By David Davis
When Doug Burke ('86) was growing up in the northern California town of Modesto, he could usually be found in two places: the swimming pool and the kitchen.
Even as he was developing into one of the country's top water polo players, Burke was trying out the recipes from his mother's collection of cookbooks. "I started baking bread when I was 8," Burke said, "because I just loved to watch the yeast rise. There are so many ingredients to play with in baking, all these variables and nuances. It's the art side – the creative side -- that interested me."
Burke pauses, then chuckles. "Of course, in those days we could eat a ton of food because we were always swimming," he said.
His prowess in the water led him to Stanford University, where he earned two NCAA national titles in water polo and a degree in economics. He was named to the U.S. Olympic team in 1980, only to watch as President Jimmy Carter declared an American boycott due to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.
Burke admits he was "upset, disappointed, angry" that he was not able to compete in Moscow. "You felt all these emotions, and then emptiness. Something that you worked so hard for was taken away by the political scenario. If there's anything that you learn, it's that you have no control over stuff like this."
The boycott also altered his athletic timeline: Burke abandoned thoughts of retiring and, instead, kept playing for the national team. On trips abroad, he visited bakeries and learned of bread's importance in other cultures.
In the early 1980s, Burke re-located to Los Angeles to be near the team's training base in Long Beach. He began working for First Interstate Bank through their Olympic Job Opportunity program. He trained in the credit and operations side within First Interstate's trust division and served small business clients.
That piqued his interest in small businesses – in how they are organized and run. As he gained experience, his supervisor at First Interstate, Jim Gertz, suggested that Burke pursue his MBA at UCLA.
"The idea of learning the language of business was new to me," Burke said. "But the more I learned about Anderson, the more it seemed like a good fit. It was really cutting-edge in that they had an entrepreneurial side as part of the MBA program."
First, Burke took care of unfinished business in the pool. At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he scored the game-winning goal that powered the U.S. past West Germany in the semi-finals. Although America and Yugoslavia swam to a 5-5 draw in the finals, the latter received the gold medal based on goal differential. Burke and the U.S. took silver.
Immediately after the '84 Games, Burke entered Anderson. "I didn't have an agenda except to learn," he said. "The professors there – like [Bill] Cockrum – were highly experienced businessmen as well as teachers. They brought a lot of real-world case studies to class."
At Anderson, Burke was drawn to finance and accounting, he said, "even though you normally think of accounting as this dry subject. But Professor (Wayne) Landsman was fantastic. He was so creative in how he taught the class. It just registered for me. I really enjoyed it."
When Burke graduated from Anderson in 1986, he opted not to work in a corporate environment, choosing instead to go the entrepreneurial route. "I didn't have this set path," he said, "because I was not sure what I was going to do. What I got from Anderson was this flexibility, and the knowledge and confidence, to know I could build something. It had the luxury of a two-year learning curve."
With his first wife, synchronized swimming gold medalist Candy Costie, Burke applied his Anderson MBA to his love of baking. That led to the creation of Integrated Bakery Resources, a bread research and development company based in Lake Oswego, Oregon.
His commitment to the fledgling start-up forced Burke to finally walk away from water polo. "It was a difficult decision because I really liked them both," he said. "But I realized that I couldn't put the effort into the business side and the sports side at the same time. I couldn't do the team justice by staying on, so I picked the business side."
For the next 20 years, Burke immersed himself in the world of yeast, grain and wheat. He consulted with farmers and growers, as well as bakers and retailers, then devised best-selling brands for large commercial bakeries, including Oregon Hazelnut bread and San Juan Island Nine Grain bread. As the number of IBR employees grew to 100, Burke guided the privately held company's expansion into North America's largest bakeries, grocery chains and warehouse retailers, including Costco, Wal-Mart, Franz, and Safeway.
In the meantime, he co-founded Innovative Cereal Systems, a bread enzyme research company that served large commercial bakeries. "For me, the business was about solving problems," he said. "It was looking at a niche and finding out the gaps, and then serving those customers who valued our services and products. We were in business to serve their needs, not ours."
In 2005, Burke sold IBR to Cargill and ICS to Associated British Foods. He stayed on with Cargill in an executive position. "It was a way to grow the IBR concept," he said of the sale to Cargill. "We were able to find gaps in the marketplace beyond our base, both in customers and geographically."
Four years later, Burke left Cargill. He took a brief sabbatical before forming the Whiteboard Team in 2009. Whiteboard provides business-consulting services drawn from Burke's experiences in business ideation, product research and development, project implementation, business strategy, customer relations, and sales.
"Whiteboard is still evolving," he said. "It's about working with people and teams that I can help."
Burke still lives in Oregon. He is married to his second wife, Barbara, who is a counselor with a specialty in art and writing. They have a "blended family" of four children. In 1994, he was inducted into the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame; now he dabbles in coaching the sport to youth.
His playing experience may be a distant memory, but Burke sees a direct correlation between what he learned en route to the Olympics and what he learned at Anderson en route to an MBA.
"There are so many similarities between sports and business," he said. " In the pool, I followed the guidance of my coaches. At Anderson, I followed the training of my professors. With both, you practice something, and then you go out and apply it. To be a good leader, you also have to be a good follower. Above all, you have to learn how to be flexible and fluid, to recognize things and then act on them."