RBI Celebrates 10th Anniversary

Celebrating the Tenth Anniversary of the Russ Berrie Institute for Professional Sales: Elevating the Profession of Sales

By Theresa E. Ross ‘80

On a cold February morning at 9:00 a.m., five students sharply dressed in dark blue and grey interview attire gather around the conference table in William Paterson University’s Cotsakos College of Business. Each is waiting to be called for a fifteen-minute interview with a potential employer. The event is a two-day job fair for sales students held in the University’s Russ Berrie Institute for Professional Sales at 1600 Valley Road.

John Kaplan, a senior majoring in professional sales, had nine interviews yesterday and scheduled another nine today. He’s hopeful that one will lead to a job after graduation. Michele Garcia, a senior majoring in professional sales and marketing, is thrilled that yesterday’s interviews resulted in a one-semester internship with the Habitat for Humanity Resale store. She’s hoping that today’s interviews will result in a summer internship.

In total, seventeen company representatives are conducting 250 interviews with students at this event. If the students are nervous, none of them show it. Perhaps that is because they’ve had so much experience speaking and polishing their presentations, practicing mock negotiations, and meeting corporate executives at a variety of events. This is what the Russ Berrie Institute for Professional Sales at William Paterson University is all about: academic preparation for a career in sales.

Russ Berrie’s dream of an academic program

“Sales is the driving force behind every successful company,” said the late Russ Berrie, entrepreneur, and founder of Russ Berrie Co. Inc. Berrie lived a rags to riches story, starting out with $500 in his pocket and rising to become a multimillion-dollar entrepreneur. Best known for his line of teddy bears, Berrie championed the role of a salesperson.

For years, Berrie dreamed of an academic program that would advance the field of professional sales. When he approached William Paterson with the idea, he had two simple requests: to have a dedicated academic department and a bachelor’s degree in professional sales. Three weeks before Berrie’s death on Christmas Day in 2002, he pledged $6.2 million to establish the Russ Berrie Institute for Professional Sales at William Paterson University. The following year, Berrie’s dream was further realized when William Paterson established the world’s first fully accredited bachelor of science degree program in professional sales.

Since his death, Berrie’s innovative dream lives on with the help of his wife, Angelica Berrie, who leads his charitable organization, The Russell Berrie Foundation. “The thing that would give my husband the most satisfaction is seeing young salespeople emerge from the program and getting good jobs as the result of this training. That is the most visible and tangible outcome. And more than that -- it is the path to becoming a CEO or owning your own company.”

To emphasize her point, Berrie recalls the time her husband addressed a group of nearly thirty CEOs representing small to large-size companies who sat on the board of New York University’s Stern School of Business. “How many of you sitting at this meeting have been involved in sales at one time in your career?” he asked. Every hand went up. Most had spent a good part of their career selling. Yet, at NYU and other colleges at that time, there was rarely more than one course offered in selling. William Paterson University was one of the first universities to change all that.

Giving respect to the sales profession

“The day the Jewish or Italian mother brags about her son the salesperson like she does about her son the doctor, the lawyer, or the engineer, is the day the profession will take a leap forward,” Russ Berrie often remarked, noting that sales used to lack the educational foundation of other professions. It’s an anecdote that includes all demanding parents and expectations for daughters too. And even today, it still rings true.

“We’re still not out of the woods in terms of the social taboo, but the program is succeeding and growing,” says Prabakar Kothandaraman, executive director of the Russ Berrie Institute and associate professor in the Cotsakos College of Business. “Most students were transferees into the degree program a few years ago. Now students are coming in saying, ‘I want to major in sales.’ This means that parents are saying it’s okay to pursue a career in sales. Most surprisingly, parents have started calling us, writing to us, and stopping by the sales lab to find out what that is all about.”

There are 184 students taking sales classes this semester, says Kothandaraman, and 105 are majoring in sales. Approximately 70 students are sales minors in different stages of completion. “We also have students taking sales courses from diverse majors like anthropology, communication, public relations, psychology, sociology… almost all majors are represented. As we march into the tenth year of the program, students are beginning to see the value of the sales program to achieve their short-term professional goals and get their career started.”

The program’s success is spreading by word of mouth and organized pitches by the sales students themselves. In an Advanced Sales Class taught by William Healy, associate professor of professional sales, students are given the assignment to visit the classrooms of other majors and give a ten-minute presentation on the benefits of the sales program. In their pitch, which attracts many students, they call it one of the University’s “best-kept secrets.” “Today we are in a place where we can say we’re growing and we’re growing really well,” Kothandaraman says.

Jeffrey Markovitch, a senior, chose to major in sales because he came from a very competitive sports background. “When I graduated from high school, I found that sales enabled me to channel that competitive drive,” he says. Markovitch also serves as president of the student Sales Club, and actively networks with companies and brings in speakers to help with everything from interviewing skills to resume preparation.

One of his favorite classes was Negotiation. Another was Professional Selling because it took place in RBI’s Sales Laboratory, one of the highlights of the program. “That place is amazing,” he says.

The Russ Berrie Professional Sales Laboratory is a state-of the-art center for developing sales skills. Comprised of a control room, five labs, and a conference site, the facility includes robotic digital cameras that record students making sales pitches so their presentations can be reviewed. Professors seated behind one-way mirrors can observe the sessions as they unfold. Like an athlete watching a videotape of his performance, Markovitch valued the feedback of the lab. “I had a problem with fidgeting and I never realized it. I would spin my pen or move around in my chair because I was excited and not thinking about it. But when I reviewed the video, I noticed the little things that I could do to make myself better,” he explains.

Michael Gatlin, the laboratory’s technician, meets every student who enters in the program. “When they start out, they are nervous. I offer them advice and encouragement,” he says. Gatlin records their role play practice and puts it on a CD as well as the cloud server so students can view their performance on a computer or mobile device. By the end of their journey in the program, students are full of pride and excitement, confident, prepped, and polished—ready for the job world,” he says.

“I used to view sales like the job of a car salesperson, and I never wanted to do that,” says Bridget Kozma ’12. But from the first day she stepped into RBI’s Professional Sales class, she was hooked. After taking that class, she says, she began to understand the world of complex, higher-level selling. “It can involve dealing with solutions that impact an entire corporation. It might have a sales path of one to three years to completion. It involves understanding the customer, the customer’s buying process, and competitive markets. I realized that I could be selling to a CEO or CFO. And that’s what I wanted to do.”

“Businesses value what they see in our graduates,” says Kothandaraman. “When they recruit a well-trained salesperson from a program such as ours, they stand to gain financially.” He estimates that 85 percent of graduates find a job in six months, which is a conservative estimate. “It’s safe to say that nearly all students are offered employment within the first year,” he adds.

Sales competitions lead to internships and job offers

Joseph Nyamwange ’10, a first generation American whose family is from East Africa, says his parents expected him to follow a traditional path and become a lawyer or doctor. “When I told them I was interested in sales they were very scared,” he laughs. He transferred to William Paterson from East Stroudsburg University specifically because of the RBI program.

By his first semester, he was preparing to enter RBI’s Sales Triathlon, a high-speed sales competition for William Paterson students. The competition brings in corporate sponsors who judge students as they participate in three sub-competitions. In sales role play, each student participates in a sales call with a business executive. During the mock interview, students interview for a sales position followed by a feedback session. And in speed selling, each student meets with a series of executives and gives a two-minute pitch as to why he or she should be hired. Nyamwange came in third place overall. He was offered several paid summer internships, and accepted one with Unilever that involved doing field work in the New York metropolitan area and developing a strategy to grow Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Nyamwange presented it to the company’s top executives. “We sold it, they loved it, and they actually used my strategy and implemented it. It was awesome,” he says. While still in his junior year, Unilever invited him to come back with the offer of a full-time job.

Nyamwange was also one of four students invited to participate in RBI’s Sales Leadership Program, a rigorous corporate-sponsored course to study best sales practices. It included a trip to San Francisco to understand sales on the west coast, followed by trip to Qatar to learn how sales worked in the Middle East. “It gave me a world view on sales and how the dynamics can vary by region,” he says.

By the following year’s sales triathlon, Nyamwange took first place in every category and overall. Although it was 2010, in the midst of a slow economy, he became a hot commodity and received six job offers. After graduating magna cum laude, Nyamwange accepted a sales position with EMC, where he stayed for four years, but had also received offers from several other companies including Becton Dickinson, Stryker, TPI, and Summit Financial. They flew him to interviews from Boston to South Carolina, sent cars, and arranged hotel accommodations. “I felt great, like an athlete almost. To be coveted and have people spend money on you was awesome,” he says.

Kozma, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and professional sales, had a similar experience. “By February of 2012, my graduating year, I had a selection of about five different companies to work with and by April, a month before graduation, I had signed with BD Medical,” she says. At graduation, Kozma notes, every one of the roughly thirteen graduates in the sales program, except for one person already employed, was hired for a brand-new job. “I was offered salaries that ranged from $55,000 to $75,000. In many cases, the job offers included a car, a cell phone, internet expense…pretty much everything you need so you can focus on work,” she adds.

RBI will be hosting its eighth annual National Sales Challenge in November 2014, says Kothandaraman. “It attracts students from across the country and is supported entirely by corporate funds. It gives companies an opportunity to meet the best and brightest sales talent under one roof. They also meet faculty members from other participating colleges and universities who run sales programs. So if they’re looking for somebody to hire in Atlanta, they can always contact the university in Atlanta. So in one shot they get keyed into this network.” In 2013, more than one hundred college students representing thirty-seven universities from twenty-three states, as well as from Windesheim University in the Netherlands and Edinburgh Napier in Scotland, participated in the competition.

“ADP has been a proud sponsor of RBI since its inception,” says Ed Bitterle, a senior vice president at ADP. “We hire about six William Paterson students per year from the program and fifty students from the National Sales Challenge. For the past five years, ADP has sponsored the Sales Triathlon and National Sales Challenge. These sales competitions assist us in attracting top entry-level talent into our organization.”

“I’m amazed at the level of motivation and caliber of students that you are attracting into the program,” says Joe Profeta, senior vice president at EMC Corporation – NY/NJ Division. “We’ve witnessed firsthand the potential of these students by hiring some over the past few years and we are seeing their potential blossom at our organization.”

In addition to its academic role, the Russ Berrie Institute for Professional Sales helps corporations with workforce development. “Faculty members have worked with corporations from a diverse range of industries including energy, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, health care delivery, financial services, and not-for-profit,” says Kothandaraman. Programs range from one-day workshops to full-blown curriculum for middle managers. “Our highly customized training backed by our state-of-the-art sales lab sets us apart from other training companies,” he adds.

Nyamwange now works as a sales manager at Software House International (SHI), and manages a team of twenty people. Russ Berrie would be pleased to know that his parents are extremely proud of his success. “I remember that first semester, when I was offered all those internships, their eyebrows went up,” he says. “And when I traveled to Qatar and started doing all these things, they smiled and were loving it. They said, ‘this is great.’ I bought my first home last year. Paid off my car. It’s been awesome. My point is that RBI, what they’re doing and what they built there, is really transforming how sales is being looked at. And it’s really kickstarting people’s careers. I’m glad I am a part of that.”