The fine art of schmoozing

[img_assist|nid=828|title=|desc=Dawn Henson has been hibernating at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel while organizing a networking tournament. (photo: Marcos Townsend, Gazette)|link=none|align=right|width=400|height=281]Concordia’s MBA Case Competition offers students a taste of real life

HEIDI KLASCHKA Special to The Gazette

Dawn Henson hasn’t left the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in over a week. And it’s not because of the weather. Concordia’s MBA International Case Competition is responsible for Hen-son’s hibernation.

As one of the key organizers of the event, the second-year MBA student has been so enmeshed in her duties she simply hasn’t had time to venture into the freezing Montreal air.

“I haven’t seen my family since (last) Friday!” exclaimed Henson, pausing to brush an imaginary piece of lint from her immaculate charcoal suit. “My husband has been unbelievable, though. He doesn’t make me feel guilty at all.” Henson, 32, hasn’t actually seen a lot of her husband, or her two young children, since last June – when she started preparing the event with co-organizers Carl Tischuk and Alexandre Botella.

The culmination of Henson’s efforts came into fruition this week: more than 200 students representing 30 schools from around the globe are meeting to solve a variety of complex business cases and mingle with their judges, who just happen to be high profile executives.

For students, it’s the schmoozing -professionally known as networking -opportunity of a lifetime. “It also gives the students a sense of what real life is like,” explained Henson. “They’re so used to presenting in a classroom. Here, if … CEO’s can’t understand their presentation, then they’ve really missed their mark.”

It may not be a comfortable situation for students, but Mackie Vadacchino, CEO of Murray Axmith Inc., believes it to be an invaluable life experience for students. “It’s important they learn how to sell themselves in the business world,” explained Vadacchino, who has been judging for at least 11 years.

Selling themselves includes dressing the part. Visitors to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel this week could easily confuse participants with business fashion-show contestants.
For judges and sponsors, as well as checking out postgraduates’ wardrobes, it’s a chance to recruit the creme de la creme of MBA students. Bombardier Aerospace arrived with eight human-resources executives and a large file in which to collect CVs.

Winning first prize in the competition is virtually synonymous with guaranteed employment upon graduation. The $4,000 cheque may as well be the first payment slip from any number of coveted jobs. And some companies are offering future employees as much as $60,000 a year to start.

The teams certainly aren’t here to win the paltry prize money. New Zealand’s University of Otago, for example, arrived in Montreal with a $15,000 operating budget. Prestige is what they’re after. To say competition is fierce is an understatement. One can almost smell rivalry emanating from the plush Queen Elizabeth conference rooms.

“Everyone in an MBA program wants to be a business leader/’laughed Henson, issuing directives to volunteers while affixing labels to participant folders. “And wants to win. “At the beginning of the week, all the competitors are happy. But, (after the first round of cases), there are 17 winners and 17 losers. “Things get really tense. I’ve already had some formal complaints.”

To add to the increasing pressure, Bombardier Aerospace has offered free Montreal-Toronto return flights and a tour of its plant facilities to the top three teams.

Winning is everything. As the teams battled it out, Henson remained calm and dealt with daily crises ranging from the minuscule (finding a sewing kit for a volunteer) to the daunting (placating over-anxious teams waiting for a case presenter on a delayed Toronto flight). According to Pierre Brunet, an MBAICC board member, Henson is the epitome of his “duck on the pond” theory.

On the outside, she floats along smoothly – constantly smiling. But underneath, the waters are turbulent and she has to paddle like crazy. “She’s handling a whole lot of stressful issues at once,” said Brunet, taking a breather in the hospitality suite. “I told her … never let them see you sweat.” Aside from frenetic gum chewing, Henson was the picture of equanimity as she dealt with volunteers, participants, judges and media alike.

“This may sound trite,” she explained, “but I put myself through school waitressing. This is the same thing. Everyone wants a piece of you. I just had to learn to deal with people and not let the pressure get to me. “Now, instead of customers’ food being late, it’s the CEOs who are late.”