Lessons in Management from Middleby and Accenture

How do you turn a flagging kitchen supply company into an intellectual property giant and industry leader? How do you revolutionize human resources in a company with over 300,000 employees? Students in Professor Miller’s MGMT 495 class got to ask those who know, when they hosted Selim Bassoul, CEO of The Middleby Corporation, and Jill Smart, former Chief of HR for Accenture and President of the National Academy of Human Resources. Smart and Bassoul each spent a morning with UIC Business students critiquing students' business analyses and discussing their own paths to success.

On the morning of Thursday, February 25, students met with Mr. Bassoul in lecture hall C1 to present a SWOT analysis of Middleby. Middleby’s growth owes much to the brands it has purchased in the last twenty years, including well-known companies like Maytag, Bloomfield and Viking, and students made sure to devote ample presentation time to the company's acquisition history. Students also discussed Middleby’s employee satisfaction (the company boasts a 98% retention rate) and corporate citizenship, citing the donation of commercial cooking equipment to the Red Cross following the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

When Bassoul took the podium, he opened with the question many of us wanted to ask. “How many of you had heard of Middleby before meeting me?” A lone hand went up in the back. “Almost none. That’s how we like it.” Bassoul made his case to students for how little Middleby has invested in publicity. The company’s success isn’t due to the ubiquity of the Middleby name, Bassoul said, but to the ubiquity of its intellectual property. “We don’t sell IP. We own it. And we put our technology everywhere we can,” said Bassoul. If you’ve had a toasted sandwich at Starbucks, if you’ve eaten breakfast at Dunkin Donuts or ordered from Pizza Hut, dined at P.F. Chang’s or Morton’s Steakhouse, then you’ve eaten off of Middleby products. One in three restaurant across the globe has Middleby equipment in the kitchen.

Bassoul grew up in Lebanon, and came to the U.S. for and MBA on a scholarship. He framed his professional motivation in an anecdote about his father. "My father swam competitively. But there were no swimming pools in Lebanon! So he swam in the Mediterranean, and he kept swimming there until he made the Olympics. The point is, you can always find the tools you need to succeed." The story resonated with Bassoul's own success. When he came to Middleby in 1996, he took a stagnating company and began investing in tools, that is, the technology that made Middleby a success. By balancing acquisitions with r&d, Bassoul gradually expanded Middleby's patents to give the company an edge in nearly every aspect of commercial cooking, an edge it still enjoys today.

Two weeks after Bassoul's visit to UIC Business, students reconvened in lecture hall C1 to learn about another industry giant: Accenture. MGMT 495 students presented an analysis of Accenture’s key divisions, its international scope, and its largest clients, after which Jill Smart took over the discussion to critique the students’ analysis and share her perspective on the work she did for Accenture.

Smart began by reminding students of where Accenture shows up in their lives: as inventory control at major retailers, as the technology that drives major sporting events, as the strategy consulting that makes governments more efficient and as the analytics that improves the bottom line. Accenture operates globally, but unlike competitors such as Deloitte, Accenture isn’t hindered by different national headquarters. “The company acquires talent anywhere, and moves it anywhere,” Smart said.

Smart’s own path to Accenture began at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, followed by an MBA at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. She started at Accenture as a tech consultant in banking and government, but was soon asked to redesign some of Accenture’s onboarding procedures, a project for which she teamed up with Booth faculty to model return on investment for the company’s training activities. Upon finishing her research, Smart was asked to update Accenture’s human resources practices across the board; over the course of this much larger project, a new CEO joined the company and invited Smart to be Chief of HR.

Smart’s approach to HR has been considered radical in the business, and widely influential, with former Accenture HR executives moving on to HR roles at major corporations like Walmart, GE, and many others. She sums up this approach in a few words. “Our product is our people—and their intellectual property.” Because of this, she says, HR is the epicenter of Accenture’s business. When she took over as HR chief, she wanted to reorganize HR as a business “with Accenture as my client,” she said. HR staff were cycled through different divisions within the company, and those who were willing to adapt were put through a mini-MBA. “HR delivers talent to management,” she told us. “The goal was to evolve HR so that our personnel were no longer merely filling the orders they received from management. We wanted HR to know the business so well that they could write the orders themselves.”