Rice University
Rice Magazine| The Magazine of Rice University | No. 3 | 2009

Taking Care of Business

Brent Smith paused in the doorway of his office in Janice and Robert McNair Hall to survey a beloved stomping ground: the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business. “It’s not a position I would have accepted anywhere but Rice,” he said of his appointment last summer as associate dean for Executive Education at the Jones School. “It was a unique proposition.”

Smith has been a professor at the Jones School for eight years, aside from a two-year stint to teach organizational behavior at the London Business School, where he designed and directed many of their executive leadership programs. He has taught in the Rice MBA programs as well as Executive Education, logging more hours teaching leadership courses to high-level executives than any other full-time faculty member. He not only understands the lay of the land at the Jones School, but he’s also well aware of Executive Education’s strong foundation.

Executive Education, originally called the Office of Executive Development, was begun in 1978. At the time, it operated in conjunction with the MBA program and offered nondegree short courses, seminars and conferences to the Houston business community. Before long, it had become not only a source of revenue, but also a significant connection between the new business school and the city’s practicing professionals. Under the leadership of Sal Manzo, the department grew in its ability to satisfy the needs of the business community by introducing the MBA for Executives in 1998.

“We saw the impact of our outreach,” former associate dean Wil Uecker remembered. “It was one of my main objectives to launch that program.”

Under it’s various directors—Kim Kehoe held the post beginning in 1989, Harry Wilkerson in 1992, Uecker in 1997, Bill Lee in 2005, and Smith in 2008—Executive Education has continued to provide directors, managers, supervisors and senior management the latest industry knowledge and managerial techniques by combining the talents of industry experts with world-class faculty and classroom research.

“We want to take a more active stance in the market and help companies develop leaders.”

                                         — Brent Smith


“The Jones School is a resource in the community for companies to keep current with the best thinking in the business,” Kehoe said, emphasizing the school’s mission of developing thought leaders.

From his experience with executive programs in Europe, Asia and South America, Smith understood the many challenges that executive education departments face. When the economy thrives, executive education programs do very well. When the economy suffers, companies look at executive education as a discretionary expense that can be cut. Undaunted, Smith set formidable goals for himself and the department.

“We want a broader engagement of our target audience,” he said. “We want to take a more active stance in the market and help companies develop leaders.”

At the heart of his plan is the university’s mission to engage the city and extend the Jones School’s reach. The first step was to identify everything the department was doing right, learn how to improve on it and discover ways to make it resistant to economic turmoil. Smith recognized that Executive Education could better engage the corporate Houston community by more closely matching its customers’ needs with Jones School expertise.

Business SchoolFollowing that, he reprioritized the open enrollment course offerings to make Executive Education a reliable partner for management educational opportunities. Then he sought to provide specialized instruction for the department’s two largest customer bases: up-and-coming leaders and rising managers.

“We have been talking for some time about the growing corporate talent shortage,” Smith said. “Our program can help organizations accelerate the development of companies’ most valuable resources: their people.”

Analyzing and fulfilling the needs of the business community resulted in more than 35 different open enrollment classes and certificate programs over the last year. The department nearly doubled open enrollment attendance since 2002, and some of the industry-specific certificate programs in energy and health care became custom programs — courses designed and expertly tailored to focus on a particular company’s employees and goals.

Smith’s experience in leadership — the most-requested subject in the department’s custom programs — was the ideal complement for the Jones School. From the first custom client, Brown and Root, to collaborations with Memorial Hermann and Marathon Oil Corp., custom programs evolved into a major segment of Executive Education’s work and became an important opportunity for the faculty to demonstrate their talents in a more sophisticated way.

Chicago Bridge & Iron Company N.V. (CB&I), an engineering, procurement and construction company in the energy and natural resource industries, has been a long-term custom client and continues to be a vibrant partner. To date, 225 managers from CB&I have completed tailored programs in executive education at the Jones School. Their key take away, according to CB&I spokesperson David Bordages, has been “the benefit of combining academic principles with CB&I operational practices.”

That means faculty and staff worked together to understand CB&I’s specific business model and markets. They looked at balance sheets and profit and loss statements. They partnered with their client to deliver the information and techniques necessary for participants to carry back to the workplace and put into action.

And relationships with clients didn’t end there.

NCI Building Systems’ former CEO, A.R. Ginn ’62, had been a football player at Rice, and although he had to drop out before graduating, he never forgot the value of that education. With his company flourishing, Ginn tapped Executive Education to create a custom program for his employees that would tie cutting-edge business acumen back to NCI operations. Over the next couple of years, 120 NCI employees attended one-week programs that included sessions in leadership, strategy, and finance and accounting.

When Ginn retired in 2007 after nearly 50 years in the metal construction industry, his employees wanted to give him something profound in return. In his honor, they donated $300,000 to the Jones School. The A.R. Ginn Fund now supports the undergraduate business minor for any use within that program that the school deems necessary.

For 30 years, companies like CB&I, NCI Building Systems and a legion of others have benefitted from the Executive Education program at the Jones School, but as the NCI story illustrates, learning is a two-way street. Executive Education has found a wealth of inspiration from its partners in developing ways to approach lifelong learning.

Brent Smith would have it no other way.