March 15, 2004

Right place, right time

By Eric Rangus

For the record, Mike Mandl’s checkbook balances every month.

“Of course it does; Nancy does it,” said Mandl, Emory’s executive vice president for finance and administration, referring to his wife of 18 years.

Emory has a $2.2 billion budget—just a bit larger than the Mandl family’s—and while Mandl isn’t necessarily in charge of those 10 digits of cash (probably a lot like the way it is at home), he’s got some influence.

“Much of Emory’s resources are in the hands of the deans and schools,” said Mandl, who through his presence on the Ways and Means Committee (one of several committees on which Mandl sits) has the ability to affect budget priorities but really doesn’t sign any checks. “At the margins, we as a committee have discretion to direct resources to particular activities or investments. But I don’t have a drawer full of money.”

Since coming to Emory last July, Mandl has hit the streets with a vengeance and injected himself into the community very quickly. Last fall, he and another new employee, President Jim Wagner, began an ongoing series of town hall meetings across the University. It was not only a fact-finding experience but also an important social one—an opportunity for Mandl to gauge the makeup of his new home and the opinions of its residents.

“I learned how deeply people are committed to their work at many different kinds of jobs,” said Mandl, who not only met with employees on the main campus but also those at Oxford, Crawford Long and Yerkes. “There is a lot of loyalty and commitment to the place, and there is optimism for the future.”

It was Emory’s future that drew him here. It wasn’t its present—when he interviewed for the job early last year, Emory had an outgoing president and an interim provost. The University was in flux. Mandl saw this, and the situation gave him pause.

“But at the end of the day, I saw a real advantage to coming in with a fresh team because we didn’t have to break into existing routines,” Mandl said. “We could form a new set of routines and operations. That was an appeal and is a great source of satisfaction.”

It’s that freedom in part that has allowed him to tackle some controversial issues. One of Mandl’s first projects was to examine the adjustments to retiree benefits were made place in 2002. When Mandl was finished—he is quick to say he wasn’t the only person involved in the decision—more than 100 Emory retirees had their health
benefits restored to pre-2003 levels.

“We restored the one element of that benefits restructuring package that I felt was completely out of kilter,” Mandl said. “It just didn’t make sense not to grandfather in the segment of employees who had already retired.”

The work isn’t complete. Retiree benefits was just one element of the 2002 restructure, and Mandl is in charge of a committee set up to look Emory’s overall benefits structure. “We’ve set up a process, and my commitment is to step back and look at total compensation from a strategic perspective—not to look at this as a revisiting of those decisions,” Mandl said. “Let’s say we have high aspirations. We want to be among the best. We want to be a destination university. We have a bold vision, and one element of being a destination university is to have a compensation program—both salary and benefits—that is competitive with the top research universities. This will, however, require tradeoffs.”

“Destination University.” That’s a term Wagner has used countless times. It forms the backbone of Emory’s new Vision Statement, and Mandl’s use of it is telling. He and Wagner speak the same language, which is a good thing. It also speaks to the still-developing, yet already-solid relationship between the University president and one of
Emory's executive VPs.

Mandl described his first meeting last year with Wagner as “fabulous.” Ben Johnson, chair of the Board of Trustees, had set up a breakfast meeting for the three of them. Wagner’s selection as president had yet to be announced and Mandl had not yet officially begun his job at Emory.

“I was relieved,” Mandl said about his first encounter with Wagner, the man with whom he soon would be partnering in the steering of a university unfamiliar to both.
“I felt like I had taken a risk and hit a home run.

“Jim is one of the most sincere, genuine people you could ever come across,” Mandl continued. “He is incredibly upbeat, positive, energetic and energizing. I trust him, I like him as a person, and I have great respect for his ability to lead this institution. People ask me about the new president, and I have to honestly say that it could not be any better. I am pleased to be a part of his team. We have a working relationship where we can be candid with each other; we don’t always have to agree, but that’s perfectly fine and respectfully done. But, fortunately, on most matters we do agree.”

Wagner said he and Mandl had “instant chemistry.” That’s just one of the compliments offered by the University president. “Mike Mandl is an exceptional find for Emory,” Wagner said. “Not only is he effective and creative in the role as executive vice president for administration and finance, he also has a very clear understanding of what it means to be a ‘university,’ not just a business shell that surrounds and supports the academic mission. An individual with that breadth of vision coupled with a mastery of his field is a rare find.”

Mandl didn’t start his career in academia. After earning an accounting degree at
George Washington University, his life was blue-suit corporate through and through. He started as a CPA with KPMG, then worked in corporate finance for Glaxo Pharmaceuticals in North Carolina’s Research Triangle. But while he was on a fast track professionally, something was missing.

When Mandl was 25 and had been at Glaxo a couple years, his older sister passed away. She was just 26. That led Mandl to re-examine his own life.

“I got educated,” he said. Mandl started graduate school at Duke in liberal arts. He read Plato and Aristotle, and eventually earned a master’s degree. He also got a new job. The then-School of Forestry and Environmental Studies was in some turmoil, and Mandl was given the opportunity to come in as assistant dean for finance and administration to help turn it around. He took a massive pay cut to do it.

Mandl still wore a blue suit (it was Duke, after all), but he was corporate no more.

“I felt a connection to the higher education mission,” he said. “It can do so many things for people’s lives on so many different levels, whether economically, socially or personally. I’ve had offers to go back to the private sector, but I’ve never had any interest in leaving higher education or going into anything else.”

After righting the forestry school (now the successful Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences) Mandl took a break from Duke in 1991 to do full-time doctoral work in business but returned in 1993 as the university’s director of academic budgets and systems. In January 1998, he moved to the University of Pennsylvania but returned to Duke again two years later as vice president and chief financial services officer. Duke, Mandl’s alma mater, is a consistent returning point, but his latest move appears to be long term.

“When the search firm first called, I said no,” Mandl recalled. “I love Duke; that won’t change. My kids were born at Duke hospital, and my wife was a pediatric nurse there.” The Mandls have two children: Michael, 14, and Grace, 10.

“But I got to know Emory,” he continued. “We thought about it as a family, and I thought about it from my career perspective. We consider Atlanta and Emory our home now. It’s the right place at the right time.”