A New Master

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St. Norbert College hopes to fill a niche with a new MBA program that focuses on leadership skills, on-campus experience and integrated involvement by community business leaders

Story by Rick Berg

Before St. Norbert College in De Pere announced in 2014 that it would launch a master of business administration degree program, the college and its trustees had to answer a key question: Was there really a need for another MBA program in the region? Kevin Quinn, dean of the Donald J. Schneider School of Business at St. Norbert, said three years of focus groups, surveys and meetings with local business leaders provided an unequivocal “yes.”

“We wouldn’t have done it unless we knew we could provide something different from what was already available,” Quinn said. “Does the world need one more MBA program? What the business community told us was that there was a need to develop the next generation of leaders and we needed to focus on developing the soft skills – on the things that differentiate between a supervisor and a leader. That’s what makes a leader – beyond the subject matter expertise. We’re pretty excited.”

Mike Haddad, president and CEO of Green Bay-based Schreiber Foods, was among those involved in the three years of discussions regarding a potential MBA program, which finally comes to fruition when its inaugural class begins later this year. A trustee of the college since 2009, Haddad agreed with Quinn that the essential element was to define “what’s going to differentiate us. That’s the same question we always have to ask ourselves at a multi-billion-dollar company like Schreiber.”

“One of the things that I think is significant about the St. Norbert program is the emphasis on supply chain management,” Haddad said. “With Schneider National and Breakthrough Fuel, we have a couple of world-class thought leaders in supply-chain logistics right here in Green Bay. There’s obviously an important connection there.”

Haddad also believes the St. Norbert program will have a unique “cachet” for students and employers who value the ethical component of organizational leadership.

“It’s the ethics and morals connection that will appeal to a lot of people,” Haddad said. “St. Norbert College has such a sterling reputation in that area and that’s something people in the business world are putting a stronger emphasis on than ever. And there’s also the connection with Don Schneider – such a great name and great reputation. ”

Another advantage “is the experience itself,” Haddad said. “Getting that educational experience on the St. Norbert campus itself, which is such a beautiful location, will appeal to a lot of people in terms of the work-life balance – the quality of life.”

Business leader and student

Doug Page, president and COO at Performa in De Pere, has a dual interest in St. Norbert’s MBA program. He was among the business leaders asked for input into the potential for launching the program. In addition, he was already planning to enroll in an MBA program. The timing could not have been better, he said.

“I’ve been a business owner for 20 years, but my training is all in architecture,” Page said. “It’s always been in the back of my mind that if I’m going to run a business I need to know a little bit more about the business side of the business. It’s not as though I haven’t learned anything over the past 20 years. I certainly have, but there’s a whole body of knowledge that I believe an MBA program would bring to me. So, that was a goal I set for myself.”

Page described the convergence between his career goals and the St. Norbert program as “almost divine intervention.”

“It’s colliding with something else in my career,” Page said. “I own Performa with two other people and for the first 20 years I was COO while my partner Jeff Kanzelberger has been CEO. Last year he and I rolled out a five-year transition plan for him to retire and for me to take over as president and CEO. But for me to feel good about being CEO, I think I need to be a little wiser on the business side.”

About the same time, he said, “I was invited to a president’s roundtable event with President Tom Kunkel and Kevin Quinn, along with seven or eight other business leaders in the community,” Page said. “The topic was the St. Norbert MBA program and they wanted to know what we felt was important in a program. Some of the things I heard from other participants really intrigued me. The one thing that I felt about the St. Norbert program coming out of that roundtable was the level to which they were going to integrate local business leaders in the program. They shared their philosophy about a curriculum and a faculty that would have business people embedded in it. For me that made it real – that was a value-add.”

Quality of life experience

Page agreed with Haddad’s observation about the quality-of-life value proposition St. Norbert offers.

“The St. Norbert program offers classes during the week rather than on weekends so there’s a convenience factor for me in that,” Page said. “I can work until 5 or 6, attend classes at night and still call weekends my own. That was important to me.”

Also, he said, “over the years we at Performa have developed a relationship with St. Norbert. We’ve come to appreciate the quality of the people, the seriousness with which they take the experience of the student. We’ve grown to be aligned with them culturally, so that felt like a really good fit. I love the people there and I love the institution, so it was exciting in the sense that it was aligning with where my career was going. The fact that it was at St. Norbert College was just an added gift. I haven’t been in a classroom in 30 years, so there’s a bit of trepidation. But it’s also fairly invigorating because it’s a different teaching model than what I learned under in the past.”

Quinn agreed that although online programs appeal to many because of the convenience factor, the value of campus and classroom experience came across consistently as important to prospective students and their employers.

“There’s a sense of place and a personal connection that you can’t get any other way,” Quinn said. “Most of our students will have five to 10 years of management experience already by the time they enroll, so the campus experience and the experience of interfacing with their fellow students is going be very important in terms of the quality of learning and professional development.”

Business support

Quinn said the college’s discussions with business leaders discovered those leaders valued two critical outcomes from an MBA program – “the ability to manage organizational change, and the ability to lead people, teams and projects with skill, impact and integrity.”

At a February event on campus hosted by Kunkel and Quinn, prospective students and business leaders had a chance to meet with St. Norbert business faculty to preview the new MBA program.

“I’ll tell you, the campus was buzzing,” Page said. “The level of interest not only from prospective students but also from local business leaders was inspiring. There was a lot of energy – a buzz of excitement in the room. I think the first year is going to be a winner.”

Quinn said first year expectations are modest – with a limit of 35 students for the first group.

“We’re not looking to be big at any point,” Quinn said. “I wouldn’t expect us to have more than 100 students total at any given time. We need to keep it manageable to maintain the quality of the education experience.”

Haddad believes the groundwork laid over the past three years will all but ensure success for the program.

“Time is going to tell if all of those things we’ve learned and implemented are enough of a differentiator for people, but based on what we learned over those three years of discussion, I think it will,” Haddad said.

Rick Berg is a freelance editor and writer based in Green Bay.