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Owens & Minor Founds Own University

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Owens and Minor University, says Learning Manager Barrett Thiele, is so-called because it's the opposite of typical corporate training, in which paid consultants "bring their expertise in and dump it on our crowd and walk away." Instead, employees volunteer to be deans and teachers in any one of the six schools — leadership, operations, sales, finance, technology and professional development.

Company CEO G. Gilmer Minor III has talked for years about setting up a company university, says Hugh Gouldthorpe Jr., vice president of quality and communications. He says it was a natural outgrowth of the "teammate culture" at Owens & Minor, one of Richmond's five Fortune 500 companies.

Last week, the bright, 7,500-square-foot facility was vacant as technicians worked to install Internet and phone connections in the yellow, cobalt and lime-green walls. When furniture, computers and books are moved in, Thiele says, "It'll look sort of Barnes & Noble-y."

The freshman class will number 3,018, the company's entire nationwide workforce, from truck drivers to administrators. Starting in late April, employees can take classes at the facility or via the Internet and may pursue any course of interest even those outside their specific job responsibilities, Gouldthorpe says.

So warehouse packers could take "The Emotionally Intelligent Leader" or "Enabling Breakthrough Creativity"? Sure, the two say — but not while they're supposed to be loading a pallet of surgical supplies, they add hastily. "We're not delivering soup," Thiele says, "where you can wait another day."

Still, the company will set no policy on how much time an employee can spend in training, Thiele says, but will leave the decision up to individual managers.

As for such high spending in a tight economy, Gouldthorpe says, it's worthwhile. "We don't look on software and training as an expense," he says. "It's an investment."

Employee turnover is expensive, he says. The idea is that offering individualized training will keep people interested in their jobs while making them better workers. A learning-management software program will track the effect of training on performance, Gouldthorpe says, but "You're not expecting a dollar return for everything you do." —

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