SARASOTA, Fla. (May 18, 2018) – Entrepreneur Pete Petersen has been quick to help his alma mater, USF Sarasota-Manatee, even as his career reaches new heights. The 2015 USFSM graduate helped launch a digital marketing class in the College of Business, has taught several of the classes himself and has become a go-to source for graduates entering the job market.
Petersen, the CEO of the auto dealership services provider Dealers United, has a simple explanation for his support. He wants to give back to his alma mater. But he also sees practical advantages as a representative of the local business community.
“This is a way to align businesses and the local community directly with colleges,” he said, adding that working hand-in-hand with USFSM can help resolve future workforce needs. “One of the things I’ve always liked about USF Sarasota-Manatee is that it’s always been responsive to the business community.”
Petersen’s business instincts were honed years ago. As a teenager in Vernon Township, N.J., he designed websites for skateboard and snowboard shops and a garden center. Later, after moving to Florida with his parents, he put his entrepreneurial skills to use again installing WiFi networks for small companies.
A client, LexJet, enlisted Petersen to build out its IT structure and join its leadership team, setting him on a new path. A decade after that, Petersen veered toward another venture when friends Matthew Buchanan and Jesse Biter approached him to run a startup, Dealers United.
Launched two years earlier, the business-to-business services provider offers purchasing discounts, digital marketing expertise and other amenities to franchise and independent car dealerships. The company filled a unique niche and was the perfect fit for Petersen, bridging his technology and management knowledge.
Dealers United has since thrived under his stewardship. Founded in 2012, the company now represents more than 5,500 dealerships nationwide and employs 18 people at its downtown Sarasota offices. Based partly on the strength of its digital marketing division, Petersen expects that number to grow to 50 employees over the next year.
“The company has evolved but the mission is still the same, to help dealerships save time, reduce costs and increase their sales,” he said.
Yet even with all his success, Petersen, 38, concedes something was lacking. After starting and running businesses and rubbing elbows with chief executives and business owners for most of his life, Petersen never made time for college. He possessed a two-year degree, but with his focus constantly directed toward business, he never returned to complete his bachelor’s degree. Yet his friends and business acquaintances, even his employees, all had degrees.
Petersen resolved to focus on college. With USF Sarasota-Manatee just a few miles from home and his job at LexJet, he enrolled in USFSM’s College of Business and squeezed in the classes when he could. Ten months later he joined Dealers United and in 2015 he graduated with a business degree.
Now Petersen is on a new mission – to give back – and USFSM is reaping the benefit. Notably, last fall, Petersen and several friends – fellow tech industry experts – approached College of Business Dean James Curran about launching and teaching an elective in digital marketing.
Given the shift from traditional advertising platforms and rise of social media, Amazon and digital consumer tracking and other breakthrough technologies, the course made sense, they said. The more they talked about it, the more Dr. Curran, a marketing expert himself, liked the idea. Months later, their discussions yielded a complete marketing elective course where Petersen and the other digital marketing experts shared their expertise by teaching some of the course topics.
Topics ranged from website design, social media marketing, digital public relations and guest blogging to Google analytics, search engine optimization, Facebook advertising, YouTube advertising and avatar creation, among others.
Digital Marketing debuted in spring 2017. The course was well-received by students and brought back for the spring 2018 term. The intent, Petersen said, was to give business students another tool as they graduated and entered the job market. Hopefully, he added, some will stick around to offer their skills to local companies.
“My point was we wanted to whet people’s appetite around digital marketing,” he said. “A few years ago I started dabbling in helping dealers with their digital marketing needs and I learned that there are not a lot of trained digital marketers in this area, there’s not a big pipeline, and I thought that by building that up, that could be a way to align businesses directly with colleges.”
Recent graduate Drew Detweiler said the class turned out to be one his favorites, along with being a turning point in his career.
Detweiler, a Marine Corps veteran, said he met Petersen about a year ago during a lecture on entrepreneurship. Afterward, when Petersen’s digital marketing class came up in the spring 2018 term, Detweiler quickly signed up. He said it was a revelation, plus it connected him back to Petersen, which would prove beneficial later on.
While the class delved into marketing’s theoretical side – customer behavior, analytics and historical trends – it also offered a hefty serving of practical how-to instruction that Detweiler intently soaked up. That’s what he liked most about the class.
“Marketing can be philosophical with lots of ideas and theories,” he said. “But this class, it wasn’t just theory that was waiting to be applied sometime down the road. Everything was applicable now. It was one of the most informative classes, if not these most informative class, during my entire time in college.”
Through his connection to Petersen, Detweiler saw another advantage, as a possible avenue for employment. He liked the company Petersen and his partners built up and admired his leadership and entrepreneurial spirit. With a position opening there and graduation approaching, Detweiler decided to apply. A couple days after graduation, he found himself in a cubicle at Petersen’s company. The timing of the new job couldn’t have been better.
“It was a huge relief,” he said. “I’m married and my wife is a fulltime student in dental hygiene, so there’s the pressure from that, and I’m also definitely relieved to get a job where I can be happy. I like what I do and who I work with and work for.”
Petersen says he’s hired three USFSM grads over the years. He doesn’t make it a goal to hire alumni, but he says he likes the idea of hiring local.
“I don’t care where you come from, but if we have chance to hire local we’re really excited about it,” he said.
Dr. Curran said he’s grateful to Petersen for his support of the college over the years.
“We are proud to say that Pete is a graduate of our college, but we are even more grateful to have him involved with our students and programs,” Dr. Curran said. “Pete has visited many classes as a guest speaker and was instrumental in the development and delivery of the Digital Marketing course. He is always willing to work with any student who asks for his advice or help. He will always make time for students and that is invaluable to USFSM.”
To learn more about USFSM’s College of Business, visit usfsm.edu/academics/college-of-business/index.aspx.