Innovation in Education

Entrepreneurial spirit guides Brenau’s board chair

By Ben McDade As one of the principal partners of a thriving business, new Brenau University Board of Trustees Chair Mike Smith understands the rewards of taking a chance and managing risks and says those same dynamics are at play every day at Brenau.

Smith is president of SteelCell, a manufacturer of prefabricated, modular detention cells and youth rooms, that he and his partner Ray Handte, vice president of the company, have managed since 2001. A native of Dahlonega who moved to Hall County as an adult, Smith says he always had an awareness of Brenau. When his wife, Dixie Truelove, served on a Brenau advisory committee that led to the couple attending a number of events on campus, they began to understand “how special Brenau really is,” Smith recalls, “especially the university’s passion for the arts.”

As Dixie and Mike came to know President Emeritus Ed Schrader and learned more about the university through friends and acquaintances on the board, faculty and staff, he was pleased when he was asked to the board in 2014. Today he is passionate about the Brenau mission and the students the school prepares for extraordinary lives. “The work Brenau does for the students and community keeps us supporting Brenau,” he says.

“As a tuition-driven organization, we must embrace the dynamic nature of higher education, especially in smaller private universities.”

Mike Smith
Chair, Brenau University
Board of Trustees

Smith’s business is located in Baldwin, Georgia, about 25 miles northeast of Gainesville. The company currently has over 16,000 prefabricated units that serve more than 230 projects, nationally and internationally.

“In my business we work hard to stay on the cutting edge of technology,” he says. “We are always looking for new projects and new industries to explore. Our creative staff works together to design unique solutions.”

Smith says this approach mirrors Brenau’s as the university constantly searches for ways to better serve her students. He also knows this approach is essential as many higher education metrics indicate there soon will be fewer high school graduates.

“With a smaller pool of students,” Smith says, “Brenau has to make sure to accentuate our uniqueness, the quality of our education and the return on investment for the student and parents. Brenau must remain not only relevant, but a leader and an innovator. Just as in any business, anyone can duplicate what you are doing today, so you have to keep making what you do better than your potential competition. You have to meet and anticipate needs as they change, because they will, constantly.”

As a governance body, the board’s primary responsibilities are fiduciary in
nature. Smith understands that one of his most important jobs is to lead his board and university leadership to engage the higher education marketplace that is in constant flux. He says he strives to utilize strategic thinking with transparent processes for the stakeholders.

“I believe transparency among our board members and with the president
is vital,” he says. “I simply want to see manageable growth in our mission areas and be open enough to realize in higher education we cannot be static in our thought process. As a tuition-driven organization, we must embrace the dynamic nature of higher education, especially in smaller private universities.”

Smith says he knows Brenau is positioned well for these challenges. He cites the university’s robust fiscal management, innovative leadership and historically strong governance as positive traits for the future.

“Brenau remains nimble enough to make strategic program decisions to remain a relevant and leading education program and degree provider for not only what is in high demand today but also what we see for tomorrow and beyond,” he says. “As I have seen from my time on the board, we are good stewards of the gifts we have been given.”

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