December 11, 2002
Entrepreneurship Class: Students experience
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — When Brittney Goodwin and Sarah Hewitt began working with The Swiss Connection in Clay County, neither had heard of the small business that makes and sells cheese, ice cream and meat.
That is one of the challenges The Swiss Connection’s owner is trying to overcome.
Senior business administration majors Goodwin and Hewitt were assigned The Swiss Connection as part of a project in Assistant Professor Aruna Chandra’s entrepreneurship class. Chandra divided her students into small groups and assigned them to a Wabash Valley business or not-for-profit organization to study issues of marketing, expanding business, increasing production and other challenges entrepreneurs face.
“As a small business owner, you’re always trying to grow more business,” said Alan Yegerlehner, who owns and operates The Swiss Connection with his wife, Mary, on their family farm just north of Clay City. “We are a small, unique business. We make things right here on the farm and sell them here. We’re always looking for new ideas to stay in the forefront. Working with the ISU students is a win-win situation — they can help us and we can help them.”
Chandra heard of The Swiss Connection more than a year ago and developed the habit of driving to the farm to buy cheese and ice cream. The 250-acre farm has been in the Yegerlehner family for five generations — since their ancestors came to Clay County from Switzerland in the 1860s. Fascinated by the business and pleased with its products, Chandra asked them to participate in the class project and they agreed.
The Swiss Connection’s products are unique because the Yegerlehners’ dairy operation is 100 percent pasture-based. They don’t push production on their cows by feeding them grain. Cows are only fed grass and are even given “time off” from producing milk — what Yegerlehner calls the “natural management concept.”
“It’s really a different type of product with many health attributes,” Yegerlehner said. “The fats in our milk are different than conventionally produced milk. We aren’t certified organic, but we don’t use hormones, antibiotics, pesticides or artificial fertilizers.”
In addition, the Yegerlehners sell their grass-fed beef, including summer sausage, pepperoni, bologna, ground beef, steaks and roasts. They also sell whey/pasture-fed pork and organic pastured chickens.
Some of the challenges Goodwin, Hewitt and team members Bart Harvey and Misty Gardner identified include marketing and advertising for the business.
“The first time I drove out there I had a difficult time finding it because there is only one sign on the main road and it’s easy to miss,” Hewitt said. “They need to put more signs up telling drivers that ‘The Swiss Connection is two miles ahead’ to let people know they’re getting close. The signs could also be bigger and a different color. The one they have now is white and it’s difficult to see.”
Staffing is another issue with any small business and The Swiss Connection is no different. Alan and Mary Yegerlehner and their children are the only employees and because of the training that would be involved, they’d prefer to keep it that way for now. Another challenge is that the Food and Drug Administration prohibits the Yegerlehners from selling ice cream and butter made with milk from their cows because they do not have the automated equipment required by the FDA — equipment that costs about $500,000. As a result, they do not sell butter, and their ice cream is made with Prairie Farms milk.
Finding a target market can also be challenging for small businesses. While consumers of organic products are certainly target consumers, Goodwin said anyone who eats cheese, meat or ice cream is a potential customer.
“There are so many health benefits, but the quality of the product is a reason to buy it too,” she said. “Studies have shown that eating products from grass-fed cattle can reduce heart problems, obesity and lower the risk of cancer.”
Some other ideas the group has include developing a website from which orders could be placed; increasing its presence in the Terre Haute area, including the farmer’s market; expanding distribution of products (especially cheeses) to more wineries and restaurants; distributing brochures that explain the business and products in the restaurants, wineries and markets that sell the products and providing samples at those establishments.
Most of The Swiss Connection’s customers are from the Indianapolis area, Bloomington and Terre Haute, Yegerlehner said. It also gets quite a bit of mail order business. Much of it’s November and December orders have included gift baskets for the holidays.
Striking a good balance between customer base and production is one of the main goals, Yegerlehner said.
“You always want more business, but having more business than you can handle can be a big detriment,” he explained. “As we grow, we want to maintain that small, personal touch and maintain the integrity of the small farm. Our customers now appreciate talking to the producer who made their food. As demand grows, that could become a challenge.”
Another group — made up of marketing majors Ryan Sipe and Tara Slocum and management majors Terry Smith, Britt Tackett and Shaun Schoffstall — was assigned to Arts Illiana, a not-for-profit organization that supports and promotes the arts in the Wabash Valley.
A couple of challenges faced by Arts Illiana, formed in 1980, are funding and marketing to a target audience, the students said.
“Arts Illiana is a regional partner of the Indiana Arts Commission which provides funds artists and art organizations through their re-granting process,” Slocum said. “So Arts Illiana’s primary funding, beyond the IAC’s money for operating expenses, is through private and corporate memberships and donations. Another problem is getting its name out to the public. We asked them who their target audience is, and it is basically everyone — artists, arts organizations, corporations and the general public.”
Bryan Kirby, one of 24 members of the Arts Illiana board of directors, said marketing a non-profit organization poses special challenges, including the question of target audience.
“We provide service to all of the arts organizations and individual artists in our region which include six counties,” Kirby said. “How do we provide help to Community Theater, the Swope Art Museum, ISU theater, the ISU art and music departments, sculptors, seamstresses and everyone else in the community who has the potential of seeing the value in the arts? Every single living person in six counties — babies to senior citizens — could be benefiting from our services.”
And there’s always the money issues:
“Any marketing we do that produces income is naturally going to be funneled right back into our operating expenses and services,” Kirby said.
Kirby said Arts Illiana probably needs to promote itself more effectively on college campuses and through other mediums like its monthly newsletter. There’s also the challenge of reaching people who say “There’s never anything to do in Terre Haute.”
“I ask them, ‘Did you go to the Ethnic Festival? Did you attend Bleemel Days?’ There is so much to do on any given weekend, the key is making people aware of what is offered,” Kirby said.
Students agree that Arts Illiana is already doing many things well, and should continue to conduct grant-writing workshops for artists and art organizations; continue publishing its monthly newsletter and calendar of arts events; and submit stories to local newspapers. Arts Illiana also hosts an arts appreciation dinner called Bravo the Arts Night and students agree it needs to continue.
They also think Kirby’s idea of starting an “Arts Minute” on local television stations is an idea worth pursuing. The organization is also working on its website and students think that is a good idea. They also recommend continuing to find ways to increase funding.
The students also suggest Arts Illiana adopt the slogan “Connecting the Arts to You” and increase the visibility of the gallery at 630 Wabash Ave.; co-sponsor ISU’s Theaterfest; and send e-mail updates to its members.
Working with a not-for-profit organization was an eye-opener for some of the students.
Slocum is even considering searching for a job with a not-for-profit organization after graduation.
“This project has really exposed me to the inner workings of a nonprofit,” she said. “I hope to work for a nonprofit after graduation and hopefully this experience will help me find a job.”
It doesn’t surprise Kirby that some students might find working for a nonprofit refreshing.
“A lot of these students are going into business majors with the intention of making money,” he said. “Their perspectives shift a little, I think, when they are exposed to a not-for-profit organization. We’re a community-oriented organization. Making money is not our primary purpose; serving the community is.
And if making money is still important, Kirby said, students now know they can work in the business world, but volunteer for nonprofit organizations in their spare time.
Each of Chandra’s student groups will present their ideas to their assigned business and it will be up to the business owners to decide what, if any, ideas to implement.
The Arts Illiana board of directors will discuss the students’ recommendations at a retreat in January, Kirby said.
“We’ll probably take a lot of their suggestions and incorporate some of them into a plan,” Kirby said.
“Regardless of whether businesses implement their ideas, experiences like this are invaluable to college students,” Chandra said. “I prefer to call this the ‘living case approach’ where students experience the world of business in real time.“
Ron Green, dean of the ISU School of Business, agreed that classes like this make the university experience even more valuable to students.
“It is clear that students who have the opportunity to apply theory in ‘real world’ settings have superior learning experiences to those with little practical experience,” Green said. “While invidual experiences such as internships are extremely useful, group or class projects that involve real world clients include the added dimension of working in empowered teams to help solve real problems. Students who experience working with ‘clients’ to identify problems learn that problems in actual businesses are not as well defined as those described in textbooks.”
Business owners benefit from supporting student projects as well, Green said.“Students provide new perspectives on the business that owners and managers appreciate,” he said. “Often student groups provide detailed analysis and potential solutions to problems that businesses find invaluable.”
Entrepreneurship class teams and businesses:
Team 1 -- Arts
Team 2 -- Coffee
Team 3 -- The Swiss
Team 4 --XS Net
Team 5 -- Flight
Team 6 -- Coaches
Team 7 -- The Iron
more information about The Swiss Connection or to request a product
list, call (812) 939-2813, fax (812) 939-3027 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about Arts Illiana, call (812) 235-5007.