WEEK 2: In a Small Town, We Learned Some Big Lessons About Partnerships

Open Road — Week Two
By Team IBAM

This post originally appeared on the Michigan Ross website.


Most MBA students will end up living in a large urban city or the surrounding suburbs after earning their degrees. But nearly one in five Americans lives outside of that radius.

With this in mind, as part of our month-long Open Road journey, we intentionally sought to spend one of our five weeks on the road with a small-town entrepreneur. Our hope was to gain a deeper perspective about what it’s like to operate a small business in rural America.

So, after wrapping up week one in Detroit, we took off for Discovery Recycling in Daleville, Alabama.

​Daleville has a population of 5,187 and sits outside the gates of Fort Rucker, a U.S. Army base in southeast Alabama. Daleville’s economy revolves around the base and the military families that come to live in the surrounding area.

Kevin McManus, an Army veteran who served overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, helped launch Discovery Recycling five years ago. The idea was hatched after Kevin saw an opportunity to put Fort Rucker’s recyclable waste to better use and keep it out of landfills.

Today, Kevin is preparing to launch a new business around electronic waste recycling. We spent our week wrapping our heads around this complex field, reading industry reports, talking to people in our networks, and using a marketing STP-4P’s framework to generate recommendations for launching this new business. We left Kevin with our thoughts about his next steps and how to position for success as he grows.

But our biggest takeaways weren’t about the latest regulation on e-waste or the segmentation of commercial customers in southeast Alabama, but rather seeing firsthand how operating within a small, tight-knit community influenced Kevin and his business.

In large part, Kevin’s success is due to the support of his community. There is no economic or regulatory incentive to recycle in the surrounding area, so Kevin relies on community members’ sense of environmental stewardship and the benefits of recycling to support his business.

Kevin’s business also relies on several important partnerships with local organizations and individuals. Those partnerships are built on symbiotic relationships that struck us as remarkably deep and personal.

In one partnership, Kevin is working with Dale County Rescue Mission, a local nonprofit men’s home that will help provide labor for the recycling center. In negotiating this agreement, Kevin told us how he wanted to “do good for them,” even if that meant making concessions. Kevin is acutely aware of the important service Dale County Rescue Mission provides for the local community. He is motivated first by helping the Rescue Mission thrive and second, by the opportunity to enhance his business.

In another partnership, Kevin has built a relationship with Wiregrass Rehabilitation Center, an organization that provides jobs and employment training for adults with disabilities who desire to enter the workforce. A few years back, Kevin helped Wiregrass launch an e-recycling program. Today, this organization repays Kevin by sending high-quality, valuable electronic waste to his recycling center as a courtesy to help Kevin’s business. These actions aren’t based on legal contracts, but rather social contracts built up over years of working together in the same community.

Through these examples and others, we learned that in a small town, those kinds of trusted, personal relationships are required to succeed. In a small town, everyone knows everyone, and your relationships and trustworthiness are paramount to your survival.

No matter where our career paths lead us — be it in a small town or big city — the lessons Kevin taught us about the value of strong partnerships built on deep personal relationships will continue to be a powerful guide.


Team IBAM consists of Iris Nguyen, Mikaela Rodkin, Aaron Steiner, and Blake Van Fleteren, members of the Ross MBA Class of 2017.

They just wrapped up their second week with Discovery Recycling in Daleville, Ala. and are headed to New Orleans, La. to work with Goods that Matter. Follow #RossOpenRoad for more.

Open Road is sponsored by the Zell Lurie Institute, the Center for Social Impact, and General Motors.