First female chief is attracted to adventure

Running the Government Printing Office (GPO) might not seem like it would attract the most adventurous of spirits.

But in 35-year-old Maria Lefevre, GPO has a chief of staff who’s an adrenaline freak.

Lefevre, the first woman to serve as GPO’s chief of staff, is described as a workaholic. The mother of two also has a passion for scuba diving; she’s explored the world’s three largest reefs. She’s a billiards wizard who has won a number of championships, and she loves the thrill of riding her custom-painted Harley-Davidson.

She’s also hitched a ride on a helicopter to ski down the untouched powder slopes of Canada.

“It was difficult,” Lefevre said. “They put a little beeper, a little receiver on you in case you got lost, and they give you a little shovel. The skis had long pink strings on them so you could find it if you lost your ski when you fell. If you tried to put your [ski] pole into the snow to find your ski, you wouldn’t be able to hit the ground because of all the snow.”

At GPO, one of the world’s largest manufacturing and digital information facilities, Lefevre has to navigate a different sort of terrain that includes 2,300 employees.

She is the eyes and ears for Public Printer Robert Tapella, who as head of the GPO is responsible for gathering, cataloging, producing, providing, authenticating and preserving published information for all three branches of the federal government.

“We’re a good team,” Lefevre said of Tapella. “He’s the strategic thinker and I’m kind of the operating side of things. I get into the weeds and the details. I’m overly organized.”

Lefevre will have a new challenge in January, when the GOP introduces the federal digital system (FDsys), which is intended to make it easier for lawmakers and agencies to find and verify government information. The new system will allow the GPO to do something that no other government in the world does: certify that a document is authentic, digitally.

For Lefevre, organization is key. Operating like a lawmaker’s chief of staff, Lefevre has her fingers in all areas — except, instead of individuals, she’s in charge of managing seven key departments, from the GPO’s congressional and public relations to the general counsel.

“I need to know everything,” said Lefevre, adding that she maintains the details and the overall picture. “From the 50,000-foot level and the 20,000-foot level.”

With $1 billion in revenue, the GPO carries a wide variety of responsibilities, including printing the 240,000 highly coveted presidential inauguration tickets, the 9/11 Commission report and the federal budget.

After only one year in her position, Lefevre was named executive of the year in her business size (under 2,500 employees) in this year’s Stevie Awards for Women in Business. Lefevre beat out top administrators from Dow Jones and Co. and Travelocity for the award last month.

She describes Dylan, 2, and 4-month-old Morgan as her “next adrenaline adventure.” After Lefevre prints two hours’ worth of work-related reading to take home with her, she drives the 20 miles back home to Springfield, Va., occasionally sending e-mails on her BlackBerry at stoplights or in traffic jams.

The e-mails are the most arduous part of her job. “The BlackBerry, night and day, in the morning, in traffic. You do it anywhere you can. But you still have to have your meetings all day. As chief of staff, you’re a problem-solver,” she said.

It’s 6 p.m. by the time Lefevre gets home, and she says she has only 12 minutes before things take a turn for the cranky. Her 2-year-old is “a hungry chap at that time.” Ever the organizer, Lefevre pre-makes the week’s meals.

Lefevre came to Washington to work for Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who later served 17 months on corruption charges related to dealings with lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

“She’s a real, honest-to-God coalminer’s daughter,” Ney said in an interview.

Lefevre started working for Ney, then a state senator, while studying political science at Ohio State University.

When Ney won election to the House and began to pick out staff for his D.C. office, Lefevre kept quiet. Ney assumed she didn’t want to leave Ohio, so he helped her get another position with the state Senate.

But Lefevre decided she wanted to go to Washington, too.

“She had been such a faithful and good worker and so diligent,” said Ney. “And I’ll never forget, as long as I live, she turns to me and says, ‘Well, senator, if it’s all the same to you I can study in Washington.’ I said, ‘Pack your bags, we’re going.’ ”

After serving as Ney’s legislative director, Lefevre went on to the House Administration Committee as its policy director. While there, she got her first exposure to the Joint Committee on Printing — a bicameral, bipartisan congressional panel tasked with overseeing the GPO.

Then in 2004, she was hired as the GPO’s deputy chief of staff, where she helped turn GPO’s budget from $100 million in losses to a $10 million profit. She said she’s not heartbroken about leaving Capitol Hill.

“I thought I would miss the immediacy of information that you get [working in Congress] and the buzz around the floor,” Lefevre said. “I was fearful that I’d lose some of the politics in coming to the GPO, but with Congress as one of our No. 1 customers, I get my day-to-day fill of the Hill. Plus, it’s very nice to be away from the partisan aspect.”

As Lefevre has moved up the ranks over the years, she’s never forgotten where she came from, and gets back to Ohio to see her family regularly. She and her two older brothers remain very close. When she won her award, she got a card from one of them, addressed to her by her nickname, “Big City.” He said he was proud of her that she learned all of her good traits from him.

One of those traits is what’s allowed her to excel in her career: her ability to listen.

“My brothers wouldn’t let me talk,” she laughed. “So I learned to listen.”