June 7, 2012 | Volume 42, No.23

Hedrick crunching numbers in the Big Apple

For a smart guy, Luke Hedrick spends a lot of time thinking about the price of a can of soda. But he isn’t worried about his grocery bills. Hedrick is doing the deep analytics required for “pricing and promotional optimization.”

As the retail arena gets more competitive and complicated, companies can’t afford not to hire guys like Hedrick to help them figure out just how much a can of pop should cost. In the cutthroat post-Amazon, post-Wal-Mart world, every cent counts for survival.

Hedrick graduated from Haines High School in 2001. He works in the Manhattan office of Oliver Wyman, a global consulting firm. He’s the head of a team that focuses on converting reams of raw data into successful pricing strategies for mid- to large-size retail chains in the U.S., the U.K, and across Europe.

Hedrick’s work at Oliver Wyman marries his disparate double majors at Harvard University: computer science and psychology. The bridge between the two, for Hedrick, has been the application of computational analysis to the study of how people make decisions.

His specialty is taking overwhelming amounts of data and wringing out of it a means “to work with people and to have something that helps people make better decisions and gives people better information.”

Hedrick grew up in Haines, the son of CVN publisher Bonnie Hedrick and John Hedrick.From an early age, he dove into learning. Chilkat Valley News editor Tom Morphet recounted a newspaper office party where Hedrick, then about five years old, lay sprawled on the floor of the newspaper, absorbed in a book. “Luke’s powers of concentration were amazing. People were stepping over him and he didn’t even look up.”

In high school, Hedrick was just 10 points off a combined perfect score on the SAT standardized tests. But top test scores and a Harvard degree didn’t save him from a crushing workload when he started as an analyst at Oliver Wyman in 2005.

“The first two or three years, you are only working. There is work and sleep and sometimes less sleep than you would like. The lifestyle was very, very difficult and I did get to the point, about four years in, where I was considering doing something less interesting that would mean not working to death.”

Now that he heads up his own, highly-focused, technical team, his workload is more manageable and predictable.

Hedrick’s team trolls through “massive amounts of data ... literally billions of transactions” using math he describes as “not easy, but not that hard” to measure elasticity and price response to find that “sweet spot” that balances pricing and margins for supermarkets and other retail centers.

Hedrick explains, using a local example: “In Haines, there is always a tension between supporting local business which sometimes means paying more; there is a certain limit to how much more you will spend to do that.”

Even after finding the right price point for a retailer, Hedrick’s work isn’t over: his team has to find a means to present this information in a manageable, useable way. “The skill set is all over the place: computer programmer, data analyst, industry insider.”

Hedrick is excited, even passionate about his work. “I love working on very urgent problems and being able to see results immediately…I have always been interested in the real rather than the theoretical.”

His team’s strategies have helped rescue firms that had hundreds of shops and distribution centers slated for closure. It’s particularly gratifying, Hedrick says, after working closely with a client’s employees for months or years, to see them keep their jobs as a result of his work.

Haines High School math teacher Matt Davis said this week remembered Hedrick missing two weeks of class and an entire chapter of trigonometry, then having all the related assignments and a test on the material the following day. Davis made him a deal: For an “A” on the test, Davis would give him the same grade on the homework.

“I said, ‘Just read the chapter and learn it,’” Davis said. Hedrick aced the test. “Luke has a gift for getting to the essence of a pattern or set of formulas and finding those kernels that are fundamental,” he said.

Hedrick said the culture and climate of the East Coast were a transition for him at Harvard and he joined a fraternity with a high number of members from the western United States.

Despite his initial dismay at meeting “people who have the same last name as the building you are going to class in,” Hedrick managed to make his mark on Harvard. He was lauded in the pages of the campus newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, for authoring his freshman class’ annual musical and for his appearance in the pages of YM magazine: where he was featured in a “heartthrobs” contest for a chance to win $10,000 in scholarship money.

Mother Bonnie Hedrick said Haines High School’s drama, debate and forensics program helped prepare her son for life afterward.

“Drama and debate was the best thing about Haines in terms of getting ready to go out into the world. There were all these other kids (at Harvard) who had gone to preparatory schools and fancy academies and who couldn’t get up in front of a group and string two sentences together. But Luke had been trained to express himself, to be persuasive or funny, whatever the situation called for.”

Coming from Haines, Hedrick appreciates the opportunities his work has given him to travel and see the world and to live in Manhattan. He has spent months in London and Germany and been all over the United States, “albeit pretty random destinations, more likely Poughkeepsie than Las Vegas.”

“Manhattan is a pretty crazy transition from Haines. The sheer density of people can be pretty overwhelming. Not even just in Times Square, but (everywhere)… Being able to deal with that; not trying to say ‘Hi’ to everyone, not paying attention to everything that happens, because there is too much going on. It’s a different world... There is so much to do in the city, to the point of where you stop trying to keep track of it. You couldn’t even just keep track of the plays. But what you can’t get in Manhattan is space and the outdoors and the ability to see the vastness of the rest of the world.”

Hedrick comes home twice a year and wants to bring his New York girlfriend to the state fair here. In his travels, he’s now been to a few fairs and said the local one ranks impressively.

“I like traveling back and forth between New York and Haines, because I feel like, between the two, you get the best of what the world has to offer…Every time I come back, I think it’s almost better to come back than to stay there, because then you see it for what it is and really appreciate it. Not just for the physical beauty, but also for the strong sense of community. You take it for granted when you live in Haines too long without going somewhere else for a while, but it is really special and really rare.”

"Over the Mountains" is an ongoing series of feature stories profiling Haines students who have achieved success.