by Sarah Small
When Mark Vonnahme teaches, he expects his students to think of him, not as their professor, but as their CEO.
“How many times am I going to let you be late for work?” he asked. “How many times am I going to let you miss work before I fire you?”
The expectations he has for his students mirror those that a CEO would expect from his or her employees. Through teaching, he strives to instill in students the awareness that, in school, they are learning and developing professional skills that will be absolutely essential when they enter the workforce.
“I tell them, flat out, you don’t get to the corporate suite just with technical skills,” Vonnahme said. “You need to have a broad set of skills if you’re going to be successful in business.”
The way Vonnahme structures the classroom should not surprise people who know his background. A graduate of ILLINOIS, he received his bachelor’s degree in finance in 1971 and his master’s degree in finance in 1972, before joining the corporate world with CNA Surety. He remained at the surety company for 31 years, rising to President and CEO of the company in 1996.
Interested in returning to the classroom, Vonnahme came to ILLINOIS in 2004 to teach for the first time as a distinguished clinical professor, and in 2007, he returned to the business world to work as the executive vice president for surety at Arch Insurance Group.
At the beginning of this school year, fall 2010, Vonnahme returned to campus yet again to assume the position of director of the Master of Science in Finance (MSF) program, the same program that he graduated from more than 35 years ago.
“What made me come back, I think, was the attraction of the MSF program, the Department of Finance, and I like working in the classroom,” Vonnahme said. “It is exciting to share my experiences with students while also continuing to work with business contacts in expanding upon our successful program. ”
With years spent in the corporate world, Vonnahme stresses upon his students the importance of knowing more than just the technical skills necessary to complete a job. In his classroom, he emphasizes the importance of communication , presentation and teaming skills, and ensures that students learn these skills just as thoroughly as they learn the technical course material.
“I always want to make sure that students have a very pragmatic approach to the theory that we bring out in our classes and textbooks ” Vonnahme said. “That’s always been my style in the classroom. I also expect them to work in teams and deliver presentations; all the things they hate to do, but are truly important skills as they begin their work careers. “
His experience shines through in the classroom, both in the nature of the courses he teaches and in the way he teaches them. He teaches his students about risk management, property and casualty insurance, corporate finance, capital structure and mergers and acquisitions, all of which are things he dealt with daily while working for CNA and Arch.
Vonnahme also expects his students to study these topics in the most realistic way possible.
“I’m looking for real life case opportunities to teach students about corporate finance. It helps me bring it to life in the classroom,” he said. “I like to engage the students. It really doesn’t matter how big the class is, I still like to engage the students in discussion whether it’s a large lecture or a small class.”
As he steps into his new role at ILLINOIS, he is aware of the responsibility he has to guide students and ensure the program continues to grow. Vonnahme understands that, under his guidance, future financial leaders across the world are being trained in the program he oversees.
“I think it’s an important responsibility and I don’t take that lightly,” Vonnahme said. “I want to give our international students the right experience in terms of dealing with American companies and knowing what US CEOs and other executives may be thinking about. “
Vonnahme also focuses on marketing the MSF program. ILLINOIS is unique in having an MSF program, something many other universities do not offer, and something for which Vonnahme thinks the University and its students are fortunate.
“I want to get out there and tell people more about what’s going on with our program,” he said. “My whole career has been based upon developing long term partnerships with companies and individuals. I plan to do the same at ILLINOIS. Continuing to develop our existing relationships as well as attracting new ones will help us build on our past success for the future of our students.”