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Thurmond School Puts ODU at the Forefront of Sales and Negotiation Education

Many years ago, Dick Thurmond saw two salesmen at a local car dealership taking advantage of a young woman's lack of negotiating skills.

Thurmond, who has spent decades working in the real estate business and is currently Southeast regional chairman of Howard Hanna Real Estate Services, left the dealership after negotiating his vehicle purchase. But he couldn't get the salesmen and that woman out of his mind.

"I should have gotten up and gotten involved in it," he said. "I walked out the door, and I decided I'd go back. And I went back, and the lady was gone, and the salesmen were gone. And I always felt bad that I did not take the initiative to go over and help that young lady."

That experience contributed to his decision to create the Thurmond School of Professional Sales and Negotiations in Old Dominion University's Strome College of Business.

Thurmond ('76 marketing) donated $6 million to establish the school, the first of its kind in the world. Funds from the endowment will be used to offer undergraduate degrees in negotiations and professional sales, graduate courses, professional certificates in negotiations and professional sales, and communications workshops for women and underserved groups both on and off campus.

"Every college should have a program," Thurmond said. "I think we can be a leader nationally and hopefully internationally. And I would like to have people come and study what we're going to be doing here."

"This is one of those defining moments for the profession," Strome Dean Jeff Tanner added. "It means that the profession has reached a level of legitimacy that it's never seen before. For that to happen at Old Dominion University is pretty amazing."

He explained that some in academics look down on professional sales.

"It's not considered as prestigious as, let's say law or accounting or something like that," he said. "But in actuality, a professional salesperson is responsible for making a business happen. There's an old saying: Nothing happens until somebody sells something. But today's salesperson is a lot more than that. They have to coordinate a lot of internal functions. They have to make sure the company honors the promises that the company has made. They have to represent the customer back to the company, make sure the customer's voice gets heard."

The school builds on the Thurmond Negotiations Lab, which was established in 2019. It has served the local business community through seminars, workshops and other educational programs. Consistent with Thurmond's vision, the lab has also offered free workshops targeting women and minorities, as well as research that supports the development of effective programming, the first of which supported a study of how to strengthen communication and conflict-resolution skills of incarcerated youth.

The school, which is housed in the marketing department, currently offers five classes, including some that require no or only a few prerequisites. Marketing students earn a major or a minor in professional sales and marketing.

But Aaron Arndt, a professor in the marketing department who will serve as chair of the Thurmond School, stressed the program isn't just for prospective salespersons.

"Negotiating skills are invaluable for absolutely everybody, from important negotiations that you might have at work to negotiations that you have when purchasing items to even within relationships," he said. "So, these are skills that I believe everybody needs. And I strongly believe in Dick's vision to bring these out to the broader community."

Toward that end, any student can join Pi Sigma Epsilon, a co-ed national sales, marketing and management fraternity, and participate in the Strome College's annual Sales Slam competitions. The school conducts seminars for faculty and students and offers a grant program to instructional faculty that funds community engagement activities.

Off campus, Arndt said the school wants to build on the skills-based training seminars it already offers in the broader community.

"I'm most excited about the altruistic part of this," he said, "the fact that we're providing practical skills training, and we want to go out and do it in the community, and we want everyone to benefit from this. So, we believe in this mission as helping people's both professional lives and personal lives."

Carrie Smith can attest to the value of these skills. She was the founding president of the Epsilon Alpha chapter of Pi Sigma Epsilon and graduated in 2021 with bachelor's degrees in marketing and IT. She said her experience at ODU gave her a leg up in landing her job as an entry-level software test engineer at General Motors in Chandler, Arizona.

"Sales is more about, for me, the communication skills to be able to sell yourself," she said. "Because that's something a lot of people don't understand how to do. It's just a hard thing to learn because you're always told not to talk about yourself. And now you've got to sell yourself for jobs. You've got to sell yourself when you're working with a team if you want to have something implemented."

Thurmond, who approached Tanner about establishing the school in the summer of 2021, said seeing it come to fruition is "really beyond my wildest dreams."

"I would like to encourage people to come and visit us," he added. "Visit the University. Take a course if you're so inclined. Get involved with it. I think it pays great benefits for anybody who is involved in it, and I encourage them to come and see what we have done and what we will be doing in the future."

"The implications of this are pretty far-reaching," Tanner said. "It's not just the fact that we'll have a school that will prepare our students for high-demand occupations, but it's going to have a ripple effect throughout colleges and universities."

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