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College Branding

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  • | 6:36 a.m. August 17, 2012
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Moez Limayem's four-continent journey from Tunisian boy to new dean of the University of South Florida's College of Business may be the story of the future of the school as much as the history of Limayem.

Limayem (pronounced Le-my´-em) has seen firsthand what works and what does not in the reality of a global economy. And what does not work is what the business college is now: plain and unremarkable to the outside world.

“This is one of the best hidden secrets,” says Limayem, who seems unable to speak without smiling. “Strong support internally and from the business community. This is every dean's dream.”

There are few standout strengths for which the college is known. It's not so much that the college does not do some things well. It does. But it needs to do more and, more importantly, it needs to distinguish itself from other business colleges. Limayem has seen how that can be done in universities from Minnesota to Canada to Hong Kong to Switzerland to Arkansas.

“It's not broken. It has a very solid foundation in terms of faculty,” Limayem says. But its focus and image must change. “My vision is to get us out of what I call 'plain vanilla' flavor, to give it a more distinctive competitive edge, a few things that we do better than anyone else.”

Limayem has been meeting with every faculty member, with students and is beginning to meet with Tampa Bay business leaders. He is going to push hard for more information from the business community that will hire students, offer internships to students and perhaps financially support the college.

Limayem sees a couple of distinctive strengths in the college of business. Perhaps the most important is the desire from the university itself to see the college sharply improve and gain a reputation.

“A strength we have is the unconditional support from central administration, and also from the business community,” he says. “They want this business school to succeed very, very strongly. That is not found in anyplace I've been to.”

USF Provost Ralph Wilcox says the college placed unusually energy in finding the right dean for the college of business.

“There is an opportunity to more powerfully articulate the college's distinctive identity and focused sense of purpose,” Wilcox says. “We sought a dean with the creativity and innovative thinking to clarify and fine tune the positioning of the college.”

One element that has the potential to make the college of business stand out is its sports entertainment and management M.B.A. that it recently began in conjunction with the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning. That is one of several areas that Limayem plans to consider as ways to distinguish the college.

“There are so many other opportunities to do better,” he says.

Those will include drawing on his extensive international connections and experience to put the college on the map in perhaps more than just in the United States.

Tunisia to Tampa
The 48-year-old Limayem's odyssey to Tampa is part of the reason he was hired and a larger part of what will inform him as he tries to transform the business college.

He grew up in an upper middle class family in Tunisia, where his father was a teacher and school principal.

The Tunisian business school he attended as a teen, the equivalent of a high school, offered one scholarship to study in the United States. The school had thousands of students, but he spent a year working hard and won the scholarship.

It took him to the University of Minnesota, which was the birthplace for the field of information systems -- something for which the college remains known -- and also Limayem's interest.

He earned an M.B.A. and a doctorate before attending Laval University in Montreal, where he became a department chairman at age 30. It was a good fit because Laval needed a good researcher who also spoke French. Tunisia is a former French colony, and Limayem grew up speaking Tunisian and French, but is also fluent in Arabic and English, and can converse in Italian and Chinese.

He took a one-year sabbatical and went to City University of Hong Kong. But he ended up staying for seven years and helped found the first program in electronic commerce in Hong Kong.

He was then offered a position at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland to revamp its graduate programs in information systems from a global view. From there, the University of Arkansas hired him as the chairman of its information systems department.

“The European experience was good, but I wanted to go back to my professional home, my academic home, which is the United States,” he says.

Limayem was promoted to associate dean at Arkansas' Walton School of Business and was not looking to move on. “Someone nominated me for this job. I did not apply,” he says of the USF position. “I really do not know who did.”

He admits to being a little reluctant to move forward because he did not know anything about USF's college of business — which is part of the problem he faces as dean: An associate dean of business at a major southern university did not know anything about the college of business of another major southern university.

But he was persuaded as the “hidden secret” was revealed.

Use the business community
Limayem knows it's an over-used phrase, but he uses it anyway -- “win-win-win” — to describe his desire to link with the wealth of businesses in Tampa Bay to create programs that are beneficial to businesses, students and the university. That is, make strong graduates available to businesses whiles businesses help create strong graduates.

Sure. Makes sense. But it has only sort of happened so far. Many universities are in smaller cities — such as Fayetteville, Ark., or Gainesville. But USF sits in the heart of a top 15 U.S. metro market, a strength that has not really been capitalized on by the college of business.

Nearly one out of four of the state's business and information services firms is based in Tampa Bay — far outstripping its population ratio. The firms are in financial services and information technology — which is right in Limayem's wheelhouse.

The financial services cluster is the largest in the state and 20th in the nation for employment, which has also resulted in a plethora of service vendors to the cluster. Tampa Bay is also a top 20 market for medical device manufacturing, with more than 10,000 employees averaging nearly $50,000 annually.

Three major league sports teams in area include the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, MLB's Tampa Bay Rays and the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning. The college is just launching a sports and entertainment management M.B.A. in connection with the Lightning, the first steps to really take advantage of this opportunity and one Limayem may expand.

His philosophy for the college is to find ways to make it a benefit to businesses. “They have to win ... They have to get something out of it.”

That means churning out ready employees.

“We must provide them with the best possible graduates that they cannot find somewhere else,” he says. “Best, for me, is three things: more, better and more diverse so they can serve an increasingly diverse customer base.”

Another way businesses can win is if the college of business can provide them with sources of objective, scientific, rigorous expertise in areas they cannot get from consultants. “We don't sell, we provide, so we are very objective, and we have the scientific research to back up our claims,” he says.

He says the school should not just be an information disseminator, but connect students early on with hands-on work with Tampa Bay businesses.

“We want to get their hands dirty as soon as possible,” he says. “I'm not talking about answering the phone and emptying the trash cans, I'm talking about meaningful professional experience early in their college life.”

And that can only come from developing strong ties within the local business community.

Lessons from others
Being a good student is useful beyond being in school. It counts for a dean, too.

Limayem has watched and worked in diverse university environments around the world and thinks he has gleaned some ideas that could help the USF college of business.

“Schools that are more and more effective now are schools that have a distinctive theme or flavor,” he says of his foray through four continents. “These are the schools that are very successful.”

For example, the University of Arkansas has the world's largest retailer in its backyard in Wal-Mart. So the Walton School of Business is focused on retail, has the Center for Retail Excellence and does extensive retail research.

Another example is the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, which made international business its theme. Every business student must study abroad for a lengthy period of time. Global literacy is embedded in its curriculum. “In our world, when we think of best practices for international, where do we go? We go to South Carolina,” he says.

The ESSEC Business School is one of the top business schools in France. Its distinctive flavor, Limayem says, is students cannot graduate unless they are fluent in four languages. Fluent means not only can they speak the language, but they also have some understanding of the culture the language reflects. That makes it the go-to school for European companies seeking young, global talent.

“The global economy now is not a myth, it is a reality,” he says. “When our students graduate, they will not be serving customers or dealing with suppliers from the Tampa Bay region or even from the U.S. It could be from anywhere in the world.”

This unique global perspective was a major reason for Limayem's hiring.

“Limayem's passion is coupled with an impressive portfolio of accomplishments from around the world,” Provost Wilcox says. “As USF pursues its strategic goal of being an institution with global impact, it needs a business dean with that kind of global perspective.”

Limayem is hoping to use his networks of colleagues and friends at universities around the world to forge partnerships with schools and institutions worldwide to place students in internships around the globe and bring more foreign students to USF.

Limayem is an upbeat, energetic man with a ready smile, but he expects to shake up a few things at the college.

Ingenuity trumps budgets
The USF College of Business faces the same budget crunch as the broader university and those throughout the nation.

New Dean Moez Limayem accepts the reality of the situation. He says funding is not adequate for what the college wants to do, but that won't change.

“We are very ambitious,” he says. “My hope is we can reduce the dependency on these funds because they're not going to grow significantly. We know that.”

One way to do that is draw on the business community, but not with hat in hand.

“We can rely on friends of the college to help us, but not just, 'I'm giving you my money,' because they have so many other demands on their money,” he says. “So we need to have that compelling story, that distinctive, competitive theme.”

That comes back to the college distinguishing itself in one or two core areas for graduates and M.B.A.s.

However, Limayem also wants to create some market-based programs that could help the college generate funds or save money. Putting programs online would allow the college to draw more students and offer full degrees, including M.B.A.s, while costing the college less.

And he wants to look at customizing some of the college's programs for specific companies in the Tampa Bay area, a rather unique approach.


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