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At 10, Union College celebrates Capstones

MBA class has generated 159 firms’ business plans

Sunday, April 14, 2013
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Union Graduate College alumni Jessica Carmer, left, and Marie Eastman are colleagues at General Electric, but as MBA students in the Capstone course, Carmer developed a business plan for SuperPower, while Eastman was part of team assisting Sponsor-A-Scholar. They both returned to Union Graduate College on Tuesday to meet fellow alumni and business leaders at the first-ever UGC Capstone Reunion.

HARVEY VLAHOS/UNION GRADUATE COLLEGE
Union Graduate College alumni Jessica Carmer, left, and Marie Eastman are colleagues at General Electric, but as MBA students in the Capstone course, Carmer developed a business plan for SuperPower, while Eastman was part of team assisting Sponsor-A-Scholar. They both returned to Union Graduate College on Tuesday to meet fellow alumni and business leaders at the first-ever UGC Capstone Reunion. HARVEY VLAHOS/UNION GRADUATE COLLEGE

— Business professors are adept at coming up with hypothetical exercises, but that is what they are — hypothetical.

Ten years ago, two professors at Union Graduate College decided to change that and created a Capstone program for its master’s in business administration students.

“We could have our students work on real problems with real companies, instead of these pretend problems faculty members make up in class,” said Bela Musits, dean of the School of Management. “It’s been a great success of connecting students with regional businesses.”

Since that time, 159 business plans have been completed, according to Mel Chudzik, dean emeritus and co-creator of the Capstone program. Some of those business leaders and students reunited Wednesday for a reception commemorating the first decade of the program.

Chudzik said students may be apprehensive initially about taking the course because they hear it is a lot of work, but in the end they believe it was a good experience and prepared them well. The process of creating the plan forces students to combine what they have learned about business, finance, marketing and operations.

About 85 percent of the companies were from the Capital Region, according to Chudzik. Sometimes, they wanted input on launching a new product, positioning the company for a sale or growing their business after reaching a plateau.

All types of industries have been represented, including software, professional services, manufacturing, marketing, restaurant and retail. About 42 percent were startups, 53 percent were companies that had been in business for at least three years and 5 percent were nonprofits.

“We really cover a very broad spectrum,” he said. “That diversity, I think, makes for a rich class.”

An average of four students work on each business plan. Chudzik said some of the businesses have used the student-created plans, which could have cost the companies anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 if they hired a professional consultant, according to college officials.

Mazzone Hospitality is one of the local companies that participated. President Angelo Mazzone said he hesitated initially when Union Graduate College professors approached him to participate, which required opening up the company’s books to students. At the time, he had been in business nearly 20 years and was looking to take the company to the next level.

“As my company’s grown, so have the challenges. I welcomed an unbiased assessment of the company that the MBA students would be able to provide me,” he said.

Among the students’ recommendations were to rebrand the restaurant at the Glen Sanders Mansion, which he ended up doing — it is now Tavolo. He also made $1.5 million in renovations to the facility.

He said it was a positive experience.

“It just gave us a new vitality and showed us there’s a different way of doing it. When you’re working in your business every single day, it’s really hard to see the things you need to do,” he said.

Ray Glesser, president and CEO of Northeastern Fine Jewelry, said he was also reluctant but participated upon Mazzone’s recommendation. The students helped him in deciding whether to stay in Schenectady or move to Latham. He decided to expand his store on Union Street.

Glesser said he ended up hiring student Kyrish Iyer to implement the plan, which included revamping the human resources process, redesigning the website and increasing the use of social marketing.

Brian Epstein, president of the wireless Internet business Deep Blue Communications, said the plan helped him determine what the retail market was for his patented technology, which helps users of a website to obtain more relevant Internet searches and allows retailers to sell advertising.

When the business climate improved, he was able to bring that to market. He simply pulled the plan off the shelf, looked at the statistics and had a solid foundation.

Because of this technology, he will soon roll out the program in 700 Planet Fitness gyms across the country.

MBA graduate Christopher Eastman of Clifton Park worked on a business plan for SuperPower to advise the company on how to break into the wind energy market.

“It was great to put some real-world experience to the MBA program. They did investigate the business plan we proposed,” he said.

 
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