During the spring 2020 semester, a class in Butler University’s Master of Business Administration (MBA) program partnered with a local distillery to learn about the downstream supply chain—the process by which a product makes its way from production to consumers. After studying for themselves how the distillery’s Indiana-sourced whiskey is typically sold through restaurants, tasting rooms, or grocery store shelves, the class would write a case study to teach what they had learned to future business students.
They had just finished the second draft when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“Instead of teaching from a textbook about what the challenges are in distribution, I wanted students to have a grasp of what a real company actually goes through,” says Dr. Jane Siegler, Assistant Professor of Operations. “When the pandemic hit, we didn’t just ignore that and focus on what would happen in normal circumstances. No—this is a small business that is trying to find its way in the market, with all the normal challenges that a small company faces, but now there is this global pandemic. What do you do?”
Shutdowns affected restaurants and other distribution outlets across the hospitality industry, and the distillery’s on-site tasting room had to close its doors. So, while continuing to learn about the company (who asked to remain anonymous for the case study), the MBA students helped the distillery identify new opportunities for getting its products to customers.
Dr. Siegler says she often likes to partner with real companies for her classes, which not only provides an experiential learning opportunity for students, but also offers a range of fresh perspectives for the business.
“When we have all these smart minds working together in class,” she says, “chances are that we will see things that the company may have missed. We are offering high-quality consulting projects at low or no cost to the companies. It’s a way to benefit the companies, the regional economy, and the students.”
The students’ key recommendation for the distillery was to place more focus on direct-to-consumer sales. Without the need to pay distributors, these channels would be more profitable, as well as help the relatively young company continue building relationships and growing its brand. After the pandemic hit, the distillery opened a carryout bottle shop that replaced their tasting room as a way to engage directly with consumers.
The case study, which has now been accepted for publication in the International Journal of Teaching and Case Studies (IJTCS), also identified opportunities for the distillery to attract customers by highlighting stories about how its whiskey is sourced and produced entirely in Indiana (a state not known for making bourbon). The company could produce videos profiling local corn farmers, or showing the whole production process from seed, to grain, to glass, the students suggested. That all-Indiana ingredient sourcing was the main thing that caught Dr. Siegler’s attention, and chances are it would appeal to customers, too.
“The entire supply chain from the farmers all the way to packaging is made up of Indiana companies,” Dr. Siegler says. “I thought that was pretty interesting from a supply chain perspective, especially when you think about how we are a very global society. But this company points to their supply chain strategy as one of the key components to their success.”
Angie Bidlack, one of the four MBA students involved with the case study, says the onset of COVID-19 didn’t derail what they had started working on. It just added a new dimension.
“There are always unknowns in a case study,” she says, “but then we had this challenge of thinking through the immediate future during COVID, as well as the future post-COVID. We could compare how things changed before and after the pandemic.”
For example, when the class first toured the distillery at the beginning of the semester, the company had plans to take their brand national by partnering with some of the largest grocery retail outlets in the United States. The pandemic brought those plans to a crawl, but the class helped think through other ways the distillery could keep growing.
“Even with the pandemic, the company was doing great things,” Bidlack says. “They found a way to make challenges into opportunities and didn’t continue going with their normal business plan. They were very agile, and they immediately pivoted to something that allowed them to thrive. And that is something I think everybody can take and apply to their career in some way.”
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