Getting down to cases

STEPHANIE WHITTAKER, Special to The Gazette

There was a buzz of nervous anticipation outside the meeting rooms at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel this week as participants in Concordia University’s MBA International Case Competition prepared to strut their stuff.

There was a buzz of nervous anticipation outside the meeting rooms at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel this week as participants in Concordia University’s MBA International Case Competition prepared to strut their stuff.

The “strutting” in this instance is metaphorical. We’re talking about using quick thinking, business smarts and polished communication skills to persuade a panel of judges that your imaginary consultancy can resolve a company’s problems or challenges.

Thirty teams of MBA students from around the world – as far a field as Sweden, New Zealand, Peru and Germany – have spent the past four days vying to win this year’s case competition, which Concordia launched in 1981 and which has become the world’s largest. Each team, consisting of four MBA students is given a real-life case (usually about 25 printed pages) and three hours to read it and devise prescriptive advice. Then the teams assemble before panels of judges composed of high-ranking executives from the corporate-milieu, and spend 45 minutes presenting their analyses and recommendations, with the help of an overhead projector.

The 30 teams have been whittled down to three finalists who’ll go head to head this afternoon for the competition’s trophy and a total of $12,000 in prize money.

Karine Wei, one of the competition’s three student organizers, has been planning the case competition since May. She said the intellectual rigour of the event is the main drawing card. “It’s an intense, intellectual exercise to do live case presentations in one week,” she said.

Wei and her co-organizers, Raymond Najm and Megan Pickering, will-get course credits for their work. Wei said they’ve acquired valuable project-management skills that will serve them well in future careers.

She said another reason students are eager, to participate is the opportunity they get to network with prestigious employers. Organizers attract a raft of corporations to sponsor events-cocktails, luncheons, dinners and parties. “Being on the team is certainly good for your career,” said Tim Field, a member of last year’s team. “But the case competition is not set up as a career fair.” Moreover, the judges, 180 of whom have participated this week,’ are, recruited from the ranks of the corporate elite. Offering a dazzling presentation to-a panel of judges can also be a boon to a .student’s career prospects.

Field, who now teaches in Concordia’s management faculty, is coaching this year’s team. “The event is good for companies, too. They get to meet the students,” he said. Johanne Freland, director of .human resources in the corporate office of Bombardier Inc., said her company has been a corporate sponsor at the case competition for the past three years. It was host of the so-called “icebreaker Cocktail,” the social event that kicked off the competition Monday evening. “We had representatives from all the company’s groups – aerospace, transportation, recreation products and capital,” she said. “We recruit MBAs internationally for our operations around the world. At the case competition, we get to promote Bombardier to 30 universities at one time and have an opportunity to identify top talent, people who might be interested in careers at Bombardier”

Freland said Bombardier has recruited students from Canada, the U.S. and Europe at previous case competitions, but she said there’s no hard sell. Company officials use the networking opportunity to “start relationships with students who could be potential employees. This is not a short-term effort but a long-term one. These people are early on in their careers. They may come back to us in five or 10 years.”

David Goldman, chief operating officer of Noranda Inc, says he makes a point of being at Concordia’s case competition every year. “I mark it on my calendar,” he said. Goldman, who lives in Toronto, completed his MBA at Concordia, in 1981 and is a member of the case competition’s advisory board as well as a judge. He said Noranda sponsors the competition because it enables the company to appeal to students as an employer of choice.

Goldman, who facetiously refers to the so-called “old economy” as the “value economy,” acknowledged that companies like Noranda might not have the “cachet of high-tech start-ups.” “We get to talk to students about our industry. We’re establishing the perception that this is a good company to work for,” he said. “We’re telling the students we’re a modern, vibrant company that offers opportunities commensurate with their abilities. We also want them to know we have modern management practices.”

Goldman said Noranda hires a complement of management graduates every year. “Regardless of needs, we hire to keep our professional complement at a high level. We’re looking all the time to build our skill base.” And the case competition routinely dishes up clever, skilled students. “We hired a student from the case competition three or four years ago,” Goldman said.

Carl Tischuk found himself a job as a commercial-account manager at the Toronto Dominion Bank after organizing Concordia’s 1999 case competition. “I wanted the challenge of organizing it and I wanted to open as many doors as I could,” Tischuk said. “Being an organizer means you’re out there.”

Tischuk worked with 10 advisory-board members. One of them was William Duke, then a vice-president with the bank. “He asked me about my plans for work,” said Tischuk, who had
worked in banking after completing an undergraduate degree. “We discussed career opportunities.” Tischuk said his organizational work proved to be “a big selling point. on my CV.”

Wei says between 60 and 80 graduate and undergraduate students volunteer to work at the case competition for the opportunity to network. “They do it because they want to meet the company representatives and judges, too,” she said. Tischuk said the companies that sponsor the event relish the opportunity “to be face to face with the best MBA students in the world.”

The final presentations in the case competition will take place today between 3:15 and 5:35p.m. at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel The public is invited to attend.