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Mixing School and Work Pays Off

EMBA project team experience leads CEO to pursue his own degree

Steve Gruver
Co-CEO and Owner, Orchid International

Vanderbilt Executive MBA 2001

Steve Gruver knew the value of mixing school and work. While earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Rochester Institute of Technology, he worked for Grumman through a co-op program.

Eight years later, and now running his own business near Nashville, Steve discovered a different mix of school and work. He allowed a group of Vanderbilt Executive MBA students to use his company, Orchid International, as the subject of its final strategy project.

“I was impressed with them and the tools they were using to analyze our company,” Steve recalls. “The group’s final presentation blew me away. After that experience, I was sold. I needed to try to get into that program.”

Steve’s 2001 degree turned him from an engineer into a businessman at just the right time. Orchid originally provided custom automation, designing and building quick die change systems for smaller presses and tooling, primarily in the appliance industry. Gradually, the company moved into other automation for metal stamping.

When Steve applied to Vanderbilt, Orchid was dealing with investors, acquisitions and an eventual realignment. “The majority of my time was spent growing and managing the business,” he says. “An Executive MBA program made good sense.” Eventually, three other Orchid executives also earned Vanderbilt business degrees.

“It was challenging to balance the workload, but immediately applying what I learned made the process very enjoyable and rewarding,” Steve says. “The class was divided into small groups. As a team, we worked very well together, and the team provided a support system for us to get through the challenging times.”

In 2004, Orchid sold its automation business to focus on metal stamping. The 2008 economic downturn further focused Orchids business — and pushed Steve further to use the skills and teamwork he had polished at Vanderbilt.

“It forced me to consolidate and get very lean,” he recalls. “We had reached $180 million in sales with 800 employees. We scaled back to just two locations in the U.S., with $70 million in sales and 300 employees.” Orchid continued to become more product-focused, further diversifying its customer/industry base to be less affected by industry economic downturns. In 2016, Steve successfully sold the Mt. Juliet operation to Teknia International.

“My biggest takeaway on my career journey is my appreciation and recognition for the people I met along the way and for the people who support our business,” Steve says. “There is such power within a group of people working together toward a common goal. People have ideas and ambitions and want to contribute and make a difference.”

“It was challenging to balance the workload, but immediately applying what I learned made the process very enjoyable and rewarding.”