By Brian E. Clark
MADISON — Managers at the Sheboygan-based Acuity insurance company have attended executive education courses at Harvard, the University of Chicago and other prestigious private schools.
But as far as John Signer – head of Acuity’s human resources department – is concerned, some of the best professional-level programs he has encountered are run by the UW-Madison School of Business at the Fluno Center.
"Their classes have helped our employees and our company excel," Signer said. "It’s a top-notch operation."
The London-based Financial Times newspaper apparently agrees. In a recent edition, it rated executive education courses at the Fluno Center as 15th best in the United States and 26th in the world.
The multi-tiered survey also ranked the understated, but classy management training center and its 100-room hotel – completed in 2000 at a cost of $25.3 million in the heart of the Madison campus – at 10th in the world for value. And, for the second year in a row, it earned top honors for food and accommodations.
In a typical year, the center offers more than 260 public seminars in more than 80 program areas, including 10 certificate series in topics such as basic management, mid-management, project management, marketing and operations management.
The business school also runs custom course programming at Fluno for a growing list of corporate clients in the United States and abroad. More than 13,000 students from industry, government and non-profit groups took executive education classes last year. About half of them came from outside Wisconsin.
The eight-story structure is named in honor of Jere and Anne Fluno, who donated $3 million to the center. Jere Fluno is a 1963 graduate of the business school and retired vice chairman and director of W.W. Grainger, Inc.
Other donors have given money for the first floor auditorium, classrooms, the executive dining room and top floor banquet and reception room.
The center is owned and operated by the Center for Advanced Studies in Business, Inc., a nonprofit corporation that supports the activities of the business school.
Signer said Acuity has sent more than 80 managers, supervisors and directors – even vice presidents – to Fluno programs in the past several years. Signer himself took a course on construction cost containment a few years back so he could better handle a $50 million addition. Acuity, a property and casualty insurer operating in 12 Midwestern states, had $693 million in revenues last year and profits of $76.8 million. The company has 750 employees.
"The Fluno Center and its courses are remarkably good," Signer said. "The faculty there has helped our people become better leaders and motivators.
"The bottom line is that our turnover is at an all-time low, our growth is solid, our profits are high and the future is bright for us," Signer said.
"Last year was the best year in our company’s history and I attribute at least part of that to the training we’ve gotten," added Signer, who
called the $2,000 cost for a typical three-day program (including food and lodging) money well-spent.
Nor does it hurt, Signer added, that Acuity employees are "treated like royalty" when they stay at the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Fluno Center.
"The food is great, the staff is wonderful and our people really like going there. Not only do they learn a lot that benefits our company, but they enjoy themselves, too."
Words like Signer’s are music to Ted Beck’s ears. He is associate dean in charge of the Fluno Center’s executive education programs. He gives credit for the high hospitality ratings to the center’s general manager, Jeff Butler, who works for the Aramark Corp.
Beck, who earned his MBA from UW-Madison, joined the business school administration in 1999 after more than two decades working in finance for Citigroup in New York.
Previously a surface parking lot, Beck said the Fluno Center allowed the university to consolidate most of its executive education courses – which have been offered since 1945 – and compete with other universities’ programs.
No state tax money was used to build the center. Rather, the funding came from donations and the sale of $18.4 million in bonds.
"Clearly, we’ve been successful," said Beck, who said student fees cover operating expenses at the center. To date, $2.4 million in bonds have been paid.
And this year, for the first time, the center will make a $250,000 cash distribution to the business school. In a separate nod to the university, several spots are saved in many of the courses for university employees (who get a 50 percent tuition break).
Most students who come to the Fluno Center take management or leadership courses, Beck said. The next biggest area is specific skill acquisition – such as marketing, operations or sales. The largest single program is project management.
Most classes are for mid-level or higher administrators, though some companies send employees who are thinking about making the move to management.
"A course here might give them a chance to kick the tires, so to speak," Beck said. "Just because you are very good at your job doesn’t mean you’ll be a good manager or even like that kind of work."
Though some students stay at Madison hotels or commute from their nearby homes, Beck said the majority stay at the Fluno Center for a "total immersion experience."
Evening activities might include cooking demonstrations or other fun activities – when students aren’t completing their assignments.
"This is not a public access hotel," said Beck. "In almost every case, you must be here for a course. That means there won’t be bachelor parties or other such distractions."
Beck said the courses are taught by 13 tenured faculty and as many as 200 ad hoc instructors.
Kathryn Jeffers is a communications and conflict management consultant who has taught in the UW-Madison executive education program for 17 years. She also works for individual companies.
"I teach people how to be candid and how to get the tough stuff said," said Jeffers, who lives on a small farm near Iola.
Jeffers said instructors do not simply lecture to students, but draw them out to share their real-world work experiences with each other.
"Our aim in these courses is to enhance the way they function in their businesses and their lives," she said.
"And it certainly doesn’t hurt that they are based in a great building like the Fluno Center.
"I’ve been a student of Frank Lloyd Wright my whole life," she said. "The organic-ness of his designs links well with organic-ness of our programs. I think students are inspired by the place, and you can’t underestimate that."