The pandemic has left businesses to grapple with a perplexing set of disruptions to customer service, supply chains, logistics and more. But as companies face an upheaval unlike any other in recent history, WMU’s leadership and business strategy students are gaining an invaluable lesson—how to help businesses prepare for the next normal.
This was the case for students involved in a consultancy project for Haworth Inc., a family-owned furniture company that serves markets in more than 120 countries through a global network of 600 dealers. As the pandemic took hold, executives from the company approached faculty in the leadership and business strategy program with an opportunity and challenge for its students, who regularly participate in highly experiential consultancy projects.
Their task: Help Haworth Inc. consider its dealer network in light of the current disruptive business climate and offer solutions for the future of its distribution.
Students approached this project by considering the questions:
- What needs to be true about the company’s dealer network in order for it to be successful well into the future?
- What is the role of the dealer in this new environment?
- What are customers looking for in their purchasing experience?
“COVID has forced businesses to rethink how people are purchasing products and services and how to meet customer needs,” says Doug Lepisto, associate professor of management. “These are broad questions with a lot of moving parts, which made this our most difficult consultancy project to date.”
With these complex challenges at hand, the students broke into teams and began conducting extensive research, with the goal of delivering recommendations to Haworth’s leadership team. Their work included interviews with customers, dealers and Haworth employees, as well as architectural and design firms. One student team even led a roundtable with CEOs from small- to mid-size businesses in Michigan about their furniture needs and possible ways to meet them. Secondary research included analyzing financial information and examining other industries in comparison.
The students gathered and evaluated data throughout the entire spring semester, which culminated in four teams being selected to present their solutions to Haworth executives. Ultimately, a team led by seniors Maisie Blaukamp and Cristian Cardoso presented a strategy that Dick Haworth, chairman emeritus, and his leadership team deemed to be the most promising.
“Our team worked on determining whether or not Haworth Inc. should develop and run an executive training program in conjunction with Western Michigan University for their current and new dealers; and if so, how?” Blaukamp says.
“Our answer was ‘yes.’ We created a 12-week long course to be offered primarily to Haworth dealers, and secondarily to WMU students. The course would consist of four 3-week long modules, each encompassing a topic of interest derived from primary research. We proposed synchronous and asynchronous components to allow feasibility for all dealers and students, with each weekly session divided into two segments—the first as a Small Business Operations segment offered to both Haworth Inc. dealers and WMU students, the second as a Furniture Industry Business Operations Application segment offered only to Haworth Inc. dealers as an opportunity to apply concepts learned to their role in the furniture industry.”
The team presented:
- Their culmination of primary and secondary research data.
- The proposed course, including its layout, content and structure.
- The proposed delivery method for the course.
- A retention plan for the initiative that would ensure its lasting impact.
- A timeline to bring the course to fruition.
“The biggest challenges we faced during this project were mostly internal,” Cardoso says. “With a task so complex, we ran into a lot of situations where we didn’t know where to go or what to do next. Interpreting the data was another big challenge, as well as finding ways to present it as effectively as possible. Ultimately we stayed motivated, and the most memorable part of this experience was building that bond and watching my team members grow and gain confidence as leaders.”
Dick Haworth says he and his colleagues were impressed by the students’ hard work and deliverables. “I love the passion and energy that students frequently bring to projects,” he says. “This project was not simple, but it is very typical of many business issues that need clarity. Success ultimately will be based on the passion and energy that are put into implementation and follow through of great ideas.”
“I have seen a lot of really great presentations and recommendations come out of LBS, and I think this was the best I’ve ever seen,” Lepisto says. “Although this project was presented as a competition, the students really support one another and try to help each other be at their best in order to provide the best possible solutions to clients. I’m really proud of their effort and insight, as well as the culture we’re building in the program and at the Haworth College of Business.”
Lepisto says that this project could be the foundation for other executive education experiences in the future—emphasizing the mutual benefit for both students and companies that the leadership and business strategy program is all about. Visit the Center for Principled Leadership and Business Strategy to learn more about the program and its consultancy opportunities.