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What a business degree is, and what it is not Add to ...

As the Chairman of Peters & Co. Limited, an investment firm specializing in oil and gas, Michael Tims is well established in the Canadian investment banking industry. Mr. Tims earned his faculty’s gold medal at the University of Calgary in 1976 and immediately attended Harvard Business School, where he graduated two years later with his MBA. He currently serves as the vice-chair of the National Gallery of Canada and is active with a number of other not-for profit organizations. He has received several awards and honours, including an honourary LL.D. from the University of Calgary.

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Having studied at the Harvard Business School during a time when there were fewer schools offering an MBA program, did the MBA offer you opportunities that wouldn't have been available otherwise?

Everyone has a different MBA experience; for me, the education was truly life-changing. The experience itself, the terrific learning, and the doors that were opened for me at a comparatively young age, all set me on a path that has led to a very interesting career and a satisfying life.

Is there a difference between MBA programs and students while you were studying and those of the current day? Has the "brand" of an MBA has changed over the years?

The overall quality of MBA programs remains extremely high and the experience offered by most schools is still a transformative one. I believe that current MBA students have more or less the same motivation, but their financial modelling and quantitative analysis skills are stronger and the integration of technology is more widespread now.

I do feel that the brand of the MBA degree has been diluted over the years, in part by the sheer number of MBA programs and graduates. To me, this means that a student’s expectations must be realistic. The MBA education is valuable, yet the credential itself is not a panacea. It just becomes part of who you are, as does any educational program or life experience.

Why Harvard? Do you think there is an advantage to holding an Ivy League degree?

Immediately following my undergraduate degree, I applied to and was accepted at several U.S business schools, the London School of Economics and several law schools. The only Canadian business school to which I applied was the University of Western Ontario. It had (and has) a strong reputation and an MBA program similar to that of Harvard.

However, I felt that Harvard gave a particular leg-up to its graduates. This was especially true as there were fewer MBA graduates around then, and the prior success of a number of Harvard's MBA graduates reflected well on the program. I think that today there are a number of strong MBA programs globally and that prospective students should seek out the school that fits them best.

How long did it take for you to realize the value of your MBA, if ever?

I believe that, without an MBA, I would have had a far harder time getting started in investment banking. I likely never would have been offered a summer job at Merrill Lynch, nor a subsequent full-time position at Wood Gundy. Subsequently, I think that the MBA provided me with the knowledge and entrepreneurial confidence to join Peters & Co. to establish a dedicated investment banking group

I have used what I learned in my MBA every day: while serving clients, as a manager (and prior CEO) of our firm and within all of my not-for-profit and teaching roles.

When looking to hire new employees do you feel any difference towards applicants who have an MBA?

I am constantly impressed by the caliber of today's applicants, and those holding MBA degrees are no exception. When hiring, we look at the complete picture, and university degrees are only one factor, along with experience, personal attributes, general intelligence and personality.

A current trend in the investment banking industry is to hire strong undergraduates, enroll them in the CFA program and effectively “grow”, rather than hire, a firm’s future leaders. We actually now hire many more young people straight out of undergraduate programs than we do MBA graduates.

Do you have any advice for a student currently in business school, either undergraduate or MBA?

It is important to take all you can from the experience but one must see clearly what a business degree is, and what it is not.

Business programs, especially those that use case studies, enable students to “stand on the shoulders of giants" and learn what to do or not do. If applied well, a business degree gives one the tools to succeed, both in commercial and personal life.

Nonetheless, there is often no one “right answer.” Humility and a desire for constant learning will serve one better, upon graduation, than seeking to be the new expert in town.

A business degree can truly stay with you for life. My wife is still sometimes surprised when I wake up having dreamt vividly about being back in business school helping to "crack the case."

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