When Hanesbrands Inc. tapped UNC Kenan-Flagler graduate student James Bryant (MBA, ‘11) and three graduate students at other universities to help them to size the men’s undergarments market in Brazil last Spring, the team didn’t have a great deal of information to work with.
“Good market share figures are hard to come by in Brazil,” says Jeff Glade, former Associate Director of Global Programs at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School who oversaw the project. Although Hanesbrands was able to obtain market data from a handful of third party companies that do such research for retailers in Brazil, the information isn’t terribly accurate since there’s a throng of black market companies in the Brazilian undergarments industry which ends up skewing the data, says Glade.
Ultimately, this meant that Bryant and the other project members would be needed to travel to Brazil and do field work in Brazilian stores, including identifying the types of men’s undergarments that were being sold, where the clothing was located in the outlets and the amount of space that was set aside for undergarments.
Bryant participated in The Global Business Project (GBP), a unique graduate-level course offered to MBAs and other graduate students at thirteen member universities. Unlike other international consulting project courses, the GBP asks students to apply both cross-cultural awareness and foreign language skills to produce strategic advice for companies that is focused, compelling, and actionable. The course offers students the opportunity to increase their global business and language competency through guided hands-on business experience in global markets, while also introducing them to the challenges of virtual teaming.
In addition to providing Bryant an opportunity to work on an international business project, the 2.5 month Hanesbrands effort also offered him exposure to working on a virtual team with fellow graduate students from Duke University, the University of Wisconsin and Purdue University.
“I had done group projects before but not virtual teams, so that was really good experience,” says Bryant.
When the project kicked off last March, Bryant and his fellow team members met with Hanesbrands officials in Washington, D.C. to flesh out the project structure, including role assignments and different approaches to sizing the Brazilian market for men’s undergarments. Each team member then handled their tasks at their respective university before gathering for a week of field work and meetings with Hanesbrands officials in Brazil in late May.
The students split into two teams with each one exploring a different hypothesis. One team was charged with compiling an accurate estimate of the market size for men’s undergarments in Brazil based on figures available for like-sized countries. The other team was to extrapolate market size based on the mass retail segment. Both teams were able to utilize macroeconomic data and third-party market research that Hanesbrands had previously gathered, says Glade, who left UNC in April 2010 to become Director of Business Transformation at Lenovo.
Efforts to determine market size and market share figures based on the mass retail segment “was what we had the most data on and felt most confident about obtaining,” says Glade. Still, Glade says that finding accurate market data was the project team’s biggest challenge. “This required more effort than in a mature market like Western Europe or the U.S. where transactional data is readily available,” says Glade.
Language was also an issue. Three of the four project team members were beginner Portuguese speakers. Meanwhile, Glade didn’t travel with them to Brazil where strong communications skills would be needed both for the meetings with Hanesbrands officials and to conduct interviews with store managers, employees and customers. Under the Global Business Project, each of the students undergoes language testing to determine their level of fluency. They each then work with a coach to improve their language skills.
Fortunately, Bryant was fairly fluent in Portuguese, so he was tapped to serve as the in-country team leader to facilitate discussions with various constituents. His language skills came in handy. Even though most of the Hanesbrands officials spoke English, “there were some key people in finance and other roles who spoke no English, so that was a key part of my role,” he says.
Bryant and his teammates had to handle other challenges as well. For instance, in addition to adapting to the business culture while in Brazil, most of the students came from different educational and functional backgrounds. As such, operations and market research was new to them, says Glade.
“I don’t have strong background in market research, so going from having very little data to work with to attempting to develop a picture of this market, that was an interesting challenge,” says Bryant.
For most if not all of the team members, the Hanesbrands project also represented the first time they each had to adhere to a hard and fast project schedule and meet pre-determined deadlines. In addition, they each had to present their respective findings during conference calls with Hanesbrands officials and other team members. “That was clearly a challenge for them,” says Glade.
But it all worked out in the end. Between the field work and the market analysis conducted by Bryant and his team members, Hanesbrands executives “seemed to think that our findings confirmed some of their previous research and that we had done accurate work,” says Bryant. Hanesbrands was able to use the information gathered by Bryant and his fellow team members to pursue opportunities in specific garment categories, says Glade.
For his part, Bryant found the field work and the project overall to be challenging and rewarding. “At times I wondered why I had signed up for this because it worked out to be the equivalent of a part-time job,” says Bryant, who says he hopes to land a position with a top tier management consulting firm upon graduation. “But the chance to go Brazil and work on an international project like this is something that you can’t pick up from classroom instruction.”