Operating at the Personal Scale

Eric Johnson, Owen's new dean, is a leader, researcher, teacher, administrator and trailblazer. Discover why he came back to the school where he began his teaching career and why he expects big things and breakthroughs.

From the Winter 2013 edition of Vanderbilt Business

When Dean Eric Johnson thinks about Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management, pianos are not far from his mind. Not just any pianos, that is, but those made by Steinway & Sons—the 160-year-old brand played by 98 percent of the concert pianists around the globe.

Odd as the pairing seems, Johnson believes there is more of a similarity between the school and the world-renowned piano manufacturer than what their disparate business models would suggest.

Dean Eric Johnson
After starting his academic career at Owen, Eric Johnson taught at the Tuck School of Business for 14 years. He returned as Owen’s dean on July 1.

“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,” Johnson told a group of incoming students in June. “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.”

Johnson, who serves as the Ralph Owen Dean and the Bruce D. Henderson Professor of Strategy, left Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business to succeed Jim Bradford in July. He has written two case studies about Steinway in his research and points to the company’s “intense focus on detail and personalization” as the key to its longevity. He sees those traits as the key to Owen’s success as well.

Johnson taught at Owen from 1991 to 1999. “I chose to come back to Owen for some really specific reasons,” Johnson says. “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.

“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.”

In short, Johnson expects big things from Owen’s small community. He believes the school’s close-knit culture can help students live up to their potential by encouraging more collaboration not only with each other but with alumni, faculty and staff as well.

Johnson says an Owen education should reflect each of these groups’ hard work and attention to detail, and in this regard the learning process at the school is a lot like what goes into making a Steinway. There are no shortcuts, and neither one can be mass-produced.

“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.”—Dean Eric Johnson

And like a Steinway, an Owen education is attuned to something greater than the sum of its parts. A calling in business may not conjure the same feelings as a piano concerto, but it can be heady and inspiring in its own way—especially in the hands of someone like Eric Johnson.

Curious and interesting

Early on in his career, Johnson was an unlikely candidate to teach at a business school, much less be the dean of one. In fact, working in academia was the furthest thing from his mind when he was earning his Ph.D. in industrial engineering and engineering management at Stanford University in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

“I had no plans at all to go into academia,” he says. “And if I had, it probably would have been in engineering rather than business. If you look at my C.V., you’ll see I don’t have any degrees in business. Well, not quite—I have an undergraduate degree in economics—but all the others are in engineering.”

While finishing his Ph.D., Johnson worked for Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto, Calif. He was part of a team developing an automated vehicle for health care that was designed to deliver drugs to patient rooms and navigate hospital hallways. “It used an HP calculator as its brain, if you can believe it,” Johnson says with a grin.

Johnson’s interests and abilities made him a natural for Silicon Valley, but his career took an abrupt turn in 1991. That was when he received an unexpected phone call from Gary Scudder, an operations professor at Owen.

“I had been introduced to Gary through a friend of a friend, and one day he called me out of the blue,” Johnson says. “He said, ‘Eric, have you ever thought about teaching at a business school? And would you consider coming to Nashville?’”

Johnson and his wife, Nancy, had thought about settling down in a more affordable part of the country, and Nashville presented an intriguing possibility. If anything, it was the unfamiliarity of the situation—with Nashville, with Vanderbilt, even with just being in a business school itself—that convinced him to consider the job.

“The whole thing was curious and interesting. So I decided to come for an interview,” he says. “After I spent a day here, I fell in love with the place. I thought it was a neat opportunity. At the time Owen felt a lot like a startup company to me. It was really young and vibrant.”

Passion for teaching and learning

Once Johnson accepted the job as assistant professor of operations management, he never gave a second thought to his decision to enter academia. “I found that I actually loved teaching. Being in business school was nothing that I’d really expected,” he says.

In particular, teaching operations to MBA students provided him with an exciting challenge.

“Most MBA students come to business school having no idea what operations is. They don’t have a lot of feelings about the subject, either good or bad,” he says. “But by the end of that core class, many are considering a career in an operating role. They see that operations is really the guts of executing business. It isn’t marketing it or accounting for it or financing it. It’s actually running a business.”

EricJohnson circa 1990
Johnson’s Owen faculty photo from the 1990s

Johnson quickly became a widely admired professor, winning the Dean’s Teaching Excellence Award twice in eight years and becoming one of the youngest faculty members ever to receive tenure at Owen. “Eric was an excellent teacher and had a great rapport with the students. He is still in contact with many of the alums from that time period,” says Scudder, the James A. Speyer Professor of Production Management. “He also has one of the best laughs of anyone I know and enjoys life to its fullest.”

Anyone who has spent time with the dean knows the distinctive laugh Scudder is referring to. It is as infectious and genuine as Johnson’s own passion for learning.

Dean Johnson
The new dean has quickly become known for his hands-on and approachable manner.

“Other than his laugh, which I’m sure is well documented by everyone who knows him even a little bit, what I remember most about Eric is his passion for his subject,” says Paul Stanley, MBA’94, vice president for marketing at Mercury Intermedia. “For his simulation course, I would see him in the computer lab (where I worked) at odd hours testing new ways of simulation and ways to teach it. His examples, often gleaned from personal experience, always hit home and made the theoretical a practical tool for students.”

Former students also recall the importance that Johnson placed on experiential learning. For example, Emily Anderson, MBA’99, remembers a field trip to FedEx Corp. headquarters in Memphis, Tenn., that former FedEx vice president Mike Janes, MBA’84, helped coordinate.

“Eric wanted us to really experience operations,” says Anderson, who now serves as director of internal operations and coaching for Owen’s Career Management Center. “At FedEx in Memphis, we saw how the planes came in around midnight and how all the packages were sorted, moved and transferred in like a 3- or 4-hour window. It was amazing to watch.”

Janes, who today serves as CEO of FanSnap, adds, “I hosted Eric and his student groups several times at FedEx, and I was always impressed by his passion and ability to aggressively bridge the classroom and the outside world.”

Importance of vision and time

In 1999, then Associate Professor Johnson departed Owen for the Tuck School of Business in Hanover, N.H. It was by no means an easy decision. His two oldest children—Wesley, 20, and Hannah, 18—were born and raised in Nashville (his youngest, Nathan, is 13), and he had grown attached to the city, and Vanderbilt in particular.

“Eric was a trailblazer … He brought to campus the latest in technology through the center’s Tech@Tuck days, where the latest innovations were highlighted.”—Paul Danos, dean of the Tuck School

However, the opportunity at Tuck was too great to turn down, especially since the school was similar to Owen in many ways. “When I first went to Tuck, it was the same size as Owen is today,” he says, “and that was one of the things that attracted me there.”

During the 14 years that followed, Johnson continued to win respect not only as a teacher and researcher but as an administrator, too. In addition to being the Benjamin Ames Kimball Professor of the Sciences of Administration, he served as associate dean for Tuck’s MBA program and faculty director of the Glassmeyer/McNamee Center for Digital Strategies.

“Eric was a comprehensive contributor to the Tuck School in his superb teaching, his departmental leadership, his research and the many contributions his Center for Digital Strategies provided students, alumni and the corporate world,” says Paul Danos, dean of the Tuck School.

“Eric was a trailblazer,” Danos adds, “with activities such as the center’s roundtables for corporate leaders where chief information officers, their staffs and academics gathered around the world and engaged in dialogue about the challenges they all confront in today’s digital environment. He brought to campus the latest in technology through the center’s Tech@Tuck days, where the latest innovations were highlighted.”

In return, one of the things Johnson learned from working with Danos is the importance of having not only a long-term vision for a school but also the time and resources to implement it. Johnson attributes much of Tuck’s success to the fact that Danos has had 18 years at the helm to execute his strategy.

“Continuity in this kind of environment is particularly valuable,” Johnson says. “Many times people will look at business schools and think of them as a business—and they are in a way—but there are some very big differences. With business schools you’re really talking about a community, and communities and cultures don’t change quickly.”

That feeling of community

As Johnson embarks on his own tenure as dean, he is mindful of keeping Owen’s community central to the school’s mission. One example where he says it is already in effect is the young professional programs, like the master of accountancy and master of finance, which Jim Bradford and others helped build.

“Many times business schools can get distracted by creating so many different peripheral programs where the students don’t really interact at all,” he says. “Maybe the same faculty is servicing them, but the students themselves are not really enriched by each other’s presence.”

“What Owen has done so well with these young professional programs is that they’ve found a way to ensure not only that they’re successful for those groups but that those groups themselves add to the overall MBA experience by bringing really bright, talented folks into the community.”

Dean Johnson wearing Owen Converses
Shortly after accepting the job as dean, Johnson had custom Owen Converse sneakers made. He wore them to Orientation.

Likewise, Johnson sees a similar role for the school’s research centers. “The thing we found successful at Tuck is this notion of a center that has a research core but is also a key part of the life of the school,” he says. “It’s about creating activity that’s not separate or independent but that really builds on the synergies of the school itself and brings ideas, innovation, curriculum and speakers back into the community.”

Even the Owen building itself plays a role in that sense of community. “One of the things I’ve always viewed as a huge asset is the very unusual architecture of the building that we’re in,” Johnson says. “I travel to other top business schools that have built large new buildings, but many of them are soulless—just long hallways and offices with doors that are shut. The openness of Owen’s building, on the other hand, focuses all of the activity into the lobby or the courtyard outside when the weather’s nice.”

“As we think about anything, whether it be growth in our physical structure or growth in faculty, staff and students, it’s something we will constantly be attentive to—how do we maintain that feeling of community?”

One answer to that question, Johnson says, is technology. Given his background, it should come as no surprise that digital learning is a key interest for him. It also happens to be one of the university-wide initiatives being promoted by Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos as Vanderbilt plans its future.

“What’s exciting about digital education for a school like Owen is not so much trying to change whom we target or how we interact with the world, though we can do that,” Johnson says. “It’s really more about enhancing the education that we offer right here in Nashville. Technology can enable us to transform the educational experience from something that’s historically static to one that’s much more dynamic, interactive and experiential.”

Johnson also sees digital technology as a tool for engaging the school’s most important audience—its alumni. “Owen students don’t often think about this when they come on the first day, but they become part of the Owen family at that moment, and it’s something they will carry the rest of their lives,” he says. “Technology enables us to take a lot of the neat things we’re thinking about and doing here and share them with alumni in ways we never could have before.”

“Those are areas we’re experimenting in—real breakthroughs.”

On our toes but looking forward

Asked how it feels to return to Owen after all these years, Johnson lets his daughter, Hannah, do the talking—or texting, as it were. After packing up their belongings this summer, he and the rest of the family piled into two cars and made the 1,200-mile trip from New Hampshire to Tennessee. As they neared Nashville’s city limits, he says Hannah texted an old family friend:

“Two words: We’re home.”

This sentiment—that Owen is as much a home as it is a school—is a common refrain among its community, and there is a shared feeling that Johnson will be an excellent steward of the culture.

Eric Johnson, Jim Bradford and Tami Fassinger
Johnson and then-Dean Jim Bradford spoke to alumni and incoming and current students at luncheons in Nashville and New York in June. The two worked tirelessly to ensure a smooth transition. From left, Johnson, Bradford and Chief Recruiting Officer Tami Fassinger, BA’85.

“I still think the best feature of Owen is that it felt like it was my family, not just a school,” Paul Stanley says. “Eric has the ability to keep that intact while continuing to improve the academic, scholarly and job-performance reputation of Owen. If you know Eric’s family personally, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Owen is in good hands.”

Brent Turner, MBA’99, chair of the Owen Alumni Board, points to alumni relations as one area that can benefit from Johnson’s experience at Tuck. “Eric is a longtime friend of Owen, and he has spent several years at a school that has built fantastic relationships with its alumni,” says Turner, president at Code Fellows. “I look forward to applying the lessons that he learned to our community and family.”

Anderson, who is both an alumna and Owen staff member, is excited about Johnson’s hiring for several reasons. “From the standpoint of the Career Management Center, we’re very excited about Eric’s ties to the corporate world through his research, case studies and consulting, and we’re anxious to have him meet our recruiters,” she says. “I think he’ll help us make even more connections.”

Anderson also believes Johnson will push the school itself to think and grow alongside its students. “I think he’s going to have some new ideas and maybe challenge us about the way we do things and how we can share and cooperate,” she says. “He’ll keep us on our toes but also looking forward.”

It should come as no surprise that those who know Owen best frequently use words like “cooperate,” “community” and “family” in talking about the school and Johnson’s vision for it. These concepts are more than just buzzwords; they are a way of life at Owen, exemplifying the personal scale of business that Johnson described to incoming students over the summer.

This personal scale is a difference maker, Johnson argues, whether one is looking at business schools or, yes, even pianos. Ultimately it boils down to one question: How much care goes into this product?

“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,” Johnson told the students in June. “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.”

In a way, Johnson could just as easily be talking about the connections that exist between Owen and the members of its community. As he himself can attest, the school never really loosens its hold on the people who value it most. Owen has a way of bringing its community close together even when time and distance intervene, and it is through these relationships—the ones operating at a personal scale—that great things are accomplished.

See video of Dean Johnson at vu.edu/deanjohnson-welcome