A Story For The Holiday Season

Volume 134, No. 24  - Friday, December 11, 2009

Every holiday season media outlets are loaded with feel-good stories about heroism, charity and sacrifice. Its traditional. Although this is a column on marketing which rarely discusses what most people call marketing, advertising and sales, I want to suggest that, in challenging times, good marketing should include getting involved and helping the communities you live, work in and serve.

What if you could find a way to invest in the future in a way that benefitted everyone: you, your industry, and your community?

I am going to tell a story, a perfect holiday story. It may sound more like a fable considering it involves an unheard-of level of cooperation between the public and private sector. A real life “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart Christmas movie, because of the concern it demonstrates for the well-being of the community.

The best way to begin a story is to start from the beginning.

In the fourth quarter of 2008, an abandoned plant site came into the possession of the Department of Agriculture.
A few years previously a milk processing cooperative had gone out of business, nothing unusual in the last 10 years, but this was in Brazil, in Saint Gonçalo, a city of around 900,000, close to the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Saint Gonçalo, (in Portuguese, São Gonçalo, with the a having a nasal sound, and the ç pronounced as an “s”) is a city faced with serious challenges, with one of the lowest per capita incomes in the state. The region it sits in is a focal point in the development plans of the impressive first term Governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro, Sérgio Cabral, and his hard working secretary of agriculture, Christino Áureo da Silva, who are investing heavily in the modernization of the dairy industry there.

Rather than let the abandoned plant become yet another white elephant, the secretary of agriculture and his team went in to inventory the site, and brainstorm ways it could be used to help the community. Christino approached Tereza Porto, the dynamic state secretary of education, in the waning days of 2008, to join in the discussion. The idea of a technical school was tossed around, with free classes at night for the community, and an institute for dairy research, perhaps.

On January 27, 2009, Christino and Tereza sat with their assistants to hammer out a plan. It was decided that a new breed of high school be created, one that integrates both technical and academic study, modeled after a very successful school Tereza created, which teaches computer arts through a public/private partnership between the state and the telecommunications company Oi.

In this case, because of the location, the school would focus more on subjects needed to help communities like Saint Gonçalo, and would be called NATA, an acronym for The Advanced Center for Education in the Technology of Foods and the Administration of Cooperatives.

At that meeting, it was decided, for financial and administrative reasons, that a private partner like Oi would be needed, and a search was begun. The administrative requirements of the state work well to protect the taxpayers, but take too much time and red tape to successfully create a project like NATA in the necessary time frame.

Grupo Pão de Açucar, (pronounced Asukar, named after the world famous Sugar Loaf), a retail holding company that owns a national chain of supermarkets named Pão de Açucar, and a retail electronics chain, like The Good Guys, called Ponto Frio, was invited to “partner,” through their foundation, which focuses on working to help local communities.

With little experience in education, Grupo Pão de Açucar met with Oi, and found out just how much of a commitment would be needed.

A meeting took place in March, where the partnership between the state and Pão de Açucar was finalized, which defined who will do what, and who will pay for what, clearly. All agreed to develop a innovative school within the state system, with a curriculum tailored to the needs of the market.

This would meet the goals of a useful education leading to easy entry into the job market for its students, and provide the trained personnel both the state needed to drive the modernization of the dairy industry in the state, as well as Grupo Pão de Açucar needed for its stores. NATA, if it worked, could then be used as a model on which to base future development of schools in the state. Everyone had a vested interest.

So public and private looked at the market and defined what technical skills were needed, proposing to create an entirely new integrated curriculum, where technical teachers train students side by side with academic teachers, in the same classroom, in this case, a fully equipped creamery, while the academic teachers use the technology to make the academics relevant: a revolutionary, but practical idea. How many times have you heard people complain that they only wish their teachers had made what they taught relevant? At NATA, they are.

Responsibilities were clearly defined between the partners. The private partner would handle the remodeling, hire the technical professionals, purchase any technical equipment and remodel the building into a school, the Department of Agriculture would provide the site, and the Department of Education would be responsible for operating expenses, provide the didactic materials, plus all non-technical equipment; computers, chairs, projectors; the network, the telephones and the academic teachers, and of course, the students.

Everyone became passionately involved in the creation of the curriculum and its implementation, in fact, Pão de Açucar hired a full-time educator as their representative at the school to work on-site, every day, directly involved with the administration of the school.

The old administration building of the plant became the school, with the second floor of the plant itself as classrooms. A dairy processing company was brought in by the Department of Agriculture to lease the plant itself.
Beginning in March and lasting until the last brick was laid at the school in August, the partners in the project met every week on Monday mornings at 10 a.m., rain, shine, or holiday, and worked six and seven day weeks to ensure the best possible outcome.

In less than five months, from April to August, a detailed curriculum was created for a school of 120 students in four courses of study, from scratch. The first year, 2009, 120 students would start in a curriculum focused on Dairy Technology, in line with the development plans of the state.

The second year, 2010, 120 more students begin, focused on baking, and by 2013 NATA will have students focused on appetizer production and vegetable processing, as well, defined as market needs by Pão de Açucar.
The new integrated curriculum for NATA, had to be accredited by the state. A vigorous process for the selection of students and teachers had to be created and completed from within the state system, and students had to be chosen from among the 1436 schools in the state system.

Blueprints were created, technical professionals found and hired, classrooms designed, equipment purchased, renovations done, the list of what had to be done in only five months is overwhelming, it was an heroic accomplishment, and could only have been done with the help of a private partner.

Planning began late March, construction began late May, the last brick was placed on August 4, the school opened for classes on August 17 with a full set of both technical and academic teachers and 120 bright students, many from Sao Gonçalo itself.

On August 31, the school was inaugurated in a celebration featuring Governor Sérgio Cabral, far left, the Chairman of the board of directors of Grupo Pão de Açucar, Abilio Diniz, to his left, the state secretary of education, Tereza Porto, speaking, State Secretary of Agriculture Christino Áureo Da Silva, to her left, the mayor of São Gonçalo, Maria Aparecida Panisset, Flavio Tavares, Hamilton Menezes, and Paulo Renato Marques, of the Judicial Council of the Cooperative of Milk Producers, and the parents, teachers and students of the school.

Tears of joy were everywhere. Imagine living in a community at risk. Normally, your children would attend high school only four to five hours a day. Both of you work, so after school, your kids are on the streets, at risk for violence and drugs; and when they graduate it will be difficult for them to find a job.

With NATA Academic and Technical High School you can be sure your children are safe from 7:30 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, when you head home. They are well fed, and well educated, and will graduate in three years with both an academic diploma and a certification from the state in dairy technology, assuring a 99.9 percent chance of immediate employment on leaving school. I would be crying tears of joy as well.

I had the honor of visiting the school with Sergio Menezes Pires, the advisor to Secretary of Education Tereza Porto, who is the main source for the facts in this article, as well as coordinating the team of partners to get this miracle accomplished.

I was struck by the care that was put into creating a bright, colorful inviting environment, with Pão de Açucar wiring every classroom and supplying state of the art technical and laboratory equipment, and the Department of Education equipping every classroom with computers, LCD projectors, smart boards, and comfortable chairs.
When we entered, the kids were involved in a focused tasting of all kinds of milk, from cow to goat, so they could learn the differences.

But it is the level of cooperation and the short time frame that is so impressive. From a conversation in late 2008 to the realization of a dream in August of 2009, faster than a 3 minute mile!

I suppose some scrooge is reading this and asking what the point is, or what was in it for the private partner? They aren’t requiring the kids or parents to shop their stores! They aren’t even featuring ads all over the school!
Their focus is on education for education's sake! How is this Marketing?

Consider it a gift that keeps on giving: the state gets a school, and they get a training center specifically targeted at the skills they need. They get inside track to hire the best students because they are there, on site. Better-trained workers, more profits. By improving the living standards of the community, hundreds of families every three years, they gain loyal customers with more money to spend, and all who visit the school realize, as I did, that they are a company that cares, that gives back to the community in ways that matter.

This is the kind of word of mouth advertising that you can never buy, no matter how slick your agency, or how many people you pay to build buzz in social networks. This is real, and it comes from the heart, and the world is and will be a little better place because of what they did, and that is the best kind of marketing there is, and for this writer, a wonderful Christmas fable.

(The school is actively seeking sister schools and interested parties, and stay tuned, an interview with Sergio Menezes Pires, sdvisor to the Secretary of Education of the State of Rio de Janeiro, and the coordinator of the the NATA team on how they were able to work together so effectively, next month!)

Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions, a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter. Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at dan@danstrongin.com. You can visit and blog with Dan at www.managenaturally.com.


Other Strongin Articles written for Cheese Reporter

dot Truth In Labeling
dot This Too Shall Pass or "What were we thinking?"
dot Marketing Language That Resonates
dot When Will We Ever Learn?
dot Cheese Competitions In The Context Of Marketing

dot Economy
dot Even The Best Laid Plans Go Astray
dot Root Causes: Communication
dot Partners
dot Diamond Cutting:
It's What You Don't Know That Can Hurt You
dot Integrity and Ethics
dot Pricing:  The Perceived Value
Designing the Effective Sell Sheet
Common Sense
It All Begins in The Mouth
Of Cars...

The Gathering Storm
As Our Industry Evolves, So Should Our Terminology:

Other Cheese Reporter Guest Columnists
Visit John Umhoefer
Visit Neville McNaughton

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