The Agony & The Ecstasy Of Case Competitions

The University of Florida’s Heavener Case Team wins the 2017 Champions Trophy International Case Competition in Auckland, New Zealand

Kristin Fanto and her teammates arrived at the John Molson Undergraduate Case Competition in Montreal this past February with a burning desire to walk away with the top prize. It was Fanto’s fifth and last time competing as an undergraduate in an international undergraduate case competition as a student at the University of Florida, and she had yet to win first place. Her three other teammates were equally determined, she said,

“It was all I could dream of for months,” said Fanto, who just graduated from the University of Florida’s Heavener School of Business with a major in economics. “We were ready and willing to give every ounce of effort we had in us to winning the competition and, kind of jokingly, said that we weren’t returning to America unless we won first.”

Winning the competition, in which the teams are asked to come up with solutions to real-world business problems presented by companies in a condensed time frame, was no easy task. Fanto and her team, along with the 24 other teams from 12 countries around the world, were presented with several three-hour business cases, along with one grueling 24-hour case.

‘IMAGINE RECEIVING A PACKET AND THREE HOURS LATER DOING A POWERPOINT’

“Just imagine receiving a packet, and three hours later, without any Internet access, presenting a completed PowerPoint to a panel of judges, including executives from that company, with solutions to any and all proposed questions they may have asked,” Fanto said. “Then you wake up the next day and the next day and have to do it all over again.”

It’s a task that would cower most undergraduate business students, but months of preparation with her coaches doing practice cases at the University of Florida’s helped Fanto’s team stay clear-eyed during the competition and not let their nerves get the best of them. In the end, they managed to walk away with the first place prize at the competition, coming up with solutions to complex problems posed by such companies as Ardene, Mwana Villages and Buffalo Office Supplies.

“It was the most exhausting week of my life, but so unbelievably worth it,” Fanto said.

A TEST OF INTELLECTUAL ACUMEN, ANALYTICAL SKILLS & GRACE UNDER PRESSURE

The John Molson Undergraduate Case Competition is one of about a dozen or so of the most elite undergraduate case competitions in the world, drawing some of the world’s best and brightest business students to test their intellectual acumen, analytical skills and grace under pressure on an international stage in front of business executives and academics. Other top case competitions include ones run by the National University of Singapore, the University of Florida and the University of Belgrade in Serbia.

The format of the case competitions can vary wildly, from three or five-hour cases to 22- or 24-hour long ones, with only some allowing students Internet access. Perhaps the world’s most prestigious undergraduate case competition is the Champions Trophy Case Competition, run by the University of Auckland in New Zealand, a strictly invitation-only competition in which organizers invite the winning teams of the 12 case competitions they have deemed to be the leading ones in the world.

The teams that have the best track records at winning the competitions are the ones with students who live and breathe case competitions year-round, coaches said. Schools typically vet potential students for case competitions through courses at their schools, where faculty teach them how to analyze business problems and approach them in the manner that a consultant would.

NUS USES ITS CASE CONSULTING CLUB TO RECRUIT STUDENTS

Other schools, like the National University of Singapore, use the school’s Case Consulting Club to recruit students interested in participating in national and international case competitions. The most promising students from the classes or clubs are then selected to be on teams for the various competitions around the world. Coaches putting a strong team together look to pair students with specific strengths in certain areas, such as strategy, PowerPoint and slides, alongside generalists who can contribute to the bigger picture.

In the last three years, case competitions at the undergraduate level have surged in popularity, said Sean Limon, a case competition coach at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business who also serves as the oral communication coordinator of the Management Communication Center. The number of case competitions between 2006 and 2012 stayed fairly stable, but in 2014 universities started adding more and more international case competitions. The University of Florida added its own case competition to the mix two years ago, the Heavener International Case Competition, he said.

“The undergraduate case competitions are far more prevalent than at the MBA level and more international,” Limon said. “MBA case competitions tend to be more domestic. At the undergraduate level, you are going head to head with some of the best business schools around the world.”