I’ve been watching many business shows lately, probably too many since the Yankees still have a share of first place as I write this post today. I’ve become less of a fan of The Apprentice since The Donald turned it into a celebrity show, and become much less a fan of The Donald since he went on the campaign trail four years ago. I like Shark Tank though I’d dread having Kevin O’Leary as one of my investors. But my favorite of the business reality genre is The Profit, hosted by “business doctor” (my words, not his) Marcus Lemonis.
If you do not watch the show, The Profit runs for an hour on CNBC featuring a small or mid-size business that has good products or an interesting past. However, the ownership is desperate for cash or new ideas, usually both. Marcus Lemonis, who acquires and rebuilds ailing manufacturing and retail business businesses, provides both.
Lemonis, who grew up the son of the owner of a Miami-based Chevrolet dealership, keeps things simple for TV. He emphasizes the “three P’s” of successful businesses: People, Process and Product. He runs into the most difficulties when all three need fixing. He also has a good sense for design. Every business that he agrees to invest in, where he can fix the people issues (they’re the hardest to resolve) and get the process and products he wants gets a major makeover.
I like The Profit more than the other business shows. It is more authentic. These are real businesses, some that have operated for generations in the same family, that are really in trouble. There are no celebrities. Lemonis is the “star.” But he looks more like the accountant or financial advisor that you would trust to manage your money or a corporate upper middle manager that you might trust to manage your daughter’s softball team. You would not expect him to be the turnaround talent that he genuinely appears to be.
But what if you set Marcus Lemonis loose on a college admissions office?
I’m sure that, if you visit this site often, you have read that the college admissions process is “broken.” Too many schools follow too many outdated practices, and too many lose more than a fifth of their freshman class. Worse, too many struggled to fill that class by the start of the school year. In my travels I get to see many of the successes. They are not always the most selective schools. However, they know what they have to offer their students. They also have a sense, as well as the analytics, to know which students will be able to take best advantage of their offerings.
The businesses that Marcus Lemonis places bets have fewer employees and fewer offices than a small college. They are led by men and women who are less educated than college presidents. Ego, as you see after you watch several episodes of The Profit, breaks down when the owners see that Marcus will not risk his money or his time, but they also see that they need him if they expect to survive then thrive.
When I think about that consideration, ego, I truly doubt that a college board of trustees would turn Marcus loose on their operations. Colleges have to get over what they think they “should do” or “should be” when they obsess with comparing themselves to “peer” or “aspirant” schools and look deep into the assets and problems they have. If a college has too many under-enrolled academic departments it has to consider the costs of offering those majors versus others that students truly want. It also has to consider who and where the market is.
I grew up in an upper middle class county in New Jersey that has only two colleges: a small private school, Monmouth University and a community college. Monmouth has a decent local reputation, but the school is not terribly well known outside of Central New Jersey. The campus is close to the Jersey Shore as well as New Jersey Transit trains to New York City. It’s also close to the Garden State Parkway, one of the better-maintained state highways in the U.S. The school offers decent scholarships to good and very good students. But the school has had space available in the freshman class into the summer months. It loses just over a fifth of them by the end of the school year.
Suppose Marcus Lemonis was asked to fix Monmouth University. The school has good people. I can vouch for the co-op and career services team. I worked with them when I was in the software business. It has some good academic departments, especially in Business, Education and Nursing.
But I wonder about the admissions process, and that’s where someone like Marcus Lemonis would have the most influence.
When I toured this school about three years ago there were not enough seats in the waiting area before you went out on tour. There was no group information session before the tour, so I had no idea why someone should consider the school. Most schools do this. They often show a film before they talk about the school and field questions. Marketing materials were not in a prominent place. You could meet with an admissions officer after the tour, but that was optional. You would not see someone right away. When I took the tour, I saw that the ATM in the student center had a separate entrance. I asked why and was told that the student center was not open on Sunday, while students still needed to get their money. I wondered why the student center was not open on Sunday, Then I checked the demographics. Less than a quarter of the students lived on campus. That left a perception: why open the student center if the students are not around on the weekend?
So here you have a school that’s a regional brand, located in a nice part of New Jersey where many students would want to live–if they knew about it. Turn Marcus Lemonis loose and he would likely retrain the admissions team (people), redesign the welcome area and the welcoming approach (process), review the successes of each academic department as well as the student life experience as well as preparation for further education and the job market (product). I have have no doubt that he would recommend that some functions, previously underfunded, receive more resources. I also have no doubt that he would recommend that some undersubscribed academic programs be redesigned or folded, not necessarily to the liking of tenured faculty.
But none of this would make it to TV. Marcus would no doubt gather information that the school would not want anyone to know. Further, he would not make the recommended investments himself, as he does with businesses where he takes an equity stake. The school would have to say yes or no.
Which brings up my closing point: an ailing college does not need someone like Marcus Lemonis as a consultant or an investor. They need that person, and others like him, to lead their Board of Trustees.