On the 15th of May 2016, Matt McQueen, Jenny Lui, Hui Jiang and David Sorrenson set out to Thailand to compete in the Chula International Business Case Competition 2016. David recounts their adventures…
Resorts. Beautiful beaches. 30 degrees in May. CIBCC is one of the most anticipated competitions around, and Auckland were back in 2016 to defend the title. After 5 weeks of gruelling training, we found ourselves sitting in Auckland Airport at 11:30pm on a Sunday night, anticipating our late-semester tropical escape. 15 hours later, after a short layover in Singapore, we found ourselves in Krabi.
Krabi is pretty typical of many tourist spots in Southern Thailand – a small town with an airport, fringed with resorts and beachside bars. Not the type of location you’d usually find 12 teams from around the world competing in a case competition! Having heard the stories, we came with high expectations about accommodation. We weren’t disappointed – we were put up in a beautiful hotel with a large pool, 2-for-1 cocktails and luxurious showerheads. BP duly took photos to gloat to the rest of the club members suffering in tutorials.
We had arrived a day early and so once we’d sampled the pool (25 degrees and refreshing) and the cocktails (Mojitos and Mai Tais), we set about exploring Krabi and finding a meal. Luckily we were travelling off-peak so easily found a quiet place to eat by the sea. After consuming plate after plate of delicious Thai seafood – some nameable, all of it fried – we headed back to the hotel to ease our jetlag.
The next day was the official sign-in day of the competition and the morning began with the guys attempting to go for a run. We left bright and early, yet by 7:30am we had realized that our Auckland bodies were not adjusted for the 30-degree humidity. Roundly defeated, we stumbled back past some very comfortable looking Thai people going about their morning business and into the air-conditioned safety of the hotel. We had some breakfast – mostly sticking to the familiar items in the buffet – before doing a quick practice case to get our heads back into case mode. After the case we witnessed an event as rare as snow in Krabi – BP complimented us on our presentation! Feeling more confident, we headed for registration and the opening dinner.
One of the best features of case competitions is meeting new people, and this was no exception. It helped that the hosts provided free bottles of Thai whiskey to supplement our conversation. After the dinner, the teams took advantage of Thailand’s relaxed liquor laws and raided the nearby 7/11 for its spirits and Chang (the local beer) for a night drinking by the pool.
The next morning, we began our ‘touristy’ day island hopping. Although some team members learnt a lesson about drinking too much before a day on a small boat, everyone had a lot of fun. We began the day with a 40 minute ride out to the beautiful and distinctive limestone islands of Thailand, followed by a scenic swim in a lagoon. The warmth and calmness of the water meant the boat could stop anywhere and you would simply jump in for a swim – a far cry from Auckland in May. We also went snorkeling, although one particularly precarious stopping point resulted in Hui and George both being stabbed by sea urchins. Here we learnt that the correct response is to whack the impaled prong with a snorkel to break it and then let your body absorb it. Needless to say, George was not too impressed with this treatment! Hangovers mostly cured, we finished the day with more swimming, coconut ice-cream and a relaxed boat ride home. That night was the opening ceremony, and another opportunity to meet more of the teams and introduce ourselves. After a long day in the sun, and with the company visit coming up, everyone headed off for a good night’s sleep.
There had been some speculation about the nature of the case company, with most thinking it would be a tourism related company, given Krabi’s tourism-centric economy. So we were surprised as the van pulled into the local store of Big C – a Thai supermarket. Big C is the third largest supermarket chain in Thailand and carries food, apparel, electronics and more – similar to a mix of a Warehouse and a Countdown. On top of its store, it also owns adjoining malls, and around half its profits come from leasing.
We received a detailed one-hour presentation outlining the company, its strategies and its challenges, before being shown around the Krabi super store – one of dozens across Thailand. Most importantly, we were able to stock up on supplies for the case the next day. Afterwards we all returned to the hotel and some teams – case company now known – immediately began strategizing. Auckland takes a more relaxed approach and so we headed off for a Thai massage, which involved a mixture of soothing relaxation and being clicked around by people half our bodyweight. Then a final team meeting, followed by another seaside seafood dinner, this time with our ambassadors. By this point we’d learnt that Southern Thai food is renowned for its spiciness, and George – used to garlic naan and butter chicken – was soon suffering under an Asian culinary heatwave. Fortunately, he recovered and we all headed back, ready for case day.
The next morning, we received our case and began the 24 hours of prep. The team struggled a little at times, since the company is very large (NZ$5 billion in revenue), has a very defined strategy already and the case question was very open. We worked hard to tie some insight about the Thai consumer into some cool ideas from NZ, but 9 hours in were struggling to pull it all together. At around 6pm Hui and I attended a Q&A session with the strategy team from Big C, which really helped us figure out what was important and align our thoughts. After that the whole team headed to the pool to cool off and recalibrate our minds.
The pool revitalized the team: Matt set about justifying his BCG signing bonus and came up with a killer idea involving loyalty cards, and we dropped and rearranged two arms of our strategy. Several frantic hours of drafting and slides ensued, followed by an exhausted collapse into bed. A few hours later we awoke and headed to nervously pick at our breakfast before getting dressed and practicing.
The preliminary round went well: some members of the team even swear to this day that they saw a second smile emerge from BP’s lips. We had an extended break until results so caught up on some much needed sleep and a swim. After 24 hours of $3 Pad Thai and Pepsi Max it was also a relief to eat a nice lunch outside. About 90 minutes later all the teams filed into the presentation room for results. Professor Oak Consulting flashed up on the screen and we were through! The first team had to present immediately, but we were third, so were able to grab an additional hour or so of rehearsal.
Finally, it was the big moment. We shook the judges’ hands and headed for the stage. During our presentation, there was a tech error and the Powerpoint cut out – something that Matt and Jenny, speaking at the time, handled like seasoned pros. The judging panel was made up of senior members of the corporate strategy team and outside consultants and professors. One in particular laid on some pretty aggressive questions (sample: “I don’t really buy any of your ideas – they read more like a wish list than pieces of data driven analysis”). After 30 minutes on the stage we were happy to get off it.
While we waited for the final team to present we heard from BP and George about their day before. They had hired scooters and went joyriding around Krabi for half the day. Both crashed – George because a coconut fell in front of him – and they were nursing nasty looking scrapes and bruises. War stories recounted, we headed to get ready for the final dinner. Matt and I had already learnt the sweaty perils of wearing suits in Thailand but had to endure a 500m walk to a nearby hotel. Once in the safety of the air-conditioning we sat down for a delicious and increasingly raucous dinner with the other teams.
The team won a bottle of wine for enduring the technical difficulties earlier in the day and shocked BP with the outcome of cutest boy award, David being awarded the coveted sash. Finally, it came to the placings. The judges decided to give us runner up, a great result for the team and proof that pools and massages can lead to results on the day. Alberta took home first, and Singapore Management University third.
After the dinner, all the teams got changed and headed out to the bars. As anyone who’s been involved in a weeklong competition knows, the final night is often the highlight and a time for everyone to let go after a tense week. Auckland was no exception, although I’ve been told what happens in Thailand stays in Thailand.
We woke the next morning bright and early. Exhausted but relieved that everyone made it back to the hotel in one piece, we said our goodbyes and headed for the airport. Luckily we had 6 hours in Singapore and some of the team were able to endure the heat one more time and head downtown to (a) admire the efficiency of the trains and (b) admire the power of mall air conditioning. Following a week of little sleep, everyone was out like a rock on the plane home to Auckland.
Souvenirs and suntans in tow, we walked out of the airport to embrace our new reality: 10-degree rain and 9am lectures. My advice for those in the squad? Start schmoozing BP now for a spot in Chula 2017.
Big thanks to the competition organisers from Chulalongkorn University, our ambassadors Plot and Thub, George for coaching us, BP for supporting along the way, and to MCC’s sponsors, whose ongoing support allows Auckland teams to continue to compete around the world.