Mark Alarie, WG’95: From Basketball to Business to Coaching – And Back to Business
It’s not as if Mark Alarie hadn’t had a fulfilling life. He’d been on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1986 as his Duke University basketball team blitzed to a 37-3 record before falling to Louisville in the NCAA finals.The All-Atlantic Coast Conference forward then spent six seasons in the National Basketball Association with the Denver Nuggets and Washington Bullets.
Following his basketball career, Alarie came to Wharton and got his MBA in 1995. He went into institutional sales at Alex Brown covering the Southeast United States and settled into a comfortable home life in Bethesda, Md., with wife Rene and newborn Isabella. The cup was looking fuller and fuller. But there was a little itch that Alarie couldn’t scratch.
A good number of his closest friends and mentors at Duke – Tommy Amaker, David Henderson,Quin Snyder, Johnny Dawkins and,of course, his own Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski – were coaching college basketball. “I always kind of dreamed about leading a team as a coach in Division I college basketball,” said Alarie. “I thought constantly about what I would do and how I would do it.”
His chance appeared when he read about an assistant basketball coaching job open at the U.S.Naval Academy. Though he was earning mid-six figures at Alex Brown, Alarie threw caution to the wind and applied enthusiastically for the job – which paid in the low five- figures. By April 1999, it was his.
Alarie commuted 45 miles each way from Bethesda to Annapolis to help coach Don De Voe lead Navy to a 23-6 record before the team lost in the Patriot League championship game to Lafayette. Sports Illustrated featured Alarie in its “Catching Up With …” feature this winter. By all appearances, Alarie seemed on a clear path to a life far removed from the business world.
But within a few weeks of the season’s end, Alarie announced his resignation. In short, he says, he found he didn’t have enough of the right stuff. “It’s hard to sum up in two sentences or less,” he says. “College basketball happens to be a very confined environment. It is difficult, if not impossible,to be entrepreneurial, to build something that hasn’t been built before. There is a heavy-handed regulatory association – the NCAA – and it is very conservative by its nature.
“But all that aside, I think the most difficult hurdle is the fact that I am a 36-year-old man who has a relatively broad variety of experiences and I was starting on the lowest rung of the ladder in coaching,” he says. “It takes a while to work your way up and I hope I am not being impatient. I needed to be 100 percent certain that it was the path I wanted to follow. I came to the conclusion that it simply wasn’t.”
De Voe indicated it was purely Alarie’s decision to leave, that he had not been pushed out of a job. Alarie said, in turn, that he was happy De Voe gave him the opportunity. “The preparation for the season and the games, that was the real joy of coaching,” says Alarie, who grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., but now considers himself an East Coast kind of guy. “Working with the kids who were here, that was terrific.
“But it takes a particular type of individual to be a successful head coach,” he says. “And I’m making an honest assessment that I don’t see them in myself.”
Alarie plans to do something entrepreneurial, perhaps with some fellow Wharton classmates.
“I’ve always thought the biggest mistake I could make in my life is not to be adventurous,” he says. “I want to find passions. I find that in my family and friends, as most people do. But aside from that, I want to find whatever else that I can hop out of bed for and feel excited about. Even after a good year, though, I found it wasn’t coaching.”
Sharon Fordham, WG’77: Nabisco’s Rising Star
Few would argue that Sharon Fordham is a lifesaver.
The president of Global e-Business for Nabisco Inc. has led a series of key turnarounds in her nearly 20 years with the food giant, including resuscitating the venerable but ho-hum LifeSavers candy line and staving off an onslaught of competitors during the “cookie wars” of the 1980s.
Today, Fordham, WG’77, takes on her most interesting project to date: creating and implementing Nabisco’s e-business strategy, an area that includes online grocery retailing, Internet communications (including online advertising, marketing and consumer relationship marketing), as well as creating new Internet-based revenue streams and overseeing something the company calls “worldwide e-productivity.”
When Fordham assumed her new role about a year ago, the e-business unit was essentially undefined. Companies like Nabisco realized they couldn’t ignore e-commerce and the Internet, but were unclear what focus they should take, and how.
“My first mission was to create order from chaos,” Fordham says. Thankfully, her previous experience creating the candystand.com website as president of Nabisco’s LifeSavers unit gave her a good starting point. Today, under Fordham, Nabisco has a clear e-mission.
“We’ve pretty much broken it down into three areas: e-business is all about leveraging the Internet as a powerful new communications medium, a new transaction medium and a productivity tool. We’ve fashioned our strategies in support of that view of the world,” she says.
As a result of those strategies, Fordham says Nabisco has established a powerful online lead. The company’s two primary websites –candystand.com and nabiscoworld.com – “lead the industry by far. We’re 50 percent larger than the largest packaged goods company (Procter & Gamble)and five and six times larger than other major competitor sites in terms of traffic and stickiness, or duration of average visit.”
Why? Early on, as president of LifeSavers, Fordham believed that “destination” or content sites would hold visitors and bring them back far better than websites filled with “brochureware,” which offer little more than product descriptions and company histories. “We are also providing information to consumers, but in a very subtle way,” Fordham says.
For instance, the candystand site offers state-of-the-art games, for free. But an advertising platform is at work: a basketball game is not just a basketball game, it’s “Bubble Yum” Basketball, while hockey is “Ice Breakers” Hockey and billiards is “BreathSavers” Billiards. “When you think about the amount of time you spend playing one of our games, the brand message is constantly on the screen helping to propel brand awareness and image in a way we’ve never seen before, even in the off-line world,” Fordham says. The nabiscoworld.com site takes a similar approach, swapping games with entertainment via a virtual amusement park of sorts. “We felt that we wanted something that would bring people back.When we tried to envision the future, we felt the Internet was going to evolve along the lines of the TV economic model, so we were sure that providing content (much like a TV show)was the way to go,” she says.
“The biggest pressure is the incredible speed of the Internet and the clash of mass marketers trying to adapt to a world of mass customization and one-to-one marketing,” Fordham adds. “Another challenge is creating a personal relationship with consumers when we’ve historically been more of a one-to-many, versus one-to-one, promotion and advertising agent.”
Fordham has a long history of new product and turnaround work at Nabisco. In 1994,she took on the task of reinvigorating an ailing LifeSavers subsidiary,where profit and sales volume had dipped. “Believe it or not, the number-one issue we had was a customer service problem where we were not shipping our products in a timely fashion,” Fordham says. “So before we could even fix problems with our core brands, we had to do something as mundane as straighten out the customer service difficulties we were having.”
Fordham tackled the company’s other problems systematically and introduced multiple new hit products, such as Ice Breakers gum and CremeSavers candy. Within three years, profits had more than doubled, net sales had increased significantly, and the candystand website was launched.
As a senior marketing leader, Fordham managed Nabisco’ defense during the “cookie wars” of the 1980s when several corporate powerhouses, including Procter & Gamble, aggressively flooded supermarkets with new cookie lines. Fordham fought back, launching a line of soft cookies that ultimately helped Nabisco prevail on supermarket shelves. Fordham went on to introduce several other products that became major hits for Nabisco, including Teddy Grahams cookies and SnackWell’s.
The affable Fordham, who will only admit to being “in my 40s,” grew up the youngest of four children in central New Jersey. She earned her BA from Rutgers University and is an avid golfer and a passionate musician who put herself through college giving clarinet lessons. Not surprisingly, Fordham ultimately aspires to a top leadership post. “Obviously my ambition is to run a company and we’ll see how that unfolds. But I’m optimistic that those opportunities are there — it’s just a matter of time.”
[Editor’s Note: In January 2001, Sharon Fordham was appointed Chief Executive Officer of WeightWatchers.com, Inc. She will develop future Internet strategies for Weight Watchers and oversee the 2001 launch of new WeightWatchers.com sites around the world.]