8 a.m. with the Coffee Man

By Christine Cox | Fall 2014

To say a college class changed your life is one thing. To say an 8 a.m. class that you couldn’t get out of ended up changing your life is completely different. And in page after page of thank-you letters to Chris Stevens (’74), adjunct management professor, students want to make sure he understands this difference.

Dear Professor Stevens, … Being put into your 8 a.m. class is one of the best things that has happened to me here at ND.
Dear Professor Stevens, … I do not think I will ever again be able to say I was excited to wake up on Mondays for an 8 a.m. class.
Dear Professor Stevens, … I tried my best to go every morning but it’s rough sometimes at 8 a.m., so I apologize for any absences. … Your class did not just teach me the principles of management, but also life itself.
Dear Professor Stevens, … You serve as a daily inspiration and reminder of what is good and right in this world. Through your teaching I believe I have already become a better person.
Dear Professor Stevens, … I will cherish the memories and miss those early 8 a.m.s with the Coffee Man.

The return of the Coffee Man A.K.A. Hawk

This early morning gratitude seems as unlikely as the Coffee Man teaching at Notre Dame in the first place. 

He left a business career that was beyond successful. Stevens helped develop and launch Keurig Premium Coffee Systems, a pioneer in what has become an industry of single-serve coffee options. In the first day or two of his classes, Stevens shares the story of how he downsized the comfortable life of his family near Boston to invest in Keurig. He had already built a successful career with such corporate giants as Procter & Gamble and Anheuser-Busch. 

Of course, the Keurig risk paid off. Since launching in 1998, it has become a $5 billion corporation and a ubiquitous household brand. 

Yet, Stevens decided to retire in May 2013 as vice president of corporate relations in order to focus exclusively on teaching. He had started teaching an MBA course in the Interterm Intensive graduate sessions at Mendoza College in 2009, traveling to campus for the break weeks in fall and winter. He loved it. 

In 2012, he accepted a full-time adjunct position and commuted that year from Massachusetts to teach. His courses included Business Problem Solving and Change Management for MBA students, and Business Problem Solving and Principles of Management for undergraduates. With such a demanding schedule, Stevens eventually decided he needed to live in South Bend full time to devote the time he wanted to his students. So he and his wife, Trice, moved from Boston before the start of the 2013-14 academic year. Stevens had already owned a townhouse that’s about a 10-minute walk from the stadium.

“Hey, I’m not a greedy guy,” he says. “I’ve got enough to be able to support my family. And I once heard you should have two careers in life: one until age 60 and one from 60 on. Last year, at the age of 61, it seemed perfect to change direction.”

Big guy, big heart

Stevens is a big guy. Not just tall—he stands 6-foot, 6-inches—but big-voiced like a broadcast announcer. When he first started appearing around Mendoza as a faculty member instead of a guest speaker, most people knew him as the Keurig executive. Some may have known Stevens from his basketball career at Notre Dame. Nicknamed Hawk, he earned two monograms under coach Digger Phelps from 1971 to 1974. 

All of that adds up to a significant intimidation factor, until, that is, you actually meet him. Stevens, like so many, found a stability and support at Notre Dame that was sorely missing from his home life. He spent his early childhood in foster homes from Texas to upstate New York to Washington, D.C. area—an experience that seems to have deepened his appreciation and his determination to make a difference.

At Notre Dame, he not only earned an economics degree, but also converted to Catholicism. 

On the first day of any class, Stevens tells students, “I don’t know everything, but I’ll give you everything I’ve got.” This includes, on top of the regular curriculum, small but critical details for a business career such as writing thank-you notes, developing great sales skills and drafting compelling job search materials. 

Madeleine Witt (’16), a management consulting and peace studies major, mastered the skill of writing a business plan in Stevens’ class, which helped her land a summer internship with SoDE, a nonprofit that assists victims of human trafficking through business solutions. She wrote a sample business plan for the interview process that won her the internship. Witt later sent Stevens a business plan she was working on for his opinion. “He gave me some excellent pointers,” she says. “He just can’t do enough for his students.”

An ardent supporter of many nonprofits in his personal life, Stevens connects his MBA classes with local nonprofit leaders to assist with areas they’re looking to improve.

Nancy Owsianowski, director of development for RiverBend Cancer Services of South Bend, worked with some of his student groups, who provided marketing ideas and strategies to effectively incorporate volunteers. RiverBend has provided free counseling, education, programs, financial assistance and more to cancer patients and survivors and their loved ones for more than 70 years. 

Owsianowski at first figured that students would approach this as an academic exercise. But she was soon impressed with the level of attention from the students, from the thorough examination of the organization and its challenges, to the formal presentation of potential solutions. She says the organization has incorporated some of the steps already, and plans to implement even more of them in the future. 

“The level of detail they went into with their solutions and their thoroughness was probably from getting direction from Chris,” she says. “He’s a fantastic listener and is able to distill issues by listening very carefully. And he has such a caring spirit.” 

Invested all the way

ND MBA student Jordan Karcher (’15) was looking to start an online coffee business when he first heard about Stevens last fall. Though he hadn’t taken classes from the Coffee Man, Karcher’s friends urged him to get in touch with Stevens for advice. 

“He told me, ‘I love your idea. You should definitely do it,’” Karcher says. “He gave me contacts in the coffee industry, too, that have been invaluable. The fact that he came forward with his expertise and helped me push my business forward meant everything. Professor Stevens was the last catalyst we needed to get this company off the ground.” Grounds & Hounds, which donates 20 percent of sales to no-kill animal shelters, launched in March and is seeing greater success than expected (see back cover).

Malik Zaire, a sophomore quarterback on the Irish football team, also never took a class from Stevens, but met with him last fall to discuss his dream to launch a nonprofit to help disadvantaged middle school students explore career pathways. “I explained my idea to him and he helped me clean it up and understand what I need to do in my next steps,” he says. “He even put the foundation proposal on his final exams for students to brainstorm. I came to him with this urgent passion for this foundation to help kids and he was on board from day one. ”

Zaire was not expecting the level of support he got from Stevens. “He knows what it’s like to take risks, to be in a secure place and step out of that comfort zone. He knows how to gauge an idea and how to take that next step. And he’s not afraid to fail,” Zaire says. 

During Mendoza’s undergraduate commencement ceremony in May, student after student stepped out of line to throw Stevens a quick hug before heading across the platform to receive their diploma. “I love my kids. For them to want to hug the old man is something that really warms me,” he says. 

Stevens received the University’s Frank O’Malley Award and Mendoza’s 2014 Blessed Basil Anthony Moreau, C.S.C., Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award. “The mission of Mendoza is to Ask More of Business, and it’s something I take to heart,” he says. “I want it to be part of my students’ DNA.”

Though Stevens has guest lectured at several institutions, he’s clear that Notre Dame is the only place he’d teach.

“Half the world’s population goes to bed hungry every night, and 50 percent of the U.S. population will live in poverty by age 65. So business has got to do more, share more, drive more.

My goal is to help students not only learn to solve business problems, but also to help prepare them for life and to help others. That’s the Notre Dame way, and that’s why this is the
only place I’d ever want to teach.”