in a lighthearted email.

Today, Remillard, as facilities director at Cornell AgriTech, oversees a 55-person staff that takes care of the well-known campus greenhouses and building maintenance, does small construction projects and other work at AgriTech’s research laboratories, and performs custodial services. He manages a 20-vehicle fleet, a traveling maintenance crew that services remote facilities across the state, a steam-generating heating plant, and AgriTech’s research farm operation, which is actively working about 250 acres of fields. The entire AgriTech operation covers more than 900 acres.

If you are puzzled about how his previous — and admittedly varied and odd — work experience led to his current role, his answer is somewhat simple.

“The common thread is working with people, and I’ve always been able to do that,” he said. “We have a great staff and faculty here. Whether it’s being here or fronting a punk band, it’s about making connections with people. Any successful endeavor revolves around that.”

Remillard, who grew up in the Cayuga County community of Aurora, graduated from Southern Cayuga High School and earned a degree in political science from SUNY Cortland. While in college he interned for Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder; she was a presidential candidate for a brief time.

Closer to home, he worked for state Assemblyman Dan Fessenden.

“A few years in, things started to change in the political world,” Remillard said. “I realized it wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in.”

Remillard said after “floating around for a year or two,” he worked for Cornell University’s radio station.

“We did the overnight and holiday shifts the students didn’t want,” Remillard said with a laugh.

He later worked for WQNY in Ithaca, a classic rock station at the time, and a country station in Auburn. During that time be became a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician, and later worked as a professional EMT at Rural/Metro Ambulance in Syracuse.

“I wanted to do something meaningful,” he said.

That led to his memorable — if sometimes messy and smelly — gig at Woodstock ’99, where he was a medical supervisor.

“They were calling for medical volunteers, so I got on a website, checked it out and put my name in. A week later, I was there,” he said. “It was actually a lot of fun. The folks had been out there in the sun, drinking a lot and dehydrated, and they would come in at night. Overall, it was a pretty awesome experience and I had a pass to go anywhere, including backstage.

“They are doing documentaries on Woodstock ’99 now, and I was there. It was pretty cool.”

Wondering about the punk rock band? This is where it comes in — sort of.

“I’ve actually been in numerous bands: hard rock, heavy metal, R&B, soul and funk, you name it. And yes, at one time I fronted a punk rock band,” said Remillard, noting he comes from a musical family. “It was a lot of fun and I have a love of music, all kinds. I still write and record music, some on Spotify. That said, I am not sure there is an overwhelming demand these days for a 52-year-old punk rocker.”

After a stint at Aurora-based MacKenzie-Childs, Remillard took a job in the facilities division at Cornell University in 2006. He was part of a team that saw tradespeople dispatched for different jobs.

“I loved working there,” he said. “It was aligned with a lot of the things I thought a workplace should be, a lot of growth opportunities and the genuine feeling of people trying to do the right thing.”

He picked up additional responsibilities over the years, leading to his hire at AgriTech in 2017.

“I was asked to come here. People thought I would be good for this job, and that means a lot,” Remillard said. “We have a really good crew of about 55 people that keep the station running. It’s a large operation, but it’s still small enough so there is a close working relationship between the support staff and the faculty and researchers.”

One of those faculty members is Larry Smart, a plant geneticist and breeder who has been leading Cornell’s hemp research.

“It’s clear to me that Joe thinks about his staff first, their personal and professional success and happiness, bringing people together to work on a team, and getting the job done right,” Smart said. “Working with faculty can be challenging because we want very specialized facilities, we want them now, and we don’t have piles of money around to pay for them. Joe has been very creative at prioritizing projects, finding funds in the system at Cornell, and effectively meeting the needs of our faculty research programs — all with an open-minded, level-headed, and respectful demeanor.”

“Part of my job revolves around the financial side: managing a budget for all these areas. It’s a bit of a challenge with limited resources, but we work to support research programs, the greenhouses, farm work, updating and maintaining the campus,” Remillard said. “It’s a daily job to look at the pool of needs — it could be anything from fixing a broken toilet … to getting crops planted at certain times, and moving people around to get the job done. We have a really talented crew here. They don’t need me looking over their shoulder.”

“I am not the person you are going to call when you want something fixed specifically, but I can find someone here who can,” he continued. “There are plenty of folks here who can do those jobs much better than I can. My niche is more of a coordinator, an organizer. I call it getting speed bumps out of people’s way so the folks who work here, the people on the front lines, can do what they need to get the job done.”

To that end, Remillard said one of his missions is setting AgriTech up for the future.

“That means the future of higher education, the future of agriculture, climate and energy policy, food needs. We have a lot to react to,” he said. “We live in uncertain times, so the more we know the better we will be dealing with these challenges. I want to help create a place where world-class researchers want to come and that world-class research can happen. Those things happen here, but we can’t rest on our laurels.”

During his time at AgriTech, Remillard easily has become one of the best-known — and most interesting — people on campus. AgriTech Director Jan Nyrop calls Remillard “our philosopher in residence.”

“I enjoy my work. Actually, I’ve enjoyed every job I’ve had and developed a system for it, whether as a dishwasher or delivering urinal cakes,” Remillard said with a laugh. “I always develop a system to find the most efficient way to do things — even washing dishes!”

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