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By Liz Warren-Pederson

Each year, Eller MBAs take on business projects for real-world clients. “These are the kinds of unstructured problems that don’t have clear-cut right or wrong answers,” explained Dan Bens, associate dean and director of the Eller MBA Program. “There is no answer book in the real world, and an important part of the MBA program is learning to make good decisions in an environment of ambiguity.”

Two spring field projects — one with economic consulting firm L.E. Peabody & Associates and one with fine artist Diana Madaras — illustrate the breadth of clients the MBAs work with, as well as how much value the MBAs can bring to bear on ambiguous business challenges.

“Even though all classes have an emphasis on applying the concepts to relevant, real-world scenarios and cases, this particular experience places you in an unpredictable, unfamiliar situation and forces you to pull all of the lessons across the subject areas together and provide an innovative solution to a client’s unique problem,” said Jennifer Wood, Eller MBA ‘12.

“The project allowed us to put what we had learned in our first year of the program to use, especially the business communications class,” said Casey Thompson, Eller MBA ‘12. “The communications class prepared us to present our recommendations clearly and concisely to the partners of L.E. Peabody.”

The team working with Diana Madaras was tasked with a two-pronged case — one part focused on customer analysis and the other on web strategy. “Diana needed more insight into her customers,” explained Shankar Ganesan, Office Depot Professor of Marketing and the team’s faculty mentor. “That became the starting portion of a project focused on a growth strategy.”

“For the customer analysis portion of the project, we conducted both qualitative analysis by interviewing existing gallery customers, as well as quantitative analysis, which involved examination of extensive data the gallery had gathered over the years,” said Wood. “For the web strategy portion of the project, we provided a comprehensive strategy based upon our customer analysis data and provided recommendations regarding customer segmentation, web metrics, social media strategy, and website design.”

The Peabody team was tasked with reviewing a complex financial model to identify opportunities to improve the calculations of the costs produced through the model. “The model had not been reviewed for over 20 years, and provided great potential for further improvement,” said Thompson.

“The case was relatively small, but it produced significant results for our client,” said Peabody vice president Daniel Fapp (Eller MBA ‘93). “The proposed adjustment could reduce our client’s transportation fees by approximately $400,000 per year over the next ten years.”

“We were excited to hear that our client was able to see real results with our work and has put our recommendations to use,” said Thompson. “It’s nice to know that our project was able to increase the accuracy of the calculations and improve the overall model. We all felt great about our recommendations, but being able to put a dollar value on it for the client made us feel like we had accomplished something special.”

Similarly, the Madaras project was well-received by the client. “I’m proud of the work my team did,” Wood said. “The product of everyone’s hard work was extraordinary, and it felt great to hear about the steps Diana has taken to implement the various measures we recommended to her in our presentation.”

The Madaras project was also special in that the artist donated work to the College in exchange for the students’ expertise. Several of her paintings now hang in McClelland Hall Room 208, the executive education center. At a special gallery opening event in September, Madaras praised the students’ work. “It feels wonderful to have been involved in that contribution to the College,” Wood said. “Most of the team was able to attend the gallery opening and it was really special to be able to share that moment with my team, Diana, and the Eller community.”

“The field project was also great preparation for our internships,” Thompson said. “It focused on working closely, resolving issues, and operating under strict deadlines. It furthered my understanding of the principles in my core finance classes and electives. Now it’s a focal point on my resume, due to its success.”

“I’m convinced the experiences I had on the field project are the reason I earned my internship, so it absolutely added value as preparation,” said Wood. “The content of the field project definitely related to my internship project and helped in that regard, but working on a team, seeking different solutions, and interacting with clients in order to manage their needs and expectations also helped tremendously throughout my summer role.”

Photo: At the Diana Madaras gallery opening at McClelland Hall (left to right): Eller College dean Len Jessup; artist Diana Madaras; Eller MBA students Victor Eggleston, Eric DeBusschere, and Jennifer Wood; and field project faculty advisor and Office Depot Professor of Marketing Shankar Ganesan.