When Lord Corporation needed advice on entering a new market in China, the Cary, N.C.-based company could have paid top dollar to the Boston Consulting Group. Or McKinsey. Or any number of other strategy consulting firms eager to help big companies navigate the tricky challenges of the Chinese marketplace.
Instead, the adhesives and industrial technology company tapped the guidance of MBA students at the Kenan-Flagler School of Business, as well as four other universities. For free.
Lord’s “consultants” were all members of the Global Business Project (GBP), which brings together students from 14 different schools to work together on international consulting assignments for real corporations. Unlike other global consulting project courses, the GBP goes beyond the business problems students are tasked to solve, emphasizing cultural awareness and language skills, too.
Part of the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill’s Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER), one of the U.S. Department of Education’s 14 university-based centers set up to help the U.S. prosper in an international economy, the GBP course goes far beyond the typical case study and classroom approach to learning, forcing students to solve real-world problems. For instance, Lord, which got its start 80 years ago making industrial sealants that bond rubber and metal to make street cars more quiet, wanted to grow the market for high-end industrial adhesives in China, particularly its Maxlok product line.
The students not only did a competitive analysis of the players in that industry in China—both Chinese and multinational—but explored what distribution channels Lord should use, identified industries that could become customers and helped devise a general marketing strategy.
“It’s a night and day difference between what you get in the classroom,” says Wendell Gilland, a UNC Kenan-Flagler faculty advisor who has worked for consulting firms Monitor and CSC Index. “These teams are actually immersed in the middle of the problem that a company is facing and are working on something that doesn’t have an answer yet.”
They’re also getting a good introduction to the challenges of working on today’s global business teams. On the Lord project, for instance, UNC Kenan-Flagler student Lee Frankstone (MBA ’11) worked with students from the University of Kansas, the University of Maryland, George Washington University and Tsinghua University in Beijing. They met just once, at a kick-off weekend in Washington, D.C., before they reunited in China to complete the bulk of the project. Scheduling weekly virtual conference calls was difficult between time zones and class schedules—the group finally settled on 9 p.m. eastern, or 9 a.m. in Beijing. “That’s very much how modern business works,” says Frankstone.
Time zone issues weren’t the only dose of modern business reality the group confronted. Language, of course, also presented a challenge. Luckily, Frankstone’s group had a few Asian-Americans on it, as well as a member from Tsinghua, for whom Mandarin was a native language. As part of the GBP program, Frankstone took Mandarin classes the semester before, which taught him basic business phrases. Still, getting enough detailed preparatory research online before the two weeks the group spent in China was the most challenging aspect of the project, Frankstone says. “You had to translate the web sites to make sense of them, and gathering data remotely is difficult.”
The experience has not discouraged Frankstone from seeking a global post after he earns his MBA. In fact, he’d like to end up working for a multinational that will one day give him the chance to work and live in one of today’s emerging markets. The GBP class, Frankstone says, “will help in marketing myself as more of a global leader. It also gives great context to any project I would be on. It gives you the experience of working on tight timelines, with uncertainty, and with a global perspective.”
His biggest takeaway? The essential need for good relationships, whether they’re built in person or virtually, over the phone. “The reciprocity principles are the same in China,” he says. “You have to have the same person-to-person trust.”