University Case Competition: Family Business Style

Last week the place to be was Burlington, Vermont.  I happened to be right in the thick of it for the first couple of days, and my experience was nothing but positive. So what was going on there that was so special?

For the third year in a row, the University of Vermont hosted the Global Family Enterprise Case Competition (#FECC15) at the Burlington Hilton and on their beautiful campus. It is the only competiton of its kind on the planet.

When they say “global”, they are not kidding either. While about half of the teams came from North America (including 4 from Canada and 2 from Mexico) there were competitors on hand from Europe, South America, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and the UK, and I may have missed some.  Sixteen schools sent Undergraduate teams, and eight schools were represented in the Graduate league.

I have seen many business cases over the years, dozens during my undergrad and hundreds while doing my MBA, but I never read any cases like the ones used in this competition.  I was lucky enough to be a judge on the first two days, and I can say that the cases that the students had to present solutions for were like no business cases I had ever even imagined reading.

The competitors had a full seven days to prepare the first case, so they all had plenty of time to figure out what they were going to propose, how the were going to structure their presentations, and which teammates would be responsible for which sections.

The second and third cases, as well as the final on Saturday, were set up so that each team of three students would only have 4 hours from the time they received the case to the time they were required to present their viewpoints to a panel of “esteemed” judges.

But let me get back to the cases, because it can’t really be a family enterprise case competition if the cases are not situations that only a real family business would face.  I was only privy to the first two cases, but they were both fantastic examples of what successful family businesses face as they go from one generation of managers and owners to the next.

The first case was about a third-generation (G3) family who had been trying to write their family constitution for a few years already, without success, despite hiring a few consultants to help guide them. The four teams in the division that I was judging all came at their solutions in a different way.  Not only that, but each team brought up at least one issue that none of the other three had mentioned.

On day two, the teams were now faced with the time crunch of only having 4 hours to prepare, from the time they received the case until they had to begin their presentation.  But despite the fact that they had very little time, the solutions that I got to see and hear were quite remarkable.

This case involved a group of G4 siblings who were worried that their children (G5) were not showing enough interest in getting involved in the business. During the judges preparation meeting, I pointed out that the average age of the judges was likely close to the ages of the G4’s in the case, while the ages of the G5’s in the case was close to that of the competitors whose solutions we would be hearing.

It was a fantastic experience for me, as well as the judges that I worked with; I can only imagine how great the week was for those who came to compete.

The undergrad finalists included 3 Canadian schools and one from Chile, with Carleton U’s Sprott School of Business taking top spot in the final round over Dalhousie.  The winners of the Graduate section were from Jonkoping Unviversity of Sweden

I hope to take part again next year, at the 4th Annual FECC, in January, 2016.