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Small Business Consulting Class is Like the Real Thing:

From start to finish, students learn what it means to be a consultant

Making more than a half-dozen trips to Paxton, Illinois, or driving seven hours to Minnesota is all in a semester's work for students in the a small business consulting class, which is run like a consulting firm. Jeff Kurtz, the adjunct lecturer who teaches BA 345, Small Business Consulting, says he wants the experience to be as realistic as he can make it. Students compete for manager positions, for membership on specific teams, and for client assignments. Then members have to work together to give their client the best solution for the challenge it faces.

Earlier this month, six teams presented their findings to their clients, who ranged from small businesses to a municipal office to a non-profit. Their deliverables included marketing plans, a new product analysis, and a costing and estimating exercise. Students in this spring's class said they finished BA 345 with a solid understanding of what exactly it means to be a consultant.

In the Beginning

First up in the course is to have students interview to be the manager of a consulting team. Those selected then have to interview and rank their classmates to form their consulting team. Like a job interview, the students strive to make a good impression so they can be on their preferred team. And like real life, some are assigned to teams that are not their first choice.

Next comes project selection. The teams learn about the companies, city agencies, and nonprofits that would like the students to work on a specific challenge. Once a team ranks its preferences on projects, Kurtz swings into action to make the assignments.

Teams make fact-finding visits to client sites, talking with employees, reviewing the books, and checking on the flow of work. When they have a good understanding of the challenge and enough site data, they work together to conduct research, discuss the options and opportunities, and develop their final presentations and materials for their client. The team manager keeps track of expenses such as mileage and supplies and is responsible for collecting the reimbursement from the client.

Gimme Me Shelter

One team led by Alison Johnson (BA '04) with team members John Covington (MBA '05), Michael Korhorn (BA '04), Jose Lagran (an exchange student from Australia), and Corey Lynch (BA '04) worked with a small animal shelter in Minnesota that desperately needs to expand its facilities but has little infrastructure in place for a capital campaign to raise $800,000. Barely meeting its bills, the shelter employs a handful of staff and relies on a small group of volunteers to run the shelter, clean cages, and handle adoptions. Another group of volunteers works on fund-raising.

A clear-eyed assessment of the challenges of this small operation led the team to advocate that the shelter establish an organizational structure with a board of directors and several critical committees, a step that would give them credibility and clear reporting lines, especially for the recommended fund-raising committee. A marketing plan for the new facility relies heavily on a targeting mailing to regional citizens who are already making charitable contributions to animal and environmental causes. Seeking corporate donations was also suggested as was hiring a skilled grant writer to locate additional funding.

Just One Word: Plastics

Team leader Justin Bingman (MBA '04) and team members James Binney (MBA '05), Rob Malen (Econ '04), Shauna Shepston (MBA '05), and David Anderson (MS Finance '05) worked with a thermoforming and injection molding plastics firm about 30 minutes from campus. The company, capable of running around the clock, has most recently only run one shift but can gear up quickly for a second when demand is heavier. Running three shifts is easier on the equipment because it doesn't need to be warmed up and recalibrated each day and because it maximized the return on the capital investment. The company representatives sought advice on increasing demand for their products.

Among the student recommendations were for staff to better understand their labor and fixed costs, simplify the language in their bids, and standardize their bidding information. In today's wired world, the team also urged that the company's website be updated and a feature added that permits clients to ascertain the status of their jobs using a web-based request form. Listing the company on referential industry websites was another suggestion.

Making the Grade

The final presentations were polished and professional with the students demonstrating considerable poise as they made their case to the company representatives and other guests. Deliverables ranged from CDs with resources and reports to notebooks bulging with data and references. Best of all, a plan of action revealed next steps to each client.

Questions from the clients further drilled down into the information presented and demonstrated the quick-on-their feet ability of the students to assimilate their data and respond knowledgably and with confidence. The dialog revealed that the students had managed to identify, for example, key concerns of the plastics management team. Said one, "It's reassuring to know that we are heading in the right direction. [The materials assembled by the consulting team] will help us get there." The same client was impressed with the feedback it received from industry insiders.

Other clients were equally glowing in their evaluations, praising the quality of the research and methodology, written reports, and presentations. "Their recommendations were very good, better than materials we have paid for," said one client's written evaluation.

Analyzing the business challenge and crafting a solution to a client's problems was the assignment for the BA 345 student teams. But the bigger challenge was learning what it means to be a consultant to a small business. If the reactions from the clients is any gauge, the teams were successful.

--Ginny Hudak-David
May 2004