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Fresh perspectives ‑ strategy course sees businesses, commerce students team up

Posted by Scott Neilson on June 27, 2018 in Students
Commerce students present their recommendations to Bryant Realty. L-R: Mike Murphy, Abby Thorson, Sam Domachevski, Andrew Sneddon, Jacob Russell

From Toronto’s Bay Street to the leisure and entertainment scene in Halifax’s downtown core, diverse businesses are working with Bachelor of Commerce fourth-year students to gain critical insights, improve strategic decision-making and optimize operations.

For Anna Hounsell, executive director and a principal at Halifax’s Bloom Wealth & Legacy Planning, working with fourth-year Bachelor of Commerce students from Dalhousie University’s Rowe School of Business provided an excellent return.

In September 2017, alumna Hounsell invited a handful of students from the program’s mandatory and final-year Strategic Management (COMM 4351) class to Bloom’s offices to see if they could “help it build some effective strategies for engaging Bloom’s next generation of clients,” she says. This included a social media strategy.

During that first fall term, the students met with Hounsell and other executives to learn all they could about Bloom, its industry and how it went to market.

In December, says Hounsell, the students presented their understanding of Bloom, along with several potential growth strategies. The students then spent the following few months researching and finalizing their recommendations, she says.   

The insights the students provided to Bloom have helped it “better engage with a younger and more social media–focused generation of consumers and business owners … people who are just starting to plan for and protect their family and business,” she says.

“The capstone students helped us spot connections and opportunities we may have otherwise missed, and showed us how to use social media to build our brand … We learned a lot from their fresh ideas and new perspectives,” says Hounsell.

Another financial services firm to work with that year’s capstone students was Algonquin Capital Corporation, an award-winning Bay Street hedge fund manager with over $300 million in assets under management. Algonquin brought in a small team of capstone students to help it identify the next-best strategic step, following the announcement of a significant market-related change by the Ontario Securities Commission, the provincial regulator.

Using the same methodology and timelines as Bloom’s students, Algonquin’s student team worked with the company’s three owners to identify four possible responses to the looming market change, then recommended one of them to Algonquin. That confirmed Algonquin’s own conclusion, says co-founder Brian D’Costa, namely, to partner with a mutual fund company via a ‘sub-advisory’ arrangement.

D’Costa, a veteran bank trader, says the students’ analysis helped them “feel confident we hadn’t missed any pieces of the puzzle.”

“Also,” says D’Costa, “you don’t get a chance to work with young people very often. You’re normally the boss, or a mentor of some kind. This time, I got to be more of a colleague.”

Back in Halifax, high-profile entertainment and leisure company Grafton Connor Group (GCG) also adopted the recommendations made by its capstone students – including closing one of its nightclubs (Taboo) and replacing it with a brand-new offering, one based on fresh (and heavily researched) concepts.

Student Sam Dundas says he and his teammates met with GCG executives every 2 to 3 weeks, and that they found it developmental to have a client rely on them for insights the executives “didn’t necessarily have,” says Dundas, who’s now running the new venue full-time.

“If you fast-forward a couple of years, we’re the people who will be working for the Big Four business advisory firms … This is the next generation of accountants, consultants and financial professionals,” he says.

Student Jacob Russell who also took the class that year, was part of a team working with Bryant Realty, an established Halifax-only independent, family, boutique realtor.

Russell says that among other strategic value adds, he and his peers helped Bryant lift the lid on current and future trends in the city’s “increasingly competitive” market. These included the factors fuelling what Russell describes as a “coming significant surge in demand for residential property” in the city.

Russell says his team also helped Bryant devise strategies for improving employee engagement among younger and newer employees.

Scott Bryant, nephew of founder Sandra Bryant, says he valued Russell’s and the other students’ opinions and insights.

“In general, the Strategic Management capstone project offers a great opportunity to have a group of smart and talented young adults evaluate your business and provide fresh insights and ideas,” says Bryant.

Diverse private-sector partners

Each year, groups from the 250 strategy course students propose a capstone project with a diverse range of businesses. Other firms from the 2017 class included innovative and high-profile start-ups SimplyCast, Spindrift Brewing and TruLeaf Sustainable Agriculture.

TruLeaf executive Jeff McKinnon says the students he worked with provided “great geographical and demographic analysis” and helped TruLeaf “understand in more detail which global markets would fit well with our product.”

Adds McKinnon, “They also quickly came up to speed on an industry that’s very young, and which consequently has very little information in the public domain.”

A long history  

The strategy capstone projects have a long history. They began in retired Professor Bob Blunden’s course in the 1990s and grew in depth and complexity. In 2013, Professors Lorn Sheehan and Sujit Sur launched a two-semester pilot version with MBA students and dubbed it the “Make A Difference (MAD)” project. Two years later it was expanded to the Commerce program. Working as a team, Professors Lorn Sheehan, Bill Foster and Ellen T. Crumley currently teach both strategy courses and manage the capstone projects along with Teaching Assistant Mallory Mills.

The method

The capstone students conduct external and internal analyses for the company using tools to fully understand their company’s industry, competitors, current and looming pressures and threat, and the bargaining power of its buyers and suppliers.

The internal analysis considers the client’s resources (e.g., technology and people); organizational capabilities; value chain; operations and administration – among other factors. The students then finish the fall semester with a financial analysis of the company (including profitability drivers); identify current strengths and weaknesses; and – perhaps most importantly – critique its current strategy including how the client creates customer value; where it’s winning and losing in the market; and the alignment between its functional, business, corporate and international strategies.

In the second semester students take an in-depth look at the organization using Galbraith’s Star Model™. They recommend internal changes their client needs to make to implement the strategy they developed in the first semester, analyzing the fit of components from the client’s culture to leadership to rewards to processes. For instance, if a company cannot provide its employees monetary rewards, students will suggest focusing on other rewards such as recognition.