Tim Pett loves the strategy of starting a business. So even though geography isn't his strong suit, the 47-year-old director of Wichita State University's Center for Entrepreneurship has no regrets about his 15 years here.
"What I love about entrepreneurship is your game plan," the Syracuse, N.Y., native said. "You have a game plan, but you darn well better modify it if you intend to stay successful. There is no boilerplate in business. Your plans cannot be set in stone.
"What we try to tell our students is that we're giving them a vector. This is not an exact science. You've got to listen to what your customers are saying. They and the cash register will tell you what's working."
Pett never intended to spend 15 years in Texas, he said, chuckling. Fortunately, former Wichita State entrepreneurship chair John Bell had a sense of humor about Pett's lack of geographical acumen.
"John called me back in 1996 and asked me to come out and talk to him and the faculty about a position here," Pett said. "We were on the phone for a few minutes and it's football season, you know, and I'd kind of decided that I wasn't interested in coming to Texas.
"John said, 'That's good, but you must be an East Coast guy because Wichita Falls is in Texas and Wichita is in Kansas.' Well, oops. So, we talked another five or 10 minutes and I said, 'I guess that invitation is not still open, but I'd really love to come talk with you guys.'
"I really loved what they were doing here in the business community, how it fits with the business school, and that really appealed to me. Fortunately, they were still willing to listen."
Wichita's fortunate, too, said one of the city's restaurant innovators.
"When you witness what he is doing, it becomes clear that his number one goal is exposing students to real world applications of their textbooks," said Bill Simon, one of the co-founders of Freddy's Frozen Custard and Steakburgers.
"For many, whether it's entrepreneurship, history or anything in between, that's when the real light bulb goes off and the passion is ignited."
Pett's first six years at the helm of the entrepreneurship center have featured program and curriculum expansion that is essential in an increasingly competitive academic market, said David Mitchell, a Wichita accountant who founded the Shocker Business Plan competition at the center.
"When the center started, we were the only game in town. No other university had such an organization," Mitchell said.
"Now, other universities have the center, have the big donors. Buildings are being built, faculty are being hired and programs expanded across the country.
"We're in a competitive situation for young entrepreneurs. We're at a crossroads where we have to expand or we're just going to gradually drift down the pecking order of centers."
Pett's a perfect fit to lead that expansion, said WSU president Don Beggs.
The center must develop its dual role, Beggs said: teaching entrepreneurship to students and serving as a business resource to entrepreneurs.
"People have trouble understanding what entrepreneurship really is until they've been exposed to those who've successfully practiced it themselves," Beggs said.
"So this center must be both academic and outreach.... Our biggest asset, I think, are the opportunities we can deliver to interact with successful entrepreneurs."
Growing center funding and building on those partnerships remain Pett's focus.
Included are programs like the business plan competition, the entrepreneurship forum series and the entrepreneurship connections series that links successful businessmen with student startups.
The center also runs a business incubator in available space, where student startups can begin product development and production without real estate overhead.
And there's the center's ongoing research, by faculty there and across the university in accounting, finance, management, operations and international business.
All programs that bring value to the Wichita business community, according to a Wichita company president who's active in the center.
"The center is one of the lesser-known treasures in the Wichita area," said Susayn Brandes, chief executive of Wichita's Great Plains Ventures.
"Here in Wichita, you have a city with such a rich entrepreneurial history, and Tim and the center do a great job tapping into that.
"And I really think that the center's work integrating entrepreneurship into other disciplines, like engineering and the health professions, is truly cutting edge."
Startups over history
When Pett graduated from Saint Leo University, he had the corporate world on his mind.
After a tour of duty at Grumman Technology Services, he made the decision to get a master's in business administration.
"You kind of get pushed around in the business world, you know?" Pett said. "Riding the business wave. When times are good, the money's good, and when they're bad, you're pinching pennies. It didn't make a lot of sense."
Especially to a man infatuated with business strategy. So when an MBA classmate at the University of Memphis decided to try a heavy dose of customer service and marketing in the quick copy industry, Pett jumped in.
"Business Express. Still in business, and doing wonderfully," he said. "Pretty simple plan. We tried to get to know the customers on a first-name basis. We'd go into a homeowners association and publish their newsletters for no cost to get in.
"We were very aggressive with things that hadn't been done before. We'd provide stuff for free, then hand out some coupons and got to know some folks."
It was enough success for Pett to pursue his doctorate in strategic management at Memphis. The goal still wasn't to teach, he said, laughing.
"Anyone in the Ph.D. program will tell you the goal is always to survive," he said. "My research was mergers and acquisitions. Econometrics, how the stock market reacts to acquisition announcements.
"That got me looking at product development and extensions, and that's where my passion was."
Pett chuckles and asks, "How did that happen?" when asked about his conversion to a professor.
"Once you start a doctoral program, especially in the business disciplines, you do research but you find yourself wanting to apply what you're doing in the real world," he said.
"Some say consulting. Some say working directly with small businesses. Some say working with entrepreneurs.
"I say leading an entrepreneurship center."