Your secret weapon

Written by John Schofield

Al Finney is a nice guy. So when University of Regina graduate Pam Muckosy came looking last spring for sponsors for an export-promotion program called Junior Team Canada, the partner at Regina-based Mainstream Water Solutions Inc. chipped in $500. In return, Muckosy promised him information on what business opportunities Mainstream might have in Mexico, a market he’d considered but never investigated. Skeptical about government initiatives, he never dreamed the program — modeled on Ottawa’s Team Canada tours — would produce one red cent for the firm, which manufactures water-purification systems. So he was shocked when Muckosy found him a contact that would eventually lead to a deal with a Kansas City, Mo., meat-packing plant worth US$160,000. Mainstream also obtained a list of contacts and a treasure trove of market intelligence about the Mexican market. “It’s really interesting what this $500 fishing expedition turned into,” says Finney. “I’m just blown away.”

Fact is, students and recent grads can produce impressive results when it comes to researching export markets, typically at bargain prices. Students can offer a wealth of competitive intelligence about your export market, including cultural differences, how to market there effectively and how its distribution channels work. Moreover, student export consultants can generate valuable in-market contacts. But while students can handle all kinds of assignments for little or no money, they require time and guidance to get the job done.

Student consulting isn’t new. Undergraduate and master’s-level business students have worked for companies under mandatory internships or field projects for 20 years, and Junior Team Canada began in 1991. However, with business schools’ increasing focus on practical training, such programs are increasing in prominence. For young business minds, it’s a chance to acquire coveted, real-world experience and boost job prospects. Still, students are a resource that many Canadian companies have yet to discover.

Giving the assignment

What, specifically, should you ask a student to do? That depends on your needs and, again, the type of student. As part of the Global Leadership Program at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto, for example, students visit the foreign market and prepare a total market analysis. With Junior Team Canada, on the other hand, what you receive depends on your level of sponsorship and your specific requests.

While in Mexico, Muckosy, assisted by the Canadian Embassy, met with industry associations, private companies and Mexican officials in four cities to gather information and make contacts. Students who don’t travel to the foreign market conduct research more conventionally, using the Internet, the phone and libraries.

There isn’t much an MBA student can’t do, say business-school instructors, especially since students in large programs typically have prior business experience. Still, it’s crucial that you clearly explain to the student what you want done, or you may be disappointed. “The better defined the project,” says Leo Donlevy, a senior instructor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, “the better the result.”

What students cost

By any measure, students are a bargain. Junior Team Canada participants ask sponsors to contribute all or part of the $4,000 cost of going abroad. MBA consulting firms, which are usually made up of second-year students, typically charge about $60 an hour, compared with $300 or more for the major consulting firms. For the strategy analyses or field studies that most MBA students must complete to graduate, some schools charge nothing. In cases where research involves travel, clients may be asked simply to cover expenses.

The downside

Not every student is an exporting genius. Particularly with undergraduate students, “you sometimes get less than ideal results,” admits Donlevy. “It’s a factor of age and experience.”

For internships, companies can screen students through interviews. But if you’re getting involved in a project that’s part of a business course, then it’s the luck of the draw. Professors usually vet students’ work, but even that’s not an ironclad guarantee of quality. Donlevy’s advice? Stick with MBA students, preferably from a program that requires work experience for admission. “MBAs,” says Donlevy, “almost uniformly do a good job.”

Time can be a stumbling block for some companies. Research undertaken as part of a student’s academic program can take eight months, and may require company owners to spend 15 hours or more with the group. Student consultants offer a quicker turnaround.

While there are no guarantees, a student could be the secret weapon your firm has been waiting for. “Would we have gone down there ourselves? Yeah, eventually,” says Finney. “But this has put us years ahead.”

How to find student export help

  • Post a job notice in a business school’s career centre
  • Contact faculty at the business school near you to become part of student projects
  • Hire a student for an internship, which are mandatory for most university and college business programs
  • Hire consultants from an MBA-student consultancy
  • Contact business schools in your target country
  • Call Junior Team Canada at1-888-829-2838

© 2003 John Schofield

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