March/April 2013 Newswatch
The first family enterprise case competition drew a global student entrant pool.
Gloriann López recently helped diagnose problems facing a third-generation trucking and hauling company. While market conditions were among the reasons the firm’s profits had eroded, its main threats were internal: lack of loyalty and trust between the new leader and his two siblings, his failure to recognize his sister’s and mother’s involvement, and an absence of formal policies and procedures.
The company was not an actual family business, but a fictionalized case study. López, an MBA student, analyzed the case along with three teammates in the inaugural Family Enterprise Case Competition, which took place January 9-12 at the University of Vermont. López was part of the winning team from ESADE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. There were a total of 60 student competitors from 16 business schools in ten countries.
As winners of the competition, López, a native of Texas, along with teammates Banele Levin from Swaziland, Juan Rigol from Spain and Filippo Checcucci from Italy received the UVM Family Enterprise Cup and a $2,500 prize. Alberto Gimeno, an associate professor at ESADE who specializes in family business, coached the winning team.
Runners-up were teams from Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada), the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University (Montreal, Québec, Canada) and Jönköping International Business School (Sweden).
Since Harvard Business School began creating business case studies in 1924, business schools have used case examples to teach students how companies manage internal and external challenges. While case study competitions have been around for a couple of decades, the four-day competition held in Vermont was the first to focus exclusively on family businesses.
The event was the brainchild of Pramodita Sharma, who edits the academic journal Family Business Review, co-founded the Family Enterprise Research Conference and is global director of the STEP (Successful Transgenerational Entrepreneurship Practices) Research Project at Babson College.
Sharma, now a professor in the School of Business Administration at the University of Vermont, previously had been a professor of family business at Concordia’s John Molson School, which has hosted an undergraduate and graduate case competition for several years.
At Concordia, “We experienced firsthand what a great learning experience [a case competition] was for students, and how effective it was to engage the community as well,” Sharma says. “As my research area is family business, I started to feel the need for such a competition in our field.”
Nearly 200 people attended the competition as competitors, coaches, judges, sponsors, organizers, student ambassadors and coordinators, according to the university. Attendees included Tom Sullivan, president of the University of Vermont, and Miro Weinberger, the mayor of Burlington, Vt. John Ward, co-founder of the Family Business Consulting Group and a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School, served as a judge in the final round and delivered the closing keynote address, in which he discussed the history of family business education.
Among the competitors were 40 undergraduates and 20 graduate students. Forty of the students had some experience working in family businesses.
The four-member teams received the first case a week before the competition and were given three hours of prep time for each of remaining three cases. Teams had 20 minutes to present their conclusions and solutions to a panel of judges. They then fielded questions from the judges, who included family business owners and managers, family business advisers and service providers, and educators. The 16 teams were grouped into four divisions; each team presented one case per day for the first three days of the competition. Teams received scores of 1 through 4 for their case presentations. Four division winners advanced to the final round; division winners received $1,000 prizes. In the event of a tie for the division-leading team, the teams’ score on the first case—the most complex of the four cases—was the tiebreaker.
Thirty private sponsors, including ten Vermont businesses and the Business Families Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Canada, contributed a total of $75,000 to cover expenses for the event.
A competitive field
In naming the ESADE team as the winner, judges said they had the deepest understanding of the final case and presented the best solutions.
“We felt the need to quantify as much as possible the complexity and the risk the business was facing,” says López, 28. “But our recommendations were often based on not only our MBA studies, but on our own past experiences in family business, which each one of us had to some extent.”
López helped her father, Alfonso E. López, launch Sentech Architectural Systems LLC, a specialty structural glass firm based in Austin, Texas, in 2006. Straight out of college at the time, she assumed responsibility for business development, marketing, finance and human resources. She says Sentech experienced many of the growing pains she found in the family business case studies.
“Some similar challenges I saw were how to continue growing while maintaining our family’s culture and values, and moving from a family business to a more professionally managed company,” says López. She is still weighing whether to return to her family’s business, which now employs 50 people. López is a co-owner of the family business.
Ira Bryck, director of the University of Massachusetts Family Business Center, was a judge during the first day of the competition, when teams analyzed a case involving a Muslim Pakistani business family. The family in the case followed Sharia law, which restricts women’s ability to inherit property and forbids financing that involves interest.
Bryck praises the performance of the second-place team, from Wilfrid Laurier University. During their presentation, Bryck recalls, they acted as if the judges were the family. “They were talking about ‘our’ resistance to taking out a bank loan because of ‘our’ culture and religion,” he says.
Laurier team member Daniel Figueroa, 21, says his team researched Muslim law and found a partnership structure called musharaka, which would enable the family to obtain religiously permissible financing.
Figueroa, who received an award for best individual presenter, says he learned that “good recommendations must address family issues first, business issues second. It doesn’t matter how a good solution you provide the business. If the family is not cohesive, whatever solution [is proposed] will not work.” His father, Juan, owns Quattro Inc., a data management software consulting practice based in Toronto, and his uncle inherited a metallization factory in Peru from Figueroa’s grandfather.
If he decided to work in either company, Figueroa says, “I’d go in understanding the pitfalls. As business students we tend to think it’s an easy transition for the next CEO in line. It was amazing how many of cases we practiced and saw in the competition revolved around miscommunication when it came to passing [the business] down.”
Dann Van Der Vliet, director of the Family Business Initiative at the University of Vermont, says he was surprised that none of the five U.S. schools in the competition (Kennesaw State University, Grand Valley State University, Syracuse University, Stetson University and the University of Vermont) reached the finals. “Stetson was darned close, but lost the tiebreaker,” Van Der Vliet says. Grand Valley came within a point of making the finals.
Commenting on the predominance of teams from outside the U.S., Sharma says, “It goes to show that leading-edge family business education is no longer the singular domain of U.S. schools, but a global phenomenon.”
Registration for the University of Vermont’s next Family Enterprise Case Competition is already open. The second competition will be held Jan. 8-11, 2014.
Jayne A. Pearl is a freelance writer, editor and speaker. She is co-author, with Richard A. Morris, of Kids, Wealth, and Consequences (Bloomberg, a Wiley imprint, 2010; www.kwandc.com), and a new series of guide books, including Kids and Money Guide to Learning Capital (ALLL Right Books, 2012; www.kidsandmoney.com).
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