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Dean of Tuition Reimbursement


Green Bay employer builds company leadership by creating a culture of continuing education

Story by Michael Bina

CFO:  What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave us?

CEO:  What happens if we don’t and they stay?

His title was summer helper. He drove a truck and delivered beer.

Last month, Ken Eggen’s title became president of Dean Distributing Inc. in Green Bay, the giant Budweiser distributor serving much of northeast Wisconsin – a long row to hoe for the former summer help.

Finding direction

After high school, Eggen drove off to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire like many of his classmates. It didn’t last long.

“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do at college besides…drink beer?” Eggen joked.

He turned around and headed home to enroll at UW-Green Bay the following spring. He still didn’t know what he wanted to do, but at least he was closer to some home cooking.

That summer, Eggen enrolled at Dean U. and his real education began. As a summer helper, Eggen had a good job with a growing company. He was after all, The Beer Man – a heady title for any young person. The patch on his sleeve said it all: Bud Man.

Not only was he doing honest work by delivering fresh product to thirsty people, he was also learning a lot about the real world. He did not return to UW-Green Bay for the fall semester.

As a young, ambitious employee in a growing business, Eggen had many opportunities to do a lot, learn a lot, and look for even more to do.

About the same time, Dean Distributing was also looking to do more and grow. To help matters, it was a time when higher education programs at many campuses started preparing for the coming wave of returning adults.

After his four-year hiatus from schooling, Eggen returned to UWGB. Slinging beer all day, he started slinging books from 6 to 9 p.m. at night school.

“I always wanted a degree,” he said. The timing wasn’t quite right for continuing his education right out of high school, but as his career continued advancing in the real world, he realized the time for more education became right.

Smart investment

To grow the business and reach its goals, the Dean family knew it would be important to make continuing investments in developing its people. It’s one thing to invest in a truck or two and a new warehouse on Green Bay’s east side, but the family made a commitment to invest in its collective business intelligence. And not just invest by throwing a few dollars into it, but by encouraging a culture of education throughout the organization.

“I had just returned to school myself,” said Bob Dean, who last month stepped aside as president and handed the baton to Eggen, though he continues to remain active with the company as chairman of the board. “And at the same time, we finished a complete reorganization of the business. We flattened it out so we weren’t so top-down and realized that we were going to need smarter people to run it – and grow it.”

The Dean boys – Bob and his brother, Jimmy – were sensitive to the legacy their father Russell created. To sustain the business – and grow it successfully into the future – the Dean boys got busy about education, developing a robust tuition reimbursement program.

“We had a lot of good people, but not a lot of college degrees,” Dean said of his staff a few decades back. “Kenny (Eggen) and a couple of guys recognized the opportunity we presented, and they ran with it. Kenny carried it through all the way. He was our star at that.”

Eggen took full advantage of Dean’s educational reimbursement dollars and organizational support. At a point 20 years after he dropped out of college, Eggen graduated with a bachelor’s degree from UW-Green Bay. He wasn’t finished. After a brief hiatus from the classroom to “catch my breath,” Eggen enrolled in the master’s degree program in management at UWGB. Three years later, he proudly hung his master’s degree on the wall. Today, he’s president of the company.

Continuing the tradition

At the same time Eggen was growing and expanding his knowledge and skills, Dean Distributing was growing, too – from 15 to 115 employees during that span, it also expanded into 12 counties in northeastern Wisconsin and distributed more than 3 million cases of product each year.

Eggen is a huge proponent of the Dean education philosophy.

“We want our people to grow personally and professionally,” Eggen said. “And the adult degree program – at UWGB anyway – is aligned with that.”

As president, Eggen is a cheerleader for education and mentors employees on the benefits of continuing education and what it might mean for them personally and professionally, as well as what it means for Dean, too.

“Now that Kenny is president,” Bob Dean said, “I assume he’s going to push it, and he’s in a position now to push it.” Eggen also has the unique experience to know what it takes to get the degree and the empathy to know how difficult it is to work a job, go to school, raise a family, and have a life.

“There is a fear factor in going back to school,” Dean said. “‘Can I do this? Am I college material? Will I better myself? My family? My job?’”

The new president of Dean Distributing – the first non-family president of Dean – has some good answers to all those questions.

Helping working adults get degrees

Christina Trombley is director of the adult degree programs at UW-Green Bay.

“We focus on the competencies and skills employers tell us are in demand – critical thinking, creativity, communication – skills that help turn employees into problem solvers,” she said.

It all appears to be a good fit for employers’ needs.

“Adults are going back to school,” said Eric Craver, director of external relations at UW-Green Bay. “The economy is part of it, but there is a significant shift in the workforce. We’re also seeing many younger workers starting to return to school.”

UW-Green Bay’s adult degree program graduated 22 students in 2003. This year, 149 students will graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Part of the reason for the growth is that going back to school has become so much more convenient.

“We’re doing a better job promoting the program,” Craver said. “We’ve partnered with the technical (college) campuses. We’ve increased course offerings and we’re 95 percent online. The first time some of our students step on our campus is the day they graduate.”

UW-Green Bay graduate Erica Plaza is the marketing and recruitment director at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, and earned her master’s degree in management at the same time as Eggen. They worked on many class projects together.

“It was a personal goal to get my masters, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the financial support of my employers,” she said. “They helped me greatly.”

Plaza was also grateful for the school’s strong support of her studies.

“The faculty at UWGB gave me the flexibility to make my program applicable to my current role,” she said.

Eggen concurred.

“We had projects at Dean that ran perfectly parallel to the program,” he said. “Dr. Harris’ focus on organizational development and organizational change was certainly applicable in today’s changing business environment. In Dr. Russ’ class on strategic management, I drew up a succession plan for Dean.”

For his master’s thesis, Eggen created the corporate emergency plan for Dean Distributing. He enlisted all six department heads at Dean to help him create it. Obviously, investing in Eggen’s education was an excellent investment for Dean Distributing.

A worthwhile investment

Kevin Quinn is associate academic dean at St. Norbert College in De Pere.

“In the New North, many businesses offer tuition reimbursement as a significant employee benefit,” he said. “Employers realize that an employee who is bright enough, motivated enough and hard-working enough to want to further their education is exactly the kind of person most likely to contribute meaningfully to the organization’s goals. Tuition reimbursement is an important benefit and employers understand that it is an effective tool to attract and keep them.”

Jaci Stephan is a recruiter at Aerotek Commercial Staffing in Appleton, where she manages of group of recruiters as well as several clients in northeast Wisconsin. This spring, Stephan will graduate with her bachelor’s degree in general studies from Western Illinois University with a minor in marketing.

“The degree wasn’t required for my position, but it’s something I always wanted,” she said. “It’s important because when I tell my two daughters that they need to go to college, it will give me something to stand on.”

After Stephan finishes her last four credits – all of which have been online – she is toying with the idea of pursuing a master’s degree in instructional design and technology. She wants to use the training to help her company develop internal training and education programs. Aerotek will be there to help her with a reimbursement check.

“This won’t be a surprise to readers of this magazine,” Quinn added, “but business leaders have a clear sense of obligation to our communities. One way this manifests itself is by supporting employees’ education.  Not only is a better educated employee more productive, it makes for a better community. Promoting professional and personal development is practicing both good business and good social responsibility.”

Giving back at Dean

The community is benefiting from Eggen’s education. He gives back to the university as an active member of the executive committee of the school’s alumni association. He’s also a vocal proponent of continuing education within the organization and within the community.

After affording so many employees the opportunity to earn a college degree, Bob Dean himself is finally well on his way to getting his degree in communications, although he joked he probably won’t be reimbursing himself for his tuition. Like Eggen, Dean dropped out of school to drive a truck, raise a family and grow the family business. He too, eventually, became president.

Does the president of a hugely successful company really need a degree after the fact?

“I made a promise to my wife and my kids,” Dean said. “It’s challenging and stimulating for me, and with Kenny as president, I have less to do around here. I’m thinking I might even get my master’s degree after I graduate.”

“Ours isn’t The Dean Family Education Program,” he said, “but I know my nephews Josh and Kyle will take advantage and get their master’s degree paid for by the company. My kids will, too, if they join Dean. However, this program is for our entire Dean Distributing family. We need educated, skilled people to grow in the future.”

That sentiment was perhaps best summarized during December’s New North Summit by keynote speaker Ed Gordon, a nationally-renown expert on workforce issues.

“Skills are the new currency,” Gordon said. “We need more well-educated and well-skilled Americans. For the first time in history, the generation retiring is better educated than the generation that follows.”

Employers, and their employees, hope to turn that trend around one credit at a time.


Michael Bina took a more traditional route. Four years after high school, he graduated from UW-Madison. He spent the next 30 years in the real world as both an employer and an employee in the public relations world. Today, he shares his broad experiences as a CyberProf in UW-Green Bay’s adult education program. He teaches Intro to Communication as well as Principles of Public Relations and Corporate Communication, both online.