I recently had the pleasure of being a judge at the second annual FECC, the Family Enterprise Case Competition held in Burlington, Vermont, hosted by the University of Vermont’s (UVM) School of Business Administration. I was invited by Dann van der Vliet, one of the co-founders of the event, who also runs the University’s Family Business Initiative.
Case competitions have become a pretty big deal over the past decade, so it may be surprising to learn that UVM’s event is the only one on the planet to focus exclusively on Family Enterprise. When I was doing my MBA at Ivey (UWO) we did hundreds of cases, but I can’t remember any that were about family businesses.
When I got to the Burlington Hilton I could feel the nervous energy of dozens of young people, as they prepared to make their presentations to the panels of judges that afternoon. For the first case, they had had a week to prepare, so this was actually going to be the easiest one they had to crack. The rest of the competition was going to be a game of “beat the clock”, with only 3 hours of preparation time for each case.
There were multiple teams of Undergraduates from schools in the US, Canada, and Mexico, as well as entries from Chile, Malaysia, the Netherlands. The Graduate category (MBA students) added even more international flavour, with two US schools up against teams from Sweden, Colombia, and Italy. There were 19 teams in 5 divisions, with only the top teams in each division moving on to the finals after 3 days of intense pressure.
I was only judging the first day’s case presentations, the Mother Myricks’s Confectionary case, which had many of the judges wondering aloud about why it was chosen for a family business case competition, since it was a company with only the husband and wife, and no kids in the business.
The undergrad division that I was judging featured schools from Canada (2), Mexico, and the Netherlands. I can tell you that I was quite impressed by all of the students. If my kids can present like that when they get to University, I will certainly be proud.
Each team had only 30 minutes to explain their recommendations, and that included 10 minutes of Q & A at the end. They walked in and introduced themselves to the judges, we introduced ourselves to them, and off they went with their Powerpoint slides and their well-prepared pitches. They seamlessly handed things off to one another and made sure everyone got about the same amount of airtime.
The Q & A was the best part, since it gave us a chance to probe things from a different angle than the one that they had prepared. We had been asked to go easy on them the first day (something about not wanting to make anyone cry), but the last team we saw did such a great job that I could not resist asking a tough question, because it was clear that they would be getting first place on that day regardless.
During the feedback to that team, I mentioned that I felt comfortable asking them a tough question, to which the student who answered it replied “Which question was the tough one?” I was not surprised to learn that that team made it to the finals, but finished out of the medals.
The undergrad winners were from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia in Montreal, while the graduate winners were from Jonkoping University in Sweden.
I hope to be part of it again next year.