Tag Archives: Executive MBA

EMBA Skamania 2014

EMBA stuents arrive at Skamania The Executive MBA experience kicks off each fall with a five day residential program at Skamania Lodge on the Columbia River east of Portland. Away from the distractions of daily life, first year students immerse themselves in intensive instruction, collaborative projects and bonding with their fellow students. Here are some snapshots of this year’s residential session, with comments by students on the value of the experience, including a challenging class with the inimitable Charles Hill, Professor of Management & Organization and the faculty director of the EMBA Program.

Students studying at Skamania

EMBA students networking at Skamania

“The rapid pace of learning at Skamania was outstanding. The professors provided ample material to read, contemplate and absorb in preparation for five consecutive days of class. During the daily sessions, students were required to recall significant portions of the assigned material to examine precepts of micro economics, finance and leadership.”

EMBA student presentations

Professor Charles Hill in the classroom

“Charles comes at you as-advertised – fast and intense – with questions requiring that you to not only read the assigned material, but also to think deeply about it.  This deep thinking will get you about 60% of where you need to be.  From there, you have to take a deep breath, sit on the edge of your seat and lean into it.  Fortunately, the intensity of Charles’ class session is matched by his love of teaching and fair approach.  It won’t hurt too badly.”

EMBA study groups

Charles Hill

“The intensity at residency was unreal. Long days, amplified by classroom encounters with professor Charles Hill out of Scared Straight resulted in a searing educational experience. I’ve never learned more in a shorter time period. The fear of failure in the classroom quickly dissipates as everyone participates, and gets not-so-politely corrected by professor Charles Hill.”

EMBA student presentations

Charles Hill

“There were three constant thoughts that ran through my head while at Skamania and in the Charles Hill hot seat:

  1. No matter what you do, do not criticize the text or mention that it might be a little dry because the guy standing in front of you (Charles Hill) wrote it.
  1. If I look him directly in the eye maybe he won’t see me …. darn it, that didn’t work!
  1. Everyone is watching  so here goes nothing! Please be the correct answer, please be the correct answer….

On a serious note I remember thinking how interesting his class was and that despite being exhausted what a good job he did keeping us all engaged in the class. Additionally I recall thinking how impressed I was with the caliber of the professors and how lucky I was to be a part of such a smart and talented cohort, Skamania was a very humbling experience for me.”

EMBA students networking

Skamania at night

“Skamania overall was a tremendous opportunity to sit through several intense days of class and brush away the mental cobwebs.  More so, though, it was an opportunity to spend focused time with your new classmates and teammates.  A great time to start some shared experiences and friendships of a kind that are harder to find the older you become.”

Learn more about Executive MBA.

True North

Keeping the customer as its lodestar, Alaska Air Group navigated a turbulent decade to emerge as one of the marquee companies in the Pacific Northwest

Alaska Airlines plane in the skyAlaska Air Group recently moved into to the Fortune 500, that ultimate collection of the nation’s elite businesses, that manifest marker of size and success.

It was no small feat for a comparatively small, independent carrier to join the big boys in an industry marked by brutal competition, rampant consolidation, and chronic crisis. And it was even more remarkable that Alaska sustained its growth through a decade of Herculean trials.

So you might expect this momentous milestone would call for some serious celebration at the company’s south Seattle headquarters. Some bottles of champagne, perhaps. A press release, at least. Did they even pause to savor the achievement?

“We celebrate a lot of things,” says Brad Tilden (EMBA 1997), the chairman and CEO of Alaska Air Group. “But we didn’t really celebrate joining the Fortune 500.”

The understatement adds up when you consider it comes from a man possessed of a pilot’s cool and an accountant’s good sense leading a company with roots in the Last Frontier.

“It’s like compound interest,” Tilden adds. “Somebody had a really good idea 82 years ago, and we’ve been working at it year after year.”


Alaskan roots, American dream

Linious McGee's three-seat Stinson
The roots of Alaska Air Group: Linious McGee’s three-seat Stinson.

That somebody was Linious McGee, who began flying passengers and cargo in his three-seat Stinson between Anchorage and Bristol Bay back in 1932. A merger, two years later, with Star Air Service created Alaska’s largest airline, eventually renamed after the state.

At the industry’s deregulation in 1978, Alaska was the 24th largest airline in the US. And it was just beginning expansion into the Lower 48. By the end of the 1980s, Alaska Air Group had added regional carriers Horizon Air and Jet America. It had enjoyed nearly two decades of profitability and sustained growth. And it had earned a reputation for superior customer service.

Economic prosperity and low fuel costs kept Alaska growing through the 1990s.

But Tilden, who joined the company from Price Waterhouse in 1991, says that Alaska Airlines was growing almost despite itself. Friendly service masked a declining efficiency of operations. Complacency had crept in, a culture of good enough, not great.

As the century turned, Alaska’s internal vulnerabilities were about to be mortally tested.



The century’s first decade began in tragedy. The January 2000 crash of Alaska Airlines flight 261—half of its 88 victims being employees, family members or friends—sent the tight-knit company into mourning.

It was only the first of a litany of trials to challenge both airline and industry. Shortly after the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, the attacks of 9/11 altered air travel forever. The SARS scare of 2003 followed. Then oil prices spiked just as the financial crisis shook the foundations of the global economy.

Amid the external pressures, Alaska Airlines faced a litany of contentious labor contract negotiations beginning in 2003. Strained morale brought a dip in performance. There were simply too many late flights and mishandled bags.

“Alaska was burning through the goodwill it had earned over many decades,” says Bruce Avolio, director of the Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

A new case study by Avolio, Chelley Paterson and Bradford Baker chronicles Alaska’s decade of dilemma. Survival would require absolute transformation—modernizing operations and slashing costs—without sacrificing the legendary customer service experience that had made Alaska Alaska.

“There was an increasing recognition among the leadership,” says Avolio, “that the course they were on could not continue.”


Crossing the Rubicon

The situation demanded decisive action. And fortunately, Bill Ayer (MBA 1978) had risen up the ranks to become CEO in 2002.

“At a time when this business required a person of tremendous courage,” says Tilden, “Bill was the perfect leader.”

Ayer never wavered from hard—and sometimes heartbreaking—decisions. The first set the tone for the company’s transformation. Amid an epidemic of default that swept the major carriers, Ayer declared that Alaska would not seek bankruptcy protection.

“We figured out what our costs needed to be for us to be viable and said to ourselves that we simply have to get there,” recalls Tilden, then CFO.

Among the difficult moves to ensure the company’s survival were a painful round of layoffs, the outsourcing of some ground operations, and some pragmatic dealing for concessions from the unions.

“The choice to stay out of bankruptcy helped the company downstream,” Avolio says. “By not destroying people’s pensions and protecting this covenant with their employees, Alaska’s management salvaged a degree of trust.”

That trust would prove vital.


Fix Seattle, then the company

Alaska Airlines plane flying over SeattleIf cost cutting took toughness, improving performance took smarts. There was a lot to fix, but Ayer and Tilden chose, wisely, to first fix Seattle, Alaska’s largest hub.

“We identified the basic things we needed to improve upon to be successful—safe operations, on-time performance, low fares and great customer service,” says Tilden. “And we focused relentlessly on them.”

Applying lean methodology and measuring every task, performance began improving immediately, first in Seattle and then throughout the network.

“Once they fixed Seattle, Alaska demonstrated what can be accomplished in its other cities,” says Avolio.

The dramatic transformation has been widely confirmed. Alaska has been rated highest in customer satisfaction (among traditional network carriers) by J.D. Power seven years in a row. It’s been number one in on-time performance four years running according to FlightStats.com. Outside dubbed Alaska its “Best Airline” in 2014.

Alaska has earned highest marks in just about every category awarded: air cargo handling, delivery and logistics, technology, maintenance, sustainability, philanthropy, loyalty program, employee satisfaction—even friendliness to pets.

And aggressive expansion to the East Coast, Midwest and Hawaii when others retreated has made Alaska one of the fastest growing companies in the industry.


The importance of being Alaska

That growth has lifted Alaska into the Fortune 500. The company may barely have noted the milestone. But Seattle should.

Alaska’s ascendancy adds another industry leader to the region’s increasingly diversified economy, according to Suresh Kotha, the Olesen/Battelle Excellence Chair in Entrepreneurship at the Foster School.

“Having another service-based company like Alaska become a dominant player in its industry creates jobs, broadens our economy and buffers us against the kind of cyclical downturns we used to face.”

He’s referring to the not-so-distant past when a slowdown at Boeing threatened to shut down the city. But today Seattle enjoys a far healthier balance of manufacturing, service and retail. The region is home to nine of the Fortune 500 plus other powers in a wide array of industries including aerospace (Boeing’s continued strong presence, plus a galaxy of suppliers), software (Microsoft, RealNetworks), retail (Amazon, Starbucks, Costco, Nordstrom, REI, Eddie Bauer), truck manufacturing (PACCAR), trade (Expeditors International), forestry products (Weyerhaeuser), and clusters in telecommunications, biosciences and gaming.

A successful airline adds to the economic diversity. “It’s making Seattle one of the nation’s best places to do business,” Kotha says.

Avolio adds that other companies could learn a great deal from Alaska’s customer focus and level-headed navigation of crisis “with discipline and focus.”

The other lesson of Alaska, he says, “is that the essence of great leadership is building a sense of ownership in employees and customers.”


People power

Ayer asked a lot of Alaska Air Group’s employees to save the company in its darkest hour. And those employees stepped up.

“We are the only legacy airline not to have filed for bankruptcy, thanks to the determination of our people,” he says. “What we learned by doing the hard work ourselves bodes well for our future.”

In 2012 Ayer passed the controls to Tilden, a new kind of leader for a new chapter in Alaska’s story. His focus today is on fine tuning the customer experience.

Tilden is continuing to foster Alaska’s celebrated culture of innovation that delivered the industry’s first online ticket sales and check-in kiosks, and is now developing apps to remove the anxiety from travel. “The goal today is to be the easiest airline in the world to fly by 2017,” he says.

Of course, technology can only do so much. People make the difference. While continuing to cultivate top management prospects in the Foster Executive MBA Program (see sidebar), he’s really trying to push the airline’s leadership to the front lines.

“The big opportunities going forward will come from consistent execution and delivery of service across every airport and every employee,” says Tilden.

To that end, he has initiated two company-wide programs to engage every employee and empower them to lead. It helps that they have a vested interest. As the profit-sharing program that Ayer and Tilden started during the lean days of the mid-2000s begins to pay handsomely, the link between airline performance and personal prosperity is easy to follow. That’s good for everyone’s bottom line.

“If the employees want us to be a great airline, we’ll be a great airline,” Tilden says.


Further frontiers

Alaska Airlines plane flies over a mountainThe airline industry seems to have stabilized, and Alaska is all systems go, elevating both its standards and goals. An exemplar of corporate responsibility, it’s also a pillar of philanthropy in the larger community—and especially at the University of Washington.

“There is a really special culture at Alaska,” Tilden says. “A real sense of mission, that what we do for the communities we serve—the infrastructure we provide businesses, the connections we provide families—is important.”

“What makes me proudest is the company’s outstanding performance since I retired,” says Ayer. “The team is executing better than ever and, as always, there’s no shortage of challenges. The reality is that there are a lot of factors that are not controllable, so those that are must be very well managed.”

Tilden is ever vigilant. Or, as they like to say in Alaska’s HQ, “Brad’s never happy.”

He’s seen the perils of complacency, especially when most of the challenges ahead are yet unseen.

“In some ways, the challenge was simpler ten years ago,” notes Avolio. “You knew all of the things that were broken; you just had to fix them. Today, you don’t know where the market is going. There are a lot of question marks.”

One certainty is that fierce competition will come from smaller airlines and the big ones (which keep getting bigger through consolidation). Most immediately, Delta is making a significant incursion on Alaska’s prime West Coast territory.

But Tilden believes that Alaska Air Group has found the secret. And it’s not at all sexy. “What’s going to help us succeed over the long run is continuing to do the basics well,” he says. “We need to be safe. We need to be on-time. We need to offer low fares. We need to provide great service. Those things are 100 percent in our control. And I think if we get them right, we’re going to win.”


Additional reading:

Alaska Air Group has long leveraged the Foster Executive MBA Program as a de facto training academy for future leaders, beginning with current CEO Brad Tilden (EMBA 1997). Learn more about the special relationship between Foster’s EMBA program and the Alaska Air group.

EMBA summer workshops

The UW Foster Executive MBA student experience actually begins with 36 hours of “summer workshops” held mid-July through mid-August. Designed to prepare incoming students for the many quantitative classes of their first year, the 3 hour workshop sessions cover basic math through calculus, excel and accounting. Students attend the workshops in-person on the Seattle campus, participate virtually or subsequently view recordings of the sessions.

Following the Summer Workshops, students are welcomed “back-to-school” at the end of August for an all day program orientation. At the back-to-school day, students meet their study team and larger cohort, receive fall quarter materials and hear from program alumni. Spouses and significant others are welcomed too. Below are a few photos from the 2014 workshops.

Prof Matsumoto meeting students

EMBA students raising hands

EMBA students networking

EMBA students presenting

EMBA students networking

Classes for first year students begin in late September at the fall Residential.

Learn more about Executive MBA.

You’re in charge–now what?

EMBA Panel
Left to right: EMBA student Christy Bermensolo and alums Vetri Vellore, Kevin Conroy, and René Ancinas shared insights at the Forum on Leadership and the Executive MBA.

Three Foster Executive MBA alumni and one current student, all of whom are CEOs at mid-career, shared their experiences on the challenges and rewards of leadership with an attentive audience of students, prospective students and alumni on January 29.

The four came to their leadership roles in different ways. Kevin Conroy (EMBA 2004), president and founder of Blue Rooster, has been self-employed since 1990 and has started several companies. René Ancinas (EMBA 2009), president and CEO at Port Blakely Companies, and Christy Bermensolo (EMBA 2015), CEO at Engineered Software, Inc., assumed leadership of family-owned companies fairly recently–Christy just last year. Vetri Vellore (EMBA 2006), CEO and co-founder at Chronus Corporation, started his company in 2007 after a successful 14-year career at Microsoft.

René and Christy found getting comfortable in the leadership role especially challenging. Both said the advice and guidance they received from mentors inside and outside their organizations, including EMBA classmates, had been tremendously helpful. They both quickly realized their responsibilities required the ability to manage change. For René, the challenge was growth–unusual for a family business, he said. For Christy, it was the need to adopt a style of management different from her parents’ intensely hands-on approach.

All the panelists said finding mentors who offer sound advice and counsel was a key priority, no matter how long they had been in the lead. Kevin spoke about his recent experience recruiting a board of directors, and how much he had learned in the process of preparing to take his business to the next level. René looked to his board, experienced staff members and colleagues in the Young Presidents Organization. Velore sought out executives who he considered 3-5 years ahead of him in their development.

Christy offered some insight into the reason all these leaders had chosen to enroll in Foster’s Executive MBA Program. Preparing to assume her new role, Christy–an engineer by training and analytical by nature–developed a spreadsheet listing expertise that she figured she would need in order to handle the CEO job effectively. She quickly realized her list closely matched the curriculum of the Executive MBA Program. That made one of her first big decisions an easy one.

For alumni, EMBA eases midlife career transitions

For the experienced professionals who graduate from Foster’s Executive MBA Program, career challenges come in many shapes and sizes. For one professional, the smooth climb up a career ladder was suddenly blocked. For another, finding a suitable match for specialized background and skills proved unexpectedly difficult. A third reached the end of one career path and had to find her way to another. A fourth moved halfway around the world and had to start over in a city with an unfamiliar culture where she had few connections in the business community. Each of these four EMBA alumni faced one of these challenges. Each triumphed over adversity with new knowledge and skills, a new network of contacts and assistance from the EMBA program’s career coach. Here are their stories.

How do you know when you’re ready for an Executive MBA?

Executive MBA students typically think about getting an MBA for months, sometimes years, prior to applying for admission to a program. Most carefully weigh the financial investment, the time commitment, and other opportunity costs against the ROI of personal and professional growth offered by the EMBA experience. We asked three Foster EMBA students to explain how they decided to make a leap forward in their careers.

Meet Our GBC Board Members

Meet Jeri Wait, Global Business Advisory Board Chair and Co-founder of OrcaWave, a globally oriented software company providing revenue assurance solutions for telecommunications companies in the USA and across five continents.

How did you become interested in the telecommunications business?

Actually it was rather by chance.  When I was in high school, I was looking for a summer job in which the working conditions would be pleasant, and I could learn something new.  The previous summer I had been a hotel maid, which was very hard physically and not the best working conditions.  (But to this day I can make a mean bed!)  I had heard AT&T was hiring high school seniors to be telephone operators, sounded good to me!   My luck was with me, as they not only hired me, but placed me in a college program that allowed me to work around my upcoming university class schedule. The program I was hired in was targeting high potential incoming college freshmen, that had tested well for future management jobs in the telephone business.  It was a wonderful college job and ultimately career, first beginning as a telephone operator and then later working with a networking group assisting with analysis and managing special projects.  By college graduation, I already had four years of service with the company and had some solid experience to draw upon as I entered the management trainee program.   My accelerated program prepared me well for management roles at the age of 22, and also allowed me to career track to the technology side of the business.  At the time, I was one of the youngest managers as well as one of a handful of women who managed traditional male jobs.  I must admit it was challenging, but some of the best days of my early career.

By the time I left the phone company, I had experienced over a dozen different positions, including  the role of Vice President of major business accounts, responsible for $600M of annual revenue as well as leading a national development effort for a new business unit.  It was quite a ride and provided me a solid basis from which to co-found my own business.  Not only did I leave with a wealth of knowledge about the business and managing teams, I also was fortunate to have graduated with an Executive MBA (Class 6) from the University of Washington.

What is it like to be the co-founder of a company? What do you find most challenging and most rewarding about the experience?

Entering the entrepreneurial world as a co-founder of a company was quite a change from the bureaucracy of a fortune 500 company.  The phone company had surrounded me with training, procedures, outstanding team members and staff support.  For years, I had a personal assistant taking care of all of the little things.  Launching a new business that was initially self funded, required a change in my thinking and learning new skills.   I now had to be responsible for everything, with very limited time and resources.  No longer was there staff to back me up, or to even make my flight reservations.  The overwhelming responsibility of managing employees who were dependent upon me and the other co-founder for their salary and well being, was an awesome task.   In my corporate career, I was proud of my ability to mentor and assist my employees with their career development, but owning my own business now made that commitment to employees so much more complex.  After more than 12 years of co-owning my own firm, I continue to enjoy mentoring my team but also never cease to forget that their jobs and livelihood are dependent upon our mutual success as a company.

On the other hand, being an entrepreneur is exhilarating, wonderfully fun and addicting. The first company I co-founded was a telecom business providing long distance solutions to telephone companies on a global basis.  Ten years ago, we founded a new company providing the software for the management of telecom solutions.  This is a global company, with customers on all continents.  The opportunity to learn a new business, software was intellectually stimulating and challenging.  I have traveled extensively to places that never would have made the family vacation agenda  but have enriched my life in so many ways.  Every day, we are challenged by doing business in different cultures and time zones.  Although, from my perspective I always think we can do anything , time of day or culture should not create barriers to working together.  I think this is the American optimism exuding from me, however my customers can get very frustrated with the differences, so my challenge is to constantly be alert to the signals that will tell me there is more we need to do as a business to be successful in a global market place.

You have to think hard every day as a business owner.   You can never let your guard down, or think you have it right.  There are always multi faceted issues that present themselves daily.  Cash flow is probably the biggest challenge and requires close vigilance to assure the business is healthy.  The balance between having enough cash and not diluting mine and my business partner’s hard earned equity consumes me on some days. However, I would never give it up, not for one minute.  It is my life and my passion.

And one last thing regarding co-founding a business,  I have a great partner!  I was so fortunate to have traveled down this professional path with someone whose skills complimented mine, is intelligent, business savvy and has an optimistic outlook. Other entrepreneurs that venture into new opportunities will tell you this same thing, it is absolutely essential to move forward with partners, one or more. I am convinced the synergy of partnerships leads to better businesses and long term success.

How did your experience at the Foster School prepare you for your career in global communications?

My Executive MBA absolutely prepared me for the leap into an entrepreneurial career path.  The solid foundation built on accounting and economic principals has been drawn upon daily.  I was also so fortunate to have had such outstanding professors including Rocky Higgins, Karma and Bob Bowen who bestowed upon our class their broader vision of how their particular expertise was applied to the global marketplace.  I was also exposed to 40 classmates from 40 different corporations who shared their challenges, how they problem solved and their formulas for success.

What I see in today’s program that is so meaningful for success is the global perspective and the real life business models expressed through business case presentations and sometimes competitions.  They closely align to the current business client and challenges that I see today.

Can you tell us about a person or experience that has influenced you in your career decisions?

This may sound corny but my parents encouraged me to dream, excel and never did they discourage me in following my professional desires.  Also, I had many wonderful mentors along the way.  Early in my career I had individuals that identified me as someone they wished to invest time in, providing training, career path counseling and sounding boards for new ideas and problem solving.  These individuals will be held dear to me for all time.  I use them as my role models, as I mentor UW students and  my employees.

What would you tell current business students, both undergrads and MBAs, about the world of global business? 

Global business is an integral part of our world and is as much main stream as the domestic U.S. business was 20 years ago.  However, never take the cultural differences for granted.  Learn from each, and take the time to understand how your business actions are perceived.  Be open to others’ differences and views and enjoy those unique characteristics.  Be willing to step back and accept the culture you are working in even though it is not how you would manage if at home.  Enjoy global business, it will enrich your life!​​​​

EMBA alumus: Kevin Conroy

Executive MBA helps Seattle entrepreneur survive—and thrive

Like many successful serial entrepreneurs, Kevin Conroy’s career has had big ups and big downs. He grew up in California, earned an undergraduate degree and went to work for a large company. But he had an itch to branch out on his own. Launched in 1990, his first venture grew quickly, but hit a wall and eventually failed.

“I didn’t have the skills to make the right changes when the economy shifted,” he explains. “We didn’t understand the headwinds of the economy and the things that were deeply impacting our business that we had no control over.”

He was determined to learn from his mistake. In 2000, he started Blue Rooster, a technology consulting firm, as a one-man operation. Realizing that the crash of his first business was related to gaps in his education, Conroy (EMBA 2004) enrolled in the University of Washington Foster School of Business Executive MBA Program in 2002 and never looked back. Courses in economics, finance and strategy filled those gaps and helped him build a solid foundation for his new business.

Blue Rooster grew steadily. But when recession hit, it threatened to undo everything Kevin had built. That’s when he reached down into the bag of business tools from Foster and connected with his alumni network for advice, shifting his strategy to respond to conditions over which he had little control.

“We changed quite a bit when the downturn happened in 2008, and our change as a company came about from the EMBA Program and all the things that I learned there,” Conroy recalls.

Blue Rooster not only survived, but thrived, tripling its business, growing to 50 employees and attracting a long list of Fortune 500 companies as clients. Now Conroy is nourishing the entrepreneurial spirit in those big companies, in his local community and at the Foster School, where he regularly serves as a judge in business plan competitions.

Today Blue Rooster is headquartered in a stylish, corrugated-steel building in Seattle’s Fremont district that also houses another of Conroy’s ventures, Five Zero Nine Wine. Blue Rooster’s open-plan office space features high windows that look south to the neighborhood’s working waterfront on Lake Union and the city’s downtown skyline.

Conroy is excited about what’s happening in Seattle and sees himself as a partner with the University of Washington and Foster School’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in promoting entrepreneurial activity.

“Small business is the engine of job growth,” he observes. “This area—the University District, Fremont, South and North Lake Union—this is really a hub for new businesses, and whatever we can do to keep that going and growing is very important.”

Paul Smith

Paul Smith

Alumnus invents revolutionary oil spill cleanup technology for $1 million X prize

Let no one doubt the power of competition to spark innovation.

Vying for the $1 million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge, Paul Smith (Executive MBA 2000) was part of a team that made the first significant advancement in oil-skimming technology in decades. Just 45 days from conception to prototype, Team Elastec/American Marine produced a grooved-disk skimmer that won grand prize and quadrupled the industry standard for oil removal.

“Past X Prizes—for commercial spaceships and a 100-mpg car—seemed to me like neat photo ops,” admits Smith, who recently joined Elastec to head new product development. “But now, having seen what all the competitors bring to the game, I’m fascinated by it as a mechanism for innovation.”

New oil standard

It worked for Team Elastec. Engineers from the Illinois-based firm created a skimmer with grooved disks that spin on an axle, picking up oil to be scraped into a holding tank and leaving water behind. The real innovation is the grooves, which collect much more oil than flat disks as they pass through the water.

But to compete in the X Challenge—and to work in the real world—the skimmer needed to perform in open water under any conditions. So Smith and colleagues from the Glosten Associates, a Seattle marine engineering firm, designed the “wrapper,” a vessel that ferries the abacus-like rows of skimming disks through moving water, fooling them into feeling stationary.

In the X Challenge test, team Elastec’s skimmer proved capable of removing 4,670 gallons of oil per minute from open water, with nearly 90 percent efficiency. The old industry standard recovery rate for skimmers—unchanged from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill to the massive BP Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010—was 1,200 gallons per minute.

Career of innovation

For Smith, it was another maritime innovation in a career full of them. After earning a BSE from Michigan and an MS in ocean engineering from MIT in the 1970s, he worked for years in marine operations and salvage. Salvors are never far from oil spills, so when he sought to come ashore after Exxon Valdez, he joined Seattle-based MARCO Pollution Control in 1992. There he managed an engineering and manufacturing operation with worldwide reach.

Feeling he needed a greater grasp of the business, he enrolled in the UW Foster School of Business Executive MBA Program, where he was valedictorian of his class. “I went initially to learn accounting,” Smith says. “But I really fell in love with all of the management sciences, especially finance.”

Expertise in business and marine engineering made Smith a hot prospect. He joined Glosten as a principal in 2002, and for a decade managed its marine consulting group, specializing in “anything nobody’s done before,” he says. “It was a great opportunity to applying my background in operations and engineering to solve strange, unique, fun problems.”

Among them, he’s been working with Lockheed-Martin to generate continuous, renewable energy by harnessing the temperature differential of water at the surface and depths of the ocean, a technology first envisioned in the 1800s.

A better mousetrap

Smith also developed sophisticated financial modeling tools for Glosten’s clients that have “killed a lot of marine transportation projects,” he says. “But it has shown others to be homeruns.”

One of the biggest was a next-generation oil skimmer, built on the hope of a prestigious prize. “For us to take on a job like this on speculation was out of character,” Smith says. “Were it not for my Foster background, I’m not sure if I could have sold the business case to my partners.”

Good thing. The prize could get a lot bigger if Elastec’s skimmer can be refined for the commercial market. “We still need to convince response organizations that this really is a better mousetrap,” Smith says, “and that they owe it to the world to put the best machinery available out in the next spill.”

Lasting alumni network

Now leading new product development for environmental innovation firm Elastec/American Marine, Smith’s world is potentially scattered to the seven seas. But wherever he goes, his far-flung classmates from Foster School’s Executive MBA Program continue to be an important part of his life and career. “They are like my personal consulting group,” he says. “Whenever I have a problem that needs some added expertise or perspective, I send out a blanket e-mail to my classmates and it’s never more than two hours before I have a solution.”

Ann’s thoughts

Over the years, Senior Career Counselor Ann Girarde has helped dozens of EMBA students and alums manage their careers. Here’s her advice on leveraging the EMBA to advance your career:

How to leverage an Executive MBA

Getting an EMBA is not a magical elixir—it’s important to understand how to combine your EMBA with your professional experience and past accomplishments. I help clients leverage the whole package by learning how to tell their story. It’s important to build on all of your strengths so that your EMBA is not just a degree on a resume.

The value of an EMBA in the current economy

Professionals who get an Executive MBA put themselves in a different, more elite arena. Making the decision to go back to school demonstrates that someone is willing to invest in themselves, and this makes them more capable and more desirable to potential employers. EMBA graduates know more about the bottom line, have a bigger picture and more insight.

Supporting EMBA students and alumni

Professionals who get an Executive MBA put themselves in a different, more elite arena. Making the decision to go back to school demonstrates that someone is willing to invest in themselves, and this makes them more capable and more desirable to potential employers. EMBA graduates know more about the bottom-line and have a bigger picture and more insight. In the current economic environment, you need to learn how to articulate your value proposition. And, professional networking skills are crucial. High salaried people can be more vulnerable in tough economic times. When changing jobs, a rule of thumb is that every $10,000 in annual salary can easily equal a month of job hunting. Thus, a transition is usually a lengthy and challenging set of tasks. I am available to help current EMBA students, as well as alumni, navigate the terrain, from beginning to end.

Here’s what EMBA alumni said about Ann:

“Through Career Services I found a valuable partner in identifying opportunities and marketing myself. And when the offer did come, I received additional support in the negotiating phase. I worked for Univar Europe, out of Paris, France, for three years, which exceeded my goals for compensation, excitement and progression on my career path. When I decided to return to the Northwest last spring, Ann once again worked with me in identifying the right position and negotiating the deal. I have been with CBRE since August 2008. Career Services was right there with me, every step of the way.”

– Michael Delcamp
Senior Account Manager
CB Richard Ellis
Class of 2004

“Ann creates an environment of trust.  Her experience and the solid EMBA alumni network that she introduced me to was invaluable in achieving my career objective. Ann played a pivotal role in assisting me with which firm and which position I should focus on, then near the end of the interview process, she helped me negotiate a package that not only allowed me to settle in a position that was a great fit.”

– Curt Kwak
Regional Director of IT Infrastructure Services
Providence Health & Services
Class of 2007