Faculty Profile: Bill Bennett

bill bennett
Thursday, March 13, 2014

Update: Since the publication of this interview, Bill has been promoted to Director of Pricing Strategy.

Update 2: Since publication, Bill has been promoted to Senior Director of Pricing Strategy.

Over the coming weeks, we’re going to interview several students and professors involved here in the Midland MBA program. You can find our interview with Bill Bennett, a professor here at Midland, below.

Bill is Senior Manager of Finance and Strategy at Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. He earned his MBA from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and teaches Financial Management and Operations Management in the Midland MBA program.

Hi, Bill. To start, could you tell us a little bit about your professional experience? Where do you currently work today, and what has your career path looked like thus far?

"Well, to start, I did my undergrad at BYU. There, I studied business management with an emphasis in finance. After graduating, I took a job at General Mills as a sales analyst. During that time at GM, I managed all analysis and reporting for HEB in Texas, as well as Bashas’ and Safeway. I spent a few years there, and ended up moving to the General Mills headquarters in Minnesota working on pricing strategy and with the trade management team. At that point, I started my MBA in Duke’s Fuqua School of Business—a “cross-continent” MBA program—and finished up my last six months at General Mills.

I moved from General Mills to S.C. Johnson in Wisconsin to run their pricing strategy team. And after some work through the recruiting process at Duke, I found my current job at Walmart in Arkansas, where I run the small format strategy and pricing team." 

What do you currently teach here at Midland?

"I’m currently teaching Financial Management. Next term I’ll be returning to teach Operations Management, and I’ll be bringing in other experts from Walmart and the Omaha area for that class."

You have a lot of experience with sales and product/pricing strategy. What kinds of problems and exercises do you focus on in the classroom, and how do you see them benefiting the students you’ve taught here in your time at Midland? 

"I draw a lot of examples from what I’m doing in my career on a day-to-day basis. Working for the largest company in the world, there’s a lot of finance going on—everything from financial analysis on stores, to how we manage cash, to how we hedge currency risk across borders—and all of it has direct applicability to what we’re doing in the classroom.

I really like moving students towards real-life business examples. Finance is a pretty general topic, and the principles from the experiences I’m teaching are going to be applicable across a number of industries. I like that ability to leverage my experience, and think it’s been very useful for the students I’ve taught so far.

It’s important to note that out of every class here at Midland, there are only a handful of students considering a career in finance. We want to teach a broad block of the curriculum, but we also want that to be applicable to folks no matter where they end up. Using examples like the ones I mentioned above, I’m able to show students how important finance is to understand across the board. I try to bring in examples to help keep students interested no matter what their aspirations are, because an understanding of finance—and the ability to communicate it—is so important to a successful career in business.

Finally, I also try to talk to students about stuff beyond the numbers. You can do the best analysis in the world, but you also need to be able to sell it well to get other people in the organization to believe in what you’ve put together, and to help your project reach critical mass. Your people skills and salesmanship are every bit as important as your business know-how, and I make sure to leave that impression on all of the students I teach."

As an add-on to that question, how exactly does an MBA program help students hone skills like sales and management? Are there skills in the classroom that you just can’t learn elsewhere? Do you find that coworkers with MBAs have an ‘edge’ on other people you work with who may not have an MBA? 

"Well, in terms of what an MBA does for you, it’s a very general type of degree. Even in programs like Midland’s where you have the opportunity to specialize in one subject, the core of an MBA is learning across a bunch of different subjects—that’s where the value lies.

As you get higher and higher in an organization, you’re focusing less and less on the individual function you’re in, and more on interaction. If your goals is to lead a company and manage across many functions, you’re going to need to understand as many facets of business as you can.

In my experience, people who don’t have MBAs tend to act in a more siloed fashion because they’ve worked on one subject all of their lives and that’s all they know. They’re extraordinarily talented in that one subject, but often have a hard time translating what they’re working on to other people.

The value of having an MBA is saying, look, I’m in finance, but I understand the challenges that logistics people are up against, or that this new strategy we’re trying to employ is difficult for a marketer to pitch on TV. When you go to have those conversations, an MBA helps you position yourself better, and overall, be a better manager."

What do you see as unique to Midland’s program that students wouldn’t get elsewhere?

"The biggest unique aspect of Midland’s program is the whole idea of a hybrid MBA. So much of your class time is consolidated. There are lots of other weekend and evening MBAs, but those require so much in-person time that they end up being a bigger commitment—all of your weekends end up tied up—even though they have a similar result to Midland’s MBA program.

Here, you only dedicate every third weekend to class time, and after that, you can go back to the normal flow of life (relatively speaking) for another few weeks. On top of that, a lot of schools use full-time faculty to teach, but there’s a lot to be said for using professionals straight out of their individual fields. With the latter approach, there’s less focus on theory and more focus on practice. We definitely cover theory, but in my class, for example, we quickly move into how you’re going to use the information in your day job whether you’re a finance person or not." 

What about you as a teacher? What do you enjoy most about our program? 

"Well, from my perspective as a professor, I really like the flexibility of the program—it’s a large part of the reason I jumped on this opportunity when it was available. I can keep my day job, and compared to some other programs, my time commitment is easy to work into my schedule. The exact hours I have to comment (and when I have to commit them) are very flexible, and that’s appealing to me. With the exception of weekends when we have in-person class, I can structure prep time, teaching time, and my commitments to students around my schedule.

I think that’s why a lot of students pick the program, too. There’s a lot to balance, but the ability to compartmentalize it all is very appealing. Plus, for anyone looking to accelerate their career, this is a really great option. Instead of waiting until you graduate, you’re able to immediately sell the idea to your employer that you’re going to have an MBA, and you can plan accordingly around that ability."

Finally, do you have any advice for prospective students about how to approach MBA program selection, or what they should do to get the most out of their MBA? 

"In my opinion, the people who end up getting the most out of an MBA are those who have thought long and hard about why they really want it. At some level, there can be a feeling that an MBA “just helps.” That’s true, sure, but those who get value are those who know where they want to go with their career, and realize that they need an MBA to get there.

The people who don’t get value are those who think that an MBA is the right next step, but don’t know where they’re going. You don’t need to know an exact company or career path, but it’s important to have a goal. I always looked at Walmart, a company that works every single day to lower its prices so that people can live a better life, as an inspiring company, and I knew an MBA was going to help me attain my goal. I needed an MBA to make the transition from sales to finance, and that helped motivate me, choose the right program, and overall, guided the whole process.

In short, I’d say that you should figure out where you want to go, what degree you need to get there, and what school is going to be able to provide that opportunity for you."

Interested in learning more about Midland’s hybrid MBA program? Reach out to us directly in the comments, via LinkedIn, through Twitter @MidlandMBA, or by phone at 402-941-6517—we’d love to give you more information.

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