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When this scaleup needed a new warehouse, it turned to an unconventional research team

By Verne Harnish

When COE Distributing in Smock, Pa. was looking for the most efficient location for its new distribution center, it didn’t turn to fancy consultants. 

Instead, CEO and President James D. Ewing—whose innovative employee recognition program you read about recently on—tapped a team of students from the Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh, who worked on the site selection for three months.

“They took into account multiple bits of information available: distribution space, cost of distribution space, customer concentration, cost of logistics and so on,” explains Ewing. 

After a three-month review, they chose a location in Houston. With the market identified, COE Distributing engaged a commercial real estate firm to find the actual property. The company leased a building that spans a quarter of a million square feet. 

COE Distributing’s approach could be useful for other scale-ups looking to set loose talented minds on challenging problems. “What we found is that any university is looking for these types of partnerships,” says Ewing. 

Ewing, whose mother founded the family-run company in the 1940s, met the director of the university program through YPO, where both are members. 

From Ewing’s point of view, the partnership with the university was a win. “It gives us visibility and access to additional talent,” he says. 

He found that working with graduate students was ideal. “Some have been in the workplace and bring that experience,” says Ewing.

There is also a cost savings when working with student-advisors. “The cost of the engagement is substantially less than a commercial consultant would be,” says Ewing. “It’s a graded project for them, so it’s important to get it right.”

COE Distributing is now turning to students to help use artificial intelligence to determine what products will be successful. They are using predictive analytics.

“The more that model is used, the better and more accurate it is,” says Ewing. 

Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish is founder of the world-renowned Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) and chaired for fifteen years EO’s premiere CEO program, the “Birthing of Giants” and WEO’s “Advanced Business” executive program both held at MIT. Founder and CEO of Gazelles, a global executive education and coaching company with over 150 coaching partners on six continents, Verne has spent the past three decades helping companies scale-up. The “Growth Guy” syndicated columnist, he’s also the Venture columnist for FORTUNE magazine. He’s the author of Scaling Up (Rockefeller Habits 2.0); Mastering the Rockefeller Habits; and along with the editors of Fortune, authored The Greatest Business Decisions of All Times," for which Jim Collins wrote the foreword. Verne also chairs FORTUNE Magazine’s annual Leadership and Growth Summits and serves on several boards including chairman of The Riordan Clinic and the newly launched Geoversity. He is an investor in many scale-ups. A father of four, he enjoys piano, tennis, and magic as a card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.