UA Walton College of Business Dean Eli Jones Still Uses Sales Skills

by Chris Bahn  on Monday, Aug. 5, 2013 12:00 am  

In his first year, Eli Jones has spent time visiting with leaders throughout Arkansas, university officials say. (Photo by Ryan Miller)

Sales might no longer be a word included in Eli Jones’ title or official job description. But as dean of the University of Arkansas’ Walton College of Business, Jones continues to see selling as a big part of his duties.

“It’s all sales, isn’t it?” Jones joked during a recent sit-down with Arkansas Business to discuss his first year on the job. Jones worked for three Fortune 100 companies and had a background in sales and marketing before getting into higher education.

“When we’re out and building friends and supporters, some of my background definitely comes into play,” Jones added. “Selling is the ability to interact with people, the ability to help people see a vision or potential solution. It’s not about being pushy or manipulative, but how to share your story.”

Jones has been sharing the Walton College story since joining the UA from Louisiana State University in July 2012. And Jones has a clear vision for where he wants to take the college.

It doesn’t take long for a conversation with Jones to shift to his goal of making Walton College a top 20 business school by 2020. Currently, the school rests just outside the Top 25 in most rankings for undergraduate programs, including the one Jones is most interested in: U.S. News & World Report.

Rankings are calculated based on a number of factors, including enrollment, freshmen retention, tuition, job placement and six-year graduation rate. Getting into the top 20 by 2020 is, Jones acknowledged, an ambitious goal. He is also quick to point out that he considers it a “smart” goal, one that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-Based.

“We don’t want an easy goal, do we? We want to stretch ourselves,” Jones said. “It’s doable. Remember, I’m a former sales manager, so setting goals and working with people toward goals, we’ve done that quite a lot.”

Walton College began its growth nationally after a $50 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation in 1998. Jones wants to keep building on that name recognition, and he essentially pitched the 20 by 2020 plan to college supporters before he even officially had the job. He hasn’t stopped selling the idea that Walton College belongs in the same conversation with schools that might be more established nationally. Improving outside perception and resources available to strong programs like retail, entrepreneurship, supply chain management, global engagement and data analytics is a must, Jones said.

Recently, the college’s MBA program was recognized as top in the country for job placement of graduates. Last year Walton placed 82.6 percent of its graduating MBAs in jobs.

Finding ways to strengthen other areas of study within Walton College is also critical. Ultimately, Jones said, it’s about changing perception, which leads to attracting better students and better faculty, which in turn leads to better research and better results after graduation. Success in research and post-graduation aspects can then lead to outsiders having a better opinion of the college, which then attracts more money, more distinguished faculty and better students.

As dean of the Walton College, and the highest paid non-athletic department employee at the UA, it is Jones’ responsibility to find the right balance in that cycle. Jones is earning $459,000 in his position, but he has plenty of supporters who think that he can earn that salary and reach his goals for the Walton College.

“With the right focus and leadership, which we have, we will get there,” Provost Sharon Gaber said of the national recognition during an email exchange with Arkansas Business. “We believe that we have the name recognition, the outstanding faculty and students, the strong industry connections, leading-edge research and strong placement and graduation rates.”

Jones has many resources at his disposal in northwest Arkansas, including a network of 400 alumni who volunteer in various roles within the Walton College of Business. Plus, Wal-Mart headquarters, representatives of Wal-Mart vendors, J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. and Tyson Foods are all within 30 miles of campus. Still, Jones hasn’t been content to interact only with them.

During his first 90 days on campus, Jones embarked on a listening tour of faculty, staff, students and alumni. Jones, who notes he’s “still listening,” didn’t limit his focus to just northwest Arkansas, something that alums like First Security Bancorp CEO Reynie Rutledge, a member of the search committee and a UA trustee, have noted.

“What I appreciate as much as anything is the time he’s spent outside of northwest Arkansas,” Rutledge said. “He’s taken time to get to central Arkansas and other parts of the state to meet people and talk.”

While his position as dean does include a sales component, that isn’t what drew Jones into higher education. Prior to joining higher education as an assistant professor at the University of Houston, Jones worked at Quaker Oats Co., Nabisco and Frito Lay Inc.

It was while working for Quaker Oats that Jones realized he had a passion for teaching. He was promoted to a sales planning position in Florida, a job that essentially had him teaching others in the sales force how best to approach clients and move product.

“From that point on I took positions with companies that really allowed me to teach,” Jones sad. “That, I think, is what I was born to do.”

Energized by the opportunity to teach co-workers and motivated by a former professor’s suggestion that he pursue a doctorate, Jones went back to school. He received his doctorate in 1997 and then went into the profession full time, eventually working his way into administration.

Still, Jones, busy as he is, continues to spend time researching and working in the classroom. Those are the aspects of the job that keep him energized, he said.

It was Jones’ ability to bridge the academic and corporate worlds that sold the search committee on his ability to lead the Walton College of Business.

“He seeks excellence in everything he does — in his relationships with our corporate partners, with students and with faculty and staff within and outside Walton College,” Chancellor G. David Gearhart said. “In fact, I think in just one short year, he has come to epitomize excellence on this campus: His strong leadership and understanding of corporate as well as the academic communities have already solidified the college’s reputation for being a leader in undergraduate and graduate business education and the preparation of its graduates for professional and academic success.”



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