From the Fall 2015 edition of Vanderbilt Business

Dean Eric Johnson

This year, I have been reflecting on the legacy of Bruce Henderson. A Vanderbilt alumnus (Class of 1937) and Owen School professor, Bruce was a pioneer in the business world, founding the Boston Consulting Group and participating in the creation of the management consulting industry. Bruce contributed much to the study of strategy: Management books are chock-full of his insights and famous quotes. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth, BCG launched an institute in his honor and published a new book on strategy. It is a fitting way to remember such a great management thinker.

Holding the Bruce D. Henderson Chair at Vanderbilt, I feel very fortunate to have met Bruce during the last year of his life. Bruce had an office inside the faculty lounge here at Owen. When I was a new assistant professor, I would often look to see if there was a light on in his office when I stopped by the lounge for a cup of coffee. Bruce’s health was failing then, but his intellectual presence never wavered. After he passed, I stopped by one day to comfort his wife, Bess, as she cleaned out his books. We all felt the tremendous loss.

Working on the Owen School’s strategy this year, I returned to Bruce’s teaching on competitive advantage. Bruce argued that competitive advantage was multifaceted and that every firm needed to understand what made it different from its competitors. At a lecture delivered at Owen in the early 1980s, he argued that organizations must have a particular mix of characteristics that provide a unique advantage in the marketplace.

Over the past year, we have spent a lot of time thinking about Owen’s unique advantages. Both our Alumni Board and Board of Visitors dissected the school, thinking deeply about its attributes. Students joined the discussion at town halls, and faculty and staff formed working groups to debate the school’s competitive advantage. Alumni and recruiting firms provided their ideas through surveys and interviews conducted by Huron Consulting.

We concluded that Owen’s personal scale, collaborative culture, diverse community and location in a vibrant, creative city are standout areas of significant competitive advantage. Based on this shared understanding of Owen, we developed a new mission statement for the school, centered on delivering world-class business education on a personal scale. In October, we launched a new website (owen.vanderbilt.edu/strategy) that showcases our strategic plan, as well as highlights and progress made toward our goals (read more about the plan).

Over the next few months, we will be talking a lot about Owen’s unique features and our strategic initiatives to strengthen our competitive advantage. Certainly personal scale will be at the heart of many of them. I think Bruce would be proud of Owen’s progress as we focus on his one defining question: “What makes me different than my competitor?”

All the best,

M. Eric Johnson
Ralph Owen Dean
Bruce D. Henderson Professor of Strategy

P.S. For a wonderful video of Bruce in action at Vanderbilt, visit vu.edu/brucehenderson