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magazine home > archives > winter 2003 > features

For the past 15 years, The University of Memphis EMBA program has boosted marketing students to new heights with a unique curriculum.

The Market Place
by Dottie Brown

For some people, learning comes from books, but for others, learning comes mainly from experience. One University of Memphis professor has taken this theory and created a course that merges traditional academic values with hands-on work experience. The resulting product has become a boon for area businesses and given Executive Master of Business Administration students an edge in the marketing world.

Students in Strategic Marketing 7140 learn how to compete in the marketplace and how to recognize opportunities for an organization to advance. To reach these goals, they take part in a computer-simulated marketing program and a unique project that teaches "real-world" experience and brings Memphis businesses into the picture.

"These two components of the course complement each other and give the students a variety of experiences wrestling with marketing strategy problems," says Dr. Carol Bienstock, a U of M marketing and supply chain management professor. Bienstock revamped the class two years ago.

The computer program, known as Markstrat, gives students the opportunity to develop and implement marketing strategies for a company that exists solely within the computer program. The class is divided into four study groups and each is assigned a different company. At the end of the semester, the student teams are graded on how their company's simulated stock price index ranks among others.

"Markstrat is, by its nature, somewhat artificial," says Bienstock, "but it has the advantage of giving the students rapid feedback for their market strategy decisions."

This "rapid feedback" is necessary so that the students may apply their newfound knowledge to the hands-on project, which is the primary component of the course.

In this project, students are assigned to a Memphis organization. They work with this business for a semester, developing a strategic marketing analysis, which includes a critique of the company's development and its future plan of action.

Last fall, the 18 students in the class were divided into two groups. They worked with Merge Realty, a pioneering real estate company, and Agricenter International, a not-for-profit organization that supports and promotes agriculture globally.

"We went in as a consulting service to come up with a broad strategic analysis of the company's policies," says Tom Grimes, a student in the program.

Grimes and his nine teammates worked with Merge Realty and its founder, Marc Diaz, to clarify the company's mission and goals in order to come up with a strong promotional plan to further the success of the business.

Merge spawned from Diaz's experience as a real estate attorney and his desire to create an organization that placed a different spin on the industry. He seeks to simplify the house-buying process by putting more control in the hands of the consumer, thus eliminating unnecessary costs.

"Where we saw the opportunity to work with Diaz was by going in and clarifying his mission, his marketing opportunities and his cost structure," says Grimes.

While Diaz retained all decision-making and action-taking responsibility for his company, the student team proposed their ideas for consideration.

"We would tell Diaz, 'Here are a few academic tools you can apply to your business model,'" says student Don Cheney.

Grimes' team developed a yearlong projection of where they think the company should go and the marketing direction Diaz should take.

"There's a balance," says Grimes. "We don't own the company. We have no stake in the company. However, we would love to produce something that helps him be successful."

The eight-member team working with Agricenter International took a different route in their strategic analysis, focusing more on promotion of what the institution already had rather than proposing new products.

"Generally, what we wanted to do was to promote awareness of the Agricenter and what it can do from a research standpoint and also from an educational perspective," says Greg James, another student in the program.

Agricenter International, founded in 1985 by several Memphis business leaders, is used for agricultural research and education by an audience ranging from farmers to school children.

James says that through research, his team analyzed the target audience of the Agricenter in order to develop better ways to market its many attributes.

"How can we help them become the research center of choice for agricultural products?" asks James. "We sought to determine what drives the decision-makers to choose Memphis over some other choice."

The team placed much of its attention on the educational factor of the center and how to reach Memphis area students who are more urban-minded and less aware of the agricultural importance of their surrounding area.

"One of the things we tried to do was give them ways to work with the schools," says student Lynn Harmon. "We had some recommendations about grade levels Agricenter should target. There's a need to work with city and county schools to work agriculture into the curriculum."

As with the Merge group, the Agricenter team hopes that their ideas will further the growth of the center.

Each team compiled a strategic analysis booklet of their proposals, which were presented to each organization last December.

"They [the students] bring a variety of experiences to the program, depending on the nature of their business experience," says Bienstock. "Students must have five years of work experience before they can take the course. It is always interesting to me to see their diverse viewpoints on a problem and the diverse ways they go about resolving problems."

In the first year of the project, the class analyzed the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, which approached the class in need of professional advice on how to better carry Dixon's message to the public.

"The EMBA class made a suggestion to us that we should try to be more cohesive — that we should focus more on our core competencies and identities," says Russell Ingram, director of development at Dixon. "As a result, upper level and corporate membership has increased by 5 percent and membership attrition has decreased."

This fall, Bienstock hopes to use another up-and-coming business for one of the projects.

"This gives the students some valuable experience, and it provides small start-up businesses with some important expertise," says Bienstock. "As for the other organization, I would probably keep my eyes open for an organization that has some sort of public service as part of its mission."

No matter which business is chosen for the next class, Bienstock says everyone comes out a winner. "The class is beneficial for the students and for the companies," she says. "And I benefit too from working with a group of highly motivated people."

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