A Quad Cities business institution that has become a Midwest success story was only six years old when St. Ambrose introduced a Master of Business Administration degree program to its curriculum in 1978.
In some ways, Happy Joe's Pizza and Ice Cream Parlors and the St. Ambrose University H.L. McLaughlin MBA program have grown up together.
Kristel Whitty-Ersan '94 MBA will be among an anticipated 60 or more SAU MBA graduates who return to campus from 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the first graduate degree program at St. Ambrose.
The celebration at the Rogalski Center will include refreshments, guest speakers and a commemorative gift for program graduates in attendance.
Since 1978, the SAU MBA program has produced 3,767 graduates. Joe McCaffrey, PhD, a professor of philosophy and managerial studies, helped to build a foundation for the program in the mid-1970s, when St. Ambrose was looking to expand its curriculum. At the time, only the University of Iowa offered a master's degree in business.
McCaffrey said a community survey revealed "a tremendous interest in the MBA program." Looking back, McCaffrey said he is proud to know of the numerous business success stories throughout the Quad Cities area affiliated with the St. Ambrose MBA program.
That, of course, includes Whitty-Ersan, who now is a co-owner and marketing director of a business that started with a $30,000 loan that allowed her father, Joe Whitty, to open his first parlor in the Village of East Davenport in 1972. Happy Joe's since has expanded to 58 franchised restaurants across six states.
Whitty-Ersan grew up with an artistic bent, got an undergrad degree in music and theatre from DePaul University, and never envisioned joining the family business.
But when she took over as marketing director on an interim basis for the growing corporation in the early 1990s, the then-professional singer discovered she had a knack for the creative side of marketing.
"I didn't have the business acumen," she said. "I went to St. Ambrose to get that and I found it to be a great program."
Actually, she turned to the University of Iowa MBA program first, but found the commute was a challenge and that an online option didn't suit her. "Then, I looked at St. Ambrose and thought, ‘Why didn't I look at them first?'" she said.
Under the oaks, Whitty-Ersan found "a nice marriage" between her creative instincts and the business savvy she came to acquire. "I really enjoyed my instructors, really enjoyed the classes," she said.
At the time, she sang for a band and would work at Happy Joe's by day, attend her MBA classes in the evening and then sing late into the night. Somehow, she found a balance that worked. And she found she enjoyed the academic challenge more than she had imagined she might.
"Some classes were hard for me because it had been a while, and I was proud of myself when I graduated," she said. "With my MBA, I felt more well-rounded, more in tune with how business works. I had a lot of opinions about our company and how we could improve. St. Ambrose helped me communicate those ideas and quantify them. It was a great experience."
Shortly after obtaining her MBA degree, Whitty-Ersan, who now also handles marketing and client services for her husband's Quad Cities-based investment service, launched a Happy Joe's marketing intern program. Although she accepts interns from many colleges, she said the majority are from St. Ambrose.