No pain, no gain.
That was the core message of a strategic plan developed by a team of Vanderbilt Executive MBA students in 2009 for Aegis Sciences Corp. The students’ plan, part of a yearlong class project, made several recommendations for the Nashville-based company, which specializes in toxicology analysis and consulting services for sports teams, medical examiners, crime labs and others.
When senior management at Aegis put those recommendations into action, the outcomes more than exceeded expectations, says Frank Moser, Vice President of Business Development. In spite of the recent economic downturn, Aegis expanded from 150 to 400 employees in less than two years, and total revenue grew from $20 million in 2008 to $51 million in 2010. Meanwhile the plan continues to guide decision making at Aegis to this day.
Dr. David Black, Associate Clinical Professor of Pathology, started Aegis after successfully setting up a drug-testing lab at Vanderbilt in the late 1980s—a response to an increased need for monitoring steroids and other drugs in athletics. Aegis soon moved into forensics toxicology, going private in 1990. The company was in the midst of revising its business plan when it was approached by the Owen students, who were searching for a client to work with in their Strategy Project course.
While firmly committed to putting science first and sticking to its core philosophies, Aegis was also ready to expand. “The impetus was that we’d grown pretty well and were looking to continue that growth in current markets but also look at adjacent markets,” Moser says. “We had so many opportunities, and we really wanted a framework.”
Jeff Fisher, BA’77, Vice President of Finance, had just joined the company when the Owen students got involved. He says the process brought Aegis’ executive team closer together. “It was good for all of us to share thoughts and ideas and begin to look outside the box,” he says.
As part of the plan, the student group developed an acronym around “LABS,” focusing on logistics, adjacencies, building and sustaining. The recommendation to put more resources into pain management turned out to be recession-proof. “People in pain are still going to get treatment,” Fisher says.
The team’s project took top honors in the strategy course that year. “By any measure, the report was outstanding,” says Adjunct Professor of Management David Furse, who taught the course. “They just really hit it out of the park.”
According to project leader Josh Anthony, EMBA’09, the success of the partnership was the product of three key factors:
(1) The Aegis management team remained completely open and engaged in the process.
(2) The nimble advice from faculty advisers, including Furse and Michael Burcham, Clinical Professor of
Entrepreneurship, was indispensable and constant.
(3) The students on the team effectively leveraged their unique strengths.
“Each of us was willing to step outside our comfort zone to learn something. When we didn’t agree, we talked about it,” says Anthony, Director of Research and Development for the Global Infant Category of Mead Johnson Nutrition.
Other students on the team were Andres Visbal, Materials Supervisor at Newell Rubbermaid; Justin Calhoun, Financial Adviser at Merrill Lynch; Sarvant Singh, Program Manager at Cummins Inc.; and Steve Wingard, BE’85, Manager of the Wireless Solutions Group at Intergraph Corp.—all members of the Class of 2009. Anthony says that Wingard offered strong writing and artistic skills, Singh brought a talent for financials, and Visbal and Calhoun helped analyze business development opportunities. Meanwhile Anthony himself focused on developing the key presentation points.
One of the distinctive features of the Vanderbilt Executive MBA is that students are carefully organized according to expertise into “C-teams,” which are designed to emulate an organizational executive team of C-level officers. Anthony says the experience provided him with the opportunity to learn sound business principles and apply them right away. “Managing challenges and growing with them is a much greater experience than just book learning,” he says.
The process also proved to be invaluable for Aegis. Since graduation, the students and Aegis executives have stayed in contact, and many of the students’ long-term recommendations are still on the table and will be implemented as resources allow.
“It would have cost tens of thousands of dollars to put together an analysis like this and to have the resources of five very bright individuals,” Fisher says.