WCU STUDENTS GIVE HANDS-ON HELP
The hands-on experience Hendersonville native Sarah Desforge took from an increasingly popular business consulting class at Western Carolina University helped her land a summer internship in Asheville that, to her, seemed too good to be true: working on a marketing plan for the Biltmore Estate Equestrian Center.
“It's the perfect job for me, and I'm so excited about it,” said Desforge, a WCU graduate student who grew up riding horses and attending horse shows at Biltmore. “I don't think I would have gotten the job without the consulting class because it gave me real experience to draw on.”
The class links students in Western's graduate programs with clients seeking assistance through small business assistance programs at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and WCU. In the last two years, nearly 30 students in the consulting class have clocked more than 5,000 hours working for free on solutions to clients' business challenges.
“Some business owners will say, ‘We need cash flow. We don't have the business. We need to get customers,'” said Bruce Berger, WCU assistant professor of business administration and law, who developed and began teaching the business consulting class two years ago. “Some will say, ‘I don't understand my accounting. I am losing money and don't know where it's going.'”
The clients are diverse – manufacturers, shopping centers, mom-and-pop retail businesses, recreational facilities and even a research laboratory.
“We conduct marketing surveys, create marketing plans, price out different expenses for advertising on TV, radio, billboards or newspapers and give the client a marketing plan that works in their budget,” Berger said.
A student may help a client learn accounting skills such as how to keep the books correctly and look for warning signs. Students may teach the business owner how to use accounting software and measure how the business is doing on a weekly and quarterly basis, including cash flow and profit-loss analysis.
“They take the pulse of the business,” said Berger.
The consulting projects conclude with a 15-minute briefing and a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation before the professor, the dean and the client.
“Some clients say, ‘Wow, I didn't know I was in that bad of shape,'” Berger said. “Others are totally in sync with what we're doing. We give them actual takeaway solutions and recommendations, not just pie-in-the-sky ideas.”
Zack Abuasba, who founded Asheville-based Zstaff Software, worked with a Western student to explore changing the software his small business develops for employment agencies and headhunters. Abuasba estimated the survey the student conducted at no charge would have cost $2,000. He was so pleased that he hired the student to work part-time during the next semester.
“Her project was to see how a new product would fit in the market – to see which direction we need to go next,” said Abuasba. “The project really went well, and, now, we are shifting our direction to create a browser-based software. We knew this was a shift we wanted to make about a year ago, but we did not have hard evidence, just a hunch.”
Fran Brooks, a graduate student in Western's accounting program who works part-time as an accountant and full-time for an environmental consulting firm in Swain County, helped prepare a Web site and brochure for a small, family-owned RV park as part of the consulting class.
“We did a lot of marketing research. I know more now about campgrounds than I ever thought I would,” said Brooks. “It's really good hands-on experience in learning how to work with clients, and the clients benefit, too.”
For Desforge, who is pursuing a master's degree in business administration at Western, the consulting class project enabled her to create a marketing plan for St. John's Market Place, a Fletcher shopping center. She proposed quarterly events and helped with a grand opening that attracted about 500 people and generated a mailing list for tenants. That experience helped her land the internship with Biltmore.
Peggy Dalman, marketing research manager at Desforge's new employer, The Biltmore Company, said the combination of education and experience is what they look for in applicants.
“Some of the techniques Sarah learned in the business consulting class and experiences she had have helped her to understand our needs faster, ask the right questions and contribute ideas,” Dalman said. “She uses her experience with the shopping center as examples in our discussions, and they are relevant and helpful.”
For more information, contact Bruce Berger at (828) 227-7409.
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Last modified: Wednesday, June 7, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Western Carolina University