At Harvard: Part 6

We are winding down on our second week at Harvard Business School.  The Class of OPM37 is starting to realize that this may be the last time we see each other for a while (though a reunion in India next February is already in the works!).  Classmates are taking time after studying to spend evenings with each other.  Some gather over wine in the living rooms of the dorms, others escape the cafeteria to explore North End Italian restaurants.  Others still are diligently working and re-working their strategies, though the exercise was over several days ago.  As our brilliant and highly intellectual strategy professor reminded us today: “You want living strategies–not dead ones!”  The message is clear: keep at it!

Our bouncy Finance professor finished his last class with us today.  He has led us through an Italian Leveraged Buy-Out case, an Indian-Russian brewery’s joint venture option, and an Indian auto parts manufacturer’s PIPE (private investment in public entity) deal.  What struck me in each class is how a group of 70+ business leaders (the larger group is divided in two for classes) with decades of financial experience can all hold such divergent (and strong) opinions about whether a business is successful or not, what the options are in each case, which options are good and which are bad.  Inevitably, the professor will ask us to give him a show of hands on two to three very different views, and invariably, the class is divided evenly across the board.  It confirms what I have always thought: numbers, too, can be interpreted in myriad ways.

The big excitement today came when the final winners of the strategy exercise were announced in an auditorium large enough to fit us all (150+).   The first winner was the owner of a chain of Mexican pet stores (+KOTA). His concept is brilliant and sets itself apart with such differentiation as the publishing of 4 pet magazines, locations in high-traffic indoor malls, a one-stop shop for all your pet needs, community involvement, a very warm and caring environment, and much more.  The second winner was a coffee roaster who has left his family’s coffee business to establish a new company that will feature low-cost, Fair Trade, organic coffee and allow customized labeling.  It was clear that both winners had put their hearts and souls into their businesses.  I have no doubt they are headed for greatness.

For fun, I attended an elective on Family Business (the vast majority of the OPM class are in family businesses), but only because the case was about Katherine & Don Graham of the Washinton Post.  I had read Katherine Graham’s book years ago and loved her story, so was curious to hear the business perspective.  The professor had interviewed the Grahams a year or two before her death and we were able to watch the video he taped.  The class, asked what we had observed in the interview, noted how deferential each Graham was to the other, how professional they remained throughout, and how modest and lacking in artifice they were.  What struck me is the way the Grahams have managed to work in partnership with non-family executives at the top for decades. This would appear to be a wise way to ensure that the business can survive a long time and is not dependent entirely on the qualifications of the next rising Graham relative. One sweet anecdote told by Don Graham described a family dinner years earlier where everyone was asked to share their life’s regret.  When it was her turn, Katherine Graham readily admitted that she wished she had gone to Harvard Business School.

Off I go to prepare my negotiation session for tomorrow’s class!  I can’t tell you what role I will play, as it’s confidential, but will reveal all soon…

With spring (finally) in the Boston air,

Kate Simpson

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