Illinois MBA Team Wins the Illinois Strategy Case Competition

In February, Illinois MBA students Brant Faulkner, Jensen John, Aditya Ramesh, and Trevor Wiles won the 2017 Illinois MBA Strategy Case Competition.

Illinois MBA Case Competition winners
Winners of the Illinois Strategy Case Competition. From left: Trevor Wiles, Brant Faulkner, faculty advisor Kathryn Rybka, Jensen John, and Aditya Ramesh.

This annual competition brings a dozen schools from across the country to the Urbana-Champaign campus to compete. Participating teams have 24 hours to analyze a business case and present their strategy and recommendations to a panel of judges. Teams arrive on Thursday evening, receive the case material on Friday morning, and then work to develop a proposal and plan that they present to judges on Saturday. This year’s project involved developing a recommendation for Apple, Inc. regarding where the company should focus efforts for increased revenue growth and profitability. The three possible product lines under consideration were the Apple Watch, Apple TV, and a self-driving car.

In the preliminary round, three teams compete against each other in four separate rooms in the Business Instructional Facility. The four winning teams, one from each of the first-round rooms, meet in the final round on Saturday afternoon in the Deloitte Auditorium, where they present in front of other participants, guests, and a new panel of judges.

During the preparation period, the Illinois team spent a lot of time discussing how they would approach the problem and how they would present their case. “We debated,” said John. “We were probably harder on each other than the judges were. That process was important because we need to refine our ideas and test our strategies before we present them to the judges. And when we do that, after a grueling process, standing in front of the judges and answering questions becomes a much easier part.”

“We took a very formulaic approach to breaking down the underlying issues,” Wiles explained. “Brant [Faulkner] thought of the factors that would be used in the judging and how we could accomplish those. Then we came up with a timeline, and determined what are the factors that we really need to succeed.”

Even though they had had such vigorous debate in determining their approach, once they had selected it, everyone got on board and worked to promote that approach in their presentation. Upon receiving the case they would be working with, the team took a divide-and-conquer approach to the task, with individual members responsible for different parts of the final presentation. This helped ensure they covered what they needed to. Ramesh said, “There are questions in the case that you have to make sure that you hit on, and we made sure that we hit every single one.”

“I’ve been on several teams,” said John. “One of the critical dynamics of a case competition team is the team dynamics. They should be willing to challenge each other, but at the end of the day, they should come together as well. If they cannot manage that emotional dynamic, it’s going to be very hard.”

The team credits much of their success to the coaching and preparation they had under the direction of Kathryn Rybka, who is faculty adviser for Illinois MBA case competitions. Rybka had high praise as well for this Illinois team: “This team was successful for many reasons, but two especially stand out. First, they are four very confident individuals who truly knew how to challenge each other in meaningful and constructive ways. They were never complacent to move forward with the first strategy or recommendation that came to mind, but instead continued to dig deeper and examine each other’s ideas from multiple business perspectives. They also spent a great deal of time perfecting their storytelling skills while preparing for the Competition. All of the team members realized that the best presentations tell a cohesive story, have recommendations that display calculated risk-taking, and are backed by financials that reinforce and support a sound strategic direction. The team took these points to heart and made sure to shape their presentation around them.”

While Faulkner, John, Ramesh, and Wiles are able to celebrate a victory, they know that the Illinois Case Competition was successful because of the work of many who did not take part.  “The case competition is run by our fellow MBA Illinois students,” said Faulkner. “A lot of class volunteers make this competition happen. We are super happy to bring home a trophy for their efforts.”

The Illinois Case Competition was sponsored by AT&T.