A powerful relationship
MSOE and Direct Supply are driven to succeed
One was baffled by the word “partner” spelled with a lot of Rs. Another wondered why a guy was asking him so many questions during their shifts at WMSE. Yet another simply followed a professor’s instructions.
That’s how three people describe their early encounters with their future employer, Direct Supply Inc. Sabrina Stangler ’20 SE, MSOE actuarial science senior John Williams, and Tom Hill ’01 CE each had different introductions to the Milwaukee-based company, and each took different paths to employment there. But all are beneficiaries of a corporate-university partnership that began with Direct Supply Founder, President and CEO Bob Hillis, who is also an MSOE Regent, and has grown deeper and broader over more than three decades.
Milwaukee-based Direct Supply, a technology, distribution and consulting company serving the senior care industry, has established itself as a constant presence on the MSOE campus. It invites students to interact with its professionals, shares space for classes, supports student activities, hires faculty during the summer, and is a constant presence at career fairs and recruitment activities. It offers multiple internships each year—currently 22 are filled by MSOE students—and many of those lead to full-time jobs. More than 80 MSOE alumni now work for Direct Supply.
“It’s a powerful relationship,” said MSOE President John Walz, who doesn’t know of another one quite like it among engineering schools. “It’s good for faculty, it’s good for students, and I think it’s very good for Direct Supply as well.” That relationship entered an exciting new phase with the latest renovation of Direct Supply’s Innovation and Technology Center (ITC) at 1020 N. Broadway, in German-English Academy building in the heart of the MSOE campus. With an expansion unveiled in October 2019, the Direct Supply ITC now occupies all five floors of the historic Neo-Romanesque structure, where professionals, educators, and students interact in ways intentionally designed to leverage the potential of each.
It was freshman orientation, and Sabrina Stangler had questions. Why is that company’s logo on all the orientation T-shirts? And what’s with the word “parrrtners” spelled with extra Rs? Eventually, she would put two and two together. The logo belonged to Direct Supply, which is employee-owned and takes pride in calling its employees “partners.” And the MSOE Raiders’ mascot is a pirate who, as the initiated know, talks with a lot of RRRs.
Stangler laughs about it now, but tells the story to illustrate how Direct Supply seemed to be everywhere when she arrived on campus. She was a hard sell in those days, dubious about anything sounding too good to be true. As she continued her studies, got deeply involved in student activities, and landed an internship, she remained skeptical of that company. If asked why, she’d explain, “You know me, I don’t want to work at the company that everybody else wants to work at.”
But then she got to know some Direct Supply employees—or rather, partners—through career fairs, campus activities, and her work as president of the Society of Software Engineers (SSE). People like Wade Krogwold, campus and community recruiting manager, and Mark Baylor, software engineering manager, were big SSE supporters, helping with resume critiques and programming competitions. Stangler had opportunities to visit the ITC, too. She vividly recalls observing a Direct Supply “Sprint Review,” in which teams of engineers reported on projects and received feedback. To her surprise, they looked like they were actually having fun. One team was themed around the goofy ’80s sci-fi comedy “Spaceballs,” which scored points with her. “It was cool because we could see employees just being employees.”
That, along with hearing good things from friends with Direct Supply internships, started changing Stangler’s thinking. In her senior year she bumped into Krogwold at the MSOE Career Fair. “He said, ‘OK, Sabrina, when are you going to apply?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, ha ha, today I guess.’” Today, Stangler is an entry-level software engineer at Direct Supply. It now makes sense to her “why MSOE has leaned so hard into this relationship.” She’s thankful she dropped her skepticism, and she’s glad people like Krogwold persisted with their encouragement. “I feel happy that I landed where I am, and lucky to be here.”
John Williams’ mother, MaKisha Williams ’15, earned the first degree in actuarial science awarded by MSOE. “From a young age I was told I was going to MSOE,” he said. And he did, studying actuarial science like his mom.
Williams’ encounter with Direct Supply came during work shifts at WMSE, the campus radio station. Some Direct Supply employees volunteer there, and one of them happened to be Senior VP Bob Klein. “We talked a lot,” said Williams, who politely responded to Klein’s queries, thinking it was a little odd that someone showed so much interest in his life’s story. “But he was actually giving me an impromptu interview,” said Williams, chuckling at the memory. “Luckily for me, I passed.”
That led in his sophomore year to a supply chain analytics internship that would continue through graduation and turn into a full-time job offer; in May, he’ll become a rotational development associate. The internship had him toggling between classrooms, the ITC and Direct Supply’s north Milwaukee headquarters. He’d often learn something in class one week that he could apply to his internship the next. The work was rigorous, and he liked that—it was a real job, and he was working side-by-side with professionals.
Williams values the MSOE-Direct Supply relationship as both a window into the professional world and a welcome mat, giving MSOE students a powerful leg-up when starting their careers. Without it, he said. “I don’t think I’d have gotten a foot in the door.”
Tom Hill has taken on a growing set of responsibilities in his 22 years at Direct Supply, including a nine-year stretch living and working in mainland China to establish the company’s presence there. He’s now group vice president of Direct Supply brands. But back when he was an MSOE computer engineering student, “I had no idea who Direct Supply was.” He learned about the company through one of his professors, who told him: You’re interviewing there. He didn’t argue. “It went well, and I was hired, and my journey carried on from there.”
Hill has had a front-row seat to the company’s growth and to its growing presence on campus. He views the campus-corporate relationship as a very deliberate extension of Direct Supply’s mission to improve the aging community’s quality of life through technology. “And we’ve done it by hiring a lot of MSOE engineers.”
The ITC is home to Direct Supply software engineers and special-project teams. It’s also where staff, students, faculty and community can convene for any number of reasons and events. “It’s a place where both our own teams and our startup partners are building the future of senior health together. That spans everything from A.I. to software development to entirely new business development. It’s a fun Silicon Valley-like environment. So it’s an exciting place.” And a place designed, Hill said, to create “collisions.” Classrooms are placed near engineers’ workspaces, and there are plenty of common areas. “You can bump into world-class talent while you’re walking to your classroom.”
Hill has done a lot of hiring in his time at Direct Supply, and he knows all about the competitive market for talented engineers. The recruitment pipeline is helpful, but so is a sense of shared values. MSOE graduates have a work ethic and a drive that make them great matches for Direct Supply, Hill said. “We always want to hire incredibly talented, driven people with the right brains, character and drive, and that makes this connection with MSOE so, so powerful,” he said.
“We have used this program to change the lives of many engineers and set the path for our company,” said Hill. “This is a special thing.”
Read more about this partnership and the ways it’s improving the lives of senior citizens and the community at directsupply.com/innovation.
Learn how your organization can get involved with MSOE. Email Kim Schultz, director of corporate and foundation relations, at email@example.com.