Degrees of Success

By Beth Luberecki.

When John Wiest was enrolled in Florida Gulf Coast University’s executive MBA program, he often rose before the sun did. “Some mornings I got up at 3 a.m. so I could study and still be a dad and husband when my family got up,” he recalls.

Wiest, now 45, graduated from Maryland’s Frostburg State University in 1984 with a dual degree in business administration and accounting. He then became a CPA. Weist headed up finance divisions of healthcare organizations, where his job responsibilities increased over the years. But he knew a master’s in business administration could take him even further.

“I’d wanted to get my MBA for quite a while, but most of the programs were out of town, which really didn’t fit into my lifestyle,” he says. When FGCU launched its executive MBA program, Wiest signed up. He attended classes every other Friday and Saturday from 1998 to 1999, earning his degree while working full-time for NCH Healthcare System. He has been the chief financial and institutional services officer for Lee Memorial Health System since 2000.

The degree, however, didn’t necessarily help him land his current job or boost his salary.

“In my line of work, an employer is looking for either a CPA or an MBA,” he says, “but it was worth it. It helped me to think a lot more critically, and the classmates I had really challenged me to raise the bar for myself.”

An MBA doesn’t guarantee a corner office and a big paycheck, but for a candidate with realistic expectations and goals, the time and financial sacrifices can pay off. Having those three little letters on your CV can give you a big professional edge.

According to the 2007 Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) Corporate Recruiters Survey Report, recruiters plan to offer annual base salaries to candidates with graduate business degrees that are 28 percent higher than those with other graduate degrees and 84 percent higher than to people with only an undergraduate education.

“Recruiters are getting more energized around the maturity, discipline, teamwork experience and education that MBAs bring to them,” says Dave Wilson, president and CEO of the GMAC, an international association of business schools and provider 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 make themselves a better player-all things employers look for.”

“The MBA is still the standard in the marketplace,” says Don Forrer, MBA program director at Hodges University. “When you put an MBA on your resume, it means something throughout the world. Lee County and the local area are no different. It’s a degree that stands on its own.”

With an MBA degree from a university as prestigious as Harvard, a person can write his or her own ticket, and “the return on investment for tuition is huge,” says Ben Gidwani, president of Fortune Personnel Consultants (FPC) of Naples, which specializes in placing professionals nationally in automotive, aerospace, medical technology and other science and technology industries. An MBA from an institution with less weight, however, might or might not be worth the investment.

“It is rare that a client will specify that a [candidate] must have an MBA,” says Gidwani. More important are experience and how well a candidate interviews. “An MBA itself is not going to get you a job. You have to look at the person’s goal.”

For example, a scientist who wants to own his own business or go into management would benefit from an MBA program, but it probably won’t help him get hired by a company looking for scientific capabilities. Even if he has scientific skills, that MBA indicates he might have goals that don’t fit the company’s needs.

“You shouldn’t do it because it’s a badge of honor,” says Gidwani-although that’s what he did. He was an engineer working for General Motors and aspiring to become a plant manager when he entered a graduate business program. It inspired him to start his own business, he says; now the recruiting firm he heads up has 70 offices nationwide.

Paul Wise also was an engineer. He was working for Yamaha in Atlanta when he enrolled in the University of Florida’s online MBA program. With his new degree in hand, he moved to Southwest Florida, where he and his father have worked as a team for Downing-Frye Realty for the past three years.

“Having an MBA gave me instant credibility, even though I was a novice in the real estate arena,” says Wise, 36. “The marketing portion of the MBA gave me a leg up with current trends in marketing, Internet advertising-things that realtors who have been in the market 20 or 30 years have not been educated or updated on, quite frankly.”

One local engineering company that wouldn’t mind adding more MBAs to its mix is WilsonMiller. Currently, five of the company’s 657 employees have MBAs. “All things being equal, if two individuals came to us with similar credentials [and] the same work styles, we would obviously offer the position to the one with the MBA,” says company president Fermin Diaz. “What we have found is [people with MBAs] tend to be a little more business savvy coming out of school, are more self-confident on business practices and appear to have a bigger picture of the business climate.”

As Southwest Florida’s economy becomes more sophisticated, the demand for employees with advanced degrees is accelerating, says Jim Wall, a manager with the Southwest Florida Workforce Development Board. “Not so long ago, if a person wanted to pursue a career, they had to leave this area if they weren’t in the hospitality industry. We’re much more diverse now and maturing to a [point] where there are more MBAs and a need for MBAs in Southwest Florida.”

A good example is Chico’s, the little Sanibel shop that grew into a national retail giant. The corporation prefers MBAs for certain positions, says Jay Redmond, director of learning and organizational development. Graduate schools sharpen their critical-thinking abilities, he says, and new hires with MBAs bring “fresh thinking from best practices. Most of the great schools we use MBAs from are studying what top retail companies are doing. [Business graduates] tend to bring to the table a lot of ideas from other companies they studied in school.”

Tim Hains, managing partner of Quarles & Brady law firm in Naples, has witnessed the advantage an MBA gives 28-year-old Jason Mikes, a real estate attorney and a graduate of Stetson University’s dual MBA and law degree program. “Oftentimes I see him speaking with [clients] on a different level than other attorneys do. It gives Jason a leg up on other younger associates,” he says.

“These clients aren’t just asking me for legal advice; they’re looking for practical advice on business issues, too,” says Mikes. “I’m not providing legal advice in a vacuum.”

Jonathan Tansky, 32, had been working in residential lending before starting his own title company and real estate marketing firm this past February. He believes his MBA will give his business an edge. “An MBA enables you to see all aspects of a business, from purchasing and operations to accounting and finance and marketing,” he says. “If there’s a lull in your business, odds are you can go back to one of those functional areas and see improvements you can make.”

The GMAC survey found that corporate recruiters expect to hire an average of 18 percent more workers with MBAs and other graduate business degrees this year than they did in 2006, so the effort might very well pay off. But even non-Harvard MBA programs aren’t cheap. The EMBA program at FGCU now costs $39,000, and Hodges University charges up to $26,160 for an MBA.

But many companies that recognize the value a graduate can bring, such as Comcast Cable, have tuition-reimbursement programs. Ryan Reid, a 26-year-old account executive in the advertising sales division, Comcast Spotlight, took advantage of that and received his MBA from Hodges University in June. “Learning the new practices and strategies, and being able to apply them and share that knowledge with [clients] goes a long way toward creating more successful campaigns for them,” says Reid.

Earning an MBA reflects well on an employee, says Henry T. Pastor, Comcast Spotlight senior human resource manager. “It takes an awful lot of drive and tenacity to complete an MBA program. Plus, I think someone with an MBA has general business acumen that someone with a specific master’s or no master’s may not. They have a better understanding of the business world.”

Reid hasn’t seen any financial benefits yet from his new degree, he says, “but it does put me in the position to transcend into management.” His goal is to eventually become general manager or regional vice president.

Having just finished her MBA studies at Hodges University this past December, Heather Parks, an account manager at XL-Care Agency, is still waiting to see how it impacts her future. It took six years for the 36-year-old single mother to complete the degree, and she is optimistic about its value to her career.

“I think I probably will have higher earning potential, and I think it makes me more marketable,” she says. “But it’s for me to figure out where I want it to take me.”

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