Sealing the Deal

At Northern Illinois University, Professor Rick Ridnour dispenses knowledge plus a regular dose of 'mental vitamins'

BusinessWeek asked business undergrads to tell us about their favorite professors. Here's another installment in the series.

Their mission, should they choose to accept it: Sell their product with a whole class of peers watching their every move. Practice makes perfect, and no one knows this better than the students in Professor Rick Ridnour's Principles of Selling class at Northern Illinois University's College of Business, when they face their final role-play assignment. Sitting across from a classmate in a conference room, each student executes the process of selling that they have learned throughout the semester: make an introduction, explain the product, ask questions, and finally, seal the deal. A live video is broadcast to their classmates, who evaluate their performance from another room.

This interactive and hands-on teaching style is just one of the reasons many students from Northern Illinois who responded to the 2007 BusinessWeek student survey selected Ridnour as their favorite business professor. Ridnour has been honored in the past by NIU with the prestigious Presidential Teaching Award in 1994, as well as with NIU's Excellence in Teaching Award, on both the college and departmental levels.

Before settling into his teaching position, Ridnour's career took him through banking, real estate, and sales, leaving him with plenty of real-world lessons to bring into the classroom. But Ridnour stands out in the business school for more than just his teaching abilities. His students say it's his can-do attitude and genuine concern that really set him apart.

Positive Influence

Ridnour's passion for teaching began with a humble start in his middle school history class in Des Moines. His teacher, Mr. Newton, had energy, enthusiasm, and the ability to bring the material to life, which made Ridnour wish the class would never end. Ridnour would probably be happy to hear that his students describe him in much the same way. "He has so much energy," former student Stephanie Lee says. "He didn't read right out of a book, it was him talking and you listening because he was interesting."

Positive thinking seems to be Ridnour's mantra. He even wraps up some classes with a discussion of what he calls "mental vitamins," a little book he put together with motivational nuggets like "a positive attitude is a matter of habit" and "personal goals are a prelude to action." Ridnour's enthusiasm, says Lee, instills a confident attitude in his students. "I remember a couple of times I came out of class and was like, 'I do feel better about myself now,'" she says.

Former student Josh McLain benefited directly from having Ridnour as a mentor and adviser. "There's a good chance I wouldn't be working for the company I'm working for today if it hadn't been for Dr. Ridnour," says McLain. Ridnour noticed McLain's strong interest in technology, says the student, during a brief presentation on one of the first days of class. When McLain submitted his resume to ASAP Software in Buffalo Grove, Ill., Ridnour made sure to place a call to the HR department. After being offered a position as an intern, McLain was recently hired for a full-time position.

Ridnour's helping hand seems to be more the norm than the exception. Lee recounts a similar situation that occurred during her last semester at NIU. Lee ran into Ridnour in the hall and after a brief chat, he became concerned that she still hadn't accepted a position. "He told me that he would put in a word with one of the sales managers at Liberty Mutual," she says. "Two days later, I received a call from them and started going through the interview process."

Witnessing Transformations

It is important, says Ridnour, to spend a lot of his time mentoring students and giving them the career tools and networking assistance they need to secure jobs and internships. "Some of the most rewarding situations are when people felt they did not have the resume to compete," he says. "[I] coach those individuals to see things in a little different perspective and encourage them to look for different opportunities." Ridnour says he gains tremendous satisfaction from witnessing the personal and professional development of his students.

One student in particular, recalls Ridnour, came into his class so uncomfortable with the idea of public speaking that she became physically sick at the thought of it. After Ridnour coached and encouraged her outside of the classroom, she successfully completed the mandatory video role-play assignment and moved on to become a successful businesswoman who is expected to make regular presentations.

As this student learned, Ridnour's class is no walk in the park. Students are graded on two comprehensive exams, written assignments, their final role-play assignment with final paper, and an attendance policy. Rigorous as his class may be, he doesn't have to worry about selling it to students. Business students at NIU are already sold.