A Conversation with Dr. Bob Keimer, Assistant Professor of Management and Program Chair of Online Programs

Dr. Bob Keimer applies the spirit of entrepreneurship to everything he does.

Whether he’s coaching small business owners or providing feedback to his students, entrepreneurship feeds into his work on an everyday basis.

“In my career, whether I was doing my own business or working for a company, I always viewed it as my own business. When I had a department, division, and even now as an instructor, the class is my business and those are my customers. My job is to do a great job for them and help each individual get as far along and learn as much as they can.”

This approach started early. With a serial entrepreneur as a father, Keimer started working for his family’s construction business as a teenager. As that business grew into a multimillion-dollar company, Keimer earned his “practical MBA” by working in every aspect of it, from construction, service and home-owner sales, to management and running retail shops.

He brought that same outlook when he decided to work with one of the company’s distributors. Working his way up to Director of Marketing then Vice President of the region, Keimer applied his expertise in a 15-year career with the distributor, eventually relocating to South Florida and managing 11 warehouses with about $60 million in business and 150 employees.

In 2008, Keimer decided to start his own manufacturing company with two business partners. While that venture did not take off, his friend and Florida Tech instructor, Tim Muth, connected him with the Assistant Dean of the Bisk College of Business, and he began facilitating the Essentials of Business Development online course. A critical component of the MBA online program in which students write their own business plans, Keimer was able to bring his practical business and entrepreneurial experience to the course:

“Having that startup background, growing up in a family business, having some other businesses and then doing the manufacturing startup, it ended up being a great fit for that course and for Florida Tech because I had that prior, real-world experience that I could bring into the classroom on-campus and online.”

After facilitating the course from 2008-2014, Keimer came on board full-time with Florida Tech and began teaching courses on-campus. Now, as an Assistant Professor of Management and Program Chair for Online Programs, Keimer teaches courses online and on-campus, and reviews and redevelops online courses to ensure they are as up to date as possible:

“It keeps you on your toes. You have to stay sharp and up on all the current information. Students are smart, and they ask good questions, so you have to have good answers.”

We spoke with him about his experience as an entrepreneur, teacher and mentor.

What do you look for in a business plan to determine its success?

For early-stage and initial startup companies, having a detailed business plan isn’t expected or the norm because you can’t possibly know all the things you need to know. In the past 10-15 years, the startup world has moved to Lean launch strategies. You develop a quick prototype and ask potential customers for feedback. While you revise the prototype based on the input, you’re developing the market analysis and customer analysis using tools like Business Model Canvas and Design Thinking to pinpoint specific profiles for that target customer.

The market and customer analysis components are the most critical sections. You really have to know the market and who the target customers are. It’s easy to tell if the person who wrote the business plan actually went out and spoke to potential customers and acquired in-depth market data. If you don’t know those answers and understand who the target customer is, you might as well not launch that business because that’s the critical foundation.

Once you’ve done that, then down the road when you’re trying to raise money, the people who will be lending you that money will want to see a formal business plan.

What experience do you have with teaching online vs. on-campus students? What do you get out of those experiences?

The students I teach online compared to those on-campus are very different. The undergraduates I teach on-campus are much younger, and they’re typically finding their way and don’t have a full career direction yet. There, I see my value is not only the content I cover, but also in establishing the principles of business discipline: communicating to freshmen students how important it is to hit your deadlines and carry yourself professionally in a business environment; emphasizing that there are no excuses; you have to get the job done and building that mindset over the four years.

Then, when I see them senior year, you can see they’ve matured, but they are still obviously working on it and building up their skills and expertise.

While we’re not face-to-face, I really enjoy working with online students because they’re typically older working professionals, so there’s no question about motivation; they’re working full time while earning this degree, so they know how valuable their time is. They’re dialed in and focused. Since they already have a lot of experience, the online classroom becomes a collaborative environment. It’s not a teacher telling them what to do, but rather a sharing of information.

For example, in my last class, I had half a dozen students who worked at big companies like Northrup Grumman and Verizon. In our discussions on organizational structure and company culture, they weighed in with their experience, resulting in a great variety of different inputs. The online group is enjoyable in that regard because we’re all working to make each other better.

How do you keep online students engaged and connected?

One way I keep online students engaged is by jumping in on the discussion boards. While I emphasize that I shouldn’t be driving the discussion boards, I sometimes jump in with new information or questions to get the group to thinking.

The other way I cultivate engagement is by responding quickly to questions and requests for information. Turning around and grading their work quickly and giving them feedback also helps with engagement.

I also do something called the “weekly wrap-up” email. The reasoning behind this strategy is, if you have a class of 30 students, they’re business professionals. They’ll do the required discussion board posts and responses, but not all will have time to read all the other discussion board posts. So, I read all the discussion board posts and, as I’m reading them, I make notes of great answers and examples. In the weekly wrap-up email, I’ll do a summary of the discussion board and the highlights, including calling out individuals for the specific insights they brought to the discussion. Even though it requires effort on my part, students respond positively to it in the feedback I’ve received over the years, saying it makes us feel connected and like a “real” class.

Finally, my cardinal rule is I don’t provide cut-and-paste, generic comments for assignment feedback. If you’re going to write a paper for me, you’re going to get specific feedback because I’m reading your paper in detail and I’m going to provide feedback that’s specific to the paper you turned in. Part of the value of being a student is bringing my expertise and knowledge to the classroom, so I will contribute that information in my individualized feedback to students.

What would you recommend to students to get the most out of their classes and have the best experience?

The good news is, most online students that I’ve taught are highly motivated and they’re already disciplined and know about deadlines. But it can be tough to balance extreme work demands and a graduate degree, which is tough.

So, my first tip would be to do the readings early in the week. The sooner they can get the readings under their belt, the easier the discussion boards and the assignments will be. I realize it’s not always possible; in some situations, students have to wait until the weekend to do the bulk of their work. But if they can do the readings early in the week and get a start on their coursework earlier in the week, that makes the rest of the material easier to accomplish.

Second, in terms of working with the instructor, I tell my students to communicate as soon as possible if something comes up that will interfere with completing a major assignment by the deadline. If they explain the situation, that something’s come up with work or family, and reach out to the instructor as early as possible, I think most instructors would work with them on it. Don’t wait until after it’s due.

Can you tell me about what research you’re interested in and how that influences what you discuss in the classroom?

I finished my dissertation last summer, and my topic was on execution. Execution has fascinated me all throughout my career in the different companies I’ve worked at, especially at the distribution company. I managed 11 different branches and within the company, there were 350 branch locations. As senior managers, we’d notice that one branch could be phenomenal, but it was a challenge to take that model and apply it to all 350. You can have great strategy, abilities and capabilities within the organization, but unless that organization has figured out how to consistently execute and get things done, nothing will happen. Looking at the operational nuts and bolts of how companies are effective at actually getting things done is my favorite research area.

A high-profile example of execution, even though they have tried a bunch of things that didn’t work, is Amazon. Once they dial in and start going in a specific direction, they get things done quickly. They haven’t been successful at everything – the Fire phone, for example – but I think what works for Amazon is that they’ll try and then they’ll shift gears quickly if it doesn’t work. Things are moving so fast these days, so I think that companies that have disciplines in place, they execute well, even if they fail in a given direction, because they can quickly turn around and do something different. If they’re able to execute, they’ll be successful.

My focus on execution informs my approach to teaching. While theories and academic concepts are important, I think that translating those theories and academic concepts into concrete action provides the value. You have to figure out how to apply those principles the next day in your business and use the ideas to improve performance and increase profits. I think that’s what business is about, especially execution.

Do most Florida Tech instructors apply real-world knowledge in the classroom?

I would say about half of the business instructors are from the startup world or the business world, and I know that every one of those instructors uses real-world cases and examples in the classroom. They don’t just rely on textbooks and academic concepts. In fact, in my courses, I provide students with sales and other reports that I used to use at my old company, then I ask students to use those reports to make management decisions based on the information. Sometimes in management, there’s no one answer, so we end up having a really thoughtful discussion in the class in determining what a good management decision would be.

How has being a mentor benefited you?

I have been a mentor in a couple of different capacities. Florida Tech is closely aligned with weVENTURE, an organization that works with local businesses, mostly female entrepreneurs, by providing resources including a mentoring program that I did for several years as one of their facilitators. I’ve also worked with SCORE – I was a SCORE volunteer for 10 years prior to coming over to Florida Tech.

The reason I enjoy mentoring is the same reason I’m in teaching – I really enjoy helping, and I love business, so I get to combine the two with mentoring. I’ve been working with small and medium-sized businesses for many years, and I get great satisfaction out of it. As a mentor, you learn a lot from other business owners and people starting businesses. It forces you to stay on top of current information. Also, you get to learn about new industries that someone might be going into that you’re not familiar with. So, it definitely has benefits both ways.

Can you tell me about your involvement with Florida Tech’s Student Business Incubator?

The Student Business Incubator is a tremendous resource at the university. We have an Incubator and we have an Incubator Practicum. In terms of the Incubator, myself and two other professors run the Incubator and any university student, if they have a product or business idea and want to move it along or seek feedback and help, can come to us.

We run weekly evening sessions that are open and voluntary for students. We’ll work with them on their ideas and show them some tools that maybe they weren’t aware of that they can use. We’ll guide them depending on where they are in the development of the product, service or business. We can put them on track to actually build that product, build that business and launch it if that’s what they want to do.

While Florida Tech is well-known for engineering and aerospace, and those students are super talented, they don’t always have the business background. So, what we’re able to do in the Incubator is mix up business students with engineering and aerospace students and provide a space where they can work together and share ideas. The engineering and aerospace students realize why the business perspective is important if you want to bring a product to market, so it’s a great learning resource. On the practical side, if they have something legitimate and they’re passionate about pursuing it, we have the contacts, connections and tools to help them launch a product or a business.

What types of projects are launched from the Incubator?

Many of them are smaller-scale businesses, but I consider those useful because to develop a business is a lot of work. For example, several students have developed their own marketing companies and they’re actually making money, which is great.

Then, we always get our crop of students that have a thing for T-shirts. We had a couple of partners who were into the fishing lifestyle, so they started that niche and built that business.  I’ve got another group of students who are concerned about the environment, so they make T-shirts from material that is from recycled plastic. For those businesses, the challenge is, because there are so many T-shirt companies, how are you going to stand out. So, we get deep into marketing tactics and what they need to do to grow their business.

One student was really successful with a local event planning business. A terrific salesperson by nature and with tremendous connections, he made a lot of money his senior year, sponsoring and hosting events in the local Melbourne area.

We do have quite a few technical products that come through, but typically those are long-term and started by engineering students. We haven’t scaled those or gotten them to market. Many times, the engineering students are more interested in the research side of it, and when they learn how much work it is to commercialize, sometimes they lose their interest in launching a business.

It’s still a useful exercise for the engineering students, because they’re going to work in some large companies and they will have to understand the business dynamics so that when the marketing or sales teams ask for new product features, instead of grumbling, they’ll know that the reason they’re asking for it is because the customer wants it. I think we give them a broader exposure of what’s going on, so they have a better understanding of the business world.

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