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Student Advocate, Model Mentor

September 2017

By Marta Perez Drake

As business officers deal with issues related to tuition, succession planning, student services, and strategic planning, Mary Lou Merkt, NACUBO Board Chair for 2017–18, is using her position as CBO at Furman University, Greenville, S.C., to also influence decisions that will positively impact student success. Underscoring that communication and flexibility are key skills for any successful business officer, Merkt emphasizes the critical importance of developing talent from within our institutions, creating spaces where students can explore hands-on learning experiences, and answering the call to serve as a mentor, a role that she has long embraced. Dedicated to students and higher education, Merkt plans to use this next year to help NACUBO launch its new strategic initiatives, change the narrative around the value of higher education, and continue to engage the membership.

An advocate for women in the workplace, Mary Lou Merkt believes that the chief business officer role is a good fit for women. “It’s a position that requires you to juggle four or five projects at the same time,” Merkt said during her recent interview with Business Officer magazine, “and women have an innate sense of multitasking—it’s built into our brains.” Passionate about child care, she is proud of Furman’s child-care center for three- to five-year-olds. It’s a long-standing program that allows faculty and staff to remain in the workplace, while also promoting healthy, long-lasting relationships. Although the center sometimes comes to the table as a line item that could be cut from the budget, Merkt remains an avid supporter, because child care allows more qualified women—and men—to be part of the workforce.

As vice president for finance and administration, Merkt’s responsibilities as CBO span many departments to include human resources, dining services, facilities, procurement, campus police, real estate transactions, the bookstore, and the golf course. In charge of financial planning and execution, accounting operations, debt management, and institutional endowment, for the last 14 years, Merkt has made great progress in helping to position Furman—a liberal arts college in South Carolina—as a premier undergraduate university. She has managed the development of eight buildings that have been awarded LEED distinction, devised a comprehensive debt policy, and issued or refinanced more than $150 million of bonds for the university.

Merkt, who got her start in higher education after being hired by one of her former professors, has spent most of her career paying it forward by being a consummate mentor to those in the field and a strong advocate for students. She enjoys the diversity of her work, but she loves watching students thrive and flourish throughout their undergraduate careers, and beyond.

A certified public accountant, who has served in leadership positions since her tenure at Radford University in Virginia, Merkt believes communication and mentoring are the most important parts of her job. As such, she has made every effort throughout her career to develop her staff members and motivate students, work that is captured in the sidebar “Tapping Talent, Amplifying Abilities.”

During this interview, Merkt talks more about what has motivated her to stay in higher education, Furman’s new strategic plan, what she’d like to see for NACUBO, and her goals as board chair for 2017–18.

How did you get your start in higher education and what made it so compelling that you have stayed for your entire professional career so far? 

I’ve worked in higher education for more than 30 years. The reason that I got into higher education was because of my strongest mentor, who was also one of my accounting professors at Radford University, my alma mater. She later became the chief business officer there and hired me for a job a few years after I graduated. I found her fascinating. I watched her manage a number of different activities at any given time—budget, dining services, or the physical plant—and I thought, ‘Wow, to do something so broad, rather than a strict accounting or finance job, would be interesting to me.’

Now, I love the diversity in my responsibilities and the people I work with, and that’s part of why I’ve stayed so long. I often tell my staff that we could manage a small city, because we know how to do retail, finance, and even engineering. We even manage a golf course. The people I work with are great at coming up with solutions to problems because of their varied backgrounds and thought processes.

Mary Lou Merkt spends time reading to children at the Furman Child Development Center, where children between the ages of three and five receive project-based, hands-on early childhood education.

Most of all, the thing that has kept me all of these years is the students. I love the idea that we, as chief business officers, can keep costs down so that tuition is affordable for students. Also, there are myriad ways—through better amenities, living arrangements, classroom spaces, and internships—that we can contribute to their experiences here at Furman.

Most recently, one of our graduates, Crawford Lewis, participated in an internship in the finance and administration department while he was pursuing his degree in accounting. Through this program, he served on our committee to choose a new dining services vendor. He went through the entire RFP process with us, which included going on site visits, participating in the voting, and conducting all of the interviews. He was our student advocate. I hope through that process he was able to learn a lot about the business of higher education. These types of opportunities underscore why I’ve stayed in this profession for so long—to watch our students’ professional development.

Tell us more about your mentor, the one who was your accounting professor turned chief business officer.  

I think she started with a degree in home economics. She then decided to get her master’s degree in accounting, and later started teaching at Radford University, which is where we met. During her tenure as Radford’s CBO, she hired me as the director of internal audit, but left the institution—on the day that I started—to take the job as CFO at New York Law School in Manhattan. She eventually retired as CFO at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. She has been able to do it all, and throughout her career she has maintained this tremendous sense of humor that has allowed her to get along with so many diverse personalities.

How did your relationship evolve? And how did you stay connected, since your paths didn’t overlap, except when you were a student at Radford? 

To be honest, I think she was the only female accounting professor I had during college. In addition to that, she endeared herself to all of the students by having this great sense of humor and being able to relate to us. She was worldly and well-traveled, but I think it was her intelligence that drew me to her.

When she hired me as the director of internal audit at Radford, that was my first job in higher education. Since she left on the day that I started, I didn’t know who to call or who to go to with questions. But, I could call her, even though she wasn’t at my institution. She would tell me who to go to for answers, so she really did mentor me from a distance. It’s one of those relationships that we never called a mentorship, but, it certainly was.

How has your job changed since 1996, when you became CBO? What are the qualities or core skills needed to be an effective and competent CBO, and of those skills, which have come more easily to you and which have required more focus and attention? 

In 1996, I didn’t pay too much attention to things like campus sustainability, energy efficiency, or the way we constructed buildings, but those areas have evolved. Back then, endowments were an easy mix of stocks and bonds; today, we have much more sophisticated investment vehicles. In addition, enrollment management has come to the forefront, as has technology.

Although some things have stayed the same, almost every area I manage has gotten broader and more complicated. One constant has been the importance of communication, but I would add that the ability to be flexible is also essential. When I first started, CFOs were viewed as rigid individuals who say “no” to everything. Now, I hope that we are seen as “enablers” as opposed to just being the naysayers. You have to be able to work with others, and that’s been consistent throughout the years. You also need a sense of humor. I believed this back in 1996, and I still believe it today.

As far as the skills that have required more of my focus and attention, facilities and IT come to mind. I was trained as an accountant, so the areas not related to finance are the hardest. I’ve learned, though, that the key is to hire great people, provide support, and, mostly, leave them alone to do their jobs. I’ve been blessed to work with extremely talented individuals throughout my career.

You’ve talked about being a firm believer in mentoring and have served as a mentor to others. Could you share how being both a mentee and mentor has helped you in your professional life?

I have probably learned more from the individuals who I have mentored than they have from me. If you pay attention when you have a mentor/mentee relationship, you hear your mentee say things like, ‘I did this and it made me feel this way,’ or ‘I did this and it made the outcome of the project go that way.’ So, when you need to solve problems of your own, you think back to those conversations. It even helps me with my staff, because I think, ‘I can’t say this to my staff members or try to motivate them this way because it doesn’t work.’ In this sense, I think mentors learn a lot from their mentees.

When it comes to those who have mentored me, I had one who taught me everything that I know about auxiliary services, which includes areas such as dining, the book store, the golf course, and conference center. I was fortunate enough to work with him for a few years, and he taught me a lot about what the job entails.

Another one of my mentors was the most tactful communicator I have ever witnessed. If I pick up even 10 percent of that from her, I think I would just be astounding.

Lastly, one of my most cherished mentors is Charles Tegen, former NACUBO board chair. He has been a great help. When I came to Furman 14 years ago, I didn’t frequently attend the NACUBO and regional meetings, and he instilled in me the importance of attending those workshops. While I started being active in SACUBO at the urging of Charles, I came to fully appreciate what NACUBO and the regions had to offer, in terms of being an invaluable source of professional development.

Mary Lou Merkt and former business office intern Crawford Lewis at the Mongolian Grill at Furman University dining hall.

Let’s talk a little bit about SACUBO. How has your involvement with the association’s regional activities helped your career development?

The programming is the first thing that comes to mind, but it’s not the most important thing. For me, it’s the relationships I have been able to form and develop with people across the region. I now have extensive contacts whom I can call for tips and insights on various issues related to finance and administration.

I was also very lucky to have been president of SACUBO, which gave me a seat on the NACUBO board. Now my network is even wider, spanning across all the NACUBO regions. I bring a lot back to Furman because of those relationships.

With a significant number of chief business officers approaching retirement, how should CBOs consider helping with that pipeline development? How could they consider themselves to be more mentor-like or become mentors? 

By virtue of our positions, we’re all mentors every day. We need to focus, as much as we can, on promoting from within. That’s the key to meeting this gap with the CBO retirements. When we are looking to develop talent from within our institutions, we need to look to our direct reports and their direct reports, and maybe even down one more level. After that, figure out how to be mentors to those individuals and motivate them to become involved with professional development opportunities, such as the NACUBO Fellows program.

 

What have been some challenges that you’ve dealt with at Furman, and what advice can you provide to NACUBO members who may have similar problems in managing their institutions?

When I think about the different kinds of institutions that are members of NACUBO, my guess is that we have one main thing in common: trying to keep tuition low. We’re trying to make education affordable for as many students as possible, while we simultaneously dispel media reports that say higher education is not valued anymore. It’s important to me that we demonstrate to the public that there’s value in higher education and in obtaining a college degree.

Part of keeping tuition affordable is rethinking everything you do, and making sure that the things you did 10 years ago are still relevant. Unfortunately, higher education is slow to change. That’s something that is a constant challenge.

I had the pleasure of hearing Furman’s President Elizabeth Davis speak at a conference, and she talked about the new strategic plan that your institution has been developing. What insights can you share with institutions that are changing directions or undergoing revisions to their strategic plans?   

Somehow you need to be able to build on your strengths without perpetuating things that no longer make sense. Think about whether you need a completely new strategic plan, if you need to change directions, or if you need to redirect your attention to current and future students.

It’s so easy to lose sight of what you do well that you may end up abandoning what might be your institution’s niche. It’s not always necessary or wise to abandon plans and processes. Sometimes all they need is some refinement. At the same time, don’t continue to provide services or coursework that is no longer relevant. Again, be creative and think outside of the box. Focus on what your institution does best and build on that. Communicate that goal and work toward incorporating it into the strategic planning process.

What example can you provide from your institution?

Furman has always been good at providing students with what we call “engaged learning opportunities,” like internships and study abroad programs. We provide a number of opportunities for both programs, but students usually have to pursue them on their own. What we’re trying to do with our new strategic plan is offer more opportunities for students. We’re making greater efforts to meet with students to learn about what they want to do after they graduate, and creating an intentional pathway through internships, study abroad, research, and mentorships.

This is something we do well here at Furman, but now we’re going to increase our efforts and focus on more individual learning pathways with a program called The Furman Advantage. (To read more about the program, see “Personalized Pathways” in the July-August 2017 issue of Business Officer.)

Left to right: Amy Blackwell, associate vice president for finance; Jeff Redderson, associate vice president for facility and campus services; Bruce Adams, Blackwell farm manager; and Mary Lou Merkt, vice president for finance and administration, at Furman’s organic far and garden, where a variety of produce is grown throughout the year.

Elizabeth Davis is the first woman president at Furman. Tell us a little bit more about her.  

I’ve worked for nine presidents altogether in my career—two of them have been women.

At first, it was a little bit novel that Elizabeth was the first female president at Furman. But, now, I don’t think anybody notices her gender. She’s simply a good leader. She’s a good communicator. She really is a great organizer and a good strategist. I think people think more about those qualities, and the fact that she’s likable, rather than ‘Oh, she’s a woman.’ I’m hoping that gender is becoming less of an issue.

We talked a little bit about Furman’s strategic plan and your role in that process. NACUBO has also recently adopted a new strategic plan, and as the board chair, you’re going to be working on that first wave of implementation. What would you like to see accomplished in your tenure as it relates to the plan?

There are several things I want to focus on, but the first thing that comes to mind is NACUBO’s role in communicating to the public the worth and value of higher education. There are so many different narratives about low employment rates for college graduates and staggering student loan debt. There are some students who graduate with very high debt loads, but they’re the exception, not the rule. There are students who graduate and don’t get good jobs, but there’s a plethora of those who do find meaningful employment quickly. Statistics support the fact that universities are very relevant and degrees are well worth the effort and cost.

Business Officer magazine recently completed a series titled “The Value of Higher Education.” The first article, “The Value of a Lifetime,” addressed the debt debate and highlighted the benefits of a college degree. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2011–12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study 2012), only 9 percent of 201112 bachelor’s degree recipients borrowed more than $100,000, and 9 percent graduated with more than $50,000 in debt. Moreover, The College Board’s Trends in Student Aid 2014 report revealed that students who borrow more than the average for their degree attainment tend to be older students, those who attend for-profit institutions, and those who take a long time to earn their degrees. (Articles from The Value of Higher of Education series can be found in the June, July/August, and October 2016 issues of Business Officer magazine.)

Right now, nobody is saying that loud enough for the public to hear. Because we’re business officers, we’re in the perfect chair to say that those anecdotes about tuition and lack of employment don’t accurately portray us as an industry.

I love that the NACUBO strategic plan incorporates helping presidents and their boards understand how to hire great CBOs who will move their institutions forward. Along those same lines, the strategic plan also addresses how to get more students interested in CBO careers while in college, instead of discovering these jobs after they graduate. The idea that we should have some type of major, minor, or certificate program to get more students interested in higher education business careers, including that of the chief business officer, is really something to consider.

MARTA PEREZ DRAKE is senior vice president, education, development, and membership, at NACUBO.


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Leadership

"Mary Lou naturally endears others with her charismatic personality. She constantly excels at developing strategies that deliver practical results in support of the university’s vision and mission. I have always appreciated and admired—as well as benefited from—her sincere interest in her employees, and the coaching and mentoring she provides. She has tireless energy, which she channels toward the betterment of Furman University, and higher education in general.”

—Amy Blackwell, associate vice president for finance, Furman University (Read Amy’s Back Story feature, “A Perfect Fit at Furman”)

“Throughout all the realms that Mary Lou Merkt oversees at Furman University, her focus remains steadfast on the student experience. As the vice president for finance and administration, she sees her role as far beyond ‘the business side of a higher education institution.’ She makes student interaction an integral part of her day and mission. We became acquainted, and, subsequently, friends during my sophomore and junior year, while working together on Furman’s dining services RFP and contracting process. At the cornerstone of every decision throughout the process, she remained committed to the students’ perspective—that speaks for itself. She works diligently to oversee a talented and committed team with the utmost leadership abilities and personal acumen. Mary Lou cares about Furman—its people, its values, its campus, and its financial resources. Furman is privileged to have her commitment to improvement, along with her fun persona. Talk to her for just a few minutes and you will understand why she is so well respected and an integral part of the Furman community.”

—Crawford Lewis, 2017 graduate of Furman University, with a bachelor’s degree in accounting

"I have had the honor and privilege, for the last 13 years, of working for Mary Lou Merkt. She is clearly the most effective leader I have been associated with in my career. Mary Lou has a unique ability to lead others by truly connecting with people and understanding their needs and motivations. Her positive communication style makes people feel good about themselves and inspires them to do more. But there is much more to Mary Lou than her Southern charm—she is incredibly smart and has the drive and determination to accomplish any goal.”

—Jeff Redderson, associate vice president for facility and campus services, Furman University