Associated offers itself up as a real-life case study for MBA students.
A recent collaboration between Associated (Addison, Illinois) and Robert Morris University (RMU) gave eight graduate students the opportunity to put their business acumen to the test in the material handling industry. In an effort to increase awareness about the value that the industry provides to the supply chain, Associated partnered with RMU’s Morris Graduate School of Management in an experiential learning project.
RMU’s approach is to engage students in evaluating and analyzing real world issues to reinforce and embed the skills they have acquired in their course curriculum. To support this cause, Associated approached the school and offered to act as a real-life case study. The company invited students to its headquarters in Addison to study the business over the course of ten weeks before presenting their findings—and recommendations—Associated senior management, including President Mike Romano, along with a members of RMU’s faculty and administration.
How it All Began
The idea of working with graduate students emerged while Corporate Marketing Manager Shari Altergott was working on her MBA at Northern Illinois University (NIU) in 2009. After taking part in a similar project with another company, Altergott brought the idea to Associated. In 2010, the company developed a partnership of its own with NIU.
The project with NIU came in the midst of a company-wide rebranding effort. Changes in the business environment incited Associated to migrate from providing lift trucks, parts and service and move into complimentary segments of the industry such as fleet management and engineering services. “We asked the students to evaluate the rebranding plan and determine if it was a valid way for us to go to market,” says Altergott. “Their feedback supported that market conditions were conducive to our new direction.”
In 2011, working with RMU, Associated asked a new group of students to look at its rebranding efforts, but from a service and aftermarket standpoint, rather than a sales standpoint. In order for the new brand promise to be successful, Associated knew that employees throughout the organization must understand, embrace and project the new direction. With this in mind, RMU students were tasked with working together to develop a business strategy centered on service employees to engage them in embracing the company’s new brand promise in a way that would complement and support Associated’s rebranding initiative and drive incremental revenue and profit.
To accomplish this, students studied the industry, the company and the roles and functions of service employees at the company. Altergott and her marketing team provided industry resources and contacts to aid students with their research. In learning about service employees, Students conducted one-on-one interviews and ride-alongs with field service managers and service technicians. In all, they worked with about 15 Associated employees.
Focused on Service
“Technicians are one of the best sources of customer contact we have. They see our customers more than anyone else, and customers trust them,” says Altergott. “The question we faced was how to get our message out to technicians and then give them the tools to effectively deliver that message and add value to the customer.” Rather than think of their function as fixing forklifts, Altergott explains, Associated looks for its service employees to see their function as providing value to the customer. “One of the ways they do that is by fixing forklifts,” she says, “but they can also do that other ways, such as communicating the benefits of fleet management. A big part of it is communicating who Associated is and the services we provide in addition to maintenance.”
On September 15, after ten weeks of studying the material handling industry, the organization and its employees, the group of eight students delivered the results of their study, pin-pointing areas of disconnect in communications with technicians. As a solution to the challenge at hand, the group from RMU proposed a training matrix for technicians that calls for a tiered approach, identifying level one, two and three technicians and providing different courses of training for each level. As of press time, Associated was in the process of developing its plan for 2012 and is taking the students’ recommendations into consideration as part of its planning process. “The project shed a light on the need for continuing education throughout the entire business,” says Altergott.
“In addition to the great ideas and valuable insight these students provided,” says Romano, “this project served as a platform to create awareness and appreciation of our industry. Increasing exposure to the academic community will ensure the availability of a continuing pool of talent that will sustain the industry’s growth and success as well serve to educate future decision makers as to the value we bring to the buyers and users of our products and services.”
In appreciation of the students’ efforts, Associated made a contribution to the RMU Endowment Fund. Altergott says the company hopes to do a similar project every year, working with different colleges to reach as many students as possible. “These are the future leaders of America,” she says. “It gives us a great opportunity to shed light on the value that material handling provides to companies.” The education these students received is definitely a value-add.