William “Bill” Park Jr. (MBA ‘73) and James “Jim” Martin (MBA ‘73) reflect on their decision to join the first MBA class, sharing stories of their early days in the class as both “pioneers and guinea pigs” and how Wake Forest ultimately taught them a valuable life lesson – learn how to learn.
Bill, a Winston-Salem native and graduate of The Citadel (’68), served in the Army during the Vietnam War. After his service, he completed his MBA with plans to pursue a career in medical administration, first working with Wake Forest Baptist Hospital, then transitioning to practice management. He retired in 2019 after passionately serving as a board member and development officer for Camp Hanes, of the YMCA of Northwest NC.
Jim graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (‘68) and joined the Marine Corps, which also took him to Vietnam. Post-MBA, he began his career as a consultant and later started his own financial advisory firm in Winston-Salem, Arbor Investment Advisors, where he served as a president for 17 years until retiring in 2016. Arbor Investment Advisors’ success continues to be Jim’s legacy, approaching one billion dollars in assets.
Q: What made you want to pursue a graduate degree at that time and why an MBA?
Bill: I had been a business major at The Citadel and was interested in business in general, particularly hospital administration. But at that particular point in history, there was something called Vietnam, and the Army and the GI Bill was a factor, too. I was actually in Da Nang, Vietnam, when I took the GRE in a classroom overlooking the Da Nang River.
Jim: 1970 was a strange time in the world. The Vietnam War was going on when we graduated from undergraduate school. In our class of 1968, all the men had to make decisions about military service.
And so many of us went into various branches of the military. I went into the Marine Corps. I graduated in 1968, went into Marine OCS (Officer Candidates School), and then after Vietnam service came out in 1971. And anticipating that, I started thinking through what we were going to do. My wife and I were married at that time, and I was not ready to go into the workforce, but I was looking forward to more education and upping my game by going to business school.
I took my graduate business exams in a trailer in Da Nang, Vietnam, and applied to Wake Forest.
Q: What was your experience like as a student, given that the MBA was a new program?
Jim: In that first class, we had about 17 or 18 faculty members, so we’ll never have an opportunity to have a greater ratio of faculty to students than that [1:1 at the time]. And we had all the attention of the administration and the university. I got out of the Marine Corps on a Friday and went into business school on a Monday; it was a culture shock for sure.
So, really, part of our education was helping [shape the program]. We were asked as students to be involved in giving input to those elements of the school, and it was brand new for everybody. We were on a first-name basis with our faculty members. They were all from diverse backgrounds, and it was a brand new, exciting experience and experiment in business education.
Bill: We had a [Homecoming] reception recently, that [the School] invited me to attend, and somebody commented that we were pioneers.
I think we were guinea pigs and pioneers! We were a very special class. I think we all learned a lot from the experience.
Q: What motivated you to be part of the first class of MBA students at Wake Forest?
Bill: My undergraduate experience was really basic. I enjoyed my tax classes and some basic accounting business psychology, but they were all pretty basic.[…] I felt like in order to get that to the next level, I really needed a better, more advanced foundation. […] One thing that I think was helpful were case studies, the Harvard-type case studies that gave me a way to get a basis for analysis, not necessarily mathematical analysis, but an analysis of a problem, and then proposing options and then picking the solution. Those case studies gave me confidence and the basics for analysis of a problem, and over a lifetime probably helped me as much as anything.
Jim: Wake Forest taught us to learn to learn. We have been adaptable over the 50 years since we graduated from Wake Forest University business school, figuring out the latest iteration of technology as these waves of innovation have come across our bow, as we have cruised along in our careers. And that’s going to continue to happen even at a quicker pace for current students.
Q: Looking back at your careers, how has the education and network you gained from the Wake Forest MBA program influenced your professional journey and leadership roles?
Jim: I went into my first career fully armed. I was a consultant in an employee benefit consulting firm and was able to deal eye-to-eye with senior executives.
I started a financial advisory firm [Arbor Investment Advisors] in 1998, and it was extremely successful. I feel like I had the self-confidence and the history with my background to pull that off. And fortunately, it was a great success and my legacy was, to a large extent, being able to pass that on to younger executives who are continuing to thrive in that business and that firm.
Q: As alumni of the inaugural MBA class, you’ve witnessed a lot of changes in business education at Wake Forest. How do you see the evolution of business education and the MBA program at Wake Forest?
Bill: The world has changed. They’ve [Wake Forest] had to evolve and organize themselves to meet the needs – and have done that. It may be more fun to go to school now because you have so much more at your command without having to go dig through books and spend a lot of time [researching]. If you know what you want and you get good at online stuff, you can get a lot of that at your fingertips. […] Like the world has changed, the business school has changed.
Jim: I think it’s a continuation of the same idea that a school can’t teach us what we need to know the day we graduate and that be sufficient for our career.
We’ve got to learn how to continue to change and adapt as we go down the road. Wake Forest University in all its schools understands that – especially in the business programs – , and teaches that capability to its graduates. As I have been out in my career, I’m seven years retired now, I bumped into people in business and had relationships over time from other schools and also from Wake Forest. I’ve been proud of the Wake Forest method of learning.
Q: 50 years of the MBA program and 75 years of business education at Wake Forest are big milestones. How do you feel about being a part of that history?
Jim: Pride for sure. When we got here and the graduate business school was starting, Wake Forest had a very good reputation for its undergraduate business and accounting program. It’s been a part of my identity as a business person in the community to be a Wake MBA grad.
Bill: I’m proud to be a graduate. I’m proud of what’s going on at Wake Forest. And I’m proud to have that MBA behind my name and Wake Forest being part of that.
Want to hear the full story? Video production of this special interview with members of the first-ever Wake Forest MBA class will be released soon. Look for an announcement in January!