Best case scenario
Harley-Davidson is in a pickle. The Milwaukee-based motorcycle manufacturer needs to attract new riders to survive. But with an iconic, century-old brand to protect and a loyal group of core, older customers to satisfy, the task is complex. What strategy should the company employ to stay relevant and bolster future growth?
The answer to this — and other challenges like it — requires a broad range of business knowledge and savvy. Enter the cohort of students at the John Molson School of Business (JMSB), who regularly test themselves at national and international case competitions.
“By cracking cases that span diverse themes and industries, I can approach business problems, presentations and other challenging or high-pressure situations with great confidence,” says Amanda Rushton, MBA 20, a senior associate at PwC Canada and former president of Concordia’s MBA Case Competition Committee.
The Harley-Davidson case is typical, and one where students have mere hours to propose a final analysis to a panel of professors and business executives. The pressure-packed atmosphere supplements classroom lectures and group work, and represents the kind of practical, transdisciplinary approach to business education that Concordia has long nurtured. The university has subsequently become a case competition luminary, not only at the organizational level but as a result of its all-star student participants.
Impressively, Concordia has managed to excel at case competitions aimed at both undergraduate and graduate students. The John Molson School of Business MBA International Case Competition is a notable standout. The largest and oldest MBA case-study event in the world, it first pitted groups of students from Concordia, McGill University, the University of Ottawa, Université Laval and Université du Québec à Montreal against each other in 1982.
“It’s part of our DNA,” says Anne-Marie Croteau, dean of the John Molson School of Business. “Students can apply what they’ve learned in the classroom, offering them an opportunity to know themselves better and achieve their greatest potential.”
Concordia has ascended the podium at case events around the world. In 2019, the team took first place at the DeGroote School of Business Case Competition at McMaster University and placed first and third at the A4S International Case Competition at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, case competitions have made a virtual shift. By the end of 2020, undergraduate teams had completed three international competitions online, including a third-place finish at an event held by the University of Arizona.
“We’re resilient and have risen to the challenge,” says Nora Baronian, BSc 99, MBA 06, director of the undergraduate case competition program. “However, we’re all hoping to go back to competing in person, for the experiences and connections that happen in that environment.”
Participants benefit not just from the competitive environment but also from the formidable effort required to coordinate and host case events at Concordia. At the MBA level, students are charged with assembling 36 teams of students and coaches from different schools, as well as hundreds of volunteers and judges from the business community.
“They develop the ability to organize an extraordinarily complex and difficult competition with many aspects of executive decision-making,” says William Meder, BComm 65, academic advisor for the John Molson MBA International Case Competition’s organizing team. “They’re responsible for making sure that a thousand people have a great event.”
The success of these events has helped propel cases to a more prominent role in the classroom and beyond. In fall 2020, JMSB signed a partnership with Ivey Publishing to distribute business cases written by the JMSB community to schools around the world. Part of Western University’s Ivey Business School, Ivey Publishing is one of the world’s leading case publishers.
Guy Barbeau, director of Student Life and Special Projects at JMSB, says that case competition participants have a distinct advantage when they enter the workforce.
“They have a lot of skills desired by the marketplace and become very good at synthesizing large amounts of complex information in a short period of time. They have to work effectively in teams and develop great time-management, communication and organizational skills.”
Thanks to their competition experiences, students find themselves better equipped to manage the myriad aspects of an organization, whether finance, accounting, marketing, operations or human resources. They also develop intangible skills that hiring managers look for.
“I learned a lot about leadership,” recalls Sapandeep Singh Randhawa, MEng 16, MBA 20. “How to motivate peers, better clarify expectations and deadlines within teams, ensure group cohesion, and how to hold people — including myself — more accountable.”
Although the 40th edition of JMSB’s MBA International Case Competition has been postponed to January 2022, Concordia teams will continue to organize and compete in 2021 — be it online or in person. Though the pandemic has been a disruptive force, students say they have learned how to work smarter and triumph over adversity.