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Giant panda Er Shun, one of the two visiting Canada’s zoos from China. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Giant panda Er Shun, one of the two visiting Canada’s zoos from China. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

BUSINESS EDUCATION

Negotiation: What an Argos linebacker learned from pandas at b-school Add to ...

Two and a half months after Jason Pottinger won his second Grey Cup, the Argonauts linebacker found himself in another contest – fighting for pandas in a York University classroom.

The stakes were a little different than on the gridiron: The Toronto CFL player was assuming the role of a Chinese zoologist this past February in a mock negotiation to bring pandas to the Toronto and Calgary zoos. If this situation sounds familiar, it’s because it’s already unfolded in real life: the role-play is based on the real, decades-long negotiations that unfolded to bring two giant pandas to Canadian soil.

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Stephen Weiss, an associate professor at York’s Schulich School of Business, carefully constructed the role-play for his international business negotiations course with full access to the documents and major players behind the panda loan. As the Toronto Zoo prepares to open its new giant panda exhibit to the public for the first time this Saturday, May 18, Prof. Weiss has been honing the case study to teach MBA students how to deal with the incredibly complex nature of international negotiations.

“It gave us a great perspective on just how much goes into a negotiation,” said Mr. Pottinger, whose goal was to ensure the pandas’ well-being and that any profits from the transaction help fund panda conservation initiatives. “You think it would be so simple: Okay, it’s a couple of pandas going to a zoo in Canada. ... But it opened our eyes to the intricacies of a political negotiation.”

Negotiation skills apply to all areas of business. The MBA-level class helps students become more confident with the process, giving them skills they can use both at the bargaining table and throughout their career.

By working through this particular case, Prof. Weiss says, students learn just how many layers international negotiations can take.

“It’s such a tough position for a zoo to be in,” he says. “There are a limited number of pandas and there’s only one place in the world to get them. ... What do you do when you, as a negotiator, are negotiating against someone who seems to have all the cards?

“This is a classic – one of the toughest challenges that a negotiator can have.”

Prof. Weiss has been teaching negotiations for nearly 30 years. Before he got wrapped up in Er Shun and Da Mao’s journey to Canada, he was tackling another panda problem: the long negotiations to bring a pair of the bears to the San Diego Zoo in California in the 1980s and ’90s, which is the focal point of a teaching case that just recently was distributed by Harvard Law School.

When the Toronto and Calgary zoos’ panda negotiations came into the spotlight in 2010, Prof. Weiss saw the opportunity for an empirical case study and a role-playing exercise that his Toronto students could get excited about.

With the help of a former student, he was able to connect with Joe Torzsok, chair of the Toronto Zoo’s board. Through Mr. Torzsok, Prof. Weiss gained access to all the major players in the negotiations to get a pair of pandas into Canada, including federal officials, city officials and park staff – and the complete archives of their correspondence to get pandas into the Toronto and Calgary Zoos. (They will each host the pandas for five years; a third host, Granby Zoo in Quebec, backed out of hosting the pandas over concerns about the rising Chinese yuan.)

Much of the negotiating was done by e-mail and letter, allowing Prof. Weiss to reconstruct a classroom simulation that takes into account all the facets of negotiating for pandas, including cost – the standard is $1-million a pair, per year – as well as political implications, legal constraints, and conservation issues. Each student represents a power player, including Chinese NGO representatives and the three original Canadian zoos that sought the pandas – who also have the task of finding an agreement that works for all three.

Over two hours, students establish a framework for the negotiation, then work out the details and draft specific language to agree upon.

Ayesha Haider, one of Prof. Weiss’s students, says the case helped her better appreciate everything that can be at stake in such a negotiation. “It’s about so much more than pandas,” she says. “It’s about trade relationships and past history. For me, incorporating all these other intricacies into this issue, which eventually boils down to the pandas, was a very unique experience.”

The mock negotiation has piqued the interest of other schools, including Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and Fordham University in New York City.

“Students like the cases because they refer to ‘real world’ negotiations – and because they are real eye-openers when it comes to the relationship between business and government,” says Sharon Livesey, an associate professor at Fordham who has used Prof. Weiss’s role-plays. And having access to the real-life correspondence behind the negotiations, she says, helps students understand their complexity better than just role-playing in class.

After several years studying for an MBA full- and part-time, Mr. Pottinger expects to graduate next spring. The Toronto Argonaut says the negotiating skills he’s learned could help him down the road if he’s ever elected as a player representative and faces collective bargaining negotiations.

Mr. Pottinger hopes to pursue a career in international business when he retires from football. The linebacker has already been taking Mandarin-language lessons for four years; pandas, then, have proven to be complementary learning material for an eventual second career working with China. “That,” he says, “would be a perfect world for me.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this online story said the cost of renting pandas was $1-million per bear, not pair.

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