Community Business

by Cynndie Hoff

Every big business started small. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in his dorm room. Apple began as a fledgling idea in Steve Jobs’ garage. And while some companies eventually expand into megacorporations, according to the 2010 census, 99.7 percent retain their small-business status and serve as the mainstay of the American economy. Small businesses create jobs (almost half of the nation’s private sector workforce is employed by small businesses), innovate new products (they produced 16 times more patents per employee than larger competing firms, according to the Small Business Administration), and strengthen and bolster the economic vitality of communities across the nation. Tapping into this symbiotic relationship between communities and small businesses, 2 APU professors, 39 undergraduate, and 8 graduate students rallied to support a struggling local business last fall.

Dana Matejka of California Tool and Die (CTD), a family-owned and -operated manufacturer in Azusa, reached out to the School of Business and Management. She asked for help with what she called a “business turnaround project.” Stuart Strother, Ph.D., professor in the School of Business and Management, and his undergraduate microeconomics class, and Tom Cairns, DBA, associate professor and director of graduate programs, and his graduate business class, collaborated with the CTD team.

“The recession and cheap imports from China had hit the company hard,” said Strother. “Sales had declined, and the staff downsized. Like all business owners, Dana bore a heavy burden. I asked her to forecast her financials, and she sighed, ‘At current trends, we could be out of business in 18 months.’”

Matejka came to the right place, and the right professors. Strother, an expert in economic development, business and economics in China, and statistics, has traveled numerous times to China with more than 400 APU students since 2004, learning about international business and observing Chinese businesses from the inside out. “The program has received more than $800,000 in external funding, some of that money circulating into the Azusa economy,” said Strother.

Cairns, a former senior vice president of human resources for NBC Universal and presidential appointee to the Department of Homeland Security, specializes in talent management, mergers and acquisitions, project management, leadership development, executive coaching, and strategic planning. “This was an ideal opportunity for my students in the project-driven Young Executive Master of Arts in Management program,” said Cairns. “Working closely with a small business would lay solid groundwork for upcoming major projects, such as internal consulting for Kaiser Permanente and Target.”

An analysis of the operation showed that several areas of the company required updating and streamlining, but also revealed an important underlying element. “While CTD produces a multitude of various metal products, what it really creates is jobs. To me, CTD represents the American entrepreneurial spirit, and I believe that manufacturing is the backbone of the American economy, which remains, without dispute, the greatest economy in the world,” Strother said.

Seizing the opportunity to strengthen this relationship, support the community, and offer invaluable hands-on experience to their students, Strother and Cairns worked with their respective classes to reverse the downward trend at CTD. Cairns’ students visited the site twice and explored the business operations from a management perspective that would inform their recommendations to the company. Strother’s students formed teams to address a multitude of issues from strategic angles, such as marketing, sales, and accounting. “Working with APU’s School of Business and Management team was a great experience,” Matejka said. “The students even found some tax breaks for us and developed a product design that has a patent pending. But the most important thing they did was encourage us to take a step back from being in the business, so we could focus on the business. They got me thinking again about working smarter and building our company. I was so impressed with the students’ creativity, positivity, and engagement that I am considering offering an internship in the future. This experience has given us hope.”

Taking on this project not only benefitted CTD and the students, it also presented an ideal opportunity for service-learning—a hallmark of APU. “This collaboration allowed our students to walk the talk of Azusa Pacific,” said Cairns. “Our students experienced what it means to contribute to the community and be good corporate citizens, while showing our neighbors who APU is and living out our God First motto.”

At a time when more and more consumers rank corporate social responsibility above profitability, Azusa Pacific provides a place where students can support the movement at a grassroots level. “Our students consider this community and its people their neighbors,” said Ginny Dadaian, director of community relations and lifetime Azusa and Glendora resident. “Opportunities that connect classroom learning with service form the building blocks of civic engagement. This project tapped into the power of collaboration, creativity, and teamwork, enabling our students to help a small-business owner and explore the intersection of their interests, calling, and career.” Learning how to conduct commerce with integrity, partnering with local merchants and manufacturers, and giving back to the community equips APU graduates to envision business as usual differently and shape a new industry ethos that inspires companies to be accountable, transparent, and civic minded.

Cynndie Hoff is a freelance writer and editor living in Walnut, California. ceh.hoff@verizon.net