PERFECT FIT: When Christian Brothers University went looking for a new dean of its business school, they found him nearby in Dale Bails, a professor of economics at the school. -- Photo By Scott Shepard
When Christian Brothers University promoted Mike Ryan to vice president for advancement from dean of its school of business last summer, it was the fifth time in 13 years the school's dean had left the job.
When a search committee convened in October to replace Ryan, the one thing everyone knew was that they didn't want to spend a couple years breaking in someone new to CBU, and a few more years waiting for that person to learn the world of Memphis business.
The answer was right under their noses, in the person of Dale Bails, a professor of economics at CBU who was named the school's new dean in February.
"The search committee wanted a leader to bring everyone together and be a successful fundraiser," said Academic Vice President Tony Aretz, who appointed the committee. "They wanted someone to revise the curriculum, and who could go out and partner with local business and industry."
Prior to joining CBU in 1995, Bails was a professor at the University of Memphis, doing side work for some of the biggest companies in town and some of the most influential business leaders.
That experience and those contacts are considered essential for the job in the coming years. Business schools are becoming entrepreneurial, reaching out into their communities to lend expert advice and to reel in money and students.
Roadmap to Success
On a map, Bails' life would look like a pinball game, bouncing between Nebraska, Georgia, Missouri and Memphis.
"I've spent a fair amount of time in the corporate world; when I was with Union Pacific Railroad in Omaha (Neb.), I decided that I wanted to teach, but I needed a Ph.D.," Bails said.
Thus prepared, Bails applied to Virginia Tech, Baylor and the U of M, hoping for the job in Virginia to work on a research project on government choices.
"I was hired by the U of M and couldn't have been luckier," he said. "My neighbor here worked for FedEx when it was a start-up."
Bails spent 10 years at FedEx, part of what he called a fascinating transition. The first five years were a constant struggle for survival. Then customers realized the value of overnight freight and things went from famine to feast.
"We spent seven years wondering what to do with all those packages," he said. "We had to lease planes."
Watching FedEx founder Fred Smith operate, Bails learned the value of hiring the right people, delegating authority and listening to all ideas. He said he only has one regret: a decision he made on the first day because he needed to support his young family.
"They offered me money or stock, and I took the money," he said.
FedEx today remains among the most respected companies in America, he said, because FedEx has never lost sight of the fundamentals.
"Every few years someone writes a best-selling business book, but I could write the ultimate business book in two chapters, based on FedEx," he said. "Chapter One: Pay attention to your customers. Chapter Two: Pay attention to your employees."
Other chance encounters added to Bails' serendipity. A student at the U of M, Carlos Cantu Jr., turned out to be the son of the CEO of ServiceMaster. For 25 years Bails was a consultant to the Terminix division.
An analyst at First Tennessee Bank introduced Bails to the bank's former CEO Ron Terry at a time when Terry was deeply involved in Memphis City Schools.
Consulting for Terry was an education itself, Bails said, affording the chance to indulge Bails' interest in government and hone his understanding of the shortfalls.
"In government there is no incentive to make it work," Bails said. "People are no more dishonest than anywhere else, but there is no discipline for efficiency."
Cities that have outsourced data management, for example, cut costs up to 70 percent, he said. Private trash hauling is cheaper, and many cities in the Southwest use private firefighting companies and get better service for much lower costs.
The same discipline works in education.
"I did a study on academic achievement of public schools compared to Catholic schools - Catholic because they are so large that they have useful statistics," he said. "Catholic schools spend less, have larger classes and fewer counselors, and they do 20 percent better."
The difference, he found, was that customers of private schools - parents - demand that they be listened to, and will go elsewhere if they feel ignored. It's the same reason charter schools do better than other public schools - they must respond to their market.
"Public schools are not going to listen to parents because they don't have to," he said.
Bails said he has observed college students who are getting progressively more conservative and market-oriented, while their teachers remain a bastion of liberal philosophy. His frankness is popular
with students but sometimes annoying to peers.
"Tact is not one of my stronger virtues, so what surprised me most was that only one faculty member voted against me as dean," Bails said. "I'm surprised that I only made one person mad in 13 years here."
Bails continues to work with outside businesses, lest he inadvertently build an ivory tower for himself. He also has promised to remain dean for at least five years.
"After that my grandchildren will be old enough to be interesting, and I intend to spend all of my time with them," he said.