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The John Molson MBA: looking good at 50

As Concordia’s esteemed graduate program celebrates its golden anniversary, it looks forward to an even brighter future
September 27, 2018
By Dave Lank

The late 1960s in Montreal was a time for dreaming big. The city was still flush with the excitement of hosting the world at Expo 67; Trudeaumania, v. 1, was in full swing; and Major League Baseball awarded the Montreal Expos a franchise in 1968.

In the fall of that year, Sir George Williams University, one of Concordia’s two founding institutions, gave birth to a new graduate degree program, the Master of Business Administration (MBA).

First MBA graduates in Spring 1971 The first MBA graduates in spring 1971, at the William Tell Restaurant. First row (L to R): Peter S. Crombie; Romesh P. Athaide; William (Bill) J. Noble; Mark Macpherson. Back row (L to R): Prof. Andrew Berczi; Prof. Gunter Brink (Dean); Bruce Mallen

Five decades later, the program, now called the John Molson MBA, has gone on to international recognition. It placed ninth in Canada by Paris’s Eduniversal Business School Ranking in 2017, and consistently appears near the top of other Canadian and world rankings. It has helped propel the careers of thousands of alumni.

Thirty-nine students were enrolled in the newly launched MBA on day one. The program’s first director, Bruce Mallen, BComm 58, BA 64, LLD 04, described that initial student cohort as la crème de la crème. They were experienced executives, mostly bankrolled by their companies, there to learn what an early news release described as “the new techniques of decision-making and management.”

They saw the MBA, with its part-time curriculum, as a new way to advance their careers while keeping their day jobs.

“I had four kids and was working full time,” says Robert Briscoe, BSc 67, MBA 73, LLD 18, a member of that pioneering class. With courses that ran from 4 to 7 p.m., the program was a perfect fit for Briscoe. It allowed him to balance his studies with family life — and move on to a highly successful business life. That ethos of flexibility and accessibility remains a hallmark of the MBA to this day.

Robert Briscoe, BSc 67, MBA 73, LLD 18, Robert Briscoe, a member of Concordia’s first MBA cohort, received an honorary degree from the university in June 2018.

As the years progressed, the popularity of and demand for an MBA swelled. By the mid-1970s it had more than 400 students enrolled.

Alan Hochstein, BComm 66, is a long-time professor in the Department of Finance of Concordia’s John Molson School of Business (JMSB). He directed the MBA program from 1988 to 1990. Hochstein explains that since most of the students worked full time, it presented a distinctive opportunity to bring in examples from their own business experiences to the classroom.

“That really made the challenge of teaching tremendous,” he says. “We were always analytical and theoretical but always doing real-world stuff.”

Hochstein adds that since its inception the program has never swayed from equipping students with the core skills — accounting, finance, marketing, strategy and human resource courses — needed to foster strong managers. “We never got away from the basic fundamentals and I think that is what differentiates what we do,” he says. “When students leave the program, the question is what they put into operation Monday morning when they go back to work.”

Keeping pace with the times

As the world of commerce has evolved at breakneck speed, the program has adapted to keep pace and meet the needs of the modern business student Two years ago, the John Molson MBA went through a major restructuring in an effort to make one of Canada’s top business programs even better. It was shortened from 57 to 45 credits, the equivalent of 15 courses instead of 19. The streamlined program allows greater accessibility to working and part-time students to get their diploma faster. Courses were completely redesigned to enable more integration between various topics. There’s now a greater number of elective courses, so students can deep dive into topics they deem relevant to their career path.

A schedule that has always being very flexible has become even more so. Almost every course offered can also be taken in the evening, so each student, whether working or not, can get the same experience.

“The majority of our students do not have an undergraduate degree in business, yet they need those management skills,” says Sandra Betton, associate dean of the JMSB’s Professional Graduate Programs, who oversaw the revision of the new program during her tenure as MBA director. “Roughly half of them know that the way their career was going is not what they want,” she says. “Then we have students who are in a career they love, see the progression they want but need the degree to take the next step.”

Top-of-mind issues relevant to today’s workplace, such as ethics, governance and sustainability, were also moved to the front of the curriculum. The mandatory Responsible Manager course kick-starts the program and sets the foundation for preparing students to become leaders conscious of the environmental and social impacts of business.

“Right from the beginning, they’re not just thinking about the bottom line,” says Betton. “They’re thinking, ‘OK, it’s not just about the shareholders. Maybe it’s the community, maybe it’s the employees.’ It’s about a bigger picture than just ‘what were my earnings?’”

Learning by doing

A major part of the MBA experience occurs outside the classroom, something that distinguished the John Molson MBA. Anne Beaudry, the program’s current director, points to the many hands-on learning projects with credit value available to students as a key differentiator.

Beaudry explains that today MBA students and those who will employ them are looking for experiential learning opportunities “where they can actually put their knowledge to the test before they graduate. You learn so much from these experiences,” she says.

Examples of the type of beyond-the-classroom programs where students can activate their learning in complex environments include the Concordia Small Business Consulting Bureau and the Community Service Initiative. Run like small-scale consulting firms, both initiatives expose students to activities associated with being an actual consultant.

Anne Beaudry Anne Beaudry became director of The John Molson MBA in 2018.

Participants in the bureau provide their expertise to Montreal business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs. Those in the Community Service Initiative focus on giving back to the community by working with non-profit, service-oriented organizations.

Beaudry stresses the tangible value for students. “They have to go and find clients, they have to price their services, they have to collect on their bills and they have to sometimes deal with annoyed clients — all the issues associated with actually being a consultant, as opposed to being a student in a consulting course,” she says.

Arguably the most popular, and well known, activity for MBA students is the John Molson MBA International Case Competition, the oldest and largest case competition in the world. The event was started in 1981 by two enterprising students, Nora Kelly, BA 72, MBA 88, and Annette Wilde, MBA 82. They sought to bring together Concordia and four other institutions — McGill University, University of Ottawa, Université Laval and Université du Québec à Montreal — in the spirit of friendly rivalry.

The competition went international in 1992, and today 200 MBA students from 36 teams around the globe flock to Montreal every January to be a part of the experience.

For the students who organize the competition for credit, it’s a colossal undertaking. “They have to solicit the schools, design the marketing plan, manage budgets, raise over $250,000, and they’re answerable to a board of community members. It really is their show,” explains Betton. These students say their work on the case competition is the hardest they have ever done, Betton reports — yet the highlight of their MBA journey.

Leading with diversity

As the call for more diversity in the workplace becomes louder, the John Molson MBA is well positioned in preparing the next generation of female executives and leaders. In its early days, students were mainly men. Today close to 40 per cent of the student body is female.

“Fifty years ago, when it was time to sell the program, they provided free bus passes for the spouses of students,” says Anne-Marie Croteau, BSc 86, dean of JMSB. “That tells you that it was really designed with men in mind.”

The multicultural and international face of the MBA has also steadily and significantly grown in recent years.

The educational and career experience that students bring to the classroom has also widened. In addition to those with business, engineering and IT degrees, many are now joining the program with, for example, medical or entrepreneurial backgrounds.

“The fact that we have a variety at that level too when it comes to educational backgrounds adds to the diversity,” explains Croteau. “Everybody learns from each other in the classroom, including the teachers.”

A familiar sight in MBA classrooms are alumni who return as guest speakers to share their own career experiences with students. “We have close to 100 alumni coming back every year speaking to our various classes, and we try to have more and more of them,” says Croteau.

At 50, the John Molson MBA is thriving. With a focus on accessibility since inception, and an agility to shift with the times, the decades to come for the program look brighter than ever.

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