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Professor, students turn service into success

October 01, 2008

Phil Mizzi and his quantitative business analysis students should be familiar with the so-called “butterfly effect.”  The phrase refers to the idea that a butterfly's wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that may ultimately alter the path of a tornado, or delay, accelerate or even prevent the occurrence of a tornado in a certain location. The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale alterations of events.

Not that the associate professor in ASU’s School of Global Management and Leadership and the students are altering global climatic conditions. The team, however, has had a tornado-like impact on the Phoenix conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic charitable organization serving homeless and economically disadvantaged populations across the Valley.

Since 1994, Mizzi, who has taught at the West campus school for 20 of its 25 years, has had a connection with St. Vincent de Paul.  It began with an evening spent serving meals to those in need.  It has moved forward from that point like a warm front rushing up from the Gulf.

“At the time, I thought it would be a good idea to get some of our students involved,” remembers Mizzi, who earned his Ph.D. in economics at Texas A&M in 1984.  “I felt maybe our students could perform this community service while at the same time breathe some new life into the organization.”

Breathe new life, indeed.  Mizzi turned the good deeds into classroom assignments, asking students to write reflections of their service.  What he learned impressed him.

“Many said it was their first time doing something like this,” he says.  “They said it was eye-opening and that they had been afraid to get involved in the past because of the uncertain environment.

“Many also said this type of service should be a course requirement, so we made it so.”

As Mizzi got further involved with St. Vincent de Paul, he learned the Phoenix conference was one of the largest in the country.  Soon, he and his students were in the middle of organizational duties for the conference’s annual appreciation day fund-raising event.

And this was just the beginning.

In 1997, Stephen Zabilski, a senior vice president at Transamerica Insurance Group, was named executive director of the Phoenix conference, bringing a professional business perspective to the organization.  Upon learning that Mizzi and his business students were involved with the society, he looked for more meaningful ways to expand their service.

Zabilski’s direction has been evidenced by the Phoenix center’s growth – in 1998, the conference took on 50,000 pounds of donated food items, while today it accepts five million pounds annually.  An operations challenge-in-the-making.

“The conference board of directors determined it would take $2.5 million to build a new warehouse to take in that much food,” says Mizzi.  “They also wanted to see a business plan before moving ahead.  They called on us; this was the first time it wasn’t about serving meals or organizing a fund-raiser.  We said, ‘Hey, we can do this.’”

In the meantime, Mizzi made his board rounds, meeting with members face to face, gaining their confidence and learning more about their ideas.  He turned to Mohan Gopalakrishnan, global management associate professor of operations management, for assistance, and understandably so – Golakakrishnan is an expert in applied research with industries in the areas of capacity, process, performance, inventory, quality and supply chain risk management.  He determined a new warehouse was not necessary, that a more efficient way of accepting, inventorying and distributing the food was.

“The students took this on as a project and came through with flying colors,” boasts Mizzi, who has won ASU’s “Excellence in Service” three times as well as the 1996 Martin Luther King, Jr., Community Service Award.  “We doubled the loading docks, doubled the scanners, doubled the length of the conveyor belts.  We even looked at the conference’s adjoining thrift shop and redesigned its layout to make its use of space more efficient, giving us more room in the warehouse.

“We went from serving meals to becoming part of the management team,” relates Mizzi.  “We are contributing in business engineering ways, in information-flow areas, and we are using our students to make a difference in the success of the conference’s ability to serve more of the community than ever before.”

So successful has the impact of Mizzi and Company been on the Phoenix conference of St. Vincent de Paul, others are seeking the expertise of Mizzi’s budding professionals.  Among those at the receiving end of the students’ efforts – which have become capstone projects on the way to management and leadership degrees – are the Phoenix Public Library, From the Heart (formerly the Glendale Human Services Council), and the Phoenix Music Conservatory.  On the private side, SGML students are analyzing the best locations for a restaurant chain and how much homebuyers will spend upfront to have solar energy-efficient designs.  There is also work with a national grocery association to look at ways to reduce the 200 billions pounds of food that is wasted, preconsumer, annually.

“There are so many positive things that can come from the work our students are doing – work that is centered on real-world challenges being met with real-world solutions.  All of this comes from the success we have had with St. Vincent de Paul.

“When we’re successful, we’re very successful.”