On course for long-term growth

MBA programmes are increasingly catering for students from small or family-run businesses
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Now, 20 years on, many MBA programmes explicitly market themselves around their suitability for students with ambitions, in the short term at least, in small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This is particularly true of non-specialist MBA programmes, those founded on an all-encompassing treatment of the basic management functions necessary for any successful business. The aim of these is to give graduates the ability, or the tools, to return to a business of any size with greatly enhanced confidence and competence.

Among those business schools marketing themselves in just this way is the Smurfit School of Business, at University College, Dublin. Both the full-time and executive (part-time) programmes have become particularly popular with students from the small and medium-sized business sectors. In fact, as many as 65 per cent of those currently on the part-time course are working for small, sometimes family, businesses, or plan to start up businesses of their own when they graduate.

The dean of the school, Dr Damien McLoughlin, sees the Smurfit MBA as ideal for this type of student. "It gives students the ability to make HR, accounting, marketing, in fact, all relevant business decisions, and make those decisions with confidence," he explains.

Part of the Smurfit experience, on both the full-time and part -time programmes, is also meeting many of Ireland's most successful entrepreneurs, which, argues McLoughlin, also gives students the confidence to strike out on their own after they graduate.

One student approaching the end of her MBA at Smurfit in just that frame of mind is Karen Jackson, who, before the course, worked for the family business, based in Dublin, which manufactures, retails and installs fireplaces. She freely admits to having known nothing much about management before starting the MBA, but now feels she has a solid grounding in all relevant business areas. "You can't get in-depth knowledge in just one year," she explains, "but you can learn enough so that you know where to start."

With the course now nearly behind her, she remains on the board of the family business, but has also just set up a company of her own, designing and installing gardens on balconies for the fast-expanding apartment sector in and around Dublin. She feels the €25,000 (£17,350) she spent on the fees was money well spent. "You don't see an instant return, but the skills you acquire and the people you get to know will last for the rest of your life."

Jackson chose a full-time course, but the part-time, modular-based format of executive MBAs is also a popular option for students coming from family-run or small and medium-sized enterprises. These individuals often just do not have the flexibility to take a whole year off, given the key role they play in their firms.

The current participants on Leeds University Business School's executive programme, which takes 25 new students each year, are overwhelmingly from this background.

"Many already have very significant responsibility within their businesses," says Marc Smelik, MBA careers director at Leeds. "But often they have not had the formal management education that will help them grow their companies from employing 30 or 40 staff, to having hundreds of employees."

One of the key features of the Leeds Business School approach, which they feel provides a particular strength for the family business or SME participant, is the continuous attempt to synchronise the learning experience with what students are practising back in their jobs. Students have to write reports on business situations they are dealing with at their desks and in their factories, relating them to topics on the MBA syllabus. They then have to defend their actions, in group discussions at the business school, to other members of the course.

In common with all MBAs, the cross fertilisation of experience and ideas among participants on the executive programme is also viewed as enormously valuable at Leeds. "There's so much variety of background," explains Smelik, "that individuals can meet people from business sectors, and with experience, that they would never encounter in their working life."

Daniel Atkinson, 34, halfway through his executive MBA at Leeds, is joint managing director of a local family-run printing and direct marketing business, which turns over £30m and employs 370 people. The business is owned by his father, but given the knowledge he's acquiring during the MBA training, Daniel says he no longer gets treated as merely the "owner's son" when he is in business meetings.

Having trained as a chartered accountant, and joined the family business in 1998 in a financial role, he gradually found that his training was too narrow to be able to deal with the wider strategic issues of the business. So he decided he needed to expand his management education. Now, he concludes, hand on heart, that the investment of £15,500 in course fees has paid off ten-fold in benefit to the business.

Given the importance to the economy, as a whole, of the small and medium-sized enterprise sector - nearly 14 per cent of Great Britain's workforce is employed in businesses with between 50 and 500 employees - the education of their future managers is of undoubted significance.

Jane McKenzie, who runs the part-time MBAs at Henley Management College in Oxfordshire, sees more and more students arriving, or finishing, a course with a mind to enter the SME market. "The entrepreneurial spirit is growing, particularly, in the UK," she says.