Alumni networks: The party never stops

Why do MBAs keep going back to their old schools? James Morrison explores the lavish perks of alumni life
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The Independent Online

Sailing contests in Genoa; subsidised gourmet cooking weekends; black-tie balls overflowing with complimentary champers. No wonder so many MBAs keep going back to school for more long after they've graduated.

Browse through the menu of activities for old boys and girls offered by leading business schools and it's clear the after-sales service for MBA alumni is a world away from the ten-year reunions and single A4-sheet newsletters offered by most old schools.

But away from all the glitz, the work of alumni networks is serious business. As MBA schools vie to attract the most gifted applicants in a congested market, they are increasingly turning to former students to aid with recruitment – and to inspire their new intakes once they're on board.

Even the quid pro quos – perks alumni can expect for keeping in touch with their old tutors – bring clear benefits for schools themselves. Many now offer refresher courses on everything from new technology to the executive buzzword of the moment, leadership, prompting more cynical observers to portray their degrees as "MBAs that never end".

As well as this, business schools tap their alumni for new bursaries and scholarships – something the United States is much better at than Europe.

So, is there such a thing as a typical alumni network, and if so how does it work? At Cranfield School of Management, alumni services are as textbook as they come. For a modest £45 subscription, the 4,500 registered members signed up for its full service are kept abreast of business developments by a monthly e-newsletter, and in touch with peers via a Facebook-style online database designed to aid networking.

Vivien Harrington, director of Cranfield Management Association, which, aged 31, is one of Britain's oldest MBA alumni organisations, says the internet has revolutionised the network: "There's competition from social networking sites, but through our alumni we have direct contact with experts they don't have."

In terms of added value, the highlight of Cranfield's calendar is its October "grand reunion", at which high-flying alumni address their fellows for fees several decimal points lower than their usual rates. This year's event boasted a speech by Bill Williams, chief executive of the Centre of Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence (class of 2000), followed by a gala dinner and casino.

Cranfield also offers "executive retreats" (cost: £1,500) designed to take alumni out of the hothouses of their offices and trading floors to hone their leadership skills in a neutral environment. To aid blue-sky thinking, candidates are told to leave mobiles and Blackberries at the door.

So what can the school expect in return? Ms Harrington cites a long tradition of old hands nurturing new (Robert Wright, board member of low cost airline Wizz Air, has invested in several start-up companies launched by recent graduates). Others help with mock job interviews for current incumbents, while many make financial donations – a trend more in keeping with the philanthropic culture of American schools. Alumni involvement at Cranfield is such that three-quarters of its students apply to it partly as a result of having met an alumnus.

Henley Management College's network is similarly active. June Sebley, director of client services, explains: "It's a two-way relationship: alumni act as our ambassadors and we offer them support."

In ambassadorial terms, the college boasts a highly evolved global presence. There are 26 separate alumni associations worldwide, based everywhere from Singapore to Ireland, each of which organises its own programme of events in addition to those coordinated centrally. Members of the Danish association attend annual refresher weekends at Henley, and all alumni are invited, gratis, to corporate events addressed by luminaries from the world of international business – and beyond.

A recent series of lectures on leadership included talks by General Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the general staff, and Sir Michael Peat, the Prince of Wales's private secretary. As an antidote to these more testing events, meanwhile, there's a members' day during Henley Royal Regatta, and next year will see an inaugural MBA ball. Such events don't only benefit the younger generation: Henley's oldest alumnus is Sir John Read, the 87-year-old former EMI chairman who signed the Sex Pistols.

"Top-ups" are available to alumni of most other major MBA providers, too. London's Cass Business School offers lessons in emerging business languages like Mandarin and Spanish. The Open University's association (with 19,000 members, one of the world's biggest) holds "leadership workshops" (yes, that word again), half-day seminars for £95 a pop, and weekend residentials in Brussels and Prague (£495).

More exotic still are the opportunities offered by Milan's SDA Bocconi. Managing director Andrea Gasparri runs golf contests, gastronomic weekends and a four-day conference and regatta – culminating in the award of the MBAs Cup – each September. At £200, including transport, boat hire, meals, accommodation and speakers, it's a snip for most MBA grads, and Dr Gasparri insists there's a clear rationale.

"A boat's a nice simulation of a company," he argues. "You need a skipper, and everyone else needs to work well together."

'The actors I'm working with are so passionate'

There can't be many MBA alumni who spend their evenings perched on 10ft stilts, sporting bushy beards and floor-length coats studded with tree bark. But that's exactly what Henley Management College graduate Mike Hobbs does when not working as a freelance leadership consultant.

Mike, 40, who trained as an actor at Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art before taking a sideways step to read his MBA, currently moonlights as Treebeard, the giant animated tree - or ent - in the West End production of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

This may not seem an obvious career move for someone who recently completed a sought-after postgrad degree at a top 20 UK business school. But Mike insists it's helping him in his day job.

"Whichever organisation you're in, you should be trying to make your product or service as good as it can be," he explains. "The actors I'm working with are so passionate - always trying to do things to the best of their abilities - so this feeds into work I do with companies in the City.

"I've been to a couple of drink and dinners dos since graduating, and I've also done a networking course and a mentoring course, both of which were free.

"But I would like to go back to continue my studies at some point. I've found the whole leadership side of things fascinating, and I'd like to do some research or take a course to study the concept of leadership in more detail. Would I be prepared to pay for a top-up course? Absolutely."