Kellogg World Alumni Magazine, Winter 2004Kellogg School of Management
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Leap before you look

Experiential learning gives students jump on jobs

By Ed Finkel

This spring, Kellogg School student Adam Kaufman ’05 and four classmates flew to New York to suggest how BMW of Manhattan executives should price the firm’s used cars. The group met in a conference room, where the students explained their methodology and bottom-line results.

Kaufman remembers feeling a little nervous, but says the butterflies proved manageable because he and his classmates had worked for BMW all quarter. “We had gotten to know the client well. It wasn’t like we were talking to people we had never met before,” he says, adding that the presentation was interactive and that the executives asked a lot of questions.

“This Q&A encouraged us [to believe] that what we were working on would be used going forward,” says Kaufman.

For their LEAP project, Charles Naaman, Meranee Phing, Adam Kaufman and Rachel Lester, all '05, worked with BMW of Manhattan to improve the firm's inventory tools. Not pictured: Michelle Tom '05, also part of the team.

Kellogg students have many opportunities to participate in consulting projects for companies large and small as part of their coursework. Perhaps the most intensive and diversified of these comes via the Learning Through Experience and Action Program (LEAP), a one-credit course offered each spring that typically enrolls some 75 students, and through which Kaufman and his classmates ended up working for BMW.

The 10-year-old program, created by Professor Bala V. Balachandran, serves as a “capstone” course for mostly first-year students who have conducted projects related to their academic focus, but who want broader experience, says Fran Langewisch, assistant dean and director of student life, who administers the program.

“All kinds of functionally oriented courses exist at Kellogg,” says Balachandran. “To complement this curriculum, we thought we should have a course that is interdisciplinary and provides the opportunity to look at a problem from a high-level perspective.” With LEAP, Balachandran says students and faculty devise an interdisciplinary project that can be implemented, increasing the value and impact of the research for the partnering firm.

The program, dubbed “McKinsey 101” by Forbes magazine, recruits businesses from students’ input, through alumni contacts and from the ranks of those who have previously taken part, Langewisch says.

The students work in groups of three to five, meaning that more than a dozen companies per quarter participate.

The class differs from most in that the consulting project almost literally is the class. Students hear several guest lectures on topics associated with project management, resulting in an academically rigorous experience, yet much of the time is devoted to intensive consulting with faculty guidance, Balachandran says.

The class culminates in a final presentation to the companies; four presentations are chosen to be judged for a cash prize. The three final winners typically receive $1,500, $1,250 and $1,000, respectively.

But students gain a more valuable takeaway than money, and the companies, which pay the school a nominal fee, benefit too. “The students get the benefit of practical experience in a not-for-profit or small business,” Balachandran says. “The majority of big, multinational companies can afford consulting firms. But what about a mom-and-pop company, or a nonprofit organization? There is a tremendous synergy.”

Langewisch notes that corporations such as Home Depot, Motorola and 7-Eleven have participated, although they’re not the norm.

Vosges Chocolates LEAP  
Sweet deal: James Lange '01, Julie Lang, Steven Altschul '01, Rob Grossi '01, Katrina Markoff and Jonathan Gonsky '01 pose in the original Vosges Chocolates store in Chicago's Bucktown in 2000. Lang and Markoff are the firm's co-founders, for which the Kellogg students worked during their LEAP course.  

Students who sign up for the class typically are generalists or those who wish to gain consulting experience or explore a particular industry, she says. “We have a few people who have even parlayed their LEAP experience into an internship or a full-time job, though we certainly don’t guarantee this outcome,” she says.

For Dana Hagendorf ’01, who did not participate in LEAP as a student but who has since played an active role in the program as director of marketing and communications at BMW of Manhattan, the course provided an opportunity to give back to Kellogg and involve students in a real-world project.

At the same time, the subsidiary of BMW of North America, which is one of three corporate-owned dealerships, has benefited greatly from the students’ work. In 2002, students researched how to market the MiniCooper car in New York. The following year, they determined how best to market the dealership’s motorcycle stock.

Last spring, Kaufman, Michelle Tom, Rachel Lester, Charles Naaman and Meranee Phingbodhipakkiya (all ’05) created a tool to help determine which leased cars would be most profitable for the dealership’s pre-owned department to buy back.

To do this, they put together a regression model based on two years of sales data that accounted for 50 variables, ranging from interior and exterior color, to engine sizes, to option packages, says Kaufman, who worked for Ford Motor Corp. last summer. He believes his work for BMW will help his auto industry career.

“BMW has a lot of sales expertise in terms of what cars would be valuable to sell, and they wanted some way to quantify that,” says Kaufman. “Our work allowed them to verify their team’s gut feeling while helping junior sales staff determine what cars to bring onto their lots. The project was interesting to us because it was quantitative. We saw a definite value to what we were doing, and the work got both our team and the client really fired up.”

“The biggest thing our project focused on was inventory. It helped BMW determine the best product mix for them to keep in stock,” says Tom, who worked for Deloitte Consulting for half a decade before enrolling in the Kellogg School. The LEAP experience gave her a “new look” at consulting, something she appreciated.

“Having been with the same company for five years, you learn to work one way and stick with that way,” she says. “The LEAP project opened my eyes to the different steps that people take. It solidified for me the fact that I could consult across different industries.”

Hagendorf says BMW of Manhattan in September implemented the quantitative tool, which will be one of several methods of evaluation the dealership uses in determining its pre-owned mix. “This student research supports real projects,” she says. “They created a formalized decision process, and we use the tool they built.”

Katrina Markoff voices similar sentiments. Markoff is the owner of Chicago-based confectioner Vosges Chocolates, which had one neighborhood store and an online presence before LEAP students undertook a project for the firm in 2000. Now the company has a store on Michigan Ave. and four other locations. Its products are also sold in upscale retailers such as Nordstrom’s.

“It was great,” Markoff says of LEAP. “We opened our store downtown in large part because of the insights derived through the students’ consulting.”

Students who worked on that project focused on building a growth strategy for the company by performing an online customer survey and various financial analyses, says Steven Altschul, who worked on the project along with Robert Grossi, James Lange and Jonathan Gonsky (all ’01).

“We tried to take some of their assumptions and either prove or disprove them with fact-based information,” says Altschul, now director of business development and strategic planning with small software and telecommunications firm Magenta-netLogic. “It was a great way to work with a growing company and with the founders and owners to help them solve some of their business problems,” he says. “The exposure with Vosges was the first time I had worked with such a small company and seen the professional satisfaction this can bring.”

Grossi, now a consultant with Toronto-based Boston Consulting Group, says the LEAP project was his first experience in consulting, an arena he already had set his sights on. “It captured the minds and hearts of the team,” he says. “We knew that everything we were doing would have a real impact on the business. We took it very seriously.”

The project also captured the students’ palettes.

“They gave us free samples all the time,” Grossi says with a laugh.

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University