The first week of January usually marks a familiar return to the rhythm of office life. For the team chosen to represent UCD Smurfit at the 36th John Molson MBA International Case Competition, the first week of January 2017 proved to be an unforgettable experience. The competition is the largest and longest established of its kind in the world. Intense preparations prior to Christmas had been interspersed with end of year exams and project submissions, but finally, the time had come to put our MBA skills to the test. With a vague appreciation of the scale of the challenge facing us, we set off for Montreal satisfied that we had put in the hard yards in honing our strategy and presentation skills. Despite this, we could never have envisioned the magnitude of the experience ahead of us, the highlight of the MBA to date for our team.
Having rang in both the Irish and Canadian New Years, we were glad to have a day of respite on New Year’s Day before the action commenced on Monday. A morning stroll through fresh snow around the historic Old Port of Montreal allowed us dispatch the Christmas cobwebs and observe the city operating at full tilt despite the inclement weather. Historically the commercial capital of Canada, Montreal remains an important centre of commerce, aerospace, finance, pharmaceuticals and technology. The 270 executive judges for the week’s competition hailed from these local industries and global giants spanning companies such as E&Y, Bombardier, Pathfinder, Royal Bank of Canada, Microsoft and IBM.
The eagerly awaited draw to group the 36 teams took place at Monday morning’s impressive opening ceremony. A nervous energy filled the room, as the business school names were drawn one by one. UCD Smurfit were drawn against five leading business schools from Sweden, the US, Canada and Mexico. Over the course of the week we would go head to head with each, in a round-robin format, tackling five unpublished business cases, including a live case. Each team would be allocated three hours to read a 20-30 page business case, carry out an analysis, and develop a strategy and implementation plan. The output in each instance would be a 25 minute PowerPoint presentation to a panel of five executive judges followed by 15 minutes of questions.
Day 1: Our opening round saw us drawn against the highly reputable Simon Business School from the University of Rochester in New York. The case challenged us to develop a competitive strategy for Swatch as the company faced the rise of the Apple iWatch. A strong opening performance saw us grind out a win against Simon. This victory would be the platform that gave the team confidence that we belonged on the global stage. We were off the mark.
Day 2: The famous ‘double case day’ dubbed as the toughest day of the week. First up, a global expansion and growth strategy for a complex Portuguese retailing conglomerate. A tough case, and facing very challenging opposition from LSBE of Wifrid Laurier University Canada, we were delighted to notch up another win. Following a short break for lunch, the third round saw us develop a strategy for Uber for South African market entry which we lost to tough opponents from Haskayne Business School from the University of Calgary. After three rounds we were placed 2nd in our division, just behind Sweden’s highly regarded Lund University School of Business and Economics, who were positioned to top the group and make the semi-finals. Any thoughts of coming here to get one victory had soon turned to calculating what results we required to qualify for the semi’s.
Day 3: Proceedings took a different twist, Dave McLaughlin, the General Manager of WeWork, a US shared office space start up founded in 2010 with a current valuation of $16bn, presented a live challenge from his company. We were tasked with developing a new business line for the company. To add to the pressure, having heard of UCD Smurfit, Dave selected to attend our presentation to scout for his next business innovation. We faced off stiff competition from LUND to jointly top the division with Canada’s Haskayne at the end of the day. It would be an early night for the team with thoughts firmly fixed on Thursday’s final round.
Day 4: The final division case on Thursday saw us pitted against the energetic Mexican business school EGADE and challenged to develop a growth strategy for an Indian agri business. A tough case, we debated possibilities at length and felt the pressure ramp up as the time ticked down. Despite the frantic preparations, we made an excellent presentation and impressed the judges by competently validating our strategy under intense scrutiny.
We nervously awaited the announcement of the division winners and semi-finalists as we dined on lunch. When ‘UCD Smurfit’ flashed up on the screen as division winners and semi-finalists we jumped from our seats ecstatic that our hard work had reaped reward.
Following lunch, the team took a well-earned rest in preparation for battle in the semi-final that evening, where we would face the American University of Beruit (Lebanon) and Queensland University of Technology (Australia). We were tasked with developing an integration strategy for a LinkedIn acquisition. The semi-final ran very close with eventual 3rd placed finalists Queensland winning our semi-final. Emotions were mixed at the announcement on Thursday night. We were disappointed to have narrowly lost out on a place in the final but incredibly proud of our achievements in topping the division and beating off strong competition to reach the semi-final.
Despite the packed daily case schedule, the competition organisers ran a full programme of evening events which allowed participants to experience Canadian culture, make new connections from all over the world and kick back after long days of competition. Attending Montreal’s home of ice hockey at the Bell Centre to see Canada play the Czech Republic was one particular highlight. The games’ roots are professed in some quarters to originate from ancient hurling, still though, nothing comes close to a day out at Croke Park! Thursday night’s movie theme party saw us trade business formal for superhero costumes with some of our team discovering hidden super powers at the karaoke machine! The final banquet dinner on Friday night celebrated the end to an incredible week. Canadian university, Memorial, were presented with the Concordia Cup. As one of six division winners, we were also presented with a cheque in recognition of our performance.
As we face into the final semester of the Executive MBA, we look forward to further challenges and further adventure as we visit Japan and Korea on company visits later this year. Molson has however been the stand out experience of the MBA to date and the learning, laughs and friendships forged will remain indelibly engraved in our memories as we wistfully reflect on our time at Smurfit.
We were expertly guided throughout the week and in preparation by Professor Pat Gibbons and we would like to express our deep gratitude to Pat for his encouragement, time, and expertise. We would also like to acknowledge and thank Paul Slattery for his guidance on presentation skills and Ro Downing and all at Smurfit for supporting the team from the outset. The competition itself was also excellently organised and hosted by Concordia University’s John Moslon School of Business and great credit and thanks is due to the organising committee who looked after us so well during the week. A final note of thanks to the UCD Alumni Association Montreal Chapter and local business community representatives who hosted a reception for us during our stay.
To the next generation of MBAs, ‘the bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity for growth’.
Go forth and seize the opportunity.
Catherine O’Brien ~ Executive MBA, Year 2
On behalf of: Derek Anderson, Anne Marie Barcoe, Tanya Kenny and Declan Walsh.