The Business of Learning

October, 2008

by Barbra Alan

business of learning

Keith Markley. Jon Gilbert Fox photo.

Last fall, Plymouth State alumnus Keith Markley ’81 gave three PSU business students the chance to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to a real-world marketing strategy project for his company, Liberty Aerospace.

The idea for the project came about last fall during a sideline conversation between Markley and PSU Assistant Professor of Management Brad Allen during their sons’ soccer game at Holderness School. “As we were talking, I learned that Keith was a Plymouth State graduate who majored in business,” says Allen. “I told him about my global marketing class, and he told me about his company and its expansion plans.”

This seemingly ordinary conversation led to an extraordinary partnership among Markley, Allen, and three of Allen’s students: Heather Parsons ’07, Peter Greene ’08, and Halen Ganley ’08.

The Project

Liberty Aerospace builds aircraft used for flight training, primarily for aspiring airline pilots. Founded in 2000 and based in Melbourne, FL, Liberty Aerospace’s signature aircraft is the XL-2, a two-seat carbon fiber aircraft known for its low operating cost. “Our market is primarily outside the U.S., in Asia, Australia, and the Middle East,” notes Markley, who joined the company in 2005 as vice president of sales and marketing and was named president and CEO in April 2007. Among Markley’s key priorities is expanding Liberty’s markets.

Just prior to Markley’s and Allen’s sideline conversation, Liberty Aerospace had finalized a licensing agreement with China. “Keith asked me to recruit some students to look at four key markets, South Africa, South America, India, and Europe, to investigate the feasibility of a licensing agreement for his company,” says Allen. “The goal was to provide Liberty Aerospace with a general study of which countries are viable options for expansion and which are not.”

After weeks of collaborating with Markley on the scope and details of the project, which they decided would be offered as an independent study, Allen set out to recruit students. “I was looking for students who were confident, a little bit further into their education, and whom I knew could work well independently,” Allen says. Ensuring that each member of the team would be up to the task was essential. “If any of the students weren’t fully committed, it would have jeopardized the entire project,” he notes.

For Heather Parsons, who had taken Allen’s Global Marketing class as a junior, and at the time was taking two other courses with him, the opportunity to apply what she had learned in the classroom to a real company was too good to miss. “Brad knew I had an interest in international business, so he asked me if I was interested in the project,” recalls Parsons. “It was an opportunity I just couldn’t turn down.”

By mid-October, the team was assembled. Each student, as well as Allen himself, took a region and was expected to become an expert on the countries in their region. Over the course of six weeks, Allen and his students worked independently, logging in considerable hours in research at the library as well as conducting phone interviews in an effort to determine which countries had the strongest demand, or a growing demand, for aviation services. “We were looking for countries that had a strong industrial-based and service-based economy, because that correlates to higher air traffic,” explains Allen. While the work was demanding, Parsons found it intellectually stimulating. “I enjoyed learning so much about South America and its potential benefits for Liberty,” notes Parsons. “As I continued my research, I became more and more interested and started to look forward to sharing what I had learned [with the executives at Liberty Aerospace].”

Each week, the group convened to compare notes and develop a framework for their presentation.

The Presentation

business learning 2

For Peter Greene (second from left), working with Keith Markley (second from right) and Liberty Aerospace was “a great experience ... I’d like to see more students have opportunities like this.” Jon Gilbert Fox photo.

In mid-January, armed with a 95-page report, supporting documentation, and a PowerPoint presentation, the team flew down to Florida—at Liberty’s expense—to present their findings to the company’s executives, including Markley. “We’re a relaxed bunch at Liberty, but I’m sure the students found it somewhat stressful to do a professional business presentation where the audience is willing to debate or question data,” says Markley.

Parsons appreciated the supportive environment at Liberty. “Everyone was open to the information we were sharing,” she says. “I didn’t feel nervous or intimidated. I felt reassured that I could do this, and that was a real confidence booster.”

“After the meeting was over, I could see the pride in them,” says Allen of his students. “They really felt good about what they did. They worked hard and faced a real challenging situation [presenting to Liberty’s executives] and walked away with the type of confidence you just can’t get in the classroom.”

Markley was particularly impressed with the students’ work. “The effort they put into the presentation was tremendous,” he says. “Often at companies, basic research on markets, trends, and social issues is not generally conducted. This project took market analysis to a research level and some of the information, especially surrounding population age trends, was very enlightening.”

Perhaps most of all, Markley was impressed with the students themselves, believing they exhibited qualities necessary to succeed in business. “All three students were very clever, well prepared, and articulate, and clearly more disciplined than I was when I was a student at Plymouth State,” he says. “Business management, marketing, and financing are all getting more complex and more competitive. The world is exploding with bright, hard working entrepreneurs who want to be successful. I think students like Heather, Peter, and Halen represent the standard we should strive for in the U.S.”

Galvanized by the success of this project, both Allen and Markley are hopeful that they can provide a new opportunity to give PSU business students real-world experience. “I’d recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat,” says Parsons. “I learned more in that independent study than in some classes I’ve taken. It was a great experience.”

Q&A with Keith Markley PSC ’81

From his days hang gliding at Morningside to his current role at the helm of Liberty Aerospace, Keith Markley knows better than most that with risk can come great reward.

What are some of your fondest memories of your time at PSC?

Plymouth State was more than just a school to me, it was home. The best friends I have ever made in my life are those from my days at PSC. It was the first time in my life where I made friends who actually cared about their future and who understood that actions they took today affected their tomorrow.

My fondest memories include hang gliding at Morningside (flight park), skiing at Loon, Waterville Valley, and Cannon, and climbing and hiking.

What was your favorite course? Who was your favorite professor?

I was a business major with a marketing concentration, but I really enjoyed geography and Dr. Okrant was my favorite professor.

You served two terms as a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives. What was the biggest challenge and greatest reward of your service?

The biggest challenge for me in the legislature was time. Since service is unpaid, it’s difficult to support a family and put in the volunteer time required to represent your district. This said, it’s a great thing for any New Hampshire resident to do. My goal in the legislature was to focus on constituent services and controlling costs. It’s stunning what influence one person can have on a state if you serve with a passion. I learned in the legislature that if I felt strongly enough about an issue, I could affect the outcome.

What inspired your passion for aviation?

I grew up as a NASA brat in Houston, Texas. I always thought airplanes were really cool and as soon as I was old enough to start flying, I got a job at an airport and started taking lessons. For me, the passion has always run deep. I fly light general aviation aircraft, gliders, jets, and helicopters; I like them all and I enjoy the company of people who participate in recreational aviation.

What inspired you to give these students such a tremendous real world opportunity?

My inspiration was that I love Plymouth and, like anyone who has enjoyed some success in the business world, it’s really fun to see bright kids get so involved in business.

What inspires you to keep ties to PSU, despite the distance that separates you and the demands of running a successful business?

I wasn’t born and raised in the area; Plymouth State was the reason I moved to the region and I just thought it was the greatest place on earth. Often, when people go to a rural college, they feel they must leave the area. I did, but then I returned once I realized just how special it was.

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