Texas Christian U. MBA students learning the old-fashioned way

FORT WORTH (MCT) -Nearly two dozen MBA students are enrolled in a new “experiential learning” course at Texas Christian University’s Neeley School of Business that has them spending more time outside the classroom than in.

This semester, the school launched Neeley & Associates Consultants. It’s really a class, but the course work includes service in a consulting project for an outside company or nonprofit group. There are some classroom sessions, but those mostly address topics to help the students with their work.

“You need to get them out of the classroom,” said Bill Cron, an associate dean at the business school. “They need to gain experience and gain insight to dealing with complex, messy problems. This is a great opportunity for companies to identify talent.”

Cron wanted the business school to formalize what its students have been informally doing for years – working with companies and nonprofits on projects. Those assignments typically came through a professor and were sometimes included as part of the coursework. Those ad hoc projects will continue. For now, Neeley & Associates Consultants will be offered only in the spring semester.

This semester, 22 mostly first-year MBA students have been divided into six teams. Students are required to put in about 50 hours on their projects. The students have access to faculty members with expertise in the area.

The students also recently met with consultants from Accenture – all TCU alumni – who spent a couple of hours going over the students’ plans, easing their concerns and answering questions.

Ed Riefenstahl serves as director of Neeley & Associates Consultants, which is patterned after similar services at Emory, Rice and Pepperdine universities and the University of Texas. Larry Peters, a TCU management professor, conducts most of the classroom sessions.

“We wanted to take the best of what’s out there and put it together into a program here,” Riefenstahl said.

Riefenstahl sent brochures in July to about 400 TCU alumni, mostly business owners or executives, asking whether their companies would like to participate. Fifteen companies submitted one-page descriptions of possible projects. Six projects were selected, and the students were able to pick one to work on, he said.

Vineeta Menezes, a second-year MBA student, is working on a project for Calloway’s Nursery, which has asked the students to develop a standard operating process for watering plants, flowers and trees at its stores, as well as look at ways to better comply with city watering ordinances and to address conservation issues.

“It was one thing sitting in a class and doing the problem,” Menezes said. “Now, we’re actually doing it in the real world. It’s more than crunching numbers.”

Jonathan Parker, a first-year MBA student, is working on an international sales plan for Half Price Books.

“This is a consulting class, but we’re also learning how to work with each other,” Parker said. “Everybody communicates in a different way. It’s finding that common ground.”

The launch of Neeley & Associates Consultants didn’t come without a test run. Last semester, a student team worked on a marketing project for the Davey O’Brien Foundation in Fort Worth. The team looked at the brand identity of the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award, which is presented annually to the nation’s top college quarterback.

One student proposal was that the Davey O’Brien Award be placed in one or more of the more popular football video games. The foundation contacted EA Sports, makers of the NCAA Football video game, and the award will be part of the next version of the game, due out this fall, said Danielle Moorman, executive director of the Davey O’Brien Foundation.

“They hit the ball out of the park with that recommendation,” she said. “It’s a huge opportunity for us.”

Moorman said the students did an outstanding job with the research they were asked to do, and the foundation will use their work in developing some upcoming marketing campaigns.

“We were just thrilled with the product they produced,” she said.

Erin Verbeck, a second-year MBA student, worked on that project and said she learned a lot about project-management skills.

“It was a pretty big project,” Verbeck said. “We had a pretty demanding audience. But for me, the best part was helping an organization that truly had a need.”