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MBA skills put to work on real-world problems

Glenn Stevens, centre, the manager in the Goodman School of Business Consulting Group at Brock University, speaks with three consultants on his team in St. Catharines, Ont. The consultants are Nancy Lan, front left, Nathan Farrar, back left, and Abdul Rahimi, right.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Glenn Stevens arrives at his campus office in St. Catharines, Ont., every day with little clue of what the next eight hours will bring. That's part of the fun for the manager of Brock University's Goodman School of Business Consulting Group.

For him, a reference to a reality TV show sums it up. "At the beginning of Pawn Stars the announcer says, 'And you never know what's going to walk through the door.' That's the same with the consulting office," Mr. Stevens says with a laugh.

His tone is jovial and light, but it's clear his work is serious business and Mr. Stevens wants others to see it that way. It's a genuine office with tangible clients who need the skills the consultants – all of whom are Brock MBA students – can provide.

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"As far as I know we're kind of unique in that … our consulting office is not linked to the [MBA] program itself," he says.

It's true that there are co-op placements and consulting projects in many MBA programs throughout the country, including at the Goodman School. But this consulting firm was born out of necessity for the students' talents rather than academic requirement and it has won praise from the university, participants and the community.

Several entrepreneurial-minded students formed the consulting group more than a decade ago. Back in 2004, three students recognized there was work to be done around the university in various departments that could benefit from their MBA skills. They formed their own consulting group to fill the need.

Fast-forward to today and that office is well beyond its makeshift beginnings.

At the consulting group, Mr. Stevens supervises up to eight MBA students a year who work on an array of projects. The students are paid for the work they do on a fee-for-service basis, "just like real consultants," he adds.

There is a waiting list for these consulting jobs, but students can be pulled in to work on specific projects based on their talents, Mr. Stevens explains. "What I tell everyone is that if a project comes up and your skills match that project, I'll call you in."

He says the exposure to unique consulting gigs leaves an impression on both the students and the clients.

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Take the consulting group's dealings with Niagara's wine industry, for instance. The fragile buds of a grapevine are under constant threat throughout Ontario's frigid winters. The VineAlert Program, operated by Brock University's Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI), tracks the buds' capacity to survive sub-zero weather and warns growers when warming measures are required.

For an economic assessment of its work, the CCOVI hired the consulting group.

"We had to come up with a way to capture the economic impact of CCOVI's grapevine cold hardiness program which saved over 400,000 of Ontario's grapevines," Mr. Stevens says. "This was very, very challenging."

The economic impact report aided CCOVI in acquiring an additional $300,000 in industry funding.

Jenna Dustanova worked on the VineAlert report and agrees that these experiences are a vital part of her résumé.

"There's people who are not doing consulting jobs, or any other jobs and just taking their courses and missing out on a lot of stuff," Ms. Dustanova says. "Especially when we do consulting work, like I am doing right now, I'm exposed to every single business field whether it's marketing, accounting, finance, HR – it's invaluable."

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In reality, most of the consultants choose to stay on for months after they graduate to help bridge the gap into their ideal job.

Ms. Dustanova is in the job-hunt process, going through interviews in the hope of getting that dream job after she graduates in a few months. She's confident it's only a matter of time before the right firm snaps her up because of the experience she received through her role as a consultant.

"It's a real job, it's real cases that we work on and it's real companies that we help," she says.

The university also benefits from having this consulting firm operating on its campus, says Don Cyr, dean of the Goodman School of Business.

The consulting group enhances the school's connection to St. Catharines through projects which allow members of the public to access MBA expertise at a grassroots level that is potentially more cost effective, the dean says.

"[But it's] not just the firms that have benefited," he explains, adding that this community interaction boosts the school's reputation.

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"Of course our students are our best ambassadors," Dr. Cyr says. "It's the individual's interaction with our students where you really see them speak of the benefit and the value."

Mr. Stevens agrees that the community is getting a great deal from having the consulting group, as "word has gotten around quite a bit about the office."

But the biggest benefactors are still the consultants themselves.

"We have a 100-per-cent placement rate out of the office," he says. "It's become known as the best experience in the MBA program because in addition to doing your studies, you get to work in the real world."

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