Incoming Owen Dean Eric Johnson: Vanderbilt Operates at the ‘Personal Scale’ of Business


Here at Owen, we take culture very seriously. With a total full-time MBA population of about 170 students per class — and just under 550 Owen students altogether — every member of our community plays a significant role in our success.

That’s why we organized back-to-back luncheons (one in Nashville, one in New York) earlier this month for incoming students, current students and alumni to say thank you to Jim Bradford for his remarkable nine-year tenure as Dean and get to know incoming Dean, Eric Johnson. The two have become fast friends, with both working tirelessly to ensure a smooth transition.

In fact, Owen’s close-knit culture — or operating at the “personal scale” as Eric calls it — is one of the primary reasons he chose to return to Vanderbilt after rising to a top leadership role at the highly esteemed Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. A consummate researcher who thrives on taking deep dives within organizations to understand how they operate, Eric sees many parallels between Owen and the Steinway & Sons piano company (a particularly appropriate analogy since we’re located in Music City).

Here’s incoming Owen Dean Eric Johnson in his own words:

“I chose to come back to Owen for some really specific reasons. Yes I love Nashville. It’s a great city and a great place to live. But it’s really the excitement of being at a school like Owen at this place and time that brought me back. Part of that has to do with the size of Owen. Owen is what I would call a personal scale institution.

When I first went to Tuck in 1999 it was about exactly the same size as Owen is today, and it was one of the things that attracted me there. Tuck has grown a lot since then. You find yourself in classrooms of 75, 80, 90 students. That’s great, you’ve got the sage on the stage and all that kind of thing. But you don’t get the chance to know that professor, or have them thinking about your personal objectives: where you’re going, your goals, your dreams.

At Owen, we still have the luxury of working at this personal scale and it’s that scale where I think real transformation occurs — a breakthrough kind of scale. And when I think about Owen I think about the piano company Steinway. Why Steinway? Well I have to give you a little bit more about myself. I love teaching and I love doing research. I love inquiring, it’s just who I am.

I like to study companies and I like to write cases. One of my favorites is a pair of case studies I wrote on Steinway. If you’re not a pianist you might not have ever noticed this, but any time you end up in a concert hall, chances are if you look up on the stage, there is a Steinway piano sitting there. There are a lot of piano companies in the world, but Steinway owns the market for 98% of the concert pianists in the world. 98%! That’s everybody from Billy Joel to Vladimir Horowitz, the very pinnacle of pianists play on Steinway and it’s this 150 year old company. That’s what piqued my curiosity. If you know anything about business, you know that most companies don’t last 150 years. In fact, 10 years is a long time for a lot of business. Businesses come and go every day. The S&P 500 looks very different today than it did 20 years ago.

So how does a company not only exist for 150 years, but maintain that? If you think of a pyramid they’re just working at that very top level. The $100,000 concert grands are their sweet spot. And when you start peeling back Steinway, you see they’ve never gone to China for outsourcing, that’s not their business. In fact their main factory still sits at the end of the LaGuardia runway in New York.

It’s a crazy old factory that’s been there for more than 100 years. But what happens in that factory is an intense focus on detail and personalization. Every single piano comes out in some ways unique, special, different. In fact, when we talked to the artists, they said what they love about Steinway is that no two Steinway pianos are the same. There are many other great competitors. For example, Yamaha makes great pianos. You’ll see a lot of Yamahas running around Nashville. And Yamaha is successful because they mass-market, mass-manufacture a piano that sounds kind of the same. Every one of them is very consistent. It’s like kind an Acura or an Infinity. You’ve got high quality but each one is the same.

What Steinway figured out is that there’s a market, an important market, way up there at the top, where no two pianos are alike. But they’re the best pianos in the world. And pianists will sit down and play on two or three or four of them and they’ll find the one that they love and then they’ll keep that thing for the rest of their lives. It turns out that the biggest competitor to Steinway is used Steinways. No kidding. So much so that they started getting into the used Steinway business, buying them back, refurbishing, and selling them out through their dealer network.

When I think about Owen, I think about Steinway, because here at Owen we’re at personal scale. What we’re trying to do is make the very, very best out of you. At Steinway, they’ll bring the very best lumber from all over the world, they’ll go through this very long process — it takes them two years actually, kind of like getting an MBA. But their whole thing is this personal scale, they’re going to take that wood and they’re going to make the very best piano that they can.

And that’s exactly what we’re about here at Owen, that personal scale. How can we make your dreams and goals come true? How can we help make the very best of you that can be made?

I think when you see the alumni here today you get a feel for that. I won’t call them our used Steinways, but some of them have been around a little while, they’ve got a lot of wisdom, and a lot of ideas to share with you.

And just like Steinway leverages that, we leverage, as Jim said, our alumni network to operate that personal scale, to make those connections, to stay involved with the alumni the rest of their lives. Some of my very best friends today were students of mine that I had back in the 1990s and some of them live here in Nashville. I’m just so excited to be able to spend more time with them. So welcome to this great city and welcome to the Owen school and I really look forward to seeing you in the fall.”

Comments & Responses

2 Responses so far.

  1. Nishant Goyal says:

    What a great story and connect! I went through Dean Johnson’s history and this is the best investment Owen could have made!!!

  2. […] Nashville alumni, new students and many of the faculty and staff here. Reflecting on my first year, I go back to one of the things I said then: What I treasure most about Owen is our small size, which in turn enables us to have a lasting, […]

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