MCLA, PHS team up to sharpen students' business acumen


NORTH ADAMS — The fictitious Ann's Nursery sounds like any budding business in the Berkshires: A woman who has been developing greenhouses on a small farm wants to hone in on and grow her business selling specialty ornamental plants.

But how should she do it? Can she afford it? Is this a viable business?

Those were among the questions that approximately 50 students from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts Business Administration Department and the Pittsfield High School's Finance Academy tried to answer Tuesday during a business strategy competition.

The students were grouped into smaller think tanks, given the case study of Ann's Nursery — which included everything from the woman's business structure to financial projections and income statements — and then given a mere 40 minutes to look it over and pitch a business strategy that might best work for the proposed plant business.

"We set this up to be a fun exercise for them, where they don't have to listen to [us] lecture, where the college kids can take on a mentoring and leadership role, and it reinforces what they're learning," said Thomas Whalen, Ph.D., an assistant professor of business at MCLA.

Last year, he co-piloted the field trip and contest with PHS business teacher, Tim Kettles, director of the school's Finance Academy, with support from MCLA's associate director of admission, Joshua Mendel. Kettles said they got such good feedback on the campus tour and business contest that they decided to go at it again from the case study approach.

The participating students are in Whalen's business management and Kettles' sports marketing classes, respectively.

"I hope that by going through this, they learn how to market a business so that the business can be successful for the long term," Kettles said.

During the strategic process of the program, the small groups of combined high school and college students had to work together — despite not knowing one another, having different backgrounds and having an extreme time constraint — to come up with solutions and prepare to present them in front of their peers, teachers and a panel of judges.

Among this year's judges: MCLA alumna Katrina Cardillo, MBA, the director of communications for Hillcrest Educational Centers; Denise Johns, MBA, director of corporate training for Berkshire Community College; Walter Lother, a financial adviser for Edward Jones; and Maria LaValley, an administrative assistant for MCLA.

Cardillo, Johns and LaValley all studied business at MCLA and said case studies are a frequently used teaching tool they remember from their classes. Whalen noted that the case study approach has been used for some five decades at prestigious business schools like Harvard Business School, the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

"It's a very quick experience, but it offers the fundamental mindset of business. For example, every business has to have the knowledge of who there competition is," said Lother, noting one aspect the student groups had to consider for their presentations.

"It helps you understand the bigger picture of what you're working with in the real world," Cardillo said, "which can be applied now to any job."

To assess the business plan, students were asked to do what's known as a SWOT analysis, or looking at strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

During the 40-minute planning session, some students brought their own business experience to the table.

MCLA student Edith Sherburne, who once worked for her mother, was reminded of what it was like to work with relatives, much like in the fictional Ann's Nursery, for which Ann's husband was an employee.

She suggested to the group that working with an family member could be a potential weakness or threat to the business, since familial relationships that also involve business can lead to stress.

After presenting, Sherburne said she found the contest to be "a really interesting way to apply what I've learned in class. It's a good way to get involved and instead of pushing me away from what we were learning in class — which was where I was leaning — it drew me into it."

Kevin Rayner, a PHS senior, wasn't afraid to get up and talk in front of a group, taking the lead for his partners. He raised his hand to offer a final pitch before sitting down, and Whalen, the moderator, said, "OK, 30 seconds," much like one would hear in a real business meeting.

"It's good to look at business this way and apply what I've learned," Rayner said. "That's pretty effective, I'd say."

Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.


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