The National Black MBA Association Graduate Case Competition, sponsored by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, is one of the most prestigious business case competitions in the country. Robinson’s team recently placed second in the contest, besting groups from three dozen schools. The teammates and their faculty advisor reflect on the experience.
Houston in late September 2019 was hot in more ways than one. Autumn had arrived, but the thermostat still pushed past 90 degrees most days. And 152 fired-up students from 38 business schools were in town for the 27th annual National MBA Association (NBMBAA) Graduate Case Competition sponsored by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). Among their number were Corey Ballard (B.B.A. ’13, MBA ’19), Kelli Duncan (B.B.A. ’17, MBA ’19), Rejess Marshall (B.B.A. ’10, MBA ’19) and Dustin Reese (MBA ’21) – the four MBA students selected to represent Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business – and their faculty advisor and coach, Dr. Rubina Malik.
Held annually during the NBMBAA conference, the competition challenges student teams to analyze a complex business case and present solutions to business problems facing FCA. Each team has four weeks to create a feasible, data-backed solution.
The Georgia State team entered the case competition with a legacy they hoped to uphold. Between 2014 and 2018, the Panthers won twice and placed in the top three once. One school had notched two victories during the same period. Depending on the outcome in 2019, Robinson could either maintain its lead or opponents could tie the college’s record.
The Road to Houston began long before the four received the case, with a rigorous, multi-step selection process for making the team. Ballard, Duncan, Marshall, and Reese were chosen on the strength of their applications and interviews. And although they wouldn’t receive the case until late August, they committed to an aggressive meeting schedule made all the more daunting by holding full-time jobs.
“Georgia State takes the National Black MBA Association case competition very seriously,” according to Kelli Duncan, a risk analyst at Havertys Furniture. “Being on the team was almost like taking another class.”
Not that Duncan was complaining. She applied at the recommendation of a friend who was on last year’s team.
“He told me about how the competition had exposed him to career prospects beyond Atlanta and the leadership development opportunities that came with participating,” Duncan said. “As someone approaching graduation, I wanted what he had experienced.”
Rejess Marshall, a claims representative at Progressive Insurance, wanted to be part of the Robinson team “to prove to myself I could apply what I’ve learned throughout the MBA program to a real-life scenario and be successful.”
Dustin Reese, a senior specialist applications developer at AT&T, threw his hat in the ring to “help me develop the analytical and collaborative skills I’ll need to be successful in a business environment. As a software developer, I rarely have the opportunity to work on a corporate strategy problem and present the solution to executives.”
The team began by “getting to know each other’s strengths and work styles via assessments,” recalled their faculty advisor, Rubina Malik. “This helped them work together better and lean into those strengths.”
Malik, who teaches international business and specializes in leadership development, also helped the team prepare by familiarizing them with methods for tackling case analyses. And, they learned as much as they could about FCA without having the assignment.
The team received the case four weeks before the competition. This year the automaker tasked competitors with developing strategies for a vehicle subscription program as an alternative to ownership, including the viability of such an offering, target markets to consider, which FCA cars to include in the service, and pricing. They created an affordable, tiered subscription targeting millennials that showcased most FCA brands, leveraged existing inventory of unsold vehicles on dealer lots to generate revenue, and sold retired cars to used car dealerships to produce further revenue.
“We devoted a lot of late nights and weekends to preparation,” Corey Ballard, a senior analyst of online promotions at The Home Depot, said.
“Everyone played to their strengths,” Duncan remembered. “Dustin is a car fanatic and an FCA customer, so he managed most of the technical pieces. Rejess, who is a great communicator, translated technical jargon into simpler language and put together a script. Corey made sure we had data to defend our recommendation, and I created and organized our presentation.”
Having done their best to prepare, including two rehearsal presentations before Robinson faculty and staff, the team traveled to Houston, competed in the first round, and waited to hear which six teams would advance to the finals.
“We had no clue how we’d measure up to the other teams,” Marshall remembered.
As it turned out, the Robinson team measured up quite well. They made the finals. And, in a “what are the odds?” geographical coincidence, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University also made the finals. The Ohio State University, Purdue University and the University of South Carolina rounded out the field.
Ballard, Duncan, Marshall, and Reese finished second, securing a $15,000 scholarship to split among themselves. The Ohio State University took first place, and Georgia Institute of Technology placed third.
By taking second place, the team not only upheld Georgia State’s status as the winningest team in the NBMBAA graduate case competition from 2014-forward, but they also widened the margin. Between 2014 and 2019, Robinson has placed in the top three winners a total of four times. No other school made the top three more than twice during the same period.