There's nothing unusual about firms sponsoring their employees to study for an MBA. But it is unusual for a company to offer such an opportunity to someone outside their own staff.
Next year, one person on the full-time MBA course at the Ashridge business school will have their penchant for after-work champagne-quaffing to thank as much as their business acumen. Corney & Barrow, the City wine bar group, are sponsoring one customer to the tune of £30,000 to follow the one-year course. And if all goes well this year, the Corney & Barrow MBA Scholarship will become an annual award.
Ed Gardner, marketing and purchasing director at Corney & Barrow, says it seemed a logical step for the company. "The kind of person who studies for this kind of MBA is someone in their early thirties with commercial expertise, which very much leads you into the City. And given our geography, our customers sit very happily with that profile."
The scholarship meshes well with the Corney & Barrow ethos, he says. "We are very people-led, we spend a lot of time training our own staff, and we have always had an element of information-giving to our customers with initiatives like wine-tastings. It seemed a natural step to take this over the other side of the bar."
It does seem far down the road from offering customers the odd free glass of vino, but there are other reasons for the scheme, says Gardner. One is the opportunity to work with Ashridge. "The Ashridge ethos is not dissimilar to our own. Their MBA is very interactive, very hands-on, and it's a much more practically-led MBA than some of the ones offered by other well-known providers. We like to be associated with companies that are consistent with what we do ourselves."
The Ashridge programme includes the opportunity to run a consultancy project. Naturally, the Corney & Barrow scholarship student will do this for their sponsors. In fact, this was how the two organisations first came together, explains Vandita Chisholm, communications manager for Ashridge. "All our one-year MBA students have to do a consultancy project for a host organisation and, three years ago, one of our students looked into an expansion programme for Corney & Barrow, which was very successful, so we already felt there was a connection." Ashridge went on to run informal open evenings in Corney & Barrow wine bars. "We are based in Berkhamstead, 35 miles out of London, and we wanted to be more accessible," explains Chisholm. "Our open evenings really captured the imagination of Corney & Barrow's marketing manager, and one of the ideas for further connection was the Corney & Barrow Scholarship."
It's a win-win situation, she says. "We are delighted to be associated with the scheme. We don't know of any other organisation doing anything like it. The scholarship reinforces Corney & Barrow brand values and it opens up our MBA to a whole new audience."
Potential candidates are invited to a series of informal open sessions, held at Corney & Barrow branches. The first session, held at breakfast time in the Lloyd's branch, was a great success, says Gardner. "The sessions are an opportunity to wander in, have a chat about the criteria and fill in a form with some basic details. You then have to pass a basic skills test. Then we'll make up a shortlist and have the final interviews. The process of selection starts now, and we'll make the final choice in November. There are no restrictions, and the scholarship will be awarded on merit."
The lucky winner will have to be prepared to take leave of absence or give up their job. But it will be worth it. The 2001 Financial Times MBA survey showed that Ashbridge graduates achieve an average raise of 128 per cent – which would fund an awful lot of champagne at Corney & Barrow!
The next open evenings to introduce the Corney & Barrow MBA Scholarship will be held at the Old Broad Street branch on 18 October and the CityPoint branch on 8 November, from 5.30pm to 7.30pm. The course starts in January. For more information, see www.corney-barrow.co.uk