Saturday, May 16, 2009

Case Competition Lessons

UHV finally released their winners of the Case Competition last night, and my team failed to place. Bit disappointing, that. That led me to some thought and analysis of our performance, and today’s post examines what I considered.

First off, congratulations to the winners. While Dr. Salazar told me that he thought our team had a “very good chance of winning”, that does not mean that we were the only team that worked hard and produced a strong result. Since the case competition counts as the final exam in the capstone course of the Strategic MBA program, it should be obvious that all of the competing teams will do their very best to produce a quality presentation. Those teams which won did do through a lot of work and some solid execution, which is the essence of the course.

Second, I admit to some doubts when I found out my team did not win. Did we make some major blunder that we never caught? Were we blind to some critical flaw? The answer to that comes not only from Dr. Salazar’s pre-conference praise that we were in a good position to win, but also from the 99% grade we received for the project. 99 percent is nearly perfect, and an A in the course (which I received and assumed everyone in my team received) is not handed out to someone who makes big mistakes. We simply were beaten out by better performance, but our own work was very good. I use that phrase, because several of the judges said that, precisely, after we finished our presentation last Saturday. I have to believe the judges meant what they said, so while we did not win I also believe we did well.

So how did we not win? At this point I have to admit I am competitive, and I wanted to believe we would win, as my team needed that confidence in itself. Looking back, that was probably our biggest problem area. We started as a four person team and added a fifth member whose own team fell apart close to the end of the semester. This meant coordinating five people to give the presentation, and trying to get everyone comfortable with speaking before the judges, which was a big issue. Three members of our team were not at all comfortable in public speaking, and that hurt us two ways. The rubric used for grading the presentation had six areas, for which teams could be issued a grade of 1 through 4 from the judges, for a range of 6 to 24 total, and with six panelists that meant a total score ranging from 36 to 144. I hope we will get back the detailed notes from the judges, so I can confirm what I am guessing now, but one of those six sections addressed the comfort level of the presenters, and looking back we certainly lost points there. Another section of the grading addressed the way questions from the judges were answered, and the way that three of our members hung back also had to have cost us.

I also think the room assignment hurt us. Four rooms were used for the competition, with different judges in each room. Two of the three winning teams presented in the same room, and our room produced none of the winning teams. This is important because two of the judges appeared to be far more critical of us than the others were. I could not sit in the room while other teams gave their presentation, but I could look in from the back window and those judges remained stern and hard-nosed for those other groups. At the time I believed this would not hurt us, since the judges were showing the same attitude towards each team, but I did not consider that judges in other rooms might have a different overall tone, and I suspect that was part of the situation. The life lesson there is that you do not always get a level playing field.

Beyond that, I’d have to see the judges’ notes to know what they might have thought beyond their comments, which were positive and complimentary. While the Q&A lasted the full 25 minutes, judges were generally pleased with our responses, nodding their heads and in most cases smiling when we provided answers. We had no ‘deer in the headlights’ moments where we could not answer a question, and I believe we defended our recommendations well. The only certain problem area was that almost all the talking in the Q&A was done by two members from our team, and that surely cost us.

On the whole, the competition was fun and a great experience, although UHV still has a lot of work to do to get it where it needs to be. We were originally told that the results would be announced Wednesday, then Friday, then I only found out through doing an Internet search on the key words; the school gave the winners less press than they did to the Swine Flu update, and that’s wrong. Also, it remains to be seen how the teams will receive feedback; since the course comes right before the graduation of many students, I suspect that many will never read the judges’ notes, and that is a failure of the school in my opinion – this is a tremendous opportunity missed. Also, the school is still a bit disorganized in the competition format. If asked, I could make a number of suggestions on how they could make this a much more successful enterprise, though I would surely have more clout if my team had won the thing.

Oh well.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Post-Conference Thoughts

It’s been six days since the UHV Spring 2009 MBA Conference in Cinco Ranch, and we still are waiting for the winner announcements. I have been promised we will know today. The delay comes from the fact that grades have to be released prior to the announcement of winners, which makes sense on one level but is nonetheless a bit disappointing on another level. The case competition counts as the final exam for the capstone course, so it makes sense that the grade matters. On the other hand, the competition is separate from the course itself (per the Dean of the Business School), and the effect of the competition is a bit diluted to delay the results, especially since in past years the winners were announced the same day as the competition. I’m afraid that the delay will encourage participants to leave once they have given their presentation, rather than meet with other teams at the event and experience the competition for all its potential. We were given feedback forms the day of the competition, but I think it would be smart for the university to follow-up about two weeks following the case competition for the perspective from that distance.

My team got 99% for its project grade, which means we missed a perfect job but so far we have not seen the detailed feedback from the panel judges, nor in fact do I know for sure where we lost our point (though I have a guess or two). Hard to say if that point cost us the win.

The format for the competition itself was interesting. Over the course of the semester, we each produced three individual versions of a paper analyzing the pet supply and services industry and a company analysis of PetSmart, Inc. (the focus company assigned for the project). We then put our individual reports together to create a team report, which was eventually refined into the final report for the project. Our paper was 122 pages of text and charts, with another 9 pages of sources listed.

This paper was then distilled into a PowerPoint presentation, which in our case took 39 slides, and this in turn caused a problem for us. The heart of the presentation was the team’s set of recommendations, which is usually two or three but in our case four strategic actions. The reason the length was a problem, was because we would have 25 minutes to present our case, giving us less than 39 seconds per slide to make our case, and some of those slides would require a bit of talk to make them clear. So we faced the problem of speaking clearly and in detail, covering more than one slide a minute but without rushing. So we spent some time rehearsing and working out the tricky timing.

The other half of the presentation was the question and answer session. At the start of the semester, we expected to present our case to a panel of three judges. At the end of the semester, we saw that panel count climb to four. Accordingly, we printed and bound four copies of our presentation for the judges. When we walked into the room for the presentation, however, we found six judges waiting for us. Fortunately, they were willing to share with each other. The other big thing about having six judges, was that the question-and-answer session following our presentation was detailed and deep. We spent the full twenty-five minutes allotted for that session answering questions from the judges, everything from our reasoning behind our recommendations, to their cost, scope, payback, and so on.

It’s a little difficult to explain how hard the question-and-answer session is. On the one hand, a team should be able to anticipate most of the questions by examining their case critically, with team members role-playing skeptical judges to find places where questions would rise, but on the other almost half an hour or straight verbal questions from six different people, and meant to be answered by different team members, creates a bit of uncertainty on its own. Add to that the fact that no team can really practice for the spontaneity of panel questioning, and you have a situation that can be tense and throw you off your rhythm. Of course, it makes you feel better to consider that every team faces the same obstacles.

More to come.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Nobody likes credit card companies. Never mind that they make our lives easier, by making our budgets more flexible and opening opportunities for financial control that our parents never dreamed of having, it’s the politically correct thing to trash them. Even the executives of those companies have been acting like they were lower on the moral value meter than companies selling liquor, tobacco, porn, or political advertising. This is not to say that credit card companies and the banks behind them have all been saints and model citizens, but throwing all the blame on them is not merely unreasonable, but a poor plan for improving the future of credit.

Credit is all about risk. Let’s say you have a buddy who wants you to loan him $50 until the next paycheck. If you do, you’re granting him credit. It’s not hard to understand that you will have different levels in mind. You might not mind giving money to your spouse and kids, you might agree to loan a buddy some money interest-free for a week or two, but outside that circle, you’d probably want something for your trouble, especially since the further away from center you get, the less you can trust that the borrower will pay you back quickly or in full … and in some cases, at all.

That’s why credit cards exist. You have the choice of carrying around a lot of cash, giving someone access to your bank account with a debit card or checking account, doing without because you don’t have the money for what you want (and sometimes need), or you carry a card that will bill you later for your purchases. What’s really sweet about credit cards is not only that you can buy all sorts of things with them, but that a credit card builds a history you can use to buy important things like a car or a house, and if you pay the balance in full each month it costs you only the annual fee to use the card. Credit cards build a reputation of financial responsibility, and they offer convenience and security that cash-alone cannot offer.

So why the hostility? Basically, human habits. We live in a society that often punishes success and forgives failures, and in some cases even protects failure by punishing those who would hold individuals to their commitments and the consequences of their decisions. A lot of people carry balances on their credit cards each month, and they resent having to pay the finance charges those cards require, even though in almost every case the individual was presented with the terms clearly and directly before they started using the card. Some folks pay their cards late, and resent the late fee they earn. The Obama Administration is playing on those immature attitudes, demanding the credit card companies be punished because people cannot manage to pay their bills in full or on time.

The problem for the credit card companies, is that the business model cuts both ways here. These companies chose to sign up people who in some cases were bad credit risks – I mean really, there are credit card companies which sign up people several times for the same card, without once collating the information to track the rising debt levels and default risk. Just stupid, and even more so to imagine that such people can be led to start practicing sound financial behavior just because they get into trouble with their cards. The profit model of credit card companies, after all, depends on people carrying a balance and paying finance charges. If everyone started paying all their bills on time and buying only what they could afford, the credit cards would not be able to operate as a going business. It’s the same reason that the government doesn’t really want people to stop smoking; it’s bad for their bank accounts.

The Obama Administration does not really want to go too far the other way, though. If credit cards were punished for their usurious tactics to the degree that the President’s rhetoric implies, many of the banks behind those cards would abandon the business altogether, as it would become a poor risk for their capital. Discretionary spending would plummet even more, as consumers’ desire to save would be accompanied by a dearth of credit providers for those still eager to splurge. Finding a steady and significant source for consumer credit would become more difficult than getting Obama to say ‘Bush was right’. It just would not happen.

So, enjoy the show but don’t expect much to change. Because when it’s all said and done, only you really care about your own financial health, so you’d better not trust it to a politician or a corporation.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Politics of Debt

Fear is the strongest negative impulse. While rage may burn more fiercely, it dies quickly and is usually recognized for the irrational force it is, while fear can persist for a lifetime, invading the deepest parts of the mind and heart, taking over judgment and influencing disaster through timidity, worry, and panic. And one of the strongest factors in fear is money, especially debt. The sense of debt has destroyed careers, companies, and marriages, has broken the integrity of many men who never thought they would abandon their principles. Debt works on the spirit as a combination of stress, shame, obligation, and confinement. Just because there are no more debtors’ prisons does not mean that people in debt do not fear the loss of freedom, their home, property, lifestyle, and reputation. After all, the Mafia has made great profit from emphasizing just those conditions to prospective clients.

This brings us, indirectly, to politics. Politics is essentially the art of persuasion, to gain power and influence through the consent of the public. And politics have been around at least as long as money, and therefore debt, has existed. Politicians succeed by manipulating emotion, often playing on fear. Whether Republican or Democrat, American, European or Asian, whether first-world or third-world, consent of the governed is an undeniable need for politicians, and fear is always a prominent focus.

The rest should be obvious.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Once I had one of the best lawns in my neighborhood. Now it’s Weedapolooza. I mean, I counted six different, thriving, varieties of weed in my lawn yesterday. OK, I have been spending a lot of time at work and at school, but yikes! Only about 5% of my front lawn has genuine grass now, which means that I will be spending money and time fighting the dark side of green flora.