The winners of the MBA boardroom challenge are, from left, Mikulas Necekal, Ian Reeve, Edith Loizou and Phil Burkholder.

When Longo’s wanted advice on how to expand its online food retail service, the company didn’t hire an external consultant. Instead, the company invited several teams of MBA students from U of G to come up with an e-commerce strategy to grow the business over the next three to five years. The four members of the team that developed the best strategy – as chosen by Longo’s executives – each received $2,500.

As part of the MBA boardroom challenge, a capstone project in the MBA program, students were asked to develop a business plan to expand Longo’s Grocery Gateway. With more than 5,000 products, the website allows consumers to purchase groceries online and have them delivered to their door.

When approached about taking part in the MBA boardroom challenge, Liz Volk, vice-president, human resources, at Longo’s, says, “We looked at what would be beneficial to us and what would be beneficial to them.” The students had a chance to apply their knowledge outside the classroom, and Longo’s gained a new perspective on its business practices.

“Longo’s is the biggest food e-tailer in the country, and they wanted to grow their business,” says Prof. Sylvain Charlebois, associate dean in the College of Management and Economics (CME), who teaches the course. Buying food online is a growing trend, he adds, because it saves time, money and fuel for consumers. Online shopping is also more convenient for older consumers and people with young children who have trouble getting around.

“We got [Longo’s] thinking about their business,” he says. Volk adds, “They had a really fresh approach that got us thinking as well.” Seven teams of students spent five days working on their proposals for presentation to a panel of executives, who picked the winning concept.

“A live case study is like a case study but in real time, and students are exposed to the decision-makers,” says Charlebois. The company gave students information about its business plan and goals for Grocery Gateway, and students needed to ask the right questions to understand their client’s needs.

Charlebois says live case studies give students access to multiple executives (more than a dozen in this case) and provide an element of competition. CME’s focus on agribusiness, food and hospitality also gives students a competitive advantage when working with businesses in these industries.

Although the students were competing, they were also working together. “It’s about ‘co-opetition,’” says Charlebois. “It’s about students helping other students. As you gather the evidence and data for your own strategy that you want to pitch to the company, you were compelled to share that information with other groups as well. It’s about making other competitors stronger as you’re making your own case stronger.” To be successful, he adds, businesses need to co-operate with all parts of the value chain, including their competitors.

The winning team members are Ian Reeve, Edith Loizou, Phil Burkholder and Mikulas Necekal.

“I think we had a very good plan going in, and I think that resonated with them,” says Reeve. Applying what they learned to a real-world situation was especially rewarding. “It was probably the single best course that we did.”

The live case study put students’ knowledge to the test, adds Loizou. “The fact that it was a real life ‘live’ situation made us think practically. How could we really help this company meet their goals within the parameters they set? The solutions had to be usable, real and implementable.”

Reeve says one of the most important lessons was how to develop an approach that was both theoretical and practical. “What the instructor wants to see in a presentation and final report is not exactly what the user wants. You have to be cognizant of what they’re looking for and not get bogged down in theoretical applications.”

Earlier this month, U of G announced a $500,000 gift from Longo’s to establish the Longo’s Food Retail Innovation Fund and help create a research team to study grocery retailing and food service, technology, and health and wellness. The fund will be overseen by CME.