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Bernel grooms future executives

Matt Bramanti | Thursday, April 8, 2004

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a Thursday series focusing on interesting classes in the Mendoza College of Business.

Jeff Bernel knows a thing or two about corporate strategy. As a long-time CEO, he owned and operated a $50 million manufacturing company.

As a professional specialist in the Mendoza College of Business, Bernel brings that real-world business experience into the classroom.

Bernel teaches a class called “Corporate Strategy,” a required course for seniors in the business school. The course integrates concepts from the college’s four departments – accounting, finance, marketing and management – teaching students how to apply those concepts for the benefit of the overall corporation.

“It’s the nexus, the pulling together of all the majors in the business school,” Bernel said.

The class focuses on obtaining competitive advantage – the edge that marks the difference between a mediocre company and a star performer.

Bernel said his background as a CEO allows him to make the course’s material relevant to his students. For 18 years, Bernel ran American Rubber Products, a LaPorte-based manufacturer of seals and gaskets for the automotive industry.

“It’s being in the trenches,” he said. “I have the personal, hands-on experience in dealing with the issues that a $40 or $50 million company brings.”

The class centers on Bernel’s conviction that a business education should combine academic theory with practical application.

“I try as much as I can to use real-world occasions and cases that I know, from my experience and work,” he said. ” I’m looking to prove to students that the education they’ve received at Notre Dame is a very valid one.”

Bernel knows firsthand the value of that education – he holds an Executive MBA degree from the Mendoza College of Business.

He said students appreciate the relevance of the material because they anticipate facing the same issues he faced during his career.

“All these students, at some point, are going to be in a leadership position,” he said. “[They] need to be competitive, get a competitive advantage, maintain it and make above-average returns.”

Bernel uses a variety of methods to keep students engaged, including team projects, case studies, and presentations – skills students will use in their corporate careers.

Harvard Business School case studies – generally regarded as the gold standard in American business education – are used, but students analyze local businesses and even non-profit organizations, as well.

“[Cases] have included big businesses, small businesses and non-profits,” Bernel said. “Some-one even did the Boat Club.

“The thrust of my course is very project-driven. Students create their own strategies to plan the future of the company.”

Senior marketing major Catherine Hart said Bernel’s business experience made the class uniquely relevant.

“He’s very worldly and he’s done so much,” Hart said. “I really like having professors who are part of the professional workforce outside of the University.”

Senior finance major Mary Whitehouse said the class emphasizes the long-term, complex planning required to run a successful company.

“He’s taught us that there’s not one right answer,” Whitehouse said. “For every decision you make, there are multiple decisions you have to make after that.”

Those strategies include making difficult decisions, some seemingly ripped from the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Students discuss mergers, outsourcing, layoffs and other tactics designed to maximize the value of the modern corporation.

Bernel said he derives satisfaction from knowing his students will be prepared for life at the top of the corporate ladder.

“People naturally look to our students and put them in leadership roles,” he said. “It gives meaning to my life.”