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MBA students help local businesses

MBA students are getting practical experience while helping local businesses.

Dr. Mathew Sarkees' students have been out in the community this semester doing marketing projects for eight different organizations or businesses.

Among them was Mariana Freitas, a Bridgeport, W.Va., resident who will graduate in 2013. She worked with a group of five students that created a marketing plan for Garcia's Latin Market, a specialty grocery store and gift shop in Morgantown. Their goal was to help the owners build awareness and reach target customers.

The students examined the store's current marketing activity, evaluated it, and determined ways to reach an ideal customer base. "We talked to the owners," Freitas said, "and we found out that they want to build links to the WVU student population. But they hadn't really tried to get to them. So, we explored the best way for them to reach students."

The group talked to student organizations and faculty in the WVU Department of World Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics to get ideas. They also suggested doing tasting events on campus.

"One major thing we discovered is that the store distributes homemade tortillas and chips," she said. "They want to expand, so we looked at current distribution channels they are using and we suggested they should put logos on restaurant menus so that people know where the tortillas and chips come from." The group also suggested that the store build a regular clientele by updating them through email and a web site, giving customers information about the store's changing line of products.

"This is one of my first major marketing classes, and there is a huge amount of information to learn," Freitas said. "I've learned that you can reach your customers in so many ways. You just have to find the best and most efficient way."

Sarkees said the class is not just about marketing. "The class is an opportunity for students to work with executives and leaders in real organizations. Additionally, it's a really hard time for non-profits and small businesses right now. If our students can give them a couple of actionable ideas, then we've been helpful. We are a land-grant institution, and this is part of our mission."

Another group of students worked on a marketing plan for The Richwood Grill, near the downtown WVU campus.

They spent hours learning about the business and its challenges, said Joel Richardson of Trinidad, who will finish his MBA in July. He studied business management at Davis and Elkins College and was on a five-member team that helped owners Alegria Holland and executive chef Marion Ohlinger with their marketing issues.

"The key problem, we thought, was identifying his current client base and the actual client base," Richardson said. "We thought their message is not clear in terms of what population they are targeting."

Housed in a renovated 1923 Studebaker garage, Richwood Grill features ingredients from sustainable, local agriculture and a menu that is seasonally designed. The restaurant reflects the freshest items Appalachia has to offer and dishes from around the globe, including cuisines from Appalachian to North African, Brazilian to Burmese, Japanese to Javanese, Portuguese to Pakistani.

"The owner travels a lot and brings back to Morgantown recipes he has collected," Richardson said. "One of the big challenges we had was finding time to talk to him. He is constantly interrupted by phone calls and deliveries. Still, we were able to give a high level of service."

Richardson and his team put together a year-long advertising plan based on the owners' budget that will use newspaper, direct mail, TV, radio and the Internet.

They also learned something about the restaurant business. The students' research showed that the restaurant should be open on Sunday, but the owners' experience showed older people and families are the people who dine out on Sunday, which means low drinks sales. That's something the students had not considered.

"The course was very engaging because it allowed us to put theory into practice," Richardson said.

Other student groups worked with:

  • Morgantown Area Youth Services Project, which aims to reduce the incidence of delinquency, substance abuse and violence among youth and young adults in Monongalia County on an community awareness and outreach project;
  • The City of Clarksburg, W.Va., on a marketing research project to assess interest in theatre arts and entertainment in the region;
  • West Virginia Collegiate Coalition on High Risk Alcohol Abuse, a statewide program involving more than 20 universities with a message of prevention and moderation among college students;
  • West Virginia University Office of Technology Transfer, on a marketing research project related to the commercial viability of a new product;
  • High Intensity Training Center, a Morgantown small business that specializes in personalized health and wellness training, on a marketing and branding project; and
  • Masman's Jewelers, a Morgantown small business, on a marketing and branding project.