Clemson business program blends new state-of-the-art building with Greenville industries

GREENVILLE — The Hyatt had just opened, and there was Ayers Leather Shop, still sitting today on the corner of Main and North Street. Those are Greg Pickett’s memories of his first trip to Greenville, after beginning work as a Clemson professor in 1991.

“That was about it,” Pickett said. “I mean, this place was dead at that point.”

Oh, how downtown Greenville has changed in a little more than two decades.

The largest city in the upstate of South Carolina has grown dramatically, and with it has Clemson’s college of business and behavioral science, now firmly based in a new high-rise building: Project One, located in the heart of bustling Greenville.

When Pickett was promoted to associate dean of the business school in 2010, all on-campus programs were permanently moved to a leased office building called Clemson at the Falls, finally consolidating part-time and full-time students in a burgeoning region (Greenville’s metropolitan population tops 800,000 residents.)

In the four years since, Clemson’s masters of business administration program has nearly doubled to 380 students, who are trained on fashionable jargon like entrepreneurship, innovation, futuristic.

Gazing toward the Blue Ridge Mountain range from Pickett’s temporary office some 120 feet above ground level, Pickett notices how Project One towers over most local establishments on Main Street, directly above a popular rooftop patio and watering hole.

“The only thing we didn’t get,” Pickett said with a chuckle, “was a zip line over to Sip in the evening.”

The view is breathtaking, and the interior’s pretty swanky too. Or at least it will be; spring semester courses opened the second week of January while construction remains ongoing.

Floors 5, 6, 7 and 8, plus a small entry-level welcome exhibit opening later this spring, belong to Clemson University, thanks to a $9 million grant from developer Robert Hughes and Greenville ONE partners.

In all, it’s 70,000 square feet of style, allotted for developing the business school’s brightest young minds, with heavy influence from northeast schools such as Harvard, MIT, Drexel and Wharton.

“We wanted to really get a sense of what some of the best higher educational organizations were doing,” Pickett said. “So we borrowed a lot of ideas.”

Most conference rooms are hooked up with large-screen televisions and audio feeds to connect all over the world. There’s not a square space anywhere: no cubicles, no drab architecture. Furniture and whiteboards on wheels allow for collaboration on the move.

The walls are usually transparent, adopted from Harvard Innovation Lab.

“It was so cool to see the students in the classroom, actually writing on the glass,” Pickett said. “You could literally see education happening.”

The eighth floor hosts administrative offices, while the seventh floor features “The Hive,” buzzing with conversation and interaction. The goal is clearly to keep students from flocking to Starbucks for a trendy work area.

Most classrooms reside on the sixth floor, with an open staircase down to the fifth-floor banquet hall and reception area along with an outdoor observatory. That’s where the business school will host social functions, such as the Innovative Spirit Awards for alumni on Jan. 30 and notable local guest speakers on the first Friday of the month going forward.

“You don’t have to have 10,000 little conference rooms to create a space where you can talk with your group members and work with businesses,” Pickett said. “All these spaces reflect that philosophy.”

And so does the surrounding city.

The four-hour corridor stretching from Charlotte to Atlanta down Interstate 85 wasn’t always something to write home about in the business world.

That’s changed with the rich blend of Fortune 500 companies and international businesses — Michelin, GE, Hubbell Lighting Incorporated, Bosch Rexroth, et al. — settling into and around Greenville.

Clemson University, 30 miles southwest of Greenville, recognized that in deciding to expand initially. Project One is a permanent commitment to commerce.

“Downtown Greenville has become such an important center of business and economic development in South Carolina, and this beautiful new building is the perfect illustration of that,” said former Clemson president James Barker last May. “It only makes sense that Clemson would want to have our graduate programs in business located here. This is where the action is.”

In fact, one major local proprietor attributes the presence of Clemson and other technical schools in the upstate to Greenville’s growth as a business hub.

“There is a healthy mutual dependency between our area schools and businesses, leading them to support each other and succeed together,” said Pete Selleck, Michelin North American chairman and president and a Clemson MBA himself.

“The presence of Clemson’s MBA program in the new One building downtown is a physical representation of that shared success and demonstrates how the partnership between Greenville and our academic institutions continues to be an engine for economic growth.”

Whereas the glittering lights of New York City and Chicago are alluring, they come with their disadvantages to young minds and start-up companies. Still intimate in nature, Greenville simplifies networking, according to Peter Barth, CEO of The Iron Yard, a 2-year-old accelerator program.

“You go to a New York law firm, and you have a much higher number of those connections and companies; but having access to any of those folks, good luck with that,” said Barth, who graduated from Nashville’s Vanderbilt University and has lived in Greenville for seven years.

“Greenville is a very approachable city; it doesn’t take long, if you want to meet the mayor or meet somebody significant at BMW. I think that’s a huge asset for Clemson having that type of city here — growing, high quality of life, low cost of living, and has a ton of international connections.”

One of Barth’s former interns can attest to that.

Born in Germany, Stefan Hahn graduated from Ohio State and sought a new challenge for his secondary education, driving from the Midwest to Greenville in one night.

He had been to Hilton Head Island, but never the Upstate. Hahn fell in love, going on to earn his MBA last year. He founded Upkeep Charlie, a one-stop shop for assorted maintenance home repairs, appliance installation and other handyman odd jobs.

“Even though Greenville’s so much smaller than Columbus (Ohio), Greenville has way more to offer as far as innovation and opportunities to really start and grow a business,” said Hahn, 27. “But in Columbus, you can get lost trying to even make a connection.”

Hahn was “pleasantly surprised” Clemson would have a resource like Greenville. The two haven’t always been easily linked, but that gap has shrunk.

“You got the best of both worlds,” said Hahn’s friend and classmate, Riley Csernica. “It’s awesome to have the small-town feel of Clemson, and you pop over to a city with much more growth, excitement and resources.”

Csernica moved to Mount Pleasant when she was 8, and the Bishop England graduate took just five years to major in bioengineering and earn two masters degrees, wrapping up last fall.

She returned to Mount Pleasant, launching Tarian Orthotics with her partner, Goose Creek’s Chelsea Ex-Lubeskie. They are developing a self-applicable, custom-molded brace for dislocated shoulders.

Just Wednesday, they took their product for a spin with South Carolina Stingrays forward Andrew Collins, playing a hockey game with the brace and giving the stamp of approval.

Csernica credits the proximity to Greenville mentors for the salesmanship side of her business.

“It provided a lot of real-world perspective into what we’re trying to learn, as opposed to just sticking to textbooks,” Csernica said. “An academic approach wasn’t all that helpful — learning how things really happen in the real world was absolutely invaluable.”

That’s the idea. There’s only so much that can be taught in a classroom.

“We hope with our new concentration we churn out a lot of new businesses,” Pickett said. “A lot of professional students are looking to move up in their current corporations, and our full-time students are looking for a better job than the one they left.”