For more than 10 years, students in Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business MBA program in the National Capital Region have spent a semester working with businesses in the City of Alexandria.
The partnership was initiated by Barbara Hoopes, associate professor, Business Information Technology, Virginia Tech National Capital Region; and Bill Reagan, executive director, Alexandria Small Business Development Center (SBDC), both to help the students hone their skills through real life experience and to provide business owners with an opportunity to improve management operations and customer service.
“This partnership is practical and a winner for everyone involved — individual businesses, our MBA students, and the university. It is a great way for Virginia Tech to reach out to the community and put its motto, [Ut Prosim (That I May Serve)] into action,” says Hoopes.
“The graduate students function as consultants,” explained Reagan. “And Alexandria business owners really like the idea of having them on board to offer a new, fresh perspective to their business operations.”
At each participating business, a team of two to four National Capital Region students tackle business issues that may include general operations strategy and competitiveness, quality concepts, product and service design, process planning and technology, facility location and layout, forecasting, capacity planning, inventory management, or project management.
Hoopes said that working directly with a business owner rather than a theoretical business (i.e. case study) offers her students the advantage of being able to access all the information they need to make useful recommendations. “They also learn a very valuable lesson -- how to collaborate with others to find solutions,” said Hoopes.
One student, Matthew Vetting of Arlington, Va., concurred. He said that his experience “gave me insight into some of the challenges that a small business owner faces in growing a business and the challenges a consultant faces with having to work with a customer to learn enough about his or her industry and operations to suggest ideas for improvement.”
In all, about 25 Alexandria-based businesses have participated in the program since its inception. These include cafés and restaurants, retailers, publishers, professional, technical and educational services firms, graphic designers and animators, day care centers, and schools. Each partnership lasts 10-12 weeks within a normal semester and partially fulfills requirements for an MBA course for the students.
The latest Alexandria businesses to benefit from the Virginia Tech/SBDC partnership are Bike and Roll, Casart coverings, Imagine Alexandria, and Monday’s Child.
Nancy Belmont, principal of Belmont Inc., a branding studio, serves as chairman of the board of Imagine Alexandria, the movement to build a 50,000-square-foot creative hub that will brand the City of Alexandria as an anchor in the field of creativity. It is in this capacity that she worked with Virginia Tech MBA students.
“Our vision is to organize a community and create a cooperative space for commercial creative professionals to get inspired, grow their businesses, share resources, and highlight their work to partners, customers, and the general public,” Belmont said. “The students were tasked with coming up with benchmarks on how other similar organizations have accomplished this. The benchmarks covered such areas as the amount of modular space, how much you charge per desk, and what amenities you offer.”
In the course of the project, the students also worked with attorneys and helped develop Imagine Alexandria’s 501 tax status and fundraising plan.
“They took something really amorphous and conceptual and put it all down on paper with real costs,” Belmont said. “I was very impressed with the comprehensive result.”
Sujan Bathala of Chantilly, Va., who worked with Imagine Alexandria, said that learning about business incubators -- programs designed to accelerate the successful development of entrepreneurial companies through an array of business support resources and services – was very helpful to him. “I learned how crucial they are to start-up businesses and how they can stimulate local economic development by creating jobs and promoting entrepreneurship,” Bathala said.
Vetting and his team of students helped C. Ashley Spencer, decorative painter and mural design artist, analyze how she could use more digital imaging to hold down costs and how to manipulate images once they are produced. Spencer’s business, Casart coverings, offers a broad range of personally designed and created wall treatments for the home -- from decorative, faux finishes to murals and trompe l'oeil painting and traditional and modern patterns. What makes this business stand out is that the wallpaper uses a new technology that is repositionable, removable and reusable, which requires specific print technology.
“Focusing on areas suggested to have the greatest need, we analyzed Casart’s processes and provided ideas to streamline them,” said Vetting. “We suggested alternate vendors for the company’s website and printing services. We also did some make/buy analysis on whether or not products should be produced in-house or by an outside printer. Basically, we provided ideas on how to improve operations.”
“I found the students’ ideas very helpful and successfully implemented some of them,” Spencer said. “As a result I have been able to take on more work and grow my business.”
Melinda Lynam, owner of Monday’s Child, a retail store offering classic clothing and gifts for infants and children, said she tasked the MBA students with analyzing which merchant service provider offered the best rates for charged purchases. “This is a very complicated issue because there are so many different companies trying to make you believe that they offer the best rates. I just didn’t have the time to devote to this,” she said. “The students interviewed banks and other merchant service providers to compare the rates and surcharges imposed on credit card and debit sales to come up with the most economical contractor for Monday’s Child.”
At Bike and Roll, students gathered data to forecast store demand for 2010 and analyzed how to optimize resources to reach that demand. “We also did thorough research on Bike and Roll’s bike rental competitors in the D.C. metro area, so that we could better analyze its current operations strategy and help plan future strategy,” said Ling Ji of Centreville, Va. “This experience showed me how to apply different forecast techniques to real business, and how market research of competitors could steer the direction of marketing a business.”
Based in Washington, D.C., Bike and Roll opened its doors in Alexandria about two years ago. Locations Manager Zach Petry contacted Reagan for help with understanding the Alexandria market. “I realized that what works for us in D.C. doesn’t necessarily apply here,” explained Petry. When Reagan told him about the SBDC’s partnership with Virginia Tech, Petry jumped at the chance to participate. A Virginia Tech alum, Petry earned a bachelor’s degree in business management (with a focus in entrepreneurship) in 2006 and said he was involved in a similar program as an undergraduate. “I am a big proponent of partnerships like this and I knew it would be beneficial to all of us,” he said.
“The students asked a lot of pertinent questions, created a project scope and outline, and made some very sound recommendations. One of the things we did as a result was to refigure our inventory to maximize space,” Petry said.
“When you are managing a business like ours, you get very caught up in the day to day business. You lose a lot of foresight. The students helped Bike and Roll focus on ideas and concepts that we just didn’t have time to think about. As I predicted, working with them turned out to be a great experience.”
“We are currently looking at businesses to participate in the fall,” said Reagan. “Based on the success we’ve had with this partnership over the past years, it is definitely something we want to continue.”