Santa Clara University

Executive MBA students partner with St. Vincent de Paul Society to create a strategic plan

The St. Vincent de Paul Society of San Mateo county needed to develop a strategic plan for their five retail stores in order to better allow those stores to serve their community. Creating this strategic plan required a comprehensive assessment analyzing store operations from top to bottom and performing a competitive analysis against the competition – mostly thrift stores and to a lesser extent e-commerce sites.

With this task in mind, John Denniston, a member of San Mateo County’s Board of Directors and chair of the Society’s Stores committee, called Leavey School of Business Dean Drew Starbird to inquire about a way for students to help make this happen. “The stores committee thought it would be an excellent project for a group of business school students,” explained Denniston. “We wanted both the insights of MBA students and their help in performing the assessment. We decided to reach out to Santa Clara University both because of the Leavey School of Business’ outstanding reputation and because we felt the project would resonate particularly well with the overall mission of the institution.”

As part of the Executive MBA curriculum, outside businesses or non-profits pitch projects they need help with to EMBA student groups; these groups then choose what they want to work on throughout the quarter. A group of students including Jorge Perez-Castedo, Masood Fakharzadeh, Jeanne Rineer, and John Walker, chose to work with the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the project came to life. 

Divided into two parts – assessing the stores and writing the strategic plan – the Stores committee and the EMBA student group developed their strategy. First, the students would perform the operational and competitive assessment, then, taking the results of the assessment into consideration, they would collaborate to draft the strategic plan. “Once the findings from the assessment came in,” said Denniston, “we spent time with the students refining and restructuring the data in a way that facilitated the creation of our new strategic plan.” 

With the business experience of the Stores committee and the outside perspective of the students, Mr. Denniston and the students collectively outlined the strategic plan. The students then drafted the plan, and, as a group, they edited and refined it with Mr. Denniston.  “We ended up with a strong new strategic plan.  All the SVdP stakeholders were extremely pleased with the end product,” remarked Denniston. “The students gave it their all, and brought valuable insights and fresh ideas to the table, in particular with regard to our product pricing. They also added a lot of value to our process and to our stores with excellent recommendations regarding store layout, look and feel, and inventory management. I am very grateful for all of their contributions.”

Since the completion of the project, the strategic plan has been reviewed and approved by the St. Vincent de Paul Society Board of Directors and implementation, although it will take some time, has begun. St. Vincent de Paul, as a grassroots organization with each region autonomous, allows each region’s leaders to make decisions about what their strategic plan is and how they go about implementing it. When asked whether the EMBA student’s work could be applied to other regions, Denniston answered, “Although this project was specifically designed for SVdP’s San Mateo County stores, many of the students’ ideas have now been shared with the national SVdP organization, and other stores across the country may well decide to implement some of the recommendations.”

The St. Vincent de Paul society was created to help the needy in communities across the world. “At the core of the Society,” explains Denniston, “are home visits. These are conducted by society members who visit the needy where they live to uncover and then help overcome extremely challenging real-life hardships. Through these visits, the Society provides food, clothing, rental and other housing assistance, furniture, other goods and even friendship to our neighbors in need.

“In addition to the home visits,” Denniston continues, “the society operates, in San Mateo County, three homeless help centers and five retail stores. One objective of these stores is to provide no- and low-cost goods to the needy. 

“St. Vincent De Paul Society is the safety net that catches so many of those falling through the cracks.  I have no hesitation in saying Santa Clara University, Dean Starbird, and this wonderful group of EMBA students added  important value to our stores organization; their contributions  will help our stores better achieve their mission.”