The Charlotte Observer | Wednesday, June 09, 2010 | by Ron Stodghill
Around this time every year, Harvard Business School alum Bill
Berry starts pondering all of the secrets behind Benihana of Tokyo's
famous recipe - not the food, but the company.
In the killjoy world of academia, where fun stuff like Japanese
steakhouses has a way of morphing into the decidedly un-fun, the case
study of Benihana (1972) reigns as among the most important case studies
ever produced at Harvard B-School, inventor of the genre some 80 years
"People start out thinking they are analyzing a restaurant, but
then realize that it's not just a restaurant, but a well-oiled machine,"
says Berry, class of '75, a professor of business at Queens University
of Charlotte. "It's like Disney World, or a cruise ship where it's all
about processing people."
Of course, during these times of chronic corporate bungling and
bad behavior (see British Petroleum, Goldman Sachs, etc.), some look to
religion for answers.
Others, well, turn to Harvard.
And in Charlotte, it's hard not to be impressed by how the
Harvard B-school brand is now synonymous with commerce and charity.
In what seems to me a remarkable blend of capitalism and
do-goodership, Berry volunteers twice a year with a couple dozen members
of the Harvard Business School alums in Charlotte to teach a range of
such business case studies (i.e., Amazon vs. Barnes & Noble; L'Oreal
and the Globalization of American Beauty; Enron) to local executives,
small business owners and leaders of struggling nonprofits.
The going rate of a 13-week, quasi-Hah-vaad education: a modest
"It's the best bang for your buck you're going to get in
education," says recent graduate Bob Utsman, 71, a retired senior
manager of Exxon Chemical who now is board president of the nonprofit
Cooperative Christian Ministry. "These days, our funders are demanding
greater results, so it's necessary for nonprofits to run like a
Over the program's seven years, about 50 local companies have
sent executives through the program, from Bank of America to Duke Energy
to TIAA-CREF. Since then, the Harvard Business School Club has donated -
after absorbing the cost of books, food and administration - about
$165,000 to such local charities, or about 80 percent of its tuition
To be sure, there is an irony to a curriculum that often uses
cases of dumb corporate decisions that hurt ordinary Americans to fund
charities that helps them. Last semester, for example, a guy who ran a
subprime mortgage firm (now defunct) lectured on the dangers of subprime
lending, and that was followed by another alum offering policy
prescriptions for the mortgage meltdown.
Still, it's no secret that Charlotte's nonprofits are struggling
through some tough times, due to a bum economy and some United Way
chicanery. The willingness of Harvard B-school alums to leverage their
coveted expertise for charity is among the myriad - and often
beneath-the-radar - ways in which the Charlotte community is filling a
Says Berry: "It's amazing: An hour and a half apiece from our
volunteers translates into thousands of dollars. It's like loaves and
fishes or something."
Ron: 704 358-5928; firstname.lastname@example.org
; blog at rstodghill.blogspot.com