Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Pop into culture

Two graduates achieve career stardom, and in the process, affect the world of American popular culture

The typical college student in the United States is still at an age at which he or she longs to be a rock star or super star—in essence, to be famous someday. But as graduates of the University of Wisconsin-Stout know, you can achieve career stardom in any profession.

Zoom to top of mind
Brian Colianni ’79, for instance, can be called the Zoom-Zoom guy. You know, from the Mazda commercials that make you want to get up and move.

Colianni joined Mazda in 2004. Through products and customer experience, his role was to execute the delivery of Zoom-Zoom, a marketing campaign that was launched in 1998. The campaign takes Mazda back to its heritage of catering to customers who truly enjoy the driving experience.

Colianni was a driving force behind the success of the Mazda brand resurgence. Now the product line is devoted mainly to vehicles that appeal to customers who want fun when they are behind the wheel.

“Zoom-Zoom is about a feeling,” Colianni said. “We want to deliver that feeling in all Mazda touch points—product experience, purchase experience and vehicle service experience.”

“Zoom-Zoom is defined as the emotion of motion,” Colianni continued.

Everybody knows it, everybody feels it, but kids say it best when they say ‘Zoom-Zoom.’ Adults sometimes suppress their inner desire for Zoom-Zoom, but it is still there, and this is the message we try to convey in our communications.”

That explains why you can’t sit still through a Mazda commercial.

Colianni was with Mazda North American Operations for three years. First as the vice president of customer service operations and then as the senior vice president of marketing and sales.

Colianni was hired by Ford Motor Co. immediately after graduation from UW-Stout, and he has been with the company for 29 years. Because Ford owns approximately a third of Mazda, Ford management routinely moves its executives in and out of the Mazda organization and that is how he came to be the executor of Zoom-Zoom.

“I am not sure there is any one who didn’t like the feeling of Zoom-Zoom as a child,” he said.

And Colianni was no different. As a young boy he would build go-carts out of scrap lumber and old wagon wheels. His front axle was a wood board with rope strung at each end. He yanked the rope to steer down the hills near his home.

“No brakes. Just steer and hang on,” he said.

After his go-cart phase, he progressed to skate boards, then mini-bikes and motorcycles, followed by boats and cars.

“It was all of these interests that actually brought me to Stout to study,” Colianni said. And it was these same interests that led him to a successful career in the automotive industry.

A truly memorable moment, he said, was when he helped introduce the new Mazda MX5 Power Retractable Hardtop to a group of automotive journalists. He and a Mazda team convoyed from their Orange County, Calif., headquarters through the wine country and up the Pacific Coast Highway to attend the Monterey Historic Automobile Races at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and then on to the Concours d’Elegance at Pebble Beach.

“Hard to have more fun at work than that,” Colianni said.

Colianni, though, is most proud of the career accomplishments that made a lasting difference in the way Ford operates. For instance, in 1990 he launched the Customer Assistance Center with more than 200 customer-care agents who were trained and could be deployed to assist Ford customers with any questions or concerns; and in 1995, he established the FordStar Satellite Distance Learning Network to deliver onsite training via digital satellite broadcast network to all dealership employees. Both endeavors continue in full operation today.

“These aren’t as exciting as launching a new vehicle, but they have lasting impact on how we operate and care for our customers,” Colianni said.

Colianni now is executive director for Ford Asia Pacific and Africa. He directs business growth and customer relations for 12 countries from his headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand—where he still finds time to Zoom-Zoom.

See you in the funnies
Then there is Michelle Ollie ’92. She moved from Minneapolis to White River Junction, Vt. to open a cartoon college in 2004. It made a lot of sense, she said, given the rising interest in comics and graphic narratives.

“Comics—also referred to as graphic novels, drawn books and manga—are the fastest growing area of the publishing industry and are creating unprecedented excitement in the art, literary, design and publishing worlds,” Ollie said. “In the past few years, ‘60 Minutes II,’ National Public Radio’s ‘Talk of the Nation,’ the Chronicle of Higher Education and Time magazine have all covered this phenomenon.”

Ollie and cartoonist and educator James Sturm founded The Center for Cartoon Studies and spent a year setting up the operations, recruiting faculty and renovating an old department storefront building on the main street of town. The first class of students enrolled in the fall of 2005. Today the campus includes the special-collection Schultz Library and a studio building.

“We saw a void for such a program in higher education and an opportunity to introduce a curriculum that could address both the creation and production of comics and graphic narratives,” Ollie said.

The nation’s top cartoonists lecture at the center, she said, including Art Spiegelman (“Maus”), Chris Ware (“Acme Novelty Library”), Garry Trudeau (“Doonesbury”) and Wisconsin-based cartoonist Lynda Barry (“Ernie Pook’s Comeek”).

Fun and games, yes, but opening any business is a 24/7 job, she said.

“I eat, sleep and drink it. To me, it’s incredibly energizing, so I’m not complaining,” Ollie said. “It reminds me of the late night hours in the lab at Stout. I love being in the moment, working on a project and looking at the clock to find out it’s morning.”

Within the school’s first two years of operations, it received approval from the Vermont Department of Education to award certificates and Master of Fine Arts degrees. And this past April, the Vermont Higher Education Council invited the center to become a member, making The Center for Cartoon Studies the first non-accredited college member since the council was founded in 1944.

“Incredible recognition for our program,” Ollie said.

But that’s just one recognition among many that the newly minted school has received.

The Center for Cartoon Studies has been featured in the New York Times, the LA Times, the Boston Globe (“The Best Idea 2005”), the Chicago Tribune and on the front page of the Washington Post.

Plus, books produced at the school are getting great reviews and winning industry awards. Two graphic biography books—“Houdini: The Handcuff King” and “Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow”—made the American Library Association top 10 young adult graphic novel list for 2008. A third book in the series—“Thoreau at Walden”—has just been released and already is getting rave reviews.

The school’s first commencement ceremony this past year was her proudest moment, though.

“I really felt a sense of accomplishment, seeing the first class graduate and my newborn son in the audience. I was on top of the world,” she said.

Her mornings now start with a cup of coffee and games with 1-year-old son Phineas. She then walks to work, following a wooded trail system that connects the residential area to the business district.

“The school fits perfectly with this quirky New England railroad village,” Ollie said. “What can I say? Where else would you open a cartoon college?”

The village of White River Junction sat dormant since its glory days of the railroad. But now the village is experiencing a rebirth, with the renovation of old buildings and the construction of new ones. A new coffee shop and a martini bar now join the Polka Dot Diner and food co-op.

“I would like to think The Center for Cartoon Studies played a role in bringing attention to the wonderful assets of this historic village,” Ollie said.

With all the attention the school is receiving, more than likely it did.

It is fortunate, then, that The Center for Cartoon Studies may not be the last great idea Ollie develops.

“I have a post-it wall of ideas,” she said.

“I try to write down good ideas and just stick them on the wall. I would love to move a few of them off the wall and into the world before the glue gives.”