In the first installment of a new series of Batten Venture Internship Program (BVIP) blog posts, we feature Second Year James Lapp (Class of 2020), who had a “thoroughly different” summer. His internship allowed him to combine his background in natural resources and mining with a deep dive into PBE Group’s operations, accounting and finance projects — putting Darden’s core curriculum to work.

The Batten Venture Internship Program offers students the opportunity to pursue internships with venture capital firms and their portfolio companies, startups or closely held enterprises. Entrepreneurial students who hope to start their own venture gain valuable formal experience through BVIP, which offers a matching salary stipend to encourage this one-of-a-kind internship exploration. Learn more about Darden’s Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

James shared highlights and insights from his internship, which included visiting an Australia manufacturing plant and living in Southwestern Virginia.

Coming from a strategy consulting background, I wanted to use my MBA summer to get more hands-on, operational experience — particularly in a small industrial business. By rounding out my skillset with operational know-how, I’d be better positioned to buy and operate a business of my own.

Spending my summer at PBE Group, a manufacturer of underground communication and safety electronics systems, was a perfect choice for me. I joined because it was a medium-size firm where I could dig into real problems and have a tangible impact. I was impressed with what the management team (two Stanford MBAs) had accomplished since acquiring the company as well as with the board’s background, which includes several accomplished mining executives. Moreover, my background in natural resources and passion for coal mining, a key market for PBE, aligned perfectly with the business.

The actual internship work was a refresher of the entire Darden core curriculum. I worked on a range of operational, accounting and finance projects that covered so many of the case problems I had encountered in the preceding 10 months. For example, I worked on postponing the customization of the printed circuit boards (PCBs) used in many of our products. By “postponing” the choice of certain board components to later in the supply chain, we were able to reduce both the number of boards purchased and inventory holding costs. As part of that project, I visited a PCB supplier, toured their factory, and worked with their management and our engineers to implement the recommendation. Other examples include updating the plant’s overhead costing methodology to reflect the cost of inspection and testing activities into product prices and margins; creating a lifecycle playbook with engineering and sales to upgrade coal mines with outdated technologies to the latest equipment; and developing cash flow models and associated recommendations to reduce working capital constraints and improve liquidity.

For me, the experience confirmed a few things about managing a smaller enterprise, particularly a manufacturing business.

  • First, you have to be able to communicate with a wide variety of people — both internal (your board, an hourly wage worker on your shop floor, your sales team, your engineers, and your accountants) and external (your suppliers, customers, banks and shareholders). You must be able to speak many different “languages” and see an issue from a broad range of perspectives.
  • Second, you never “turn off.” It’s not as if you finish a PowerPoint, send it to the client, and are done for the day. There is always something to do or improve; it’s simply a matter of priorities.
  • Third, you have to be extremely detail-oriented, but not in the same way that a banker or consultant is. While at PBE, I never worried about the colors on my slides, but I had to focus on making sure the right item or person was in the right place at the right time. For example, when upgrading mines to those new products mentioned above, we had to physically differentiate the old product from its drop-in replacement, which involved me finding a sticker that held up to the harsh rock dust in coal mines.
  • Fourth, in a small business, everything is hands-on. When recommending the discontinuation of a product line, my work didn’t stop when I made the recommendation; it kept going right up until I called the scrap dealer, negotiated a rate for our obsolete inventory and got someone to truck it over to them. If you’re considering working in a small business, be prepared for all the above.

Even beyond the work itself, the summer was not your typical MBA experience. In fact, it wasn’t even a “summer” at all for a portion of the internship, as I spent a few weeks at our Newcastle, Australia, manufacturing plant. Back in the States, I lived in a trailer park in a rural town in Southwest Virginia, visited several coal mines, rode horses at a colleague’s ranch, whitewater rafted with some self-described “river folk,” and crashed the company car (I hit a deer on a country road).

A thoroughly different summer, and I loved it.

-James Lapp (Class of 2020)