Students in the retail consultancy group meet with Erica Hanna

Consulting brings a new level of learning

Consulting brings a new level of learning

Meetings with struggling Bahamian business owners provided students in the Miami Herbert Business School’s interdisciplinary action project class new ways to learn and lasting insights.
by Michael R. Malone

FREEPORT, Bahamas—In conversations, professional consultants question their clients to know their “pain points”—a specific problem area that the customer is experiencing—to provide the best assistance.

For University of Miami students who traveled to Freeport this past weekend as part of Bahamas Consulting Project and who met their clients at their business sites, those pain points were viscerally and, in many cases, visually evident.

Toppled radio towers. Mangled machinery. Tens of thousands of dollars of merchandise lost. Data bases destroyed. Empty warehouses. Damaged structures. All evidence of the devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian, which pummeled the islands of Grand Bahama and Great Abaco for days last September. 

The on-site visits, a component of the semester-long consulting project that aims to create strategies that will help local businesses recover and prepare for future natural disasters, provided valuable lessons for the students’ learning and for their future careers.

“We met with some fantastic owners who had rock-star businesses and then elements outside their control have made it really tough on them,” said Chris Williams, a second-year M.B.A. student who made the trip. “They did everything they could to prepare and everything they could to mitigate the damage, but this really showed me how precarious business can be.”

“We met with two brilliant women who are really struggling to get their businesses back up after the hurricane,” said Gaby Gallou, a second-year M.B.A. student. “They’re motivated and they’re going for it, working hard and willing to do whatever they can to get back on their feet.

“One thing that we can do to help them is to have them feel like they’re being listened to,” she added. “They need to feel that that they have that support in order to be more resilient for the future.”

The interdisciplinary cohort, comprised of 14 M.B.A. students as well as Miami Law students and doctoral students from the Rosenstiel School, touched down in Freeport Friday at noon. Zhivargo Laing, executive director of the Government Public Policy Institute at the University of The Bahamas and a former finance minister for the country, met the group and accompanied them to the hotel for a meeting with their selected clients—four businesses representative of the island nation’s principle industries: retail, fisheries, communications, and import/export canning.

Read: Students help fuel recovery and resilience for Bahamian businesses

View: Student work with Bahamian entrepreneurs

A few Bahamian students joined the meeting, though their Freeport campus was demolished in the hurricane, and the student body of nearly 1,000 students was displaced. More Bahamian students are expected to join the semester-long action project later.

Alex Niemeyer, who worked for 22 years with a global management firm before joining the University as a professor, teaches the action project class and accompanied the students.

“Normally, companies tend to be large with management teams. But most Bahamian companies are different­­—they’re small or medium-sized enterprises with a sole proprietor,” Niemeyer explained. “The students were quite shaken, in a positive way, first thinking of these companies as ‘is this a good business?’ or ‘should you do this?’, and then realizing that in many cases that these represent the hopes and dreams of their clients, and in some cases their entire livelihood.”

Saturday morning was spent touring the devastated areas—the gutted university campus, the Queen’s Highway Business District and the Downtown Business District, both banking and commerce areas that suffered extensive flooding and will require a long period of recovery. The bus tour provided firsthand understanding of the challenges the business owners face.

The student groups traveled separately to meet their respective clients at their business locations Saturday afternoon. They spent hours touring the facility, asking questions, and learning in detail about the business operations.

The retail group, which included Gaby Gallou, Denzell Turner, Stephanie Wehby, Chris Williams, and Phil Winn, all second-year business graduate students, met with two business owners: Alex Thompson, proprietor of Genesis Streetgear, a men’s clothing shop, and Signature Choices, Freeport’s premier lingerie and gift store, and Erica Hanna, “the shoe lady,” owner of Steppin Out shoe store.

Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery
Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery
Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery
Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery
Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery
Bahamas initiative students visit photo gallery

Hanna managed to relocate and safeguard most of her merchandise, but lost half of her client base because of the storm. Thompson lost thousands of dollars of merchandise when her downtown store was flooded. She had kept her client database on a desktop in the store with a backup on a computer at home. Tthe store was flooded, and her home badly damaged, and both computers and the data of her 8,000 customers was lost. Both owners seek help in marketing, accounting practices, and improved inventory control.

The team visited Hanna’s store first and crowded into the 150-square-foot display space, its walls lined with an assortment of quality shoes for woman who work in the banks, government offices, and law firms, to hear more about her needs.

“Meeting the owners at their business gave me a deeper level of understanding from the conversation at the hotel,” said Denzell Turner. “I’m a visual learner. So to see what the shop looks like, how the business operates, how the inventory is managed and stored really opened my eyes.

“The experience really served the team in terms of all of us being able to get together to set an overall goal,” Turner continued. “To have the entire team there to put things in perspective, to discuss our goals, to feel and experience that together fosters camaraderie and teamwork. We all have different expertise, and everybody sees something a little differently. You see the wheels turning and people thinking ‘how can we help.’ That was a great experience.”

Hanna explained that most of her clients are repeat customers, and that many are in Nassau. So, she travels there every other week on the six-hour ferry ride—her suitcases loaded with shoes—and meets her clients at arranged sites or drives directly to their homes. Word of mouth is her best marketing tool, she told the group. 

Wehby, a native of Jamaica, was familiar with the personal retail approach in the Bahamas, and she said an introduction to management class she had taken last semester gave her some basic tools.

“I had a preliminary understanding of how consultancy works and how to look at the problem systematically,” she said. “We had learned some tools in class that guided our thinking and helped going in, but it was really about listening to the client to know what they’re emphasizing and what their pain points are.

“There’s such a human element to consulting, it’s not robotic. What a client is saying may not be what they really need, and there are a lot of emotions involved, especially with a small company,” Wehby said. “Figuring out what is needed is a constant process—you may think you know what the answer is, but then more information will surface, and you realize there are a lot of other issues. You have to be able to roll with the punches with the constantly changing process of consulting.”

After the meeting at Steppin’ Out, the group made the 20-minute afternoon walk to Thompson’s store, past mostly shuttered and empty stores in downtown Freeport.

“It was an absolutely incredible meeting and really valuable real-world experience within a consulting space,” said Winn, who, prior to entering the University’s M.B.A. program, worked for several years in a consulting capacity with a start-up.

His previous experience taught him the difference between working with clients who were engaged and those who were not.

“Alex and Erica were very engaged, looking for our help and open to working with us,” he said. “They were receptive and excited to see and know about whatever ideas we came up with. If it were just a phone call, we wouldn’t have been able to make a close personal connection and to understand how retail space works in the Bahamas.”

Winn emphasized that the timing of the action project, coming at the end of the program, allowed him the opportunity to apply the concepts he had learned in class. The experience created a strong sense of teamwork.

“We all knew each other before, but to be locked down and away from other distractions and to be able to focus on solving one problem together brought us closer as a team,” Winn said. “Being able to see how a business works first-hand, then debrief and bounce ideas off each other right after meeting with the client really solidified our team and allowed us to come together to see what direction to go.”

Gallou echoed the value of the shared student experience.

“We have students from the business school’s M.B.A. program and also other master’s students and some students doing their Ph.Ds. If not for the trip, we’d never have met, so it’s a great opportunity to connect with different students and to gain different perspectives,” Gallou said.

Bahamas Consultancy Project

University of Miami students traveled to Grand Bahama in February to help small business owners still reeling from Hurricane Dorian develop resilient business plan that can help them weather future disasters.

Chris Williams, MBA student

Williams discusses the importance of small businesses to a country's economic health.

Patricia Abril, Vice Dean of Graduate Business Programs

Abril, from the Miami Herbert Business School, outlines the benefits for University of Miami students and Bahamian business owners that will come out of the graduate course which visited Freeport last weekend.

Gaby Gallou, MBA student

Gallou discusses how the project she is doing through a Miami Herbert Business School course will allow the graduate students to help small business owners in the Bahamas thrive again.

Alex Thompson, owner of Signature Choices and Genesis Street Gear

Thompson, a business owner for two decades in Freeport, Bahamas explains the importance of  a strong economic recovery in Grand Bahama island.

Erica Hanna, owner of Steppin Out shoe store

Hanna explains the importance to her survival, as well as to her Bahamian customers, that her shoe business is once again thriving after a major setback from Hurricane Dorian.

Retail store owner Thompson, born and raised in Freeport and a proprietor for 20 years, said the experience had been very positive and that she looked forward to continuing to work with the students from the retail group.

“They asked me pertinent and concise questions that really made me think about the business, made me think about decisions I’d made in the past, as well as decisions that I’m going to make,” said Thompson. “The questions that they asked challenged me to make sure that I’m doing the right things for my business. And they offered some great advice.”

Williams, who has secured a position with Amazon AWS and will head to Seattle after graduation in May, said that he benefitted both professionally and personally from the experience.

“Visiting a new place that I don’t know anything about, like we did this weekend, learning what I can, being out there walking around and having new experiences, and learning to manage—as I feel I’ve done somewhat successfully—has really prepared me for my move cross-country to a new place where I know almost no one,” Williams said.

“One of the things I’ve learned meeting these business owners is that it’s not just big businesses that makes a city, state, or country great, it’s small business, too,” Williams said. “At the end of the day, everything is interrelated.”

Over the course of the weekend, Niemeyer noted marked changes in the students’ approach to the project.

“They went from thinking ‘this is an interesting project’ to ‘this is something where we can really make a difference in peoples’ lives and make the Bahamian economy more resilient.' ” Niemeyer said.

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