Full throttle: Students pitch Harley tuneup
Each semester, Skidmore College students, many early in their academic careers, don business formal attire and tell a boardroom filled with real executives how they would improve a well-known business. This time, they’re revving up for Harley-Davidson, Inc.
The course, Business and Organization Management, usually known as MB 107, is the cornerstone course offered by the Department of Management and Business at Skidmore.
The course is required for management and business majors and minors. It also provides students, who are often first- or second-year students, real-world experience conducting rigorous analysis and communicating professionally.
For 10 weeks, they work in small groups researching a real company — like Harley-Davidson — and developing ideas on how to improve the company’s performance over the next five years. At the end of the semester, they present their strategies to a panel of executives, who include Skidmore alumni, parents and local business leaders, in the conference room of a local hotel.
“It's an excellent opportunity for the students to actually experience how it is in the business world to be doing high-level presentations that mean something,” says Michael Dunn, assistant professor of management and business and one of the MB 107 instructors.
Like in the business world, the stakes are high: The students present their strategies for 20 minutes before fielding tough questions from the executives for 10 minutes. The executives meet behind closed door to assess the students and determine 25 percent of their course grades.
“The executives are amazingly engaged in this program,” Dunn says. “Most of them have actually taken this course as a student at Skidmore, and they always remember their case. Many of them say it’s actually one of the most memorable experiences they had at Skidmore.” In addition to executives from local businesses like Adirondack Trust Company, Saratoga Hospital and Allstate Insurance Company, alumni often return to campus from New York City or Boston — and sometimes from California or even abroad — to be part of the program.
The students go from learning the fundamentals of business to giving high-level presentations in just a few short months.
“Every semester we ask a lot from our students, and every semester they deliver,” says David Cohen, assistant professor of management and business and the MB107 faculty coordinator.
Over the years, students have examined Amazon.com, Tiffany & Co., Gucci Group and other companies.
The recent Harley-Davidson case was a particularly challenging case because the classic American company is already moving in directions where students might steer the company. (It’s pursuing an electric motorcycle and marketing to millennials, for instance.) Students don’t receive credit for coming up with solutions the company has already come up with.
Nonetheless, students “did a good job diagnosing Harley’s fundamental challenge and suggesting strategies to overcome that challenge,” Cohen says.
Students are assigned to their teams and must work together throughout the semester and especially during their final presentations.
“It's a learning experience,” Cohen says. “For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve had a long-term project with a group of people they didn’t choose, and they just have to find a way to make that work.”
Carleigh Matthews, ’21, a political science major with minors in business and dance, says communication and good organization are key to working together as a team.
“I knew that our team needed to work cohesively,” she says. “We needed to be on top of our work all the time, and we had to keep each other in check.”
“After the presentation was over, complete relief came over me after giving it my all, but I still had some nerves awaiting our grade when the executives were discussing our presentation,” Matthews says.
Although the course was difficult, Matthews is glad she took it. So is Hannah Paolucci, ’21, an environmental studies major who is now hoping to minor in management and business after taking MB 107 (and possibly political science, too).
“I received kind words from the executives and am currently in contact with two discussing opportunities for my future in the business realm,” Paolucci says. “I am ecstatic.”
“To students considering taking the course: Do it,” she says. “Let yourself be challenged. This is a course that demands critical thinking, and if you are not prepared to go in vulnerable and hungry then you will not gain all that the course has to offer.”