“We had exhausted our goodwill with our bankers, our alumni, our donors, etc.,” Elsener says. “The enrollment was stagnant or dropping, and we had facilities that were ill-prepared to meet new challenges. I wanted a good challenge in my life and I found one.”
Elsener, along with other key executives, set clear goals for the organization and developed a plan to repay debt and lower operating costs, and in the 2004-2005 fiscal year, Marian College posted revenue of more than $31 million.
Smart Business spoke with Elsener about he how turned Marian College around and brought it out of the red.
How did you develop a plan to turn Marian College around?
We took the entire board and the senior administrators down to Oldenburg, Ind., and took a look at a two-page mission and turned it into a coherent sentence. We did the same with the vision, reaffirmed the values, set out some key goals and went to work.
I analyzed it as a place with great people and a great history, but we didn’t have a razor-sharp focus and we didn’t have a lot of time to overanalyze. If you don’t make a choice of exactly what you want to be or what you want to do, then you are making a choice to be somewhat fuzzy and out of focus and not clear to the market. And that is always deadly.
How did you restore the college to financial health?
We started to focus on exactly who we are and how we could get better. About six months before I started, we hired a CFO from the business and professional world ... and he brought excellent systems, a very keen mind and a discipline to the organization. He was key.
It was focusing effort at every level of the organization and hiring key leaders. Obviously, when you are out of focus, that is the key job of the leaders. We had to do that, and we had to make tough decisions about what we could and could not do.
How did you improve efficiency and reduce operating costs?
The first thing you have to do is reanalyze every business function and see if it is operating smoothly. We looked for efficiencies and right-sizing the organization. One of the key things that we did was focus on what we could not offer well and not do it anymore, because the market wouldn’t support it.
When it all comes down to it, we had a serious income problem. We said we better get very aggressive about marketing precisely what we are to the right people.
Also, that same marketing strategy (applied) to donors. We have had an explosion in enrollment and donors that has helped us produce a better product.
A good friend of the college gave us a gift and ... asked me to (take) that money and do a study of colleges like ours. This was one of the critical things we did, and I would recommend it to anyone coming into a difficult situation.
She said to study colleges that have similarities to yours that are now doing really well but at one time were not, and see how they did it. We learned a lot from that and have mimicked the common formula.
How did you apply what you learned from other turnarounds to Marian?
No. 1, by choosing some priorities, you are choosing a positive destiny. You can’t just say, ‘Let’s just give everyone a little bit so they’ll be happy, and let’s be a little bit of everything to everybody.’ It’s just the opposite. Let’s make some choices and, in an organized and thoughtful way, abandon other things.
Secondly, we found it interesting that successful colleges that are our size are remarkably adept at partnering making synergies with their community. The good thing about partnering is then people know you and know your worth in the community and they invest.
We also found out that almost all colleges that made a turnaround hired a new president. We had just done that. They also added a lot of new people to their board, increased involvement in the community and started a strong marketing program. We just hired our first VP for marketing communications, and he has done a wonderful job.
There were some very common traits by successful turnarounds. We continue to remind ourselves of those traits, and we’re focused on moving forward.
HOW TO REACH: Marian College, www.marian.edu