The Man with the Plan

March 31, 2004
Carded: education's entrepreneur

 Carded: education's entrepreneur. Photo: Chris Hildreth

 
 

You could say Joe Pietrantoni has done it all, and you wouldn't be exaggerating. For thirty-three years he served Duke in a variety of roles, building an auxiliary infrastructure that is a hallmark of the university and a model for other institutions.

From Duke Transit to the DukeCard, Pietrantoni has had his hand in a staggering number of the innovations that have made life at Duke faster, easier, and, generally, better. Now retired, the University Medal recipient finally has a moment to reflect on it all.

You were at General Electric before coming to Duke. How did that experience prepare you for the many different jobs you would take on here?

In 1958, after Sputnik went up, G.E. started designing what was called the Mod 3 radio guidance, a ballistic-missile guidance system, and they were looking for guys to go out and do the real legwork of building up the missile sites. Well, I didn't have much experience. But they liked my energy. They said, "We'll take a chance, we'll hire you, kid." So I got a big break, and before I knew it I was in Cape Kennedy, Florida.

I was a logistical guy. I did all the ordering. I made sure all the equipment got where it was supposed to go, made sure all the parts arrived at the right place and on time. And I realized that I had a knack for logistics. You could give me a part, and I could tell you, "It takes ten of these to do that. I have this many in the unit. I need this many spares." And one thing I learned there was that you gotta keep adapting, keep changing. And I took that attitude with me everywhere I went. I said, "I'm going to try new things, and I'm going to keep trying new things until somebody says there's something radically wrong with moving in that direction."

One of the new things you tried at Duke was to hire students. What gave you that idea?

When I got here in 1970, I started talking to the students, and I said to myself, "These young people are just like I was, except smarter." And I thought, If I can just harness that energy and drive, as sharp as they are, we can't be stopped.

The first student I met was a guy named Bill Cross [B.S.E. '73, M.S.E. '75]. He was an engineer working in Page Auditorium. He said to me, "Joe, the theater needs a lot of improvement: new lighting, new floors, better acoustics." So I asked him, "What if I hire you and some other students to be my tech group, and I'll fight the red-tape battles and get the money?" Bill said, "You're on." He got some engineering friends together and they went to work on Page. So that was the start of using students--my "tech arm." And then I thought, Now I need a hardware arm.

So, I went to the vice president and I said, "I want to borrow $100,000." And he said, "What for?" and I said, "I want an equipment pool. I want to buy some tables and chairs and matting and rent it all out to different groups. My students will put it up and take it down, and I'll pay them three dollars an hour"--that was a good deal then. So, while Bill built up the tech arm, I built hardware. First I bought a truck from housekeeping: DU31. I said, "You hardware guys, you take any job you can get. Say Alumni Affairs wants a hundred chairs in front of the Chapel--we'll do it. We'll rent them the chairs, and we'll set it up." We had a sign-up board on the third floor of the Union Building. The students loved it. Say they needed a couple bucks for a date. They'd look at the board, and it might say, "Sunday morning: Clean up after the football game. 7:00 to 10:00 a.m." And they'd sign up and work their shift. Two weeks later, there'd be a check waiting for them.

You made many changes to Duke Food Services. What did you think was wrong, and what did you do about it?

What was wrong with Duke Food Services was it was a traditional cafeteria: breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the same place. And students were telling me, "Joe, the mashed potatoes, they're okay, but too much mashed potatoes is a bad thing. And plus, we don't want to eat at a specific time." So, some students and I went to every dorm and spent hours surveying student opinions. And I listened and listened, and after I learned what they wanted, I realized it wasn't working trying to do all this with Aramark [Corporation, a food-service company,] alone.

I'm Italian by nationality, and my mother makes the best spaghetti sauce, and if somebody else tried to come in my house and make it, I'd say, "Hey, that's not good spaghetti sauce." So I thought, What we gotta do is we gotta go get that market niche. Because these students are going to accept no less. So we launched what I called Diversified Food Services. Today we have thirty-two individual contracts with food management. We brought eleven mom-and-pop shops to campus. We brought to the campus whatever was out in Durham that the students wanted. How? Take Han's Chinese Restaurant (which was really the Mandarin House, you know). I said, "Jack Han, you're the best Chinese guy in the world. Our students aren't yours." And the same with the Armadillo Grill guys over in Chapel Hill. I said, "Come to Duke, be our Mexican [food] guys."

And the DukeCard? How did you come up with that?

One day, I said, "You know, we have this card doing food. Clickin' out meals, right? That card can do a heckuva lot more than count 'one, one, one.' " So I called up Wes Newman [B.S.E. '78], who had been with me for nineteen years, and I said, "Let's develop a card that does everything: laundry, vending machines, athletic entry, door locks--an all-campus card. You take care of the technology." So we bought some reader devices from a company out in Arizona called Harco. And we built the card up, and it's the best in the country. Duke is a legend for the DukeCard. You can ask anybody. People will shoot for it. Like Clemson, they said, "We're gonna beat you guys. We're gonna make a better card." We just laughed. Every time they go and do something, we're already doing something new. Everybody's trying to catch up. They finally get their vending machines where they want them or their washer/dryers where they want them, but we're always a step ahead.