Case competitions complement what is learned in a classroom. Many classes use cases as teaching tools but a competition in front of leading representatives of the industry is something special.
The biggest difference may be that the judges know that competitions include some of the best undergraduate students. The Cornell International Real Estate Case Competition, recently completed in New York City, included some of the top real estate programs in North America, Europe, Asia, and even Australia. GREG’s team included Justin Aguiar, Sean Atkinson, Chris Dynes, Dan Foch, Lindsey Lippert and Otto Wramhed. The case used in this competition was based on the experience of one of the judges, with lots of little twists to keep the teams awake at night. An old post office was bought by a developer under very different market conditions and, although they did not have enough money, they wanted this project to be their showpiece. It also had a complex waterfall payout structure. So, what to do? And how to make sure the project gets done in a way that makes all of the partners happy, even if the market conditions have changed substantially?
The judge were looking for the weakest link in a proposal. This difference matters to anybody thinking like a student: In a classroom test, if you do not know the answer to a 10 point question then you can still get 90 percent overall. In reality, success requires that all of the pieces of the business plan fit together; either because competitors would take advantage of a weakness or because that proposal looks good only superficially. A friend of our program uses the analogy of picking at a loose thread: it shouldn’t be there and picking at it indicates whether it is a small detail or a fatal flaw.
As Otto Wramhed noted “These cases challenge you on the complexities of the finances (construction, financing, modelling), market analysis (research, appropriate metrics, micro/macro factors), marketing (consumer base research), presentation and cohesive story-telling that are involved in convincing an investment board to convert a good idea into a tangible reality.”
The team handled the stress, analysed complex issues deeply and presented well. Different teams in the competition made different proposals (e.g. office, condo, senior housing). Some of the presentations used Google Sketch-Up and were very fancy. (Were they compensating for something?) In a conversation, the judges told our team that the experience is very realistic, except that the language may be more colourful outside of the competition.
Competitions are interesting for teachers and students. Weeks of intense preparation for this competition are needed. For example, a theatre teacher advised them on presentation skills to better convey their authority and to make any answer more convincing. Or, as contrast to a classroom setting where the goal is to answer the question, we can teach how to anticipate a judge’s question. Because they were willing to put in a lot of effort, we can teach things which do not fit into an ordinary class. The result is that, as Chris Dynes noted, the competition “helped me develop professionally and academically.”
The judges complemented the team on a proposal with lots of financial detail and, more importantly, that the numbers were consistent with operational requirements. The judges also noted that, unlike some competitors, they answered as a team.
How did the team do? This picture shows them filling out US tax forms for their winnings.
I would like to say that they ended “top two”, since they offered nearly the same proposal as the winning team (except that they adjusted for risk in a different way). They anticipated most of the reality on which the case was based.
Mostly, it was a winning experience to chat with the judges over lunch and, when it was all finished, to party with teams who share an interest in real estate but come from very different traditions.