I spent most of last week in south Florida. We have many alums in the greater Miami area and lots of high school students (and their helicopter parents) wanting to come to UCF. One of our south Florida alums is Mitch Less, a partner at Grant Thornton. Mitch is accountant to the Miami Marlins, Southern Wine and Spirits, and the World, to name just a few. He opened many doors for us and hosted a dinner with a small group of committed alums. Most importantly, he is an avid baseball fan: but I digress.
I travel a fair bit for my job and my meetings with alums and friends of the college have a variety of purposes. One is to invite industry experts to speak in our classes and mentor our students. Another is to develop employment opportunities for our graduates and provide talent for our partner firms. I am also looking to secure the financial and human resources necessary to develop signature programs for the college as well as provide platforms upon which our alums can network and further their careers. Finally I am always in search of ideas on how we can differentiate our students in ways that will appeal to our stakeholders and enhance the school’s reputation. This inevitably leads to a discussion of what students need in order to succeed in today’s business world.
What struck me on our four-day trip to south Florida was that despite the diversity of business models employed by our alums and hosts, there is a great deal of consensus on what students need to succeed. People make money and contribute to our economy in a diversity of ways. Only a few of these models get much attention in business school. So for example alumnus Steve Felkowitz and his partner UCF parent Martin Sutker, run a global sourcing company named Atico that designs everything from gift wrap, novelties, and holiday decorations, to small appliances and lawn furniture. Manufacturers from around the world then produce the products for retailers who place orders with Atico and sell the items under private labels. If you have bought any general merchandise in CVS or Walgreens, you have bought something from Atico. Steve and Martin add value and make money by understanding market trends, employing analysts and designers, and having a vast network of manufacturers who can create products on demand for retailers looking for the next hot item at the lowest possible cost.
If Steve and Martin represent the “old economy”, alum Zach Hoffman represents the new. Zach freely admits that he doesn’t understand the physical business world, but his company Exults Inc., understands the virtual version of commerce. His grasp of the internet, search engine optimization, social media and mobile platforms is leading to a rapidly expanding client base and new regional offices in the northeast and west coast. Zach lives in an entirely different world than Steve, but both survive and thrive because of their ability to recognize opportunity, stay ahead of the curve and adapt to evolving conditions.
Perhaps this is why Steve, Martin, and Zach (as well as several others we met) hit on common themes for developing qualities in students that will lead to their success: a forward-looking orientation that recognizes trends; a willingness to take risks, communicating a compelling vision succinctly to others, networking with purpose, and cultivating both a persistence and adaptability in executing your business. It isn’t enough to focus on today they noted, you have to know how to reinvent your company to be able to compete for tomorrow. Steve put this colorfully when he commented that too many people from today’s video game generation were sacrificing perspective in the pursuit of persistence: “They want to beat that game really badly and continually hit the reboot button in an effort to reset the game and win, but rarely do they step back to ask themselves why they failed last time and alter their strategy.” When he said this I immediately thought of my meeting with the Miami Marlins and what Michel would say…. hmm, but then I digress…