A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of spending a day and a half at a private, invite-only executive leadership summit hosted by Dr. Nido Qubein, president of High Point University. As a business leader first and foremost, he is also chairman of the Great Harvest Bread Company, with 220 stores in 43 states, and serves on the boards of several national organizations including BB&T Bank, the La-Z-Boy Corporation and Dots Stores.
Dr. Qubein came to the United States from Lebanon as a teenager with little knowledge of the English language, and only $50 in his pocket. He's a remarkable example of The American Dream, and the achievement that is still possible in today's American economy regardless of your background, upbringing or current financial situation.
Nido Qubein has taken a very small regional school (his alma mater) and put it on the national map. In his 14 year tenure as president, enrollment is up 183% and the campus has grown from 91 to 500 acres. They are now a number 1 ranked University in several categories by US News & World Report. Nido Qubein has re-invented the way a university delivers its product, all this by redefining WHO and WHAT the product is. The day and a half I spent with Dr. Qubein was an incredible opportunity, and also like drinking from a fire hose in terms of the ideas and strategies he shared.
Coming in as President of High Point University, Dr. Qubein had zero experience running a university. Many people would view this as a liability. Most people would safely assume that his first step would have been to reach out to other prominent presidents of successful big name universities and get any tips, insights and best practices he could utilize at High Point. I'd wager that this lack of industry experience was his competitive advantage.
Starting with a clean slate, Dr. Qubein took a very different approach, looking instead to the pioneers and visionaries who disrupted their respective industries: Howard Schultz (Starbucks), Truett Cathy (Chick Fil A) and Steve Jobs (Apple Computer). He viewed the University as a business first, and the student as the customer. His key focus was RELEVANCE. How could High Point University be relevant? Relevant to both what the student wants, but also what the parents (many of whom are footing the bill) want. Nido stressed relevance is defined by they eyes of the beholder. We have to always be asking how we stand out compared to the competition. All the examples Nido chose to model were a category of 1: Starbucks, Chick Fil A and Apple. All three have all been hyper-focused on meeting the needs and wants of their customer, and doing things different from the competition.
As part of our day and a half with Nido Qubein, we got a private insider tour of the university and a behind the scenes look at how they operate. This is a University like no other. They have a fully functional news room that any major broadcaster can tap into live, a sports sciences center where professional athletes come in and are analyzed, and a 5-star steakhouse on campus, which serves as a learning lab for students for learning proper etiquette and social skills in a professional setting. The campus is high tech, modern and meticulously neat. Some would call it unnecessarily luxury, but everything they do has intention and purpose behind it - everything from how the university campus is planned out, to the core values prominently displayed in the student center, to the classical music that is broadcast throughout campus. High Point's brand promise is evident everywhere - they are a "Premier Life Skills University" in every way.
So - why would the owner of an IT Services business have any interest in touring a university? What's the connection and relevance? Well, the same reason Nido Qubein looked to the owner of a coffee franchise, a fried chicken fast food enterprise and computer manufacturer. If we want to truly differentiate, and scale and grow, we need to get out of our industry, out of the status quo, and dare to be different. We have to seek new and fresh ideas and always differentiate. We need to become a category of one.