Saturday, March 10, 2012

What is a case competition?

It's the end of Quarter 3 for second-years here at Darden, and hard to believe that we only have 6 weeks left of class in our business school lives.  We are in the exam period now and I am taking a few minutes to write before heading out of Charlottesville for my last Spring Break!

I wanted to write about a case competition I was in with a group of second-years at the University of Colorado a couple weeks ago.  However, when I tell my non-business school friends that I'm in a case competition, the usual response is "Huh?" or "What is that?"  So I think I actually need to define what one is before I go on.

A case competition starts with the presentation of a business "problem", usually presented as a short story (or "case") with accompanying data and exhibits to illustrate key aspects of the situation.  Teams of students are then asked to identify how they would solve the problem and present their solution to a panel of judges, who evaluate the analysis and the effectiveness of presentation.  Basically, it's designed as a simulation of a real-world business issue that one might face as an MBA, with an overload of data, ambiguous facts, and no clear solution.  As Darden is a case-method school, we're quite familiar with this approach, but someone who has never read a business case study may find this to be a foreign concept (perhaps I should write another blog post about the case method).

Some examples of case competitions will make this a lot clearer:

1. Deloitte Case Challenge, November 2010
I entered the Deloitte competition with a group of classmates hoping to learn what this case competition experience was like.  This was a preliminary round with 20 Darden teams competing for a chance to participate in the national Deloitte case challenge finals in Miami, and a chance to snag an internship offer from Deloitte.  I wasn't looking to work at Deloitte but I wanted to build my case competition muscles.

Team "Bottleneck Elevators". Time of photo = 3:36 AM
Without a doubt, this competition was the most grueling 24-hour period I have experienced at Darden.  The format could only delight a masochist.  We kicked off at a Thursday lunch hour with the presentation of the problem: evaluate the E-reader market and decide which segment (devices, intermediaries, or content providers) would make the best investment.  In other words, would you invest to build a product competing with the Amazon Kindle (device), would you develop an online store to compete with Barnes & Noble (intermediary), or would you invest in the publishers developing the content?

Our intimidating storyboard
Overwhelmed with data and with a 20-minute presentation due the following morning, my team staked out a learning team room and got to work.  We decided to pitch an investment in content providers and raced to research this market.  The time allotted was far too short, and at midnight every team was still at Darden!  It was as close to an all-nighter as I've come at this school, by far.  At 5:30 AM, strung out on 5-Hour Energy and trail mix, my team finally wrapped up our slide deck.  We each took a two-hour nap, reawakened, put on our suits, practiced our delivery a couple times, and somehow rocked it with the judges, taking 2nd place overall.  I definitely didn't want to work for Deloitte after that, and swore I would not try another case competition again...until...

2. Michigan Renewable Energy Case Competition, January 2011
I blogged about this last winter so no need to repeat everything here. The title sponsor was Duke Energy and the problem this time was: How should the company respond to potential emissions regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which could shut down several coal power plants over the next five years?  This time we were given a week to prepare, which I discovered doesn't necessarily make things easier.

Darden gets to know UCLA Anderson and HEC Montreal
The organizers sent us a bunch of data and expected us to develop a detailed financial model of the situation.  Unfortunately our model kept crashing in Excel and we spent countless hours debugging.  Furthermore, the timing of this competition couldn't have been worse for a first-year student: right in that nexus between on-Grounds internship interviews and first-year classes.  By the time we arrived at the University of Michigan, after a week of 4-5 hours of sleep per night, we were exhausted and our presentation wasn't our best.  But it was a great learning experience, a chance to network with the folks at Duke Energy, and Ann Arbor is always a fun (albeit cold) place to visit.

3. Sustainable Venture Capital Investment Competition, March 2011
Another case competition that I have posted on already, so quick summary here.  For this, we traveled to the University of North Carolina and were placed in the shoes of a venture capitalist evaluating three potential startup investments.  We were to decide which company to invest in and draw up a "term sheet" that dictates the parameters of the investment (company valuation, how much money to place in the company, investor protections, etc.).  We also needed to evaluate the degree to which each investment provided the best bang for the buck in providing social and environmental impact.

In hindsight my team, with a total lack of VC experience and competing against teams which did, never had much of a chance at this event, but we all took away valuable lessons about the world of entrepreneurs and how they start their companies.

4. Net Impact Case Competition, February 2012
I was pretty certain that I had hung up my case competition shoes in first year.  As a second-year MBA student now on cruise control, the desire to work my butt off for a week in a case competition had waned considerably.  But with the chance to reunite with two of my three teammates from the Deloitte case challenge, I couldn't turn down the chance to compete at this year's Net Impact Case Competition.

Darden's "Team Cavalier"
This national event started in November with a two-week "virtual round".  Roughly 50 teams were competing for 20 spots in the finals at the University of Colorado.  The sponsor was Encana Oil & Gas, the second largest natural gas producer in North America, and the subject was a hot topic ‒ hydraulic fracturing for shale gas. For the virtual round, we were presented with a potential opportunity to drill for gas in the Eastern U.S. and asked to focus on Encana's role in engaging the local community.  How should Encana bridge external stakeholders' sustainability expectations with the company's future financial growth estimates?  How should Encana communicate its sustainability policy to the local community and how will we know if this communication is working?  My team whipped together a PowerPoint presentation in the week after Thanksgiving, shipped the presentation to the judges, and waited.  A couple days later we discovered we had been selected as finalists for the February main event, along with a second Darden team.

The final round case had a different focus.  How does Encana gain public acceptance of the natural gas industry?  While the company is focused on convincing the public that hydraulic fracturing is a safe process for the environment (which, for me, the scientific jury is still out), it also needs to build demand for its product ‒ natural gas prices are at historic lows currently in the U.S.  We were to be evaluated on recommendation quality, presentation delivery, and understanding of the merger between business acumen and sustainability.

You might think that as wise Second Years we might have learned our lessons from case competitions past.  But no.  We procrastinated on getting all the work done, and even with two weeks to research the natural gas industry from home we still traveled to Colorado with a presentation to build.  This wasn't going to be another all-nighter, though; the hours of travel from Charlottesville to Boulder had exhausted us.  The organizers also played a cruel trick on us by throwing in a last-minute "twist" ‒ how does the company deal with the recent spill of hydraulic fracturing fluids by a competitor?  We put together a decent presentation of recommendations for the company I thought, but in the end were not victorious.  Despite this, we had fun as a team and learned a ton about the challenges of the natural gas industry.

For me, case competitions have provided a valuable supplement to the MBA curriculum, giving me a chance to apply the lessons from Darden into real-world contexts.  The competitions have also extended my understanding of the challenges and opportunities for applying sustainable business practices in the world of business.  By breaking away from the ivory tower of the classroom, these competitions have tested my new knowledge and have prepared me to be a more complete business leader when I graduate from Darden.

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