For Rocky Mountaineer CEO Randy Powell, it’s a no-brainer: education pays big bucks.
The head of B.C.’s luxury train service discovered the rewards of sending his people back to school when he collaborated with the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business three years ago to create courses specifically tailored for 65 of the company’s top executives.
As students, they developed strategies to help the company enter the group meeting and incentive business. Although Greater Vancouver conferences are abundant, they had not previously been flagged as a market for Rocky Mountaineer.
After the Sauder experience, the company’s conference trade grew exponentially, to $10 million last year, Powell said. And, just as important, all his top executives now had formal business education.
“We want a bunch of diverse thinking and ways of approaching the business,” he said. “But I also believed we needed a base foundation in the fundamentals of business.”
Such collaborations are becoming more commonplace as business schools search for creative ways to attract students in what is an intensely competitive business, said Bruce Wiesner, Sauder’s associate dean of executive education.
His school began expanding its non-degree course offerings and certificate programs several years ago, with some open to all students and others designed to address specific company needs. While such specialization is not exactly new, the idea has been gaining traction in recent years.
Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Beedie School of Business became a leader in designing Canadian executive education programs when in 1998 it responded to a request from Teck Resources (TSX:TCK.B). The company was refurbishing a mining site at a remote location and looking for an education program to keep its engineers engaged until the work was done, school dean Blaize Reich explained.
Together they created the Teck graduate diploma in business administration and, later, a Teck MBA. The programs include lessons in subjects that are of particular interest to mining companies, such as courses in stakeholder relations and working with aboriginal communities, she noted.
“We’ve just graduated a cohort of Teck MBAs, who have gradually – one course at a time – worked their way through the system and now have MBAs,” Reich added.
Another example of a custom-designed program is SFU’s executive MBA in aboriginal business and leadership, with its first graduation slated for June.
Program director Mark Selman recognized the need for an aboriginal MBA while working with the Haisla First Nation near Kitimat. While the Haisla leaders were talented and capable, they lacked the education that would help them deal with complex issues and multimillion-dollar investments, he said.
“They were quite reliant on consultants, lawyers and financial investment people, and that’s fine. But you also want to have independent judgment about what they’re doing, and that requires more education than most people had.”
The Haisla didn’t have the academic qualifications or the desire to enter a regular MBA program, he said. And regular programs wouldn’t have addressed issues critical to First Nations, such as their governance model, responsibility to community and respect for traditional knowledge.
These days, Selman is looking toward B.C.’s thriving northwest, where the economy is humming due to growth at the Port of Prince Rupert and expectations of a liquefied natural gas boom.
While the province has been promoting skilled trades, Selman said there is also a need for more people with business acumen. He’s been working with the port, engineering firms, grain terminals and Northwest Community College to design an MBA program, to start this fall, for the northwest.
Sauder is also expanding, with plans for an executive MBA in strategic mining management.
Such collaboration isn’t limited to traditional business fields. Both schools also offer courses and programs for doctors needing management skills not taught in medical school. •