Ash cloud overshadows first case competition by School of Business and Economics
After two victories in Bangkok and Copenhagen, the School of Business and Economics organised its own so-called case competition for students for the first time last week. A week that started with an ash cloud and ended with the elimination of the Maastricht team. Nevertheless, the organisation concluded that it had been a successful event. “It was great to welcome so many dedicated and professional students.”
Monday, 19:15hrs. In the left-hand corner of Ad Fundum, large chrome coloured dishes are waiting, containing lasagne, warm ham off the bone, goulash and potatoes au gratin. Behind the dishes are the wife and daughter of caterer Eric Crauwels from Meerssen. The jolly man himself wonders where the students are. He points to the ceiling. He knows that a senior official from Shell is giving a lecture in the auditorium on the first floor.
Crauwels regularly works for the Maastricht economists, but this time the order was extremely chaotic. “First it was a buffet for 100 guests, then it was 140, and a few hours later it had dropped to 80. Well, it was that ash cloud, what can you do? Then the faculty said they wanted stamppot (mashed potatoes and cabbage), but I advised against this. Stamppot is a difficult product, you know! And it does not look great, when you see it for the first time.”
A little later, Ad Fundum starts to fill up. But not as full as everyone had expected. The ash cloud has more than halved the number of participants: a mere five of the sixteen student teams have shown up. On Friday, one day after the volcanic eruption, the organisation held a crisis meeting but calling everything off was not an option, says one of the organisers, Julienne Erckens. “It does lead to bizarre situations. There is one girl from the Australian team, who was visiting a Dutch friend; one team mate was stuck in Milan, two others in Kuala Lumpur; the coach flew from Singapore back to Australia.”
In the meantime, the guests are making the most of Crauwels' steaming dishes. At the same time, Bas van Diepen, head of the organisation, announces that some teams - such as those from Copenhagen and Milan - have jumped into their cars and will arrive tonight or at some time during the week. The week before, Van Diepen had produced a two-metre long strip of paper containing “the military roster”. All that can be thrown in the wastepaper basket now.
The setup will be changed. To help the latecomers, the two small cases that were planned for Tuesday and Wednesday, will not count towards the final result. Everything will now come down to the big case on Friday, when students will be locked in a room at Hotel de L’Empereur for 24 hours. This is also where everyone is staying.
It is the first time that the School of Business and Economics has organised a case competition. This is an international competition in which student teams have to solve a business problem and prepare a presentation on the solution within a limited amount of time. Ten or so businesses sponsor the event, which will be held every year from now on. Van Diepen: “In the coming years, we will have to build up a certain status and prestige, making it attractive for businesses to co-finance the project. In Copenhagen, the competition has such a high profile that the royal family attends the opening dinner.”
The cases, based on real-life problems from the business world, are usually supplied by the business that acts as main sponsor. This will also be the case in the future, but for the time being the economists bought the dilemmas. “Yes, that is possible,” says Englishman Stuart Dixon, who is involved in postdoc education at SBE. “I ordered them from the non-profit organisation European Case Clearing House.”
This British-American organisation, which promotes the case method of learning, has 39 thousand cases on its shelves. The expenses are barely visible on the budget: a mere three pounds a piece. And to prevent even the suspicion of hanky-panky, Dixon is the only one who knows the contents of the cases. “I have selected international dilemmas from well-known enterprises, such as the likes of McDonald’s.”
A little further, the Maastricht team has gathered around a standing table. Three German young men and one German young lady. To begin with the latter: Lena Sablotny, then Elias Pankert, Daniel Chorzelski and substitute Philipp Pommerenke. From Wednesday onwards, Philipp will be replaced by Valentina Cullmann, who is stuck in Nice because of French strikes.
So all German students. But it gets even more salient because the full team consists of sixteen students: fifteen Germans and one Belgian. Not a single Dutch person. This odd composition hardly comes as a surprise to the economists: after all, the Germans get higher grades than the Dutch. And those who achieve the highest grades in the first year, are automatically invited to take part. Initially, there are 24 candidates, of whom sixteen are left in the end.
What makes a team good? “It is essential that there is room in the team for peace and conflict,” Pankert emphasises. “You need consensus about the direction in which you want to look for a solution, and debate about which issues are most convincing.”
Pommerenke regards the PBL system as the strength of the Maastricht team. “We solve practical problems all the time.”
Tuesday, 13:15hrs. Sablotny, dressed in a black women’s suit with a bright red scarf, paces from left to right in the corridor. She frequently glances at the sheet of paper in her hand, after which she addresses her imaginary audience under her breath. Tension is mounting. In one of the adjoining rooms (under the cafeteria), the UM students will soon start their first presentation. This morning, they spent three hours analysing a case, putting together a presentation and learning the text off by heart.
In the meantime, marketing lecturer Rudolf Baethge, who coaches the Maastricht team together with Van Diepen, explains the essence of a case competition. He should know, because the UM students have already won two competitions this season, one in Bangkok and one in Copenhagen. And as they say in the world of football: a winning coach is always right!
The most important thing, says Baethge, who was born and raised in Peru, is being sensitive to other cultures. “No matter what country you are in, you are always assessed by local judges (members of the jury, ed.). So it is important that you adapt. In Thailand, they appreciate it if you greet them in Thai and show respect for their cultural tradition. In Los Angeles, you can be a lot more self-assured, but never arrogant. Don’t act like a Messiah saying how things are. Depending on the location, we put an appropriate team of students together. We are playing a home game this time, so I advised the students to be themselves. Of course this is not easy.”
The presentation that is to start in a few seconds, is important, the coach reckons. It is one of the two dress rehearsals for Friday. The moment has arrived. In the amphitheatric hall, there are four jury members, the coaches, the host and the batch of students who will take over the baton next year.
Sablotny is first to go and does so in fluent English, as if she has been dealing with this case for years. This is about an American fast-food chain that wants to conquer the Chinese market. A few minutes later, after a number of slides, she hands over to Chorzelski, and so on. The men – all dressed smartly in suits – also make a professional impression and never get tangled up in their texts. Questions from the jury, consisting of SBE staff and alumni, are answered without a shadow of a doubt. Then it is “Time’s Up,” followed by applause.
In the corridor, Chorzelski says that he is satisfied. “Yeah!” Sablotny says that she is only used to 24-hour cases. This one was: “Incredibly short.”
Ten minutes later, the judges give their verdict. Maastricht did an excellent job, but Copenhagen's analysis of the problem and presentation were better. One day later, during the second small case, SBE takes revenge and beats not only Copenhagen but also the stand-in teams from Singapore and from Milan.
Friday, 12:00hrs. On the sun-drenched roof terrace of Hotel L'Empereur, Baethge lights a cigarette. He compares his team to a Formula 1 racing car that gets better the more it drives. Even though Cullmann lost her voice during a day out in Brussels yesterday! She is taking medication.
This morning at 9:40hrs. the students received the 24-hour case in a sealed envelope and withdrew to their hotel rooms. “They have now finished reading, I imagine, and will be discussing their strategy. The most important thing is that they take a few hours sleep. Preferably an odd number of hours, so either three or five. This is not scientifically proven, but an odd number of hours sleep is better for the brain. The one thing they should not do is to sleep through.”
What does the coach do during those 24 hours? “Pray.” Baethge lights another cigarette.
He has put all his faith in these four students, he says. Not only are they keen and clever, but also reliable. For example, students should not start a romance, to name just one thing. “A lot happens during these competitions, which could be classified under the heading ‘cross-gender international relationships’. Even marriages have resulted from them. Anyway, the golden rule is: What happens in the competition, stays in the competition.”
On Saturday morning 9:40hrs., after three hours of sleep, the students hand in their analysis to the hotel staff. At 11:20hrs., they present their case to the jury. In their group, the Dutch team competes with Milan and Singapore (not the stand-in team but the Nanyang Business School). There are a total of three groups; the three group winners go into the final, which takes place in the afternoon.
The case concerns the chain of Starbucks coffee shops: How can this company successfully put itself on the map again? Expectations from the home front are high and the thing that everyone fears, happens: Maastricht drops out. Singapore is group winner and goes to the final. The Maastricht students are disillusioned. They still stand completely behind their analysis, but the jury felt that certain points were too conservative. “The judges were of the opinion that our analysis showed too little vision,” says Elias Pankert, “but I do not agree with that. The most visionary strategy is not necessarily the best.”
The finals are now in full swing. In the large lecture hall at the Faculty of Economics Singapore, Bangkok and the so-called International Team are fighting for victory. The fact that the latter team reached the finals, surprised many. They are - to put it bluntly - a ‘motley crew’ of two Australians and two Belgians, who got together and joined forces on the spot and who therefore had no previous training together. Their achievement is therefore all the more impressive.
But the winner is: Bangkok!
Given the circumstances, the organisation looks back on a successful competition, says Julienne Erckens. “Behind the scenes, things could sometimes have been more effective, but the participants did not notice any of that. Everyone had a great time.” Coach Baethge makes a final compliment to the guests: “It felt rewarding to welcome so many dedicated and professional students here.”