Mastering the Business World

By Hannah Wallace March 31, 2008

After she graduated from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, Kerry Conboy knew she wanted to go back to school for her M.B.A. “But sometimes life gets in the way,” she says with a laugh.

After a three-year stint as a sales rep, Conboy, 39, then spent five years a full-time mom before returning to the workforce. She finally started her M.B.A. in 2003 at Webster University’s Sarasota-Manatee campus, completing the degree in 2006. Not only did she get an advanced degree from Webster, she also landed a job at the school, where she serves as community relations coordinator.

“I think that once you get an M.B.A., people view you as someone competent in the business world, especially in today’s marketplace,” says Conboy.

Bradley Moore, 28, can also thank his M.B.A. degree for helping him score a new position. The former BankSouth branch manager received several job offers after obtaining his advanced degree in 2005 from the University of Phoenix in Sarasota, choosing to take on the role of sales manager at Venice-based Smart Records Management.

“To me, an M.B.A. takes [you] the next step further,” says Moore, who majored in marketing as an undergrad at Webber International University in Babson Park. “I can meet customers’ needs right off the bat.”

Though getting an M.B.A. doesn’t automatically guarantee a corner office and a big paycheck, local employers tend to appreciate job candidates with advanced degrees and are often willing to pay them higher salaries. According to the 2007 Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) Corporate Recruiters Survey, recruiters reported they planned to offer annual base salaries to candidates with graduate business degrees that are 28 percent higher than what they extend to new hires with other types of graduate degrees. And they’re willing to pay 84 percent more to new M.B.A.s or other high-level business degree recipients than to people with only an undergraduate education.

The GMAC survey found that corporate recruiters expected to hire an average of 18 percent more workers with M.B.A.s and other graduate business degrees in 2007 than they did in 2006. And the outlook for M.B.A. holders in Sarasota and Manatee counties seems just as good. According to information from the Florida State Agency for Workforce Innovation, 7,011 jobs in the two-county region required a master’s degree or higher in 2007. By 2015, that number is expected to grow to 8,875.

For Dr. Robert L. Anderson, associate dean of the College of Business at USF Sarasota-Manatee, those numbers wouldn’t seem surprising, as he’s seen the local business community both grow in size and become more sophisticated over the years. “I’ve lived in the area for going on 37 years, and it’s a far different Sarasota and Manatee county than it was even 15 or 20 years ago,” he says.

Many area firms offer tuition assistance for employees interested in continuing their educations. Sarasota-based FCCI Insurance Group reimburses its employees 100 percent of the costs of any continuing education they choose to undertake. “We feel learning is the key to personal success,” says Lisa Krouse, vice president of human resources. “We want to be known as being experts in our field, and education is a foundation in all that we do.”

Adding an M.B.A. degree to their resume can help employees climb FCCI’s corporate ladder. “I think there’s accountability on employers to make sure they are thinking about succession planning, and education plays a large part in that,” says Krouse. “When you’re looking at succession planning, the longer-term vision of where you can go, an M.B.A. is something you can look to that says this person is motivated and they do place a large emphasis on having a broad spectrum of experience. As a differentiator, it becomes a component.”

North Venice-based PGT Industries, a manufacturer of doors and windows, not only provides up to $5,250 a year in tuition reimbursements per employee, but it also offers an on-site M.B.A. program in conjunction with Webster University. Eighteen PGT employees have graduated from the program since it began in 2006, with two more currently studying for their degrees.

“We recognized over the last several years how important business acumen is in this company,” says Liz Evers, manager of training and development. “By offering an on-site M.B.A., we thought it would encourage more folks to continue their education and focus on business.”

Evers says employees gain practical knowledge and interact with staffers from different company divisions, which they can apply to their day-to-day roles at PGT. The company benefits by helping employees gain a better understanding of what it takes to run a business like PGT. “I think they’re better businesspeople as a result,” says Evers. “They’re much more able to make decisions and to understand the ramifications of those in the real world. What we see as a result is a much more rounded individual in terms of the knowledge that they have.”

Candyce Galloway, 34, software services leader for PGT, obtained her on-site M.B.A. degree in March 2007. “I definitely would say that it has already helped in my current role,” she says. “As I’ve grown in my knowledge of the construction and building industries, I have a better understanding of our market, and I can and already do assist in departmental goal setting and prioritizing of work. And in the future, it’s given me a little bit of leverage in terms of my ability to be a part of leadership discussions.”

Recruiters are getting more energized around the maturity, discipline, teamwork experience and education that M.B.A.s bring with them, according to Dave Wilson, president and chief executive officer of the Graduate Management Admission Council, an international association of business schools and owner of the Graduate Management Admission Test. “That’s what’s driving the value equation. They’re seeing someone who is hard-working, committed and determined to self improve to make themselves a better player, all things employers look for.”

M.B.A. students are learning about “the things required in corporate life today: team building; communication, both written and spoken; aspects of leadership; an understanding of the culture and dynamics of a business,” says USF’s Anderson. “They’re looking at more of the big picture of business in an M.B.A. program, relative to the bachelor’s level where they learn very specific skill sets like accounting. I think it gives them a broader set of skills.”

Jon Reed, 31, a mass spectrometry researcher at Sarasota-based Roskamp Institute, started studying for his M.B.A. in January at USF Sarasota-Manatee. “I think it’s the most direct way to sort of segue a career in research to something in the pharmaceutical industry,” he says. “You can segue into the corporate world without an M.B.A., but it’s a lot easier to do so with one. It opens up your options.”

Casey Hodge, 29, a marketing coordinator at SunTrust Bank who’s in the process of getting his M.B.A. at USF Sarasota-Manatee, says it’s a long-term investment. “Nowadays it seems like so many people go to school and get bachelor’s degrees; that’s what our generation does,” he says. “So I wanted to separate myself from that. I don’t think coming out on the first day after graduation I will see a huge career change, but I think over time it’ll be rewarded. You’re making yourself more appealing to future opportunities.”

But for many area businesspeople, obtaining an M.B.A. isn’t just about the future. It’s also a tool that can help them better perform in their current positions.

“I realized that I was lacking in my business acumen a bit, having never taken a business class my entire time at college,” says Kirstin Fulkerson, 29, program officer at Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice, who obtained an M.B.A. from USF Sarasota-Manatee in December. “I knew that having an M.B.A. would raise my business sophistication and really help me today and for the rest of my life. The nonprofit world is more like the for-profit world than most people think. All of the aspects of an M.B.A. program absolutely apply to the nonprofit world: marketing, management, investing and finance, information systems, economics. These are areas that all businesses are dealing with, and being more adept in these areas will allow me to better work with the foundation’s nonprofit partners, donors and others.”

Jacki Dezelski, 37, vice president of East County and community development at the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, who received her M.B.A. from the University of Florida in 2005, didn’t want to leave the chamber when she went for her M.B.A.; she just wanted to get better at her job. “An M.B.A. helps you avoid the trial-and-error process, because you’re in a setting in which you’re learning almost as much from your classmates as the instructor, and you hear a lot of on-the-job stories,” she says.

Though having an M.B.A. can help improve job performance, studying for one while working full-time can definitely be challenging. “You have to be ready to commit,” says Hodge. “Giving up your Saturdays takes a little bit of getting used to.”

“You just have to make time for it,” says Reed. “I have friends who have done it before, and the classes, while demanding, don’t make life unlivable. You have to compromise. You can’t spend the entire weekend on play time, and you have to devote some time each day to your studies.”

But those who have done it say the time and money spent on the degree is worth it.

“The great thing about education is that no one can ever take it away from you,” says Fulkerson. “Getting my M.B.A. was never about receiving that official piece of paper that says I can put three letters after my name now; it was about the experience and not the destination. I put myself through this not to actually have the degree, but to challenge myself through a self-growth process of learning and being exposed to new ideas and people. And that, I hope, is an investment that will pay dividends for the rest of my life.”

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