August 2013 | 

Creating Custom Solutions for Industry-Specific Challenges


When The Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing (NACS) was looking for a finance program for its members, it reached out to a number of schools for ideas. The international trade organization (its members do business in nearly 50 countries) has a strong commitment to education, including leadership programs, educational forums, and other events that bring cutting-edge thought leadership to its members.

NACS chose Wharton to develop its new Financial Leadership program. Patti Parker, Wharton’s Practice Leader for Industry Associations, worked closely with NACS President and CEO and Senior Director of Education Services to design the five-day program. “NACS contacted us about six months before it launched, and they were very clear on what they were looking for. They were a terrific partner because they provided us with a vision, lots of valuable industry data, and current challenges for its members,” notes Parker.

The program, which ran for the first time in June, included daily sessions on key financial topics such as linking strategy and value creation, capital management, and debt financing. Wharton finance professor David Wessels created a custom case that teams worked on throughout the week, reinforcing classroom learnings through active group work. In addition, key leadership capabilities were addressed.

The benefits of a custom program, says Parker, include a “strict focus on your industry. In Open Enrollment programs, you get a mix of industries and levels of experience. That mix has its upside: you get a wider, global view. But you can get very specific with an industry group that has the same issues and a similar experience level.”

Parker continues, “The more industry-precise information you can give to us the better. We hold conversations with those on the association side and industry members to get their perspective and learn from their experiences how we can best tailor content to benefit the group. True customization starts with this input, and then we engage with faculty. They adapt their learnings for the group, using relevant examples and focusing on current challenges. Teaching in a custom program is rewarding because it gives Wharton professors an insider view of an industry and the experiences and best practices of the participants.”

Parker says she looks forward to the next incarnation of the program. “We are already talking about making some changes based on our experience and the feedback we are getting from participants. Some sessions could be longer, and others could be optional. It’s great to have the opportunity to continue to make it even better. The openness of our contacts at NACS has made all the difference.”

Stan Storti, CFO of The Spinx Company, says that it was the mix of finance and leadership that attracted him to the program. “The focus on leadership appealed to me because my next step in the company will be to take on a broader role. The sessions on culture, competitive strategy, and scenario planning showed me where my best opportunities as a leader lie. I have already contacted one faculty member for advice about what to study next, and am looking to come back to Wharton. I got the sense that what they covered in a few hours with us they go into greater depth about in other programs.”

Storti is right: Kathy Pearson teaches about strategic thinking under uncertainty in a three-day program, The Strategic Decision-Making Mindset. Mario Moussa dives deeper into culture — what it is and how to lead it — as learning director of Business Essentials for Executives. Nicolaj Siggelkow is faculty director of Strategic Thinking and Management for Competitive Advantage.

Storti continues, “The Financial Leadership program was a great partnership between Wharton and NACS. It was rigorous and incredibly engaging. In most programs the academic engagement and networking are about equal. But at Wharton the academics were much stronger. In fact, the subject matter, the instruction, and the case work had me so engaged that one morning I got up early to work on our group’s presentation. I thought to myself, ‘This isn’t my job. I can’t believe I’m getting at 5 a.m. to work on this!’ Anyone who thinks Executive Education isn’t heavy on the education needs to come here.”