Dick Schulze’s college prospects were diverted long ago by a stint in the Air National Guard, but that doesn’t mean he thinks emerging entrepreneurs and innovators shouldn’t pursue higher education. It’s why the 80-year-old Best Buy founder and Chairman Emeritus founded the University of St. Thomas’ Schulze School of Entrepreneurship in 2005. And it’s the reason he remains a trustee emeritus at the St. Paul, Minnesota-based institution (Schulze is a St. Paul native) and is deeply invested — financially and otherwise — in the on-campus leadership incubator that bears his name.
Schulze Family Foundation
It seems to be paying off, both for Schulze’s legacy and the fortunes of alumni. UST’s School of Entrepreneurship landed at no. 23 on this year’s Princeton Review/Entrepreneur ranking of the country’s top 50 undergrad programs for aspiring business leaders. Not only that, but Best Buy has defied odds and remained profitable and investor-friendly amid the pandemic and larger sea changes in consumer shopping.
Schulze, who also endows an eponymous charitable foundation and even serves as active president of a charter-aircraft company, connected by phone with us recently from his home in Minnesota and offered the following keys to decades of business growth and constant learning.
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Supplying the ‘necessary tools’
Reflecting on his own missed opportunity to attend college (though he does hold honorary degrees from both UST and University of Minnesota), Schulze is candid that despite his early success with Best Buy, “In analyzing steps to take actions, I felt the thing that I was missing was a formal education and understanding of how to analyze the business. It was trial and error, as opposed to some insightful purpose in which you can really understand, with fact-based information, how to make better decisions. It was with that as a background that I said to myself, ‘Gee, if I could ever add any value to anybody else in this career path of growth that people aspire to, it’s the importance of education.’ It’s why I focused on helping to build and grow the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at the university — providing those necessary tools for budding entrepreneurs to enhance their success.”
Don’t just sit there
“I thought the days of just sitting in a lecture hall and listening to professors talk about their own thoughts on how to think about growing a business, building a business, forming a business,” says Schulze of the School of Entrepreneurship’s conception. “That’s one thing, but if you can actually sit down and engage faculty and students and respond to issues current issues, current events, current competition, levels of competition impact on your business, then the act of learning is so much more real. I thought, ‘If we could just put this into perspective and then into actual action and activity, we could make a difference.'”
Always be on the move
Not literally, per se. But when it comes to Best Buy’s ability to thrive relative to its big-box peers, Schulze explains, “It’s a matter of how you move from direct contact with customers on the floor of the store to an online situation that allows customers to gain as much as they would need to know and then facilitate their ability to buy from us as easily as they can a pure online retailer. And we were successful in doing that. Last year, that was thanks, candidly, to the need to be creative in a curb-service opportunity where people could find what they wanted, see it was competitive, place an order, knew exactly where it was in the city, drive up, never even go in the store and get the product in a matter of minutes. And we would do delivery within an hour, pretty much for anybody and everybody that wanted it, as opposed to either even same day or the next day or two days. So, a competitive advantage comes from opportunity, and certainly, the pandemic and people being at home for long and protracted periods of time gave us the opportunity to do just that. People can win in a wide variety of ways.”
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Really, it’s not ‘rocket science’
As many times as you’ve heard it said that customer relations are everything, Schulze feels it can’t be heard enough. “There’s a true north here, and it’s all about the customer,” he says. “When I lecture at the university or any place where somebody wants to know how I became successful for so many decades, I always tell them shortly and sweetly: It’s really all about staying connected to the customer. Make sure you offer each and every point that you come to learn is important to customers today, and then be sure you talk with the people that are serving those customers because you need to stay ahead of the curve. I’ve always felt that the best way to do that is just to focus on where that customer is today and where they want to go tomorrow, and how does he want whatever that is served up to him? So, it’s not rocket science; it genuinely is not. It’s just a matter of never losing sight of those you serve. I say that about students, clients, about anybody and everybody that’s being served. If you strive to continue to evolve and change for the betterment of those you serve, you just simply will not fail.”
Good things take time
Schulze understands young entrepreneurs are blinded by the glamour of hotshot IPOs, but he cautions young businesspeople to take it slow. He says that at the Schulze School, “We do try to temper” students’ restlessness to scale.
“Everbody wants immediate gratification,” he acknowledges. “And so they don’t like to think about the hard work that goes into what it takes to get to a position where the venture community has an interest in providing capital to grow that business. If you haven’t learned yet how to spread the value of scale, you’re going to struggle forever, No one person has enough insight, perspective, skill, knowledge and understanding to answer every question. You have to have this cadre of people that can step up and add value to what it is you’re doing. And I found when I became much more open to including other people in decision-making, miraculously action took place faster. So we just really spend a lot of time talking about that to the students, that, you know, let’s take this a step at a time. Let’s build a model that can work effectively independently, differentially, and then how can we scale it beyond where we are today? It’s a road that you’re on. It’s not a race.”