Andris Zoltners’ 1973 doctoral dissertation included a paper he co-wrote titled “Intersection Cuts from Outer Polars of Truncated Cubes.” The abstract, incomprehensible to a layperson, describes “procedures for generating valid truncations of the cube from the problem constraints, in the case of 0-1 integer programs, and for intersecting the halflines defined by the constraints that are tight for a basic solution to the linear program.”
Did you get all that?
That technical, theoretical paper could conjure the stereotypical image of Zoltners toiling away for the previous few years in a physics or math department. But not so. The dissertation earned him a PhD from a business school—Carnegie Mellon University’s Graduate School of Industrial Administration (GSIA) (now the Tepper School of Business), known for its operations research, a field that utilizes advanced analytical methods to improve decision making for businesses and organizations while drawing insights from mathematics, statistics, psychology, and organizational science.
Zoltners studied mathematics as an undergraduate at the University of Miami. His initial goal? To become a high school math teacher and coach the football team on the side. But at a summer job before he began his master’s studies in math at Purdue, he worked for NASA on the Apollo Mission abort sequences, and it opened his eyes to possibilities beyond the high school classroom. Besides, he’d never actually studied education. Plus, if he opted to pursue math as a career, he feared it would lead to a future that would “keep him in a room without windows.” There had to be a better option. He took a look around. It seemed like the employees who had the most fun were the MBAs. Perhaps business was the way to go.
Zoltners, who was married with two children by that time, knew that earning a PhD was the only way to go back to school for business; he needed the grants and scholarships typically given to PhDs to fund their studies. Since Carnegie Mellon offered an “excellent doctoral option,” he applied and was accepted. Once he began his studies, it wasn’t long before the program’s blend of data-driven analysis and real-world application convinced him that he was in the right place.
“It was the best decision,” Zoltners reflects.
He fondly recalls “faculty teas” held twice a day in the business school’s lobby. Students could gather there and mingle with the faculty and discuss “big ideas,” which Zoltners describes as an invigorating exercise. The faculty then included Nobel laureates, as it has in every decade since, and the business school newcomer was inspired.
“The faculty was just astounding. They were perfect role models. We wanted to achieve what they achieved,” Zoltners says. He had a particularly close relationship with his dissertation advisor, Egon Balas, who still teaches operations research and applied mathematics at Tepper today at age 91.
After graduating from GSIA, Zoltners found himself back in the classroom, this time as a professor, first at the University of Massachusetts School of Business and then at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, where he remained. In 2010, he retired after 34 years of teaching and is now a professor emeritus.
Through the course of his research, he and colleague Prabhakant Sinha realized that the research they were doing in an analytical space regarding sales-force management and development could be applied in the real world. Their theoretical work could be used to solve critical sales-force issues like how big a company should be and how it should deploy its people to cover all necessary ground. That was in 1983, and a very important technological advancement that became widely available at roughly the same time would catapult Zoltners’ and Sinha’s theories into reality: the microprocessor.
A microprocessor is more or less the heart of a computer; it’s the engine that makes it run, the control center. In the mid-80s, personal computers with significant computational prowess were made available for the first time, and the prices of microprocessors were dropping by half each subsequent year, even as capacity increased. This widespread availability made massive computational power accessible and made it possible for Zoltners and Sinha to not only accomplish very complex computations but also display and model the results for companies.
A typical problem the professors solved with their data-driven models might be something like this: Say a pharmaceutical company has a sales force of 500 employees. The employees have to cover 40,000 zip codes and 100,000 physicians in the United States alone. What is the strategy for placing the employees, both in terms of responsibilities to the customer and geographical territory on a map? This is a massive combinatorial problem, and the number of possible solutions, Zoltners says, “challenges the number of atoms in the universe.” But through the power of analytics, the professors could crunch the numbers and come up with the best solution out of the nearly infinite possibilities.
Pharmaceutical and biotech companies were low-hanging fruit for the entrepreneurs; those industries invest heavily in their sales forces. The professors could tackle essentially any question related to sales force management. How large should the sales force be? Whom should they target? What should the sales force spend time on, and how much time on each task? The professors had the answers to optimize the companies’ use of resources and provide time- and money-saving solutions to the endemic problems. The companies were thrilled, and word of the professors’ expertise spread. Zoltners and Sinha, not wanting to leave academia, didn’t have enough hours in the day to keep up with the demand for their services. They began hiring employees for their consulting work, and ZS Associates was born.
Flash forward 30 years: ZS is now in 21 countries with offices around the globe and many Fortune 100 clients. The firm has a workforce of more than 2,000 employees and about 30 different products to offer companies seeking to optimize the operation of their sales force, both within their original focus of pharmaceutical and biotech companies and beyond to other industries. ZS has been well recognized for its innovative efforts. Just last year, the Pharmaceutical Management Science Association honored the two founders with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Zoltners still found the time to publish more than 40 academic articles, edit two books on marketing, and even co-author his own series of books on sales-force management.
The academic-turned-entrepreneur recognizes the role that his Carnegie Mellon education has played in his success, and he enjoys ensuring that other students can have the same opportunity that he had. For years, he’s funded scholarships for PhD students in operations research, and recently, he took his philanthropy a step further to honor what he believes to be the soul of the business school: the faculty.
With a $2.5 million gift to the Tepper School of Business, Zoltners has established an endowed chair in his name to honor and reward the professors who gave him so much. In his own words, the Andris A. Zoltners Professorship of Business functions “to ensure that the school can attract and maintain and excite exceptional faculty.”
Robert Dammon, the dean of Tepper, agrees. “It is through gifts like this that our school is able to recruit and recognize outstanding faculty and to support their ongoing research.”
The first recipient of this honor is R. Ravi, a decorated faculty member and professor of operations research and computer science since 1995. Ravi acts as an editor for several journals in the field and is a four-time winner of the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, which recognizes exemplary junior faculty who integrate education and research “within the context of the mission of their organizations.”
“The chair not only recognizes Ravi for his research contributions,” says Dammon, “but also provides him with financial resources to support his future research.”
Ravi is a man after Zoltners’ own heart. “I chose to come to CMU for its intellectual atmosphere that combined deep research in the areas of algorithms, combinatorics, and optimization with exposure to application areas,” Ravi explains. In other words, he’s drawn to the same marriage of analysis and practice that has been the hallmark of Zoltners’ career.
Ravi has developed new MBA electives within Tepper and was recently awarded the George Leland Bach award for excellence in the classroom by the graduating class. He hopes that his achievements reflect “some of the blend of methodology and practice that Dr. Zoltners inspires.”
Endowed professorships like Zoltners’ were a major goal of the recent Inspire Innovation capital campaign, which wrapped up on June 30 nearly $200 million over its $1 billion goal. The campaign’s success has led to the creation of endowed chairs and professorships along with new endowed scholarships for students. Gifts from alumni help ensure that Carnegie Mellon can compete for the nation’s best and brightest faculty and students. The Tepper School of Business, which is consistently ranked among the top business schools in the country, counts on such support, and gifts like Zoltners’ do not go unappreciated.
“We are proud when our alumni go on to become a great success in the global community, and we are truly thankful when they give back to the school,” says Dammon.
After an illustrious academic career and a successful global business, what could be next for Zoltners? “I have been working for about 50 years,” he laughs. “I think it’s time to party.”
Shannon Deep (CMU’10, HNZ’11) of New York City has been a regular contributor to this magazine since her senior year at Carnegie Mellon.