When Bob Nachtmann took over as dean of UTEP’s College of Business Administration, it was a relatively unknown school with big aspirations.
Thirteen years later, Nachtmann is retiring as dean of a college that has grown from about 2,500 students to 3,500 students. And companies like Boeing, Goldman Sachs and accounting giant PwC regularly visit campus to recruit them.
Nachtmann says he has never had a bad day, “which is not normal,” and leaving the position won’t be easy. He has beaten the odds.
Nationwide, most deans stay on the job for five years or less, and a quarter stay on for three years, according to a 2015 survey by the business school accrediting body, AACSB.
Nachtmann has been much more than a dean. The former New Yorker and world traveler has embedded himself in the El Paso community. He’s a familiar face to many in the local business world and beyond.
In 2005, Nachtmann’s first move as the new dean was to meet with 10 students from each major. “What are your career aspirations?” he asked. Most imagined working for the city of El Paso, a local school district or maybe Fort Bliss.
“Nobody was looking beyond El Paso, and nobody was thinking about working for a private sector enterprise,” Nachtmann says. “So we had to start a little campaign.”
He contacted his friends at the New York Stock Exchange and set up a trip to the nation’s financial center. Nachtmann intentionally had the students fly into LaGuardia Airport so their route to the financial district would wind through black Harlem, Spanish Harlem, down the west side and into Manhattan.
“You could see the eyes of the students widen a little bit,” Nachtmann says. “Once we got students into competitions at other universities and traveling to visit companies, they began to interact with people outside of El Paso and realize: Wait a second. These people aren’t much different from us.”
Nachtmann’s New York City accent hasn’t faded entirely, and when Nachtmann reminisces about the city he grew up in, the Rs begin to drop away and Os stretch.
He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, spending a year at Fort Bliss. Later, he would travel the world setting up business schools. In those days, he logged as many as 250,000 flight miles a year.
Along the way, he earned an MBA from Long Island University and a doctorate from Indiana University.
Nachtmann came to UTEP after 24 years at the University of Pittsburgh, where he served as the executive associate dean and professor at the Katz Graduate School of Business Administration.
He has served on several boards in El Paso and is a member of the Federal Reserve Bank El Paso Branch board of directors.
“We are moving pretty quickly to find another dean,” Nachtmann says. “I think there are three candidates who have been screened, and they are coming in for interviews, which should be finished by the end of April.”
If all goes smoothly, he plans to step down on Aug. 31.
Nachtmann sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about flipping the college, why employers like UTEP students, what’s next for him and his one very bad day.
Email Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 143.
Q: When you first sat down with El Paso Inc. in 2005, new to the job, you said you were “looking for a deanship that offered a significant challenge.” Did you get your wish?
Yes, I did. (Laughs) I knew it was going to be a challenge when I came here.
Q: What was the challenge?
The mission when I joined was to see to what extent you could take what was, nationally, a relatively unknown business school and flip it to become a research/teaching school that invested heavily in both with the objective of driving successful faculty, staff and students who could be placed and go anywhere and to do it at a university that’s primary mission was to serve an underserved population. That’s the trick.
My core sense of how we could be successful here was pretty simple: I made a bet on the strong family values of the Hispanic family. I thought if I could get my hands on that cultural ethic, we could be successful here.
Basically, all we did was move in and gather great people around us. We hired a significant number of staff that were committed to the mission of this place, and we just started slow.”
Q: You said UTEP had a student body that reminded you of yourself when you were young. How so?
I was very fortunate. In New York City at least, the city university was free. It’s somewhat embarrassing because I never paid for any of my undergraduate tuition or any of my graduate education. For the most part, that just no longer exists.
My family looked a lot like, I’d say, the majority of the population of El Paso. My father was a day laborer – worked evenings and worked nights. Quite honestly, I hardly knew him; just didn’t see him that frequently, right?
There’s a bunch of us in the apartment – there’s six kids running around – so you could hide very easily and strike out into the streets of Brooklyn.
Q: Plenty of opportunities to get into trouble.
I don’t want to go through all of that. (Laughs) When you hit 18 in my house you were out; you’re either married or in the service.
First to go to college. I didn’t know what I was doing. That’s the biggest problem with low income. There are a lot of things in life that correlate with having income besides just being able to buy things. There’s knowledge that comes with having income just because of your awareness and the things you interact with. No one in my home ever spoke about college – not a word.
Q: Where did you get the idea for taking students to the New York Stock Exchange?
The thing to me is the world has been complaining a long time about the fact that students are not workforce ready.
Q: Is that true?
I don’t put a lot of credibility in that. The world has changed, and probably the most compelling fact of that is firms have to be leaner and they don’t have as much income to spend on anything that isn’t necessary. So what’s really happened is the world of corporations, especially in the United States, have shrunken their training capability.
Q: With the unemployment rate low, I’ve heard some executives say they struggle to find qualified candidates.
There are two reasons you can’t find qualified candidates, right? One, you’re not willing to pay the price of qualified candidates. It’s like trying to get a new Mercedes with $10,000. The other problem is the expectations of what an academic activity can do are a bit unrealistic. But nobody is filling that gap.
We’ve developed what we call academies to help fill that gap. They integrate a nationally, if not globally, recognized corporation into a particular area of study.
If a student is studying supply chain, Lockheed Martin, for example, is here talking about how a supply chain is deployed at a major manufacturing facility. It solidifies in students’ minds that what they are doing here has importance in the world in getting things done.
Right now, we have four national companies involved, and we are building two more. We are discussing a real estate academy with Goldman Sachs and are working with PwC on a business analytics academy.
Q: Are the students coming in today any different from 2005?
It’s different. When I first joined maybe 85 percent of the students were first generation. Now it seems to me it’s 50 to 60 percent. That’s a good thing.
It’s naive to think a community can somehow capture all the students who are graduating from the university – that they will stay just because the university happens to be there, right?
Q; How many leave town versus stay?
It’s about 50-50.
Q: Is that a problem?
A problem for who? It’s certainly not a problem for the students.
The bulk of the students that stay, not too surprisingly, wind up taking positions full time with companies they were working for part time. If you want to hold on to an El Paso College of Business graduate, hire them as a part-time student, treat them well, and they will more than likely morph into a full-time employee. If you don’t do that, it is going to be hard for you to compete because most companies here in town can’t compete on wage.
Q: What do they like about UTEP graduates?
I’m going to take you back to why I was confident we could succeed here – the family ethic. What employers say about UTEP graduates is they come, they commit and they don’t leave. They are competitive. They will work endlessly to get the job done and work with others extremely well. They interact with whomever they are working with regardless of their nationality or their ethnic background. They don’t expect things just to be handed to them.
Q: What’s next for you?
Next for me…
Q: I hear you’re retiring.
I’ve been dean now 13 years. I always envisioned that a dean shouldn’t be a dean for more than 10 years. I have never had a bad day here, which is not normal.
Q: Why 10 years?
You need fresh leadership eyes. You need change. You shouldn’t ever get too comfortable.
Q: So you’re too comfortable?
I could do this longer for sure. But none of us are getting younger – I’m certainly not getting any younger – and this is a time consuming job. I’m 24/7. The average tenure of a business school dean is three to four years.
Q: How did you make it to 13?
Blending into the city for me was easy – great people to get along with and working with a great purpose.
Q: What are the keys to thriving in a leadership role?
I try my best to make sure I understand all of my staff and all of my faculty. For most people, if they walk by me, I can tell by the look on their face if something is wrong. And I’ll typically just approach them and say, “Are you all right?” There’s something about just paying attention to who the staff are and who the faculty are because they are the ones that really run this college.
It’s important to deliver on your promises. One of the things we changed here is the entire research environment for our faculty. There was little if any research support here, and we promised our faculty we would flip that and we did.
I’m a people person. When I came here, I started having dinner with 15 to 20 students once a month, and I’ve done that now for 13 years. I don’t see how you can operate and run anything if you don’t know who you are working for or know the people who are helping you succeed.
Q: What are you doing next?
Good question. My plan right now is to step back on the faculty and teach a course or two – see if I can still do that.
Q: Do you stay in touch with graduates? What advice do you give them?
I’m actually heading next week to meet the gang that is in New York. We’ll talk about what they should be doing at different points in their career. Should they be thinking about a graduate degree? What career moves should they make? The only thing we don’t talk about is should I get married and those kinds of things. (Laughs)
Q: What’s your sense of the direction El Paso is heading?
If you look around town, there is a lot of physical growth. There are cranes all over the city. I remember walking through San Jacinto Plaza when I first got here and it was me and me. Now you go Downtown, and it is just buzzing. The question is how do we keep that buzz going? We need a few big wins where we pull into the city truly state-of-the-art work opportunities.
UTEP is working hard to transform what they’re doing to try to advance that by figuring out how to use assets of the university to leverage the attraction of major corporations to the city. There’s a lot of land here that we have the opportunity to leverage.
In El Paso, we criticize ourselves a lot, which is a problem. Whenever something good is going to happen, somebody has to say something negative about it. We need to think of ourselves as a group. Inevitably, if you grow an economy, everybody is going to gain. If we could diminish those who critique but don’t tend to contribute, I think we’d all be a lot better off here.
Q: Anything you would like to add?
I’m just very thankful to all the people of El Paso. The students who have been through this college have been great. I’ve never had a bad day. Things have just been so worthwhile.
Q: Never a bad day? Not one?
I’ve had annoying days. There was an opportunity a couple years ago, for example, of the campus being able to build a brand new business complex for the business school. That not happening was a very annoying day. But could we make do and find another way to move forward? Yeah.
Well, I guess I’ll take it back. I had one very bad day. Two of our students were killed during a high level of violence in Juárez. That was the worst day. One of the students worked in this office. Going home from class, the student was dropping another student off and that’s it. So you’re sitting here scratching your head. The kid is getting ready to graduate how does something like this happen? Senseless.