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Business Solutions Center: Problems Solved

The moment finally arrived for first-year, full-time Master of Business Administration students: their long-awaited consulting projects began during the spring semester.

“We spent the first semester brushing up on our skills in the classroom, reading textbooks, and solving problems, so this first hands-on learning opportunity is pretty exciting,” says John Carter, who is a member of the ACT project team.

“This is a chance to use our knowledge in a real-world situation,” he says. “For many of us, it’s a chance to go beyond the focus of our previous business experiences. This is the first step toward potentially shifting our career path in a new direction.”

The consulting projects are organized and coordinated by the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business’ Business Solutions Center, directed by Mark Winkler, who received his Master of Business Administration in 2001 and who worked for 20 years at Bridgestone in Muscatine, most recently as vice president of strategic planning and business development.

“Students are treated as consultants, and we expect them to handle themselves as on-the-job professionals with clients, colleagues, and supervisors,” he says. “While working on the project, they learn how real business works, participate in actual business decisions, and experience the impact of their decisions alongside the client.”

Winkler guides students throughout the 17-week projects, meeting with every project team no less than once a week.

“I push each consultant team to go above and beyond the client’s expectations,” he says, “and I encourage them to ground their work in actionable recommendations so they are providing the most value possible to their clients,” he says.

During the spring semester, there were eight projects with four to seven students assigned to each project team. Each team included students with cross-functional backgrounds in finance, marketing, technology, strategy, and innovation. The consulting projects covered a wide range of issues, from analyzing potential markets to strategy development. Clients included ACT, Allsteel, AEGON, Goodwill of the Heartland, UI Healthcare, Underwriters Labs, and Wellmark.

While many of the project specifics are kept under wraps due to nondisclosure agreements, Ken Rizer, senior vice president for operations at Goodwill of the Heartland and current EMBA student at Tippie, wants as many people to know about the Goodwill project as possible.

For 25 years, Goodwill of the Heartland ran Snackers, a restaurant in Muscatine, Iowa. But due to losing revenue, the business closed this past spring. Some of Goodwill’s clients with disabilities had worked there, and the place became known for its delicious cookies.

“They made an incredible monster cookie that everyone loved,” Rizer said. “The cookie was very popular—we were selling them in two Fareway grocery stores and Goodwill staff and others would ask how they could buy them. So we thought there might be some value in continuing to produce the cookie.”

A timely visit by Winkler to Rizer’s EMBA class set a plan in motion.

“Mark visited class to pitch the idea of what the Business Solutions Center could do for our companies by participating in a project with full-time MBA students. Before he’d even finished his pitch, I sent him an email saying ‘Goodwill is interested. We’re all in.’ ”

Second-year MBA student Luca Di Palo, project manager on the Goodwill team, says the goal for the team was to provide Goodwill with a comprehensive business plan for a profitable cookie-baking business that would enhance the Goodwill brand and is positioned for growth to eventually employ 15 Goodwill clients and generate more than $1 million in revenue annually.

The three main parts of the business plan included (1) a value stream analysis of the bakery production process and options for the facility analyzed from both operational and regulatory points of view; (2) a marketing and positioning analysis, including the potential market for the cookie, whether it should be fresh home-baked or packaged, the competitive landscape, comparable brands positioning, and a product analysis regarding taste and pricing; and (3) a three-year financial plan and investment analysis performed through a sensitivity testing.

“There have been some fairly significant changes from when we started the project,” Di Palo says, “so we’ve had to adapt as we go. But that’s been good for the team, because it’s realistic.”

Rizer agrees.

“We knew we were jumping in to a dynamic project that was evolving as we were working on it. But the team responded to the changes quickly, and learned a real lesson that business is not static,” Rizer says.

Throughout the project, Winkler meets with the clients to make sure the project is progressing well, and the teams present written status reports to the client every two weeks. Before moving on to the next phase, the team must get the client’s sign-off to ensure the project is progressing toward a successful final recommendation.

The MBA students enroll in a rigorous two-course series, in addition to their traditional business course work, where they learn various methodologies, problem-solving techniques, analytical methods, and execution models essential for administering, implementing, and delivering on the projects, Winkler says.

“The work involved is highly analytical,” Winkler says, “and students are challenged to put strategies and techniques learned in class into practice.”

Rizer is thrilled with the team’s results.

“We were very mindful of making maximum use of their time since we only have their expertise for a very short time,” he says. “We were able to pull them into our Goodwill team and put their consulting information to use very quickly.

“This is Goodwill’s first time to be involved with the center, and we couldn’t be happier with the outcome,” Rizer says. “We were able to make changes even while the project was in process. We already had a commercial-grade recipe for the cookie, but the week the first survey was done, we went into a commercial baking lab and changed the recipe, based on the feedback of the survey results,” he says. “We couldn’t have done that without this team’s help.”

Since the center’s creation five years ago, more than 250 students have completed 47 strategic consulting projects with 33 different local, regional, and global organizations.

“Nearly half of the projects have been completed with companies that have strong ties to and investments in Iowa, directly impacting local Iowa communities and the state’s economic well-being,” Winkler says.

Connect with us

To learn more about becoming a Business Solutions Center client, contact director Mark Winkler, mark-winkler@uiowa.edu, 319-384-1969; associate director Jan Fasse, jan-fasse@uiowa.edu, 319-335-3439; or visit tippie.uiowa.edu/fulltimemba/bsc.

Sampling of past projects

  • ACT — new product market opportunity analysis and high-level implementation roadmap
  • AdTrack — segment growth analysis
  • AEGON/Transamerica Capital Management — business market development analysis
  • Allsteel — product portfolio analysis and business performance improvement
  • CompleWare Corporation — software product launch
  • Don Hummer Trucking — strategic financial analysis of operations
  • EATON Corporation — profitability improvement analysis
  • Fortune Brands — provide a tool for use in forecasting new construction, renovation, and repair markets in target markets of Canada, China, and the U.S.
  • iPrism — go-to-market strategy to market their innovative technology
  • Marriott — strategic profitability improvement
  • Rockwell — strategic analysis on regulatory, technical, and economic implications for convergence of manned and unmanned slight in common airspace
  • Stihl — market analysis for lithium-ion powered products
  • UI Hospitals & Clinics — brand equity measurement and management analysis and implementation plan
  • Zurich — market opportunity assessment for a specific insurance product


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