Alumnus Cooks Up Unique Career

Whatever unexpected turns life takes, Criminal Justice professor Mike Conner ’05 finds support and encouragement from Concordia University.

Mike ConnerConner began working with Concordia in 1987 as regional manager for ServiceMaster, the company that provided onsite management of the University’s buildings and grounds operations. When his former spouse, Lonnie, died of cancer in 1996, he was comforted by an outpouring of support from the campus community. His personal experience was “just one example of this university ‘walking the talk’” of its mission.

He stepped down from his position as regional manager so he could care for his sons, Eric and Brian, then age 8 and 13. He became the director of operations at Concordia and oversaw areas including custodial, maintenance, grounds, security and risk management.

Conner pushed the institution to implement strategic changes that reflected the critical role of a security office in a growing urban campus. “They demonstrated the confidence in me to entertain the idea of the change,” Conner said. Under his leadership, the department began restructuring to include full-time professional security officers.

He decided to pursue a master’s degree in Criminal Justice Leadership for new perspectives as he continued to integrate organizational change in the University’s security department. He was especially apprehensive about the program’s online format, but in 2003, at age 52, he overcame his fears and enrolled.

“You talk about sweaty palms on day one!” Conner said. “As a student, I had always been reluctant to express my thoughts for fear of embarrassment or being wrong,” he said. As it turned out, online learning alleviated his fears. “None of those barriers existed anymore because I was sitting at home in my hunting room chatting online. My confidence was growing by leaps and bounds.”

The degree program opened Conner to a realm of new possibilities for his life and career. For his Strategic Leadership course, Conner read the book, “Play to Win! Choosing Growth Over Fear in Work and Life” by Larry and Hersch Wilson which exposed him to powerful ideas on change. “Right behind the Bible, that book has had the greatest impact on me,” he said. He was inspired to set aside his fears and pursue his dream of opening a catering business. His professor for the course, Sue Stanek also was supportive of his business plan and encouraged him to further develop his ideas using class assignments as the framework.

Conner’s daughter, Brenda, helped him decide on a name for his business and in April 2006, Conner officially launched “Unique Dining Experiences,” a catering venture focused on outdoor cooking.

Since 1980, Conner had been roasting pigs without pay just for the enjoyment of the cooking and dining experience, but now it would be his livelihood. With a $25,000 initial investment, he rented a grill and pulled it behind his 10-year-old truck, using his garage as his supply warehouse. Advertisements in local newspapers landed him his first assignment – a pig roast for a graduation party. Since then, Conner has developed a website, joined three chambers of commerce, increased his print advertising, implemented direct mail advertising, and even delivered fliers door-to-door.

Profits for 2006 exceeded Conner’s business plan projections and the number of events he catered in 2007 nearly doubled. Now, his challenge is how to manage the rapid growth and expansion of his business. He recently invested in a new truck and trailer with plans to purchase a second rig soon. He also built a catering facility and anticipates hiring staff in addition to the help he receives
from his sons.

The success of the business is both frightening and exhilarating. “As scared as I am, I enjoy the challenge of taking this business to places I never dreamed possible,” Conner said.

A year post-graduation, Conner fulfilled his life-long desire to teach by becoming an instructor in the Criminal Justice department. He also works as Criminal Justice Institute recruiter and credits department chair Scott Harr as an important mentor whose encouragement has been instrumental in his success.

Conner continues to oversee the pig roast at Concordia’s annual fall picnic. It’s his way, he said, of trying to repay the University for all it has done for him, particularly during some very trying times.

“I fondly tell people that my coming to CSP and getting my M.A. degree changed the direction of my life,” Conner said. “My mother still giggles about the idea that my master’s degree provided me the opportunity to roast pigs.”

Visit Conner’s website

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