There was a time when colleges throughout the country intentionally positioned themselves as sacred ivory towers. They were bastions unto themselves, with invisible walls separating institutions from the communities in which they were located. Fortunately, under the guidance of enlightened leadership, most of higher education decided years ago to blow up the old ivory tower mentality.

Today, many colleges and universities are playing vital roles within their communities, joining with other organizations, businesses and institutions to ensure the long-term vitality of their towns and regions. And that, according to a 2015 report from the National Resource Network titled “Striking a (Local) Grand Bargain,” benefits not only such “anchor institutions,” but community partners and the cities in which they reside.

In Berks County and its largest city, Reading, Alvernia University is doing its part, working with area corporations, school districts, social service and community organizations to develop innovative business solutions, assist in workforce development and help organizations achieve their goals.

That effort, explained Donald Schalk, Alvernia’s director of business and corporate development, is not only central to core values of the university, it’s key to helping the region return to the prosperity that defined the area for generations.

“I see it as part of our mission,” Schalk said. “We live here, and we’re not going anywhere. If we can help other organizations in this area prosper, we all win.

“As a comprehensive university, we have such great resources at our disposal through our faculty, academic centers and institutes, students and facilities. It just makes sense to leverage those to support area organizations and their growth. And there is no other institution in the region as well equipped and positioned to play this role as Alvernia.”

In one very recent example of this strategy in action, Alvernia partnered with Reading-based Cambridge-Lee Industries LLC, a world leader in the manufacturing and distribution of high-quality copper tubing.

While the $500 million company was flourishing, it was also experiencing significant changes in leadership during a short period of time. Andrea J. Funk, the company’s CFO, replaced Edward Kerins as CEO in 2013, and other leadership changes followed. Along with new leaders came a new vision for the company.

“Andi Funk almost intuitively recognized the benefits of creating a culture of inclusiveness, leveraging the intellectual capital of the company’s workforce,” Schalk explained. “They had never had a leadership team with this goal and structure.”

Looking to spark some major changes in strategic direction, the company’s leaders realized that external expertise would be helpful to guide their course.

“We knew that we wanted to do some strategy work, but it became obvious over time that before we embarked on making significant changes we would benefit from leadership training,” recalled Lisa Johnson, a former executive with DuPont who replaced Funk as Cambridge-Lee’s CFO. “We already had a relationship with Don (Schalk,) so we knew Alvernia would be a good fit to help us.”

Schalk and a team of experienced Alvernia business faculty worked with Funk and Johnson to develop leadership training designed specifically for Cambridge-Lee. The training was conducted at Alvernia during 2015, with nine company executives participating.

As part of the plan, Schalk continues to engage with Cambridge-Lee leadership, even though the formal training is complete. “Our classroom training is over, but Don keeps in touch with us to make sure that elements of our training are being applied to our business,” Johnson said. “He holds us accountable. It’s a great approach.”

One outcome of the training was that Cambridge-Lee decided to invest more than $65 million to relocate a state-of-the-art cast-and-roll mill from Mexico to Berks County, with additional investments made to upgrade and improve operations. The relocation and improvements, Funk said, will ultimately result in about 250 additional jobs for the region.

During the past 12 months, Alvernia has been involved in a range of other partnerships throughout the region to train and develop employees.

Distributed Systems Services
When IT solutions and consulting leader Distributed Systems Services, Inc., was seeking external expertise regarding strategic planning support, it tapped Alvernia University to take advantage of the talent and expertise there. After working with Schalk and a team of business faculty, the company experienced improved business results while attaining its revenue goals and improving profitability, according to Ann Borza, vice president of services.

“We believe the strategic planning process had some impact on our business success in 2015, and we feel more confident about achieving continued growth in 2016,” Borza said.

Service Access Management
Service Access Management (SAM) was founded 20 years ago with one location and 15 associates. With a mission of providing human services for those in need in Pennsylvania, the firm has expanded its service area to include 31 counties across Pennsylvania and six counties in New Jersey. The company has 22 locations and about 725 employees serving more than 20,000 people.

Alvernia is partnering with SAM to provide leadership training for key executives and middle management, as well as to help leaders develop the skills necessary for succession planning. Nan H. Haver, president and CEO of SAM, said the partnership has been beneficial. “Alvernia’s program offered SAM opportunities for skills development and assessment in areas that were identified as critical functions for management,” Haver said. “It’s proven to be both positive and thought provoking in terms of the levels of leadership and supervision of talent needed in our agency.”

Penske Truck Leasing
Associates at Penske Truck Leasing Co., have been taking advantage of a unique partnership with Alvernia that allowed the university to deliver its MBA program at their headquarters in Reading. Penske associates enrolled in the program met weekly to earn their MBA, with the first cohort of students graduating this May. While Penske has a long history of promoting educational opportunities to associates, this was the first time they partnered with a university to bring classes directly to associates.

A unique partnership between Alvernia and Women2Women (W2W) is under way with the goal of encouraging women to take college courses or complete degree programs in order to advance their careers. Alvernia is offering preferred tuition pricing, along with free counseling regarding financial aid and class scheduling, to members of W2W, an organization sponsored by the Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Karen Marsdale, the Chamber’s Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, said W2W’s collaboration with Alvernia is benefitting the entire region. “We’re lucky to have a university in our back yard that wants to help,” Marsdale said. “That’s the concept of being in community and about community.”

Brentwood Industries
Brentwood Industries, headquartered in Reading, is a leading provider of thermoformed plastic solutions to a wide variety of consumer, manufacturing and environmental industries. The firm operates internationally. Alvernia is providing training to assist Brentwood in developing future leaders to support its growth plans.

Reading School District
Together with the Reading School District, the university is working toward a goal of getting additional district teachers certified as ESL specialists. The district faces significant challenges due to its extremely diverse population, Schalk said, and additional ESL specialists are needed to work effectively within that population.

East Penn Manufacturing Co
Alvernia is partnering with East Penn Manufacturing Co., Inc., the largest employer in Berks County, to provide training for supervisors and assist the company with its succession planning. The nation’s leading producer of automotive batteries is expected to send a major segment of its management team through training led by Alvernia instructors.

According to Schalk, through these and other partnerships, Alvernia hopes to continue to cultivate development of strong, ethical business leaders who will guide their organizations and contribute to a strong regional economy.

“We’re fulfilling our mission of developing future leaders with strong ethics and assisting with workforce development,” Schalk said. “We believe that will drive economic development and make us a stronger community. That would benefit everyone.”

By: Susan Shelly