Interview with Ed Grier, Dean of VCU School of Business
Former president of Disneyland Resort now guides business school
- January 27, 2011
Ed Grier is not a typical business school dean. When he became head of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business last year, Grier did not have a doctoral degree. Instead, he had 28 years of accounting, marketing, finance and international management experience at Walt Disney Co., one of the most respected companies in the world.
Grier retired in 2009 as president and CEO of Disneyland Resort where he oversaw operations that generated $2 billion in annual revenue and employed 20,000 workers. That post capped a career that included key executive assignments at Disney sites in Orlando, Paris and Tokyo.
Grier wanted to become involved in education, and he believes VCU is the perfect fit. He hopes to use his background to raise the business school’s profile, recruit international students and create more collaborative programs like the VCU’s innovative Da Vinci Center.
A native of Atlanta where he was a high-school quarterback, Grier earned an accounting degree at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He worked in Pittsburgh for the accounting firm now known as Ernst & Young before moving to Orlando in 1981 to work in the audit department at Walt Disney World.
Several mementos in Grier’s office on the fourth floor of VCU’s Snead Hall reflect his career at Disney. Behind his desk hangs a hard hat with a Mickey Mouse decal, a gift from Walt Disney’s “imagineers,” the design and development employees responsible for the creation and construction of its theme parks worldwide.
Next to it is a commemorative shovel from the July 2009 groundbreaking for Cars Land, a Disneyland attraction based on the 2006 animated film “Cars.” It is due to open next year.
Also displayed prominently is a medal that Josh, one of Grier’s three sons, received for running the Disneyland Half Marathon. Grier had asked Josh to assist a Japanese film crew, an assignment that unexpectedly required him to run the race. The mounted medal is the Josh’s challenge to Grier, a short-distance runner, to attempt his own half marathon.
“He’s holding it against me,” the dean says with a smile. “He saying, ‘You asked me to host this crew, and I had to run the half marathon without training, so you owe me.’”
Virginia Business: Could you tell me a little bit about how you wound up at Disney? I understand that you had an accounting degree from Duquesne and then you worked for a CPA firm.
Grier: As you said, I was at an accounting firm [now known as] Ernst and Young. I got the Wall Street Journal every day, and I saw the Wall Street Journal advertising for [an internal audit position at] Walt Disney World in Florida. It’s the middle of winter, so I said — maybe this is something I should just investigate. So I did, and they called me pretty quickly. So I came down, I did an interview, and to my surprise I really liked the environment. So I decided to leave a few months after that.
That’s how I got started — it was in the audit department at Walt Disney World, and that launched my 28-year career at Disney. I was very fortunate and had a lot of great opportunities there. Starting with the audit department, I eventually worked in various parts of finance, capital planning and strategic planning.
Most people think of Disney as an entertainment company but within the entertainment company there are certainly many opportunities to work in different areas of different disciplines.
I had the opportunity to go with the marketing team to open a big project in Disneyland Paris in the early 1990s. From that I came back and I worked in finance again. I transitioned to operations eventually, running larger operations and had the opportunity later on in my career to move to Japan. [After living in Japan for two years,] I thought I would be coming back to Orlando, but I didn’t. I came to California, and I became the president of the Disneyland Resort.
VB: You retired two years ago. Why did you retire? You were still pretty young.
Grier: I was still pretty young, but I knew I would do something different. As I was going through my career at Disney, I thought about, if I were to do something different, what would it be? It was always focused in the education area. I began thinking about it in earnest when I started going around looking at colleges for my sons. I have three sons. They’re 26, 24 and 20 now. One’s graduating from Northwestern, one started off at Temple University in Japan and one is at Stanford right now.
I knew of the importance of education and how it propels your career. Living in Asia, education was brought up by the leaders that I talked to as the key to resurgence [in many countries], certainly in China and India. So I said if I were going to do something different, this is the area I would like to enter and where I could personally make a difference.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy for somebody like me, with a business background primarily, not being a lifelong academic, which is traditionally the way you enter. But I talked to some people when I was in California, including the dean of the business school at [the University of California at] Irvine. I’ve done a number of things with him and ironically now he is the chairman of [the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, an accreditation body for business schools]. He gave me some good insights on how I could do it. But he said it would be tough, and many times they would say, if you are a business leader, you may enter as an instructor. I said that’s not what I want to do. I would rather make a difference from the organizational standpoint. He gave me some ideas on who I could call who works in that space from a recruiting standpoint. I finally talked to one of the recruiters. She was very supportive and said we may have an opportunity for you. This was a good match for me, and that’s how it happened.
VB: Did you know of VCU before this all began?
Grier: I knew of VCU, but I was not that familiar with it. Ironically, as I was doing research on the university, I found out some of my colleagues at Disney had connections with VCU. So that was a big help. More importantly for me, I wanted to enter into the world of academics, and VCU seemed like the perfect fit for me.
VB: VCU has been known as a very Virginia school. There are a lot of kids from Virginia who come here. Are you trying to reach out to good students from other parts of the country?
Grier: We’re just getting started with that. We have to tell our story a little better. The branding of the VCU School of Business is something that I’m very passionate about because we have tremendous assets. So how do we tell that story beyond the borders of Virginia? Now, certainly we are a state institution, and we’re going to take care of Virginia students. But there is a tremendous opportunity to go beyond the state’s borders so we are embarking upon some marketing plans.
One of the things we’re working on right now is looking at how we can bring international students here. It does a couple of things. Certainly, it adds to the diversity of what we’re doing here. Also, these are going to be great students so it helps the entire student body. And, because they’re out of state, that helps us from a revenue standpoint, too, [in paying higher tuition.]
VB: I understand that VCU has a relationship with Christ University in India. Will there be students from there coming here soon?
Grier: Approximately 60 students will arrive in mid-August for the fall semester. Christ University is a great university. It’s in Bangalore, India. The students will receive their MBA from Christ University in India, and they will also spend nine months with us here, and they will receive a master’s in finance or marketing. It’s a great synergy between two great universities. In addition to that, we hope to start a program where we will send our students there for a summer, let’s say. Students would go there, work with industry leaders and possibly live on campus. It’s a long way to go, and it’s expensive, but if we can get the cost in line, I think it would be a great opportunity for us.
VB: What other initiatives are you thinking of for the school?
Grier: Well, I think India is probably just one country that we could use as a way of talking about selling the VCU brand internationally. We’re planning a trip to Shanghai and Beijing to look at some opportunities there with other great universities. The ones we talked about in India were on the graduate level. These may be graduate level but they may be undergrad as well. Again, the demand for education is so strong in Asia, and they can’t handle all of the demand.
VB: You have contacts in Japan. Are you thinking of doing something there?
Grier: We talked about that. It isn’t the market that is as easily accessibly as China and India. Japan, unfortunately, is suffering from a negative population growth. India and China are the exact opposite. Brazil’s probably another great opportunity for us. It’s a thriving economy. It’s growing very well, and they want to have those exchanges, too. So what we’re saying is: Where are the opportunities from that standpoint? The other thing is finding the right institution that matches up well with you. Do they have a need that we can fulfill?
VB: What about other kinds of collaborations with other VCU schools or programs?
Grier: What we really need to teach our students is to be prepared for unexpected changes that happen in a business or the marketplace. We have a boutique program here called the Da Vinci Center run by Professor Ken Kahn. What we do is combine students from various disciplines. Typically it’s from engineering, business and the arts school, and we give them projects to work on collaboratively. By doing that, they get a sense of what it takes to bring something to bear not just from a theoretical standpoint but working with disciplines that you typically wouldn’t work with. When you leave the business school, what are you going to? You’re going to work out there in the marketplace. They’re not all going to be accountants. They’re not all going to be finance managers. They’ll be artists, they’ll be creative people, they’ll be HR, so you need to work in that collaborative atmosphere. That’s something we’re really trying to promote more and more. It’s a boutique right now but we’re trying to entice more businesses to give us projects to work on. It works very well.
VB: Of course, this building is part engineering and part business. In addition to Da Vinci, is there a continuing collaboration between those two?
Grier: There is and it’s building. Russ Jamison is the dean of the School of Engineering. He was chairman of the selection committee when I was vying for the job, so I have a great relationship with him. One of the things that Russ and I have just begun to talk about is what space could we create with business and engineering. Well, you could have an engineering student stay a little bit longer and receive an MBA. We could easily do that, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about creating a collaborative program, probably at the graduate level, that uses the disciplines of engineering and business together.
VB: Now that you’ve been here a full semester, have you found that your experience at Disney transfers well here? Do you feel like you bring a different perspective to the job perhaps than an academic dean does?
Grier: Well, I certainly have to give a lot of credit to the deans that preceded me in bringing the school to where it is right now: a great facility, great academics and a great staff. Disney is known for training in leadership. I’m a big proponent of the leadership ability and driving the organization. But what does that mean? I think about the strategies that I have from a leadership standpoint: Is the organization set up correctly? Are the communications set up correctly? Are we relying on human capital? Do we have the right people in place? These perspectives do not change no matter where I go, whether it’s working in the parks and resorts environment or working in the academic environment.
One of the biggest things for me, from a Disney perspective, is that there’s no compromising on quality. The quality of what we do, whether it’s how we maintain the building, how we recruit students, how we treat our faculty members and staff, is very important.
Human capital also is hugely important to me. People want the same things no matter whether they’re at Disney or here. They want to be treated like individuals, they want to be respected, they want you to recognize them for who they are, but most importantly, they want to be developed professionally. If we don’t continually develop, the organization will fall behind.
But most important, I think, is the trust. I think in any place I’ve been, if they trust me it goes a long way because they will talk to me. They will confide in me. Not just my direct reports, but every level within the organization, because we want to be on the same page, and I want them to feel good about what they do.
VB: You don’t have a Ph.D. Has that been an impediment in any way?
Grier: I don’t think so. I think certainly it was a concern early on during the recruiting phase. I’m here to lead organizations, to drive change, set the tone, but I have listening posts out there. We launched something with the Performance Management Group, which is internal to VCU, and I gave everyone the opportunity to say whatever they wanted confidentially. That report will tell me what they’re thinking. So my job is to understand what’s important to them, what’s important for them personally, the individual departments, their students that they’re teaching and the research that they’re working on, and how we can drive that agenda for them. So that’s important for me. The Ph.D. would be helpful, but it has not been an impediment for me, not from a leadership perspective, and I think that’s my major role here.
VB: How do you break down what your job is? How much of it is management? How much of it is fundraising?
Grier: I think it’s changed probably from my predecessors. One of the major things I have to do is drive revenue for the School of Business. State support of the university is not what it was. It’s probably not coming back anytime soon. It isn’t that the state doesn’t want to support the university. It’s just very tough for the state. In fundraising, I want to build a brand that’s going to be buyable not just for the students, but for the community because it’s a driver in the community. I want it to be a big part of the community. So I would say 20 to 30 percent of my time would be spent in the community. Every time I go out there it’s fundraising for me, so any good impressions I can make for the School of Business I consider that a win.
But the other part is driving the organization, setting the tone, setting the vision, making sure that we’re set up correctly for success at every level. Those are big components. I think the other part that I have to carve out is time for me to think about the future, looking at the best practices out there, visiting other institutions. We don’t have all of the answers here.
VB: We talked about Disney being an excellent preserver and promoter of the brand. What do you envision the brand being for VCU?
Grier: Well, I think it has two components to it. Certainly, the university has a brand. We are part of that, and we’re proud of that, too. But I think for the School of Business our brand would be the excellence that we’re going to produce in our areas of focus. I think the quality of our delivery of programs is the success of our brand. The recruitment of students and the recruitment of faculty are going to be the building blocks for the brand for us.
VB: What do you do in your spare time?
Grier: I try to get up early and go to the gym before I get here in the morning. My children aren’t with me here. They’re older now. They’re off at college and beyond. So I don’t have that as a responsibility from a day-to-day standpoint so that gives me more time to spend with my wife, Valerie. We’ve been married 30 years now. She likes to ski, so the last few years we’ve been taking winter ski vacations. She’s a much better skier than I am.
VB: Are you a Redskins fan?
Grier: Actually I’m not. I’m not anti-Redskins, but I can tell you about the football teams that I really like. I grew up in Atlanta. The Falcons were not very good when I was there. I moved to Pittsburgh, which had a tremendous team [in the 1970s]. That was the time of the Steel Curtain and players like “Mean” Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes, L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert and Terry Bradshaw. They were dominant. I’m still a big Pittsburgh fan. When I moved to Orlando, we had season tickets to Tampa. They were awful. So the Steelers are still number one. The Falcons I like because I grew up with them. And Tampa. That’s my triangle.