CHANDLER, Ariz. -- Ike Basha's undergraduate degree in history might have come in handy had he pursued a career as a teacher.
As a rising young executive in his family's supermarket company, however, he decided he needed some more practical training.
Basha, who is now vice president of special projects at Bashas' here, said he was inspired to obtain his master's degree in business from Arizona State University after attending the Food Industry Management Program at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, one of several advanced education programs around the country that are geared specifically to the food-distribution business.
"I found [the USC program] so rewarding and inspiring that I went back to school again," Basha told SN.
Basha's experience is representative of what observers said is a trend toward more well-educated food-retailing executives as the industry seeks to improve its competitive footing and produce more dynamic leadership. This has led to widespread support from the retailing, wholesaling and manufacturing communities for education programs that prepare mid-level managers to be company leaders rather than role-players.
"The rate of change in the industry has required that our managers have a much better overview of the industry, not just marketing or operations or just one smokestack of a particular area of expertise or technical skill," said Kevin Davis, chairman, president and chief executive officer, Bristol Farms, Carson, Calif., who also is a graduate of the USC program and has sent several executives from his company through what is now a 14-week curriculum at the school.
"They are teaching the students to think as generalists and as visionaries about where the industry should go. We want them to be very adept in a lot of different disciplines -- communication, which includes marketing and advertising; leadership skills and motivating skills; giving speeches -- in addition to the technical things they have always taught.
"They are teaching them to be general managers, presidents of companies, rather than teaching them to be a good grocery buyer," he said. "The program has refined itself to focus much more on leadership development."
Tom Arnold, director of USC's Food Industry Management Program, said the companies who send their employees to participate in the intensive training are demanding immediate results from the graduates.
"Today, companies seem to be looking for people to come out of the program who are faster and smarter and can build teams," he said. "They want people who can accomplish something in a shorter amount of time.
"What we strive to do is send people back who can go anywhere in a company and be assigned any task, even if they have no previous experience in that particular area, and can be relied on to do a terrific job."
Edward W. McLaughlin, director of the Food Executive Program at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., agreed. Students who complete that school's much shorter training course are generally seeking to get a big-picture overview of the industry and to have an experience in which they can learn new things that they can apply immediately in their companies.
"They don't often have the luxury to step back from the day-to-day business in the trenches of the business that they are in, speculate and consider the big picture," he said of the program's students. "We try to bring in information that helps them understand the broader climate in the food industry -- often this now means globally -- as well as the longer-term issues: how the food industry is changing over time.
"They also want to be exposed to new techniques, new ideas and new management processes that make a difference in their business," he added. "They want ideas that they can put into practice next Monday, so we work very hard to bring them the latest research results and to bring them management theories and marketing practices -- best practices from other industries in some cases -- that might have relevance for the food industry."
Thomas R. Gillpatrick, executive director of the Food Industry Leadership Center at Portland (Ore.) State University, which offers a one-week program for mid- to senior-level executives called "Today's Managers, Tomorrow's Leaders," said students are seeking leadership skills as well as an overview of the industry.
"The program focuses on leadership, development, and helps people get a big-picture view of the business," he said. "We also have a very strong interest in finance. A lot of people have grown up in their organizations and they really need to hone their financial skills to make the next move upward."
Other topics include trading-partner negotiations and various marketing-related subjects.
"There's a lot less lecture, and lot more participative learning," Gillpatrick said. "We get people to do things together, running them through examples. One thing we've found is that with executives, there's a lot more kinetic learning. They learn by doing."
The one-week program is about evenly divided between people from the supply side and retailers. Gillpatrick said the school restricts that course to about 35 to 40 attendees per year.
"Everyone is looking to find out how to be more productive," he said. "They want to know, how can I build my skill sets? And how can I do that and balance my work life and my home life?"
Each of the advanced education programs around the country has developed its own individualized programs, although the schools do coordinate to some degree, according to Ernie Monschein, senior director, education and human resources, Food Marketing Institute, Washington, which participates with some schools in their training programs and helps promote others to its membership.
"Each one's got a little bit different flavor," he said, noting that some schools that have strong undergraduate programs try to parlay their faculty's expertise into advanced-education programs, while others such as USC and St. Joseph's University, Philadelphia, provide graduate-level coursework geared toward more senior executives.
Moving Up the Ladder
Often the programs are used by retailers to prepare employees for specific promotions. Such was the case at Clemens Family Markets, Kulpsville, Pa., where the chain's former top accountant, Doug Moyer, was sent by Clemens through the executive master's degree program at St. Joseph's University to train to become the chief financial officer, which is the post he now holds.
"I wanted him to have the experience, and I wanted him to have more schooling as a graduate," said Jack Clemens, chairman, president and chief executive officer at the family-owned company, in an interview with SN. "It was a good thing for us."
An increasing number of food retailers are sending mid-level managers to such programs to supplement the on-the-job training they have received.
"I think that you have some organizations that are sending people for a very specific purpose: to give a great marketing vice president experience in the operating end, or to give an operating VP some help with leadership skills," said Monschein of FMI. "I have seen increased interest in pushing high-potential people out into these programs. It's part of a successful succession plan. Part of that plan is to take Jane Jones or Joe Smith, who are great operators and have come up through the ranks, and bring them over into the sales and marketing end.
"There's only so much that they can do internally that they haven't done already, so they will send them over to the Cornell Food Executive Program, or to St. Joe's, in order to get some of that experience to round them out. That way they can get the two legs they need -- marketing and operations, and maybe financial -- and get them ready for that [executive vice president] slot when the time comes. That's a very, very common approach that's going on in the industry, and it's a sound approach."
Monschein agreed with the educators' assessment that the industry's executive ranks are becoming more densely populated with degreed individuals.
"Twenty years ago, the most common executive was the guy who moved up through the ranks, managed a store, became a district manager, and then ended up in the senior ranks or running the company," he said. "Nowadays, you still see people moving up through the ranks, but while they are in the process of doing so, the companies are taking these people and moving them out into these executive development programs."
Supermarket retailers recognize the need for a "more broad-based, sophisticated level of management" because of increasing competition from alternative channels, Monschein said, which is one of the reasons the industry has been highly supportive of these schools and their programs.
The Food Industry Management Program at USC was started in 1958 by the Western Association of Food Chains, which continues to be its sponsor and whose members provide total scholarships for all 35 students at a cost of about $15,000 per student.
"One of the WAFC's missions is education," USC's Arnold said, "and when this program began in the late 1950s, it was difficult to send students to East Coast universities, so the association opted to start its own West Coast program."
The programs at St. Joseph's, Cornell and other schools also receive significant support from the food industry, both financially and in providing faculty and case studies.
Although Clemens himself is not a graduate of St. Joseph's, he is a major supporter of the school's Academy of Food Marketing and often sends executives from his staff to speak at the school, according to John Lord, chairman of the food-marketing department at the Philadelphia-based university.
Most of the faculty in the university's executive master's program have food-industry backgrounds, he said, and the school employs some current retail executives, such as Mark Long, director of research, Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., who assists in teaching courses in advertising, segmentation and positioning, and target marketing.
To qualify for the executive master's program, students must have at least four years of food-industry experience.
Students represent a variety of industry segments, including supermarket and convenience stores, food processors, food-service companies and government personal, said Lord. They come from a variety of positions in the industry "that run the gamut from mid-level managers to chief executives of smaller companies," he said. "But they tend to be people on the fast track, with real ambitions to move ahead in the industry."
Most come from within 100 miles of Philadelphia. Courses are offered on Fridays and Saturdays, creating an intensive, seminar-type education experience that the students can relate to, according to John Stanton, the St. Joseph's professor of food marketing who created the executive master's program in 1990.
"We felt traditional programs that required people to attend class once a week wouldn't fit the needs of most food executives, whereas people attend a lot of two- or three-day seminars all the time, so we modeled our program after those seminars," he said.
St. Joseph's executive master's program offers 30 to 40 food-marketing classes per year between September and July, each worth 1.3 credits. To earn an executive master's degree, students must take 27 courses, for a total of 36 credits. Most students take an average of nine classes a year and complete their requirements in two and a half to three years.
The university plans to introduce an MBA program in food marketing beginning next spring as a result of increasing demand from students, graduates and some industry companies, Lord said.
The school will restructure the MBA curriculum, which requires more course work, to add more credits in accounting, finance, management and organizational behavior, information technology and the legal environment within the industry.
Interaction in the Classroom
As with all of the advanced education programs for food-industry executives, classroom interaction among peers is an important element of the education experience.
"People walk away with a tremendously increased knowledge of the industry beyond their own company and job," Lord said. "Because of the classroom interactions, a lot of the learning comes not just from the professors but also from the opportunity to network with fellow professionals from other parts of the industry, which gives students a broader perspective on the kinds of issues the industry faces."
At Cornell, the 12-day Food Executive Program generally counts about two-thirds of its students as retailers and wholesalers, with the rest being from the manufacturing side.
"It's a wonderful opportunity to see the chemistry of the group when you've got both sides of the industry at work," said McLaughlin of Cornell. "They develop a better appreciation for each other's business at the end of a couple of weeks.
"These are 65 people who aren't used to sitting in a classroom all day, so we make maximum use of their experience We'd have to have rocks in our heads to take each individual and pretend that he or she was a college student. Our instructors were all selected for their experience, and for their expertise in facilitating discussion to bring the most out of the group experience itself."
Basha said the interaction with others in the industry was one of the most beneficial aspects of the USC program.
"There are quite a few benefits, including industry networking -- the exposure to other grocery retailers and our vendor partners that also participate in the program," he said.
One of the components of the program involves a simulated food-retail operation in which students form teams of four to five people each and develop a business plan to revive struggling retail stores in an imaginary town. (See related story.)
As the advanced education programs at USC and other universities around the country have evolved to become more focused on producing higher-level executives, they also have drafted more stringent entry requirements.
When Bristol Farms' Davis went through the program, for example, he was a part-time deli clerk and an undergraduate pre-law student at the University of California-Los Angeles.
"Now they have to get accepted into the university, which is getting tougher and tougher, and they must have at least 60 transferrable credits so they can enter as a junior," he explained.
In addition to the intensive, graduate-level training programs offered at a select few schools, several schools with strong undergraduate programs -- including Portland State University, the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo -- have added seminar-type training programs for mid-level executives, either on campus or on site at the companies themselves.
Gillpatrick of PSU said the school has seen increased demand for on-site training from retailers and others in the industry.
"Five to 10 years ago, we did a lot of one-day seminar programs on things like product development, sales and other topics, but those have fallen off for us," he said. "What we see today is more demand for on-site training."
He said PSU conducts about 12 to 15 such programs per year, mostly in the Western states and Canada.