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Take a walk through the halls of the Opus College of Business and you’re likely to run into Corey Eakins ’09 M.B.A., director of the Evening UST MBA Program. In the morning, you may find him in the skyway with his iPad, on his way to meet with faculty members about a new study-abroad offering. In the afternoon he’s in Terrence Murphy Hall, meeting with the student advising team to understand a concern raised by one of their advisees. You might see him in the evening, too, networking with attendees at an event designed to provide students and alumni with the opportunity to learn from the local business community. Eakins is a man on the move, always thinking about how to improve the student experience.
Eakins, in his career and his personal life, has always shown an eagerness and an interest in moving forward, in putting his skills to work to launch a new business, to help a student launch a new career and to help a college launch a new program. Interestingly, this education administrator began his career as a golf professional.
“I grew up around the game,” said the Wisconsin native. “My mom was the general manager of a country club in Hudson.” While completing his undergraduate degree in communications and public relations at St. Cloud State University, Eakins took a job as an assistant golf professional at a nearby country club. He decided to transform his love of and skill in golf from a part-time hobby to a full-time profession. He took the PGA Playing Ability Test and entered the PGA Apprentice Program to become a Class-A member of the Professional Golfers Association of America.
The Business of Golf
Eakins realized that “a golf professional really is a very specialized business person in a niche industry.” Freshly certified as a golf professional, in 1996 he became one of the first four employees at Heritage Highlands, a new golf course in Tucson, Ariz. When he came on board, the course hadn’t even opened yet and Eakins jumped in to get it up and running. “I worked for four months before we saw a golfer,” he said.
Building an organization from the ground up and opening a brand new facility from scratch was very interesting for Eakins. “I was doing everything and anything – I helped laser [measure] yardages so we could order the numbers to go on the sprinkler heads,” Eakins said. His communication degree came into good use, too, in producing brochures, collateral and even websites. The work paid off, and Heritage Highlands was nominated for the best new course of the year in 1997.
Eakins came back to River Falls, Wis., for a break after a busy summer on the course. While home, some friends told him about a new golf course under construction in Hudson. “I wandered out there and knocked on the door of the construction trailer,” Eakins said. One of the partners invited him to play the course as the grass was still growing in and they spent the afternoon talking shop. Months later, because of this chance encounter, Eakins was invited back to help open the course, Troy Burne Golf Club, Tom Lehman’s first signature design in the Midwest. It was a great opportunity for Eakins to “come in to a golf facility that already had name recognition” and to be involved with Lehman in getting another golf club up and running. Plus it was nice to be back home – both Eakins and his wife, Lauri Eakins ’10 M.B.A., are natives of River Falls.
Eakins’ experience in these golf clubs taught him some important business lessons. “I opened these facilities and realized that I was really a professional business person running a complex organization. I was able to develop staffing structure, help develop membership programming, plan corporate events and develop the marketing of the golf course.”
He also learned the importance of providing an exceptional customer experience. “You’re asking for a significant amount of money for a day of golf,” he said, “so we owed it to our golfers to treat them very well. For probably three-fourths of our guests, playing our course was a once-a-year treat, and we had to make it really special.” He worked with the college students he hired each summer to help them provide that experience. “The term you heard a lot was ‘country club member for a day,’” Eakins said.
Making a Career Change
“The tough thing about being a golf professional, especially in a seasonal market like here, is that from April to October you’re just busy,” Eakins said. As he and his wife became parents in 2001 and again in 2003, Eakins sought greater work-life balance. “I am very much the kind of person who has to feel passionate about what I’m doing every day in order to want to go to work. I enjoyed that in golf; even when I left golf, I still loved the sport, and I was just looking for a different schedule that worked with my family.”
The question for his next step became, “What environment most energized me?” The answer was higher education. “I wanted to do something different and looked at the M.B.A. as a key tool to help me transition careers and open up other doors,” he said. “I kicked around an M.B.A. back in Arizona but never got around to it.”
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As he began looking into degree options, “I knew the two key programs in town,” Eakins said. “I didn’t think of myself as a traditional M.B.A. candidate. I was worried about being able to fit in because I had a unique background. My best friend completed his undergraduate degree [at St. Thomas], so I was very familiar with the school – the organizational culture and mission. I felt St. Thomas had a little more practical approach and I appreciated the culture here; it jelled with me.” He landed a job as assistant director of admissions for the Evening UST MBA and enrolled as a student in the program in 2006.
Eakins took lessons from the classroom and put them to work immediately in the admissions office, putting structure and systems in place to make the team more effective in working with students. “I took Customer Relationship Management as an elective,” Eakins said. “I built CRM practices and systems into all of our recruiting, engagement and communications so that we could better serve our prospective students and so we could better understand them and their needs. Then when they transitioned into becoming M.B.A. candidates, we would have all of that knowledge for the program advisers to best support the student.”
“Corey developed a communications plan for the entire student life cycle to make sure we are proactive about getting information to our students,” said Margaret McKibbin, associate director of the Evening UST MBA. “He has also been instrumental in developing programming and events to enhance the student life experience for our busy students.”
As both a student and a staff member, he understood the student experience firsthand. “I recognized that students in my stage of life – when I started the program – have a lot going on, between babies and houses and marriages and job changes and career shifts. Trying to squeeze a graduate program in is very challenging,” Eakins said.
He sees his job now as being similar to what it was on the golf course – one focused on delivering the best experience possible. “Corey does a great job of connecting with our students,” said John McCall, associate dean and CFO of the Opus College of Business. “He is committed to getting to know them and understanding their career goals, and he provides them with sage advice on how to take advantage of everything our programs have to offer. His firsthand knowledge of our students and recruits is a critical input to the strategic planning process.”
Many skills from his M.B.A. contributed to Eakins’ ability to direct strategic planning. “A lot of my M.B.A. was systems thinking and how to collect information, measure it and make decisions on it. I developed more formal quantitative abilities to be able to forecast and budget,” he said. “We started to better quantify and track things such as retention rates and speed to completion.”
An Evolving Program
Eakins observed his wife’s experience in the Health Care UST MBA Program, with its blended format of online and inclass experiences. “Lauri going through the health care program opened my eyes,” Eakins said. The blended format is valuable “for the right people that need the flexibility. I’m not sure my wife could have done a program at all if it wasn’t blended. That program model made it realistic for her. I saw the effectiveness firsthand.”
Eakins also saw that the university needed to enhance its offerings to meet the changing needs of the working professional, and began to look at the part-time MBA program at St. Thomas as a way to merge technological innovations with learning. “Technology is going to impact learning in and outside the classroom,” he noted. “We’re trying to lead some evolution of the Evening MBA program and implement more technology in the classroom, but doing so in a way that still maintains the unique aspects of the culture at St. Thomas.” The Evening UST MBA Program launched blended courses in fall 2012.
There are parallels between Eakins’ two different careers. “At the golf facilities, I was very proud of the experience we offered the golfers each day. It was a unique treat for them to come out to these high-end facilities and we wanted to deliver a memorable experience,” he said. “That’s the same kind of goal that I strive for at St. Thomas. I see the level of investment each student is making because I lived it – and my wife lived it. Our students are making a sacrifice to be here, and there’s a lot of camaraderie and pride amongst the staff and faculty to deliver the best learning and MBA experience we can.”
“Corey cares about the UST brand and our students. He works harder than anyone I know to deliver a quality ‘product’ to a community of students he truly cares about,” McKibbin said.
Eakins enjoys sharing in the student experience. “You get to see them learn, develop and grow, and I get to hear about their new jobs and relationships and growing network. It is very rewarding at the end of the year when I get to read their names and they walk across the stage to receive their diplomas. I have had this experience firsthand so it makes it easy for me to believe in what I do,” he said.
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