It was the must-attend conference for automotive industry leaders. On the guest list, among companies such as General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., was a name that might've surprised some: Central Michigan University.
Thanks to a boost from CMU alum Dan Mahlebashian, a dozen CMU students became industry insiders at the 2018 SAP Best Practices for Automotive conference in Detroit last month. They joined about 500 automotive business professionals from companies around the world with a focus on SAP and digital business solutions.
SAP is an industry leader in enterprise resource planning software that integrates an organization’s accounting, purchasing, production, human resources and other business functions. CMU and other universities use SAP to teach business processes.
"I want every business professional in every industry to see the assets coming out of CMU. They should see that these students can help them solve business problems." Dan Mahlebashian, executive director of global business solutions at General Motors Corp.
A front row seat to the working world
Mahlebashian, executive director of global business solutions at GM and a 1984 CMU business graduate, worked with faculty members Ed Woelfert, from the School of Accounting, and Steve Tracy, from business information systems, and select students.
"We invited students to attend to sharpen their intellectual curiosity and demonstrate the need to learn for a lifetime," Mahlebashian said. "Learning doesn't stop when you leave college. This conference showed them that seasoned industry professionals need to come together to share ideas and learn from each other.
“We also wanted to help them see the concepts they are learning in the classroom being applied in the business world across a wide range of industries.”
Students were paired with members of Mahlebashian's leadership team at the conference and attended sessions together.
Joshua Frankovich, a senior business information systems major from Clarkston, Michigan, said his GM partner took him to conference sessions on customer service, ticketing, and working with SAP HANA, a business data platform.
"It was the opportunity of a lifetime," he said. "My mentor, Deborah Key, talked to me about my passions and what I wanted to do with my degree. She helped me think about where I might fit at GM."
CMU students were paired with leaders from GM's global business solutions team.
Positioned for career success
Mahlebashian also said he had selfish reasons for bringing CMU students to the event — he wants to hire them.
"Back-end business operations are the foundation of our business and enable the work of all GM employees in every area," he said. "CMU students enable us to run faster, more efficiently while delivering greater effectiveness. We need employees who can look for ways to streamline and think digitally.
"The education I see coming out of CMU is very comprehensive. It's a blend of a very specific technical skill set — SAP — and soft skills such as problem-solving, teamwork and leadership. GM recognizes the talent potential at CMU, and we invested in that potential."
During the conference, students met with one of GM's human resource leaders to discuss career goals, get résumé advice, and learn about internships and job opportunities with the company. Mahlebashian also noted other conference attendees' interest in CMU's SAP programs and the students' level of knowledge, and it made him proud.
"I want every business professional in every industry to see the assets coming out of CMU," he said. "They should see that these students can help them solve complex business problems."
From intern to inside track
Before the CMU students attended the conference, they met with fellow student Matthew Hanpeter to learn more about GM's culture and internship opportunities.
Hanpeter, a double major in accounting and information systems from Northville, Michigan, will graduate from CMU in May with a degree and a full-time job at GM.
He spent last summer in the company's global business solutions department as an intern working on a request-to-pay process. He noted opportunities to increase efficiency by moving away from the use of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and focusing on use of an internal database. The change cut down on human error and accelerated the speed with which requests could be processed.
His supervisors were impressed and implemented his suggestion.
"It was gratifying to hear from the department leaders that my idea would actually make a difference," he said.
On the last day of his internship, Hanpeter was offered a full-time job at GM in a new employee track program that will enable him to work in multiple areas of the business for his initial three years. He'd always hoped to follow in the footsteps of his father and brother, both of whom work in the automotive industry, and he is excited to join a company he feels is at the height of innovation.
"It's a tremendous feeling," he said.
"All in all, it was a great day for the students," Mahlebashian said. "They saw firsthand that the coursework and topics they are mastering at CMU are being used in the real business world."