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Naimoli Institute Offers Strategy

Published: April 17, 2006

Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ owner Vincent Naimoli created the Naimoli Institute for Business Strategy in 1999 to help ensure that UT students and the business community would enjoy a mutual exchange of their best business ideas.

Management and entrepreneurship instructor Alan Weimer was the first director of the Naimoli Institute, a position to which he acceded naturally as head of the fledgling Strategic Analysis Program, created the previous year at the urging of Alfred N. Page, then dean of the College of Business. Strategy being the obvious common denominator, the Naimoli Institute then subsumed the Strategic Analysis Program.

The root of SAP dates back further still. It was in place—if only in rudimentary form—since about 1993. Naimoli’s presence helped to subsidize the program and give it an identity. With a fresh insurgence of stability and name recognition, the program grew exponentially.

“There were courses, but there was no program to speak of,” Weimer said of the Strategic Analysis Program’s infancy in the early 1990s. “Teachers found their own clients, very often, and if they couldn’t find them, they’d tell the students to go find them.”

Weimer credits Page with asking him in 1998 to create a program of strategic analysis, something that would turn the principles of the course into an organized hands-on experience for students.

It was a simple and fairly small operation in its first year. Weimer taught the undergraduate sections and recruited the businesses. Dr. Corrine Young, a marketing professor who left the University in 2002, taught the graduate sections.

The analyses students did for companies then were free, and the program needed money, so Weimer put together fundraisers to pad the program’s coffers, he said, and the program’s growth rate went from walk to trot. In 1999, when the program was absorbed by the Naimoli Institute, it went to full gallop.

The program’s services are no longer free, but for a small fraction of the cost of an analysis by a professional consulting firm—$100 or $300 (for an undergraduate or graduate analysis, respectively) vs. up to $20,000—a business gets a detailed, in-depth report on every aspect of its operation. For students, it means the empowering learning experience of reality and a look inside a business operation from top to bottom.

A Rapid Metamorphosis

The program’s own estimates put the number of student participants at more than 1,500 and participating businesses in excess of 300 since 1999.
Dr. George “Jody” Tompson took over the directorship from Weimer in 2002.

“I think everyone puts his or her own spin on it. Probably the biggest change has been the growth of it,” Tompson said.

The program has metamorphosed rapidly from a struggle to find enough students to make one group, to a scramble to come up with enough businesses to occupy all the groups. Even amid a continual frenzy of recruiting new businesses for the program, some larger operations are being asked to accept two groups of student analysts.

“We’ve got team sizes that are always four or five students,” Tompson said. “As enrollments at the college are growing, we need more and more companies to fill out the demand for the students. We’ve got 37 companies this semester, and I’m even doubling up some companies.”

Those 37 companies are employing more than 40 teams, or some 200 UT student analysts, to tell them what they’re doing right and what needs improvement.
The demand for participating organizations has broadened the definition of “company,” and the list for this academic year includes numerous nonprofit organizations, among them three local YMCAs, the Child Abuse Council, the Florida Holocaust Museum, and Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

In fact, restaurants and cafes, furniture stores and realty offices, childcare centers, ministries, even consulting firms themselves are rounding out a list that is quickly casting the key word “company” to obsolescence.

The demand also makes Tompson’s job more daunting almost by the day.

“I go to all the chamber meetings I can, and Rotary clubs, and anywhere there’s a group of business owners, I try to go there and say, ‘This is what we do.’”

“It’s gotten great feedback. It’s good for the students; it’s good for the companies.”

The Naimoli Institute is about more than just the SAP—but not much more.

“It’s probably about 95% of what happens. Usually once a year, we’ll do some kind of professional development seminar or a mini-conference. Usually it’s an outside speaker or a panel of speakers who get together and talk about some topic that is under the domain of strategy.”

In-Depth Means In-Depth

Organizations sign agreements acknowledging the scope of examination they’re about to undergo, and the macro-focus and micro-focus have no limits. In return, they get a non-disclosure contract guarantying the confidentiality of everything the group sees, hears or otherwise discovers. They also establish a single contact within the group, so that communications are minimized and non-repetitive.

“It’s designed to be comprehensive and also what we call cross-functional,” Tompson said. “Each team is supposed to be a mixture of all majors, so that they do address everything. The recommendations that come out might be human resource-related, they might be finance-related, they might be information systems-related. So, we ask the students really to try to look broadly, and come up with ideas and analyses that could fall under anything.”

The upshot of that is that only individual personnel files are off-limits, and even financial records are fair game for in-depth examination, a reality that participating organizations agree to accept, although there is occasional balking once the process begins in earnest.

One business this semester was nixed from the program, Tompson said, when it refused to give students access to its financial records. Tompson reminded the firm’s management about the agreement it had signed before the process began, and about how management had been thoroughly briefed as to the scope of the coming examination.

When the request for financial documents again was refused, Tompson shifted into another gear he rarely has to use—overdrive to find a replacement for the group, with a semester clock already running. The reluctant company was merely told it would not get its analysis—and would not be considered for a future one, either.

Turning the Scope Around

"Almost every semester, I hear about at least job interviews that students get, and sometimes even a job offer,” Tompson said.

Tompson likes to tell prospective business participants that an additional benefit comes with employing student examiners: Most of these students soon will be career seekers, which implies an invitation to management to turn the scope around and examine the examiners.

“I’ll say, ‘If you’re considering growing anytime in the future, or hiring, this is a great way to do an almost-15-week job interview with a group of students. There are no strings attached, no expectations, but you get to see how they work,’” Tompson tells them. “‘If you’re interested, you can set up full interviews after that, but at least, you can have a good hard look at them.’”

“I think that makes sense to a lot of executives. ‘I’ll be able to tell how much I like these guys if I spend some time with them.’”

In spite of the program’s obvious appeal, Tompson said, he has a harder time finding takers that he anticipated.

“I still hear more people say, ‘No, I don’t want to do it,’ than I would expect. So, I think it’s a little bit intimidating to some business owners to have students, especially if they’re undergrads, snooping around in the business.”

But the takers, Tompson said, have been pleased, without exception.

“We send out a survey, a referral form and an invoice at the end of every semester,” he said. “We use the same survey every year so we can compare, and it’s been universally positive.”

He is quick to point out, however, that that “universal” approval does not mean that every firm agrees with every facet of the assessment.

“I have had a few instances where a client said, ‘I really disagree with what they recommended.’ I’ve heard that a few times.”

But, he said, the “universally positive” part has applied without exception to company feedback related to the professional conduct and work ethic of the students, and to a general satisfaction with having participated. Further, most executives say that the group made at least one significant, lasting contribution to how the organization conducts itself, or at the very least, how it sees itself.

Impromptu random calls to a few of the participating organizations backed up Tompson’s claims.

The Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce was a fall 2004 participant, and Paul Senory, a volunteer with the chamber, spoke in glowing terms that were no less than universally positive, and were typical of the responses.

“They did a great job,” he said. “They really came up with some great ideas. I was impressed.”

Asked for a specific example, i.e. a recommendation that was followed, Senory had one immediately. It concerned a policy and procedures manual.

“They said, ‘Make sure it’s so well documented that you could hand it to anyone, and they’d be able to follow it. This is too general.’

“They were right, and thanks to them, we made it better. Those young ladies and gentlemen were very impressive.”

Dean Akers is CEO of Ideal Image Development Corp., a company that this semester is undergoing SAP analysis. If return business is the indicator most business people and consumers think it is, he gave one of the best compliments yet for the program.

“We used [SAP] at my other business [Akers Landscaping] last year,” Akers said. “I would do it every year.

“What I like best about it is the out-of-the-box thinking and creativity. It’s refreshing to see [the students] working without boundaries, free to ask whatever they want. I think it’s great for the community, and I imagine it’s great for the University.”

Akers said he refers every business contact to the program, and guessed that he’s gotten 15-20 to sign up.

An Intensive Process

Each group collectively spends hundreds of out-of-class hours preparing the final written reports, Tompson said, and a quick glance at any of the finished products would seem to bear him out.

The fall 2004 Strategic Analysis of Woodworks International, for example, is a 63-page lexicon replete with rationale for the adoption of mission and vision statements (including a proposed version of the former), a value chain flow chart, a “strategic group map,” and in-depth analyses of everything from driving forces and success factors to financial ratio and asset management. The report is crisply written, generally well edited (by the instructors), and neatly packaged. And it was done by an undergraduate group.

A graduate group tackled a full-blown analysis of the Interbay-Glover YMCA, and produced an exceptionally impressive document that runs more than 100 pages, including charts and graphs by the dozen and some 20 pages of appendices.

“As far as the students go,” Tompson said, “it’s really an intensive process. They spend an awful lot of time outside the class working on these—weekends, nights—it’s a big piece of work.”

And as far as the teaching end goes?

“This course is really hard to teach, not only for the workload, but for managing that relationship with the company. I think it takes two years to learn how to teach this course very well. You make every mistake in the book.”

Weimer concurs, and adds that, in fact, the program is so labor-intensive for faculty, especially with the undergraduates, that he decided to leave after a few years.

“Recruiting businesses turned into seven days a week,” he said. Editing the undergraduate reports was another aspect that proved particularly labor-intensive for the instructors.

“At the undergraduate level, what we’re really trying to teach them is the process: How do you perform analysis, how do you assess what you analyze, and once you have that assessment, what do you do with it in terms of actually creating a strategy? So, we really take them through the methodical step-by-step. Whereas in graduate school, we just basically assume they know that. Here’s your project; go do it.”

It is the undergraduate program of which Weimer is especially proud, however, because of its rarity. At most business schools, he said, no one would dream of turning undergrads loose on local businesses. To his knowledge, only one other university has such a program.

Tompson had taught business at four other universities, and was certain none had the program for undergraduates, nor had he heard of any elsewhere.

Weimer said his decision to leave has done nothing to diminish his enthusiasm for the program.

“I’m proud of what we started, and I’m glad I did it.”

For more information about the Naimoli Institute for Business Strategy, see The Naimoli Institute.