CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., Nov. 18, 2015 – Southeast Missouri State University consistently graduates some of the best students in the world, and one of those graduates has returned to campus this semester for a special assignment.
Don Clayton grew up in Sikeston, Missouri, and graduated from Southeast in May 1997 as an accounting major. Since graduating, he spent the past 18 years in the corporate world including seven years at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), where he rose to the level of audit senior manager, and 11 years at HD Supply, where he served as chief financial officer of the Waterworks business unit for the past eight years.
This summer, Clayton decided that he wanted to take a little time away from the corporate world. After transitioning his responsibilities to his next-in-command, he left HD Supply in October. Shortly afterward, he accepted the offer of Dr. Gary Johnson, dean of the Harrison College of Business, to become the College’s first Executive in Residence for the remainder of the fall 2015 semester. In this role, Clayton spends two to three days per week working with students and faculty on campus plus additional time on projects from his home in Weldon Spring, Missouri.
“I have been very fortunate to work with two great organizations, PwC and HD Supply, since graduating from Southeast,” Clayton said. “I had the privilege of learning from some brilliant leaders within those organizations, as well as my clients at PwC and our private equity sponsors at HD Supply. In my new role at Southeast, I try to translate some of the lessons I have learned to help prepare students for their careers.”
Asked why he wanted to leave HD Supply, he said, “It wasn’t so much that I wanted to leave HD Supply. It is a terrific company and it was tough to leave. I had so many great relationships across the country and our finance team had built a very special family atmosphere like none I had ever seen before. I just really wanted to pursue some other interests, including giving back to Southeast. I am fortunate to be able to do this at this stage of my life, but I will definitely remain close to my friends at HD Supply.”
Clayton is a big believer in Southeast. Over the past several years, he has served on the Boards of Directors for the Southeast Missouri University Foundation, the Harrison College of Business and the Department of Accounting. He has also participated in a variety of student activities and has worked closely with the administration and faculty to help develop and fund new academic programming. In 2014, Clayton was awarded a Southeast Salutes award by the St. Louis Alumni Association for his work with the University.
“When I was a student at Southeast nearly 20 years ago,” he said, “I didn’t grasp how special this University really was, but now I get it. Over the past few years, I have had the pleasure of working with Dr. Ken Dobbins (former Southeast president) and Dr. Carlos Vargas (current Southeast president) and their staff on numerous occasions. Throughout my interactions, one thing has always stood out… this University is focused on student success more than anything else. That focus shows in the quality of our business students, including those I have hired and mentored over the years and those I am helping now.”
One of Clayton’s primary responsibilities this semester is co-teaching a business policy and strategy class with Dr. James Caldwell, associate professor of management. Caldwell is no stranger to the corporate world himself, having worked for 10 years in the software, semi-conductor, and training and development industries at multi-national corporations such as Corel (WordPerfect), Novell, Intel and Franklin-Covey.
Their class is a required “capstone” course for business majors and it is intended to bring together all of the concepts learned throughout the business program. While they both acknowledge that co-teaching a class presents some inherent challenges, Clayton and Caldwell agree that their partnership is worth the effort as they combine academic theory and practical experience to help the students understand the true nature of business.
According to Caldwell, “I am a big believer in hands-on learning, beyond just reading a textbook and taking tests. In this class, we devote a substantial portion of the semester to a business case competition, during which the students analyze a real public company and present recommendations to a panel of executives who judge their work. This gives the students a taste of the real business world, but in a safe classroom environment. Throughout the competition, Don and I answer questions and provide a nudge here and there, but the students do the heavy lifting, and it is amazing to see what they come up with.”
This semester, the students are studying a large Atlanta-based company. In their initial planning meeting, Caldwell mentioned that it would be nice to locate a company employee to share a view from the inside. Through a mutual business associate, Clayton contacted a senior company executive who graciously agreed to travel to Southeast this month to deliver a presentation, answer student questions and lead an executive forum for all interested business students.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for our students to interact with a senior executive and incorporate another element into this important project,” Caldwell said. “We look forward to completing this competition and sharing our students’ ideas with the company.”
Beyond his role in the strategy class, Clayton partnered with Dr. Leisa Marshall, chair of the Department of Accounting, to develop an initial schedule of activities with other faculty throughout the College. As part of this program, Clayton has already delivered numerous presentations on topics such as professional ethics, interpersonal communications and career opportunities, and he has assisted directly with a variety of classroom projects. Throughout his presentations, he freely distributes his mobile number and email address to all of the students and invites them to connect on LinkedIn.
Outside the classroom, Clayton spends most of his time on campus meeting with students, sometimes as many as a dozen meetings per day. In a typical day, he may help students with class projects, provide academic or career guidance, review resumes and conduct mock interviews, or any number of other things.
“I really enjoy working with the students and I am willing to do just about anything to help them succeed,” Clayton said. “I encourage students to make the most of their college experience, which includes both working hard and having fun building lifelong relationships. I also encourage them to identify mentors and leverage our alumni network. Most students don’t understand just how many successful alumni we have or how interested our alumni are in helping our students succeed.
“The same goes for the faculty,” Clayton continued. “When I was a senior, I got some tremendous advice from Dr. (Gary) Johnson that helped change the course of my career, and I want the students to understand how important those faculty relationships can be for their careers as well.”
When asked how his family feels about all of his time away from home, Clayton commented, “Travel and extra hours are nothing new for me. My wife and 16-year-old daughter have been really supportive, but my 8-year-old was a little bummed when I told him that I planned to travel a couple of days a week. Let’s just say we have been playing a lot of football during the other five days of the week to make up for the lost time. On the other hand, I have really enjoyed the opportunity to visit our 19-year-old son, Austin, who is a sophomore at Southeast. We’re really proud of him and it’s great to have an excuse to drop in.”
Clayton has committed to the Executive in Residence program for the remainder of the fall 2015 semester, but says that he may be willing to remain onboard for spring 2016 if there is mutual interest.