Management 'Coach' Helps Students Hone Business Plans

10/31/02    Portland, Ore.

Tong uses industry knowledge to mentor graduate students at OGI School of Science & Engineering

Though Alvin Tong'smiddle name is Hu -- the Chinese word for 'tiger' -- the 63-year-old professor is hardly a picture of ferocity as he sits in his tidy office on the Hillsboro, Ore., campus of Oregon Health & Science University's OGI School of Science & Engineering.

"My former employees in Taiwan had a name for me: 'gentle tiger'," said Tong, with a light laugh when asked about his tiger qualities. "I don't roar too often, but I guess I carry a big stick."

That tiger-like intensity, when needed, served Tong well in his 30 years in industry and now as professor and coach for students enrolled in the fiercely competitive "Capstone Project" through the school's Department of Management in Science and Technology (MST).

"I love to teach," said the soft-spoken Tong. "It was always something that I wanted to do after I left industry. My goal here is for people to gain experience working with people from different cultures and skill sets, so that when they go back to work they can apply their knowledge immediately and will be recognized by their supervisors as management potential."

That race-to-the-top credo was the guiding principle for a young Tong. Born in China, Tong received his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the National Taiwan University, then moved to the United States for his master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Minnesota. After graduation, he was hired by IBM to develop, manage and market products, adding seven patents and many technical papers to his resume.

While working and traveling for IBM, Tong became acquainted with many officials in the Taiwanese government and, in 1980, was appointed deputy director general of the Hsin-chu Science-based Industrial Park in Taiwan -- a large national priority project with government incentives designed to attract high-technology businesses to invest and locate in Taiwan.

"It wasn't the kind of industrial park that Americans think of, which usually revolve around real estate," says Tong. "We were actually scientists driving a high-level government initiative and reporting directly to a cabinet-level ministry of the president of the nation. It was a very successful model, and I think this is one area where economists in the United States and Oregon could take a lesson."

After leaving the industrial park in 1982, Tong managed several different Taiwanese companies until joining Acer Inc. as its executive vice president. "I helped Acer grow from $150 million to $750 million in four years," says Tong, about the mid-sized company that earned him his gentle tiger moniker.

The declining quality of life in Taipei brought Tong back to the states in 1991. He worked as a consultant to various companies and high-tech parks in Taiwan, China, Vietnam, and the United States. And he co-founded Glocal Vantage Inc., a business development consulting company in Austin, Texas.

It was in Austin that Tong met Fred Phillips, now head of the School's Management in Science and Technology program. The two professors stayed in touch and when Tong was later head of Vic Braden Inc., Phillips called and asked him to move to Oregon and help him build the Department of Management in Science and Technology.

"I've been here ever since 1996," said Tong. "Teaching is my first love."

The accredited management program through the Department of Management in Science and Technology is different from a typical master's degree in business administration because it focuses on innovative management for technology-intensive organizations as opposed to industries dealing with commodities like bread and milk.

The Department of Management in Science and Technology now awards master's degrees to approximately 50 technology management students every year. Courses are geared primarily toward working professionals' busy schedules. Students take such courses as finance, sales, product development, strategy, people management and marketing, on Friday nights and Saturday mornings for three to four weeks. There are also weeknight courses for professionals who do less midweek traveling and online courses for students who can't get to campus.

Management degree students, in teams of three to five members, participate in a "Capstone" project, writing a business plan and presenting it in front of local venture capitalists, faculty and potential investors. From every Capstone class, the first-place team is selected to represent the School of Science & Engineering in a national/international competition of student business plans.

Thanks in large part to Tong's coaching, the OGI School of Science & Engineering has had two top-three business plan finishes in the past four years -- an astounding achievement for students at a small graduate school who are juggling so many other priorities. One of the business plans, for example, which sells fine arts to interior designers via the Web -- won first place in the 2000 New Venture Championship international business plan competition.

Capstone teams begin meeting informally four to six months prior to the start of class to determine one another's strengths and the best way to work together during the quarter. The 2002 team, for example, relied heavily on conference calls because all four students worked full time and the majority had families. "We all worked 50 to 60 hours a week for very-demanding high-tech companies, and we all traveled, so it made getting together to work on the project very challenging," noted Ryan Bishman, president of the 2002 team, Double Eagle, which hoped to market software designed to integrate different technologies used by golf courses.

Though students in the Capstone Project work independently as a team, Tong is always on call to offer advice and attends some of the teams' meetings. "The best teams set realistic goals and have viable plans," said Tong. Tong also has helped develop the management program's first CD-ROM and Internet-based distance education courses in project management and helped develop and conduct a 10-week short course (certificate) program for senior engineers from Liao Ning Province, China.

When he's not teaching or with his students, Tong plays a competitive game of tennis. This summer, he finished his first half-triathlon in a Portland-area lake--a memory made all the sweeter since he participated side by side with son, Scott, now 33, who underwent a radical shoulder surgery in 1992 to remove cancerous bones and replace them with prostheses.

Tong lives in Tigard, Ore., with his wife, Anna. The Tongs have another son, Tony, who lives in California, and three young grandchildren.

Besides his extreme pride in family and love of teaching, it is Tong's efforts in helping to boost understanding between the East (China and Taiwan) and West (United States) that brings him the most satisfaction. "Close cooperation between the east and the west is essential to meeting the many challenges of the 21st century," said Tong. "This is a global economy, and it's very important that students learn to work with and appreciate people of different cultures.

"I think that's one big strength of the school's Management in Science and Technology program because we have a very diverse, educated student body and faculty from all backgrounds. It really makes for a more honest, real-world discussion in our courses."

###