Babson virtual MBA strums the right tune

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In the late 17th century, when the D’Addario family started making strings for lutes, guitars, harps, violins and other musical instruments, the creation of top-quality products was far removed from disciplines such as finance, marketing or supply chain management.

Instead, the family relied on the expertise of highly-skilled craftsmen using sheep and pig gut for their strings.

Sticking to the family tradition, John D’Addario and his three sons formed a company in 1974 that still makes musical instrument strings – as well as reeds for wind instruments and musical accessories – but what started life as a small family business in Italy is now a global enterprise based in the US.

Rick Drumm was already improving his business acumen with an online MBA that specialised in entrepreneurship at Babson College when he was appointed as president of D’Addario in 2006.

It was an interview with Jack Welch that secured Mr Drumm the position at D’Addario after Jim D’Addario, his predecessor, attended a seminar where he met the former GE boss.

Hearing Mr D’Addario, who was then president of the music company, complaining about how hard it was to find his replacement, Mr Welch offered to conduct an interview with the leading candidate.

“I called one of my professors at Babson and told him that I had to have this interview with Jack Welch,” recalls Mr Drumm, “And his response was, ‘My, my – we have moved to the fast lane!’”

Mr Drumm was no stranger to the music industry when he joined D’Addario. He started by working in his father’s music retail store in West Springfield, Massachusetts, and after a stint in the Air Force he became a touring musician.

He then worked his way up in the industry, taking positions at companies such as Remo, the drummaker, and Vic Firth, a leading global drumstick maker.

“I found myself coming up through the music industry starting at entry level positions and, over time, ending up in high-level management positions,” explains Mr Drumm. “So I got a lot of on-the-job training and experience as I was growing professionally.

“But I also realised that there were holes in my knowledge base and if I was going to continue further, I’d do well to try to fill those holes.”

D’Addario is based in Farmingdale, New York, and has more than 900 employees, a 190,000 sq feet facility and, in addition to its sales teams in the US, has distribution channels in more than 100 countries.

When embarking on his studies, Mr Drumm was president of Vic Firth, where he was leading the company’s growth into global markets.

As the president of a fast-growing global company, and with family commitments, Mr Drumm was clearly not going to be able to take time out to study full-time for an MBA. He also decided against taking an executive MBA.

“I did consider it,” he says. “But I felt that going with a true MBA, I was going to get more information and be able to dive into things a little deeper.”

As a result he settled on the idea of a virtual business degree and chose Babson College’s Fast Track programme.

“Babson was the choice, due to some people that I knew,” he says. “I did some research and found that they concentrated on entrepreneurship.

“I felt that was the direction I wanted to go in – not only to continue to manage companies but also to start some new ones.”

Fast Track is an accelerated online MBA degree that can be completed in 24 months.

Its “blended” model of teaching incorporates face-to-face and web-based discussions, case studies and field-based projects.

For Mr Drumm, the blended model involved Thursday, Friday and Saturday sessions at the school’s base in Wellesley, Massachusetts, once every month.

In between the face-to-face sessions he put in 25 to 30 hours a week of remote study.

The biggest challenge, he says, was time management and ensuring that whenever he was on business trips he stayed in hotels that offered the high-speed internet connections that were necessary for him to get involved with team projects online with his classmates around the world.

But just as Mr Drumm was a veteran of the music business when he became president of D’Addario, he also had previous experience of online learning before embarking on the Babson degree.

Aged 49, he had taken his undergraduate degree – a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration at Southern New Hampshire University – as an online student.

And because he was already occupying a senior management position, he says he was able to apply many of the lessons he was learning through Babson’s case studies, team projects and face-to-face sessions directly to his day-to-day work.

Mr Drumm also claims he enjoys the virtual teaching process. “One of the things I noticed in an online education is that you can’t hide,” he says.

“The professor posts questions out there based on the assignment and you really have to respond. If you’re sitting in a brick-and-mortar classroom, it’s easy to hide in the back.”

However, he also recognises the importance of the face-to-face sessions, allowing a rapid exchange of questions and answers that is hard to replicate online.

“There is a dynamic that occurs when we humans get together that is more spontaneous,” he says. “You can get it up to a point online, but it’s easier when you are face-to-face.”

Mr Drumm foresees a time when, with the availability of additional bandwidth and improvements in technology, more of the in-class experience will be possible online.

“But we’re not quite there yet,” he says. “And that’s why the blended programme is best of both worlds.”

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