MBA Profile: Tanaka Business School

How Tanaka business school was revamped to bring its MBA into the world top 10
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The Independent Online

For a man who took his first degree in history and politics, David Bentley, 35, seems remarkably well informed about chip technology. But then he has just done a full-time MBA at Tanaka, Imperial College's business school.

"I got involved with an inventor in China," he says. "He's got a new DMB [Digital Multimedia Broadcasting] chip set. There's an incredible amount of stuff going on at Imperial that you can really get closely involved with, just by listening."

This is music to the ears of David Begg, Tanaka's principal, to whom integration is holy writ. "We're partnering with other Imperial faculties, delivering solutions to companies. Imperial's commercial edge lies in always being in the cracks between the interdisciplinary projects. Engineering plus medicine equals medical devices, engineering plus physics equals climate change, and so on."

Few institutions can have changed so fast or so radically. Its name, location and character have all altered. Until two years ago, it was the Imperial College Business School, housed on the opposite side of Exhibition Road from the college.

Then, along came Gary Tanaka, American entrepreneur and Imperial alumnus, with £27m for a new building. Tanaka himself is now awaiting a fraud trial in the States, but Norman Foster's plate-glass showpiece went ahead and provides the whole Victorian college with a glamorous façade.

Out went David Norburn, dean for 15 years, and in swept Begg, a dynamic Scots economist from an academic background, with a brief from Sir Richard Sykes, head of Imperial, to reposition and restructure the school.

"Sykes thought we should be focused tightly on Imperial's strength and work closely with other Imperial faculty," says Begg. Like a politician, he ticks off his successes. "Two-thirds of the academic and tenured staff who were here three years ago have gone. And I have had the fun of rehiring the clusters of excellence we wish to build."

They include quantitative finance and risk, "because that's mathematics"; innovation and entrepre-neurship, "because Imperial has very large commercialisation-type transfer operations"; and health-care management, "because Imperial now is Europe's largest medical school".

"We've made it much more coherent. I've hired 25, including five finance directors," he says. "Our turnover has roughly doubled in three years. I think it'll do that again in the next few years. We've got two or three grants, worth £2-3m each, to do innovation, productivity and health-care infrastructure.

"We've gone from being over the road, and not quite proper Imperial, to being the front door. And the rest of Imperial is beginning to understand that its business school is a huge asset."

When Begg arrived, there were 150 people doing the full-time MBA. He has shrunk the class and raised the quality. The result has been a rise in the full-time rankings. "Our executive MBA has been ranked 10th or 11th in the world in the last three years, and we've been ranked top in entrepreneurship in Europe." The cost of the full-time MBA, £25,000, has risen accordingly.

Though clearly nothing to do with Begg, the Tanaka fraud case, expected soon, may affect the school's reputation. Indeed, it could be "a major problem for Imperial," according to the previous dean. Begg gives the prepared response: "Tanaka is innocent until proven guilty. It's a matter for him; nothing to do with us. There are no financial implications for the college. We'd prefer not to be in this situation, obviously, but we're very relaxed."

So do ethics play a part in the teaching at Tanaka? It's part of the MBA core module "people and organisations", and medicine, which comprises more than 50 per cent of Imperial courses, is all about ethics, says Begg. "So ethics is something that pervades Imperial for all sorts of reasons."

Begg will not easily be swayed by headlines. As a boy he wanted to play cricket for England "but knew they wouldn't take a Scot". So he went to Cambridge, where he got a double first in economics, and has had a glittering career in academia. But this is his first job as principal.

"It's the most exciting thing I've done, a complete career change," he says. "We have radically changed almost everything simultaneously - human resources practices, the lot. It has been a great joy to operate in an environment where some of our competitors had their hands tied behind their backs and we didn't."

'I thought, this is why I'm here. It all clicked.'

Mikael Kallerman, 30, from Stockholm, has just finished his one-year MBA at Tanaka Business School.

As an engineer I had an early glimpse of big business when I was peripherally involved in the proposed merger of two national telecoms companies - Swedish and Norwegian. It failed. I was also involved in a corporate venture programme, in effect putting television on the web way back in 2001. We were pushing the boundaries, but the big corporation saw this as insurgent behaviour and closed it down.

Later, I got involved with finance and private equity sales, but I wanted more of an international career. An MBA was the answer. In 2002, I applied to some top American schools, but my heart wasn't in it. My girlfriend didn't want to move abroad and I didn't want to do a two-year programme on the other side of the planet. I chose Imperial because I wanted a really broad education. It has worked out well, and we got married towards the end of the course.

I believe in the entrepren-eurial style and I like the innovative way of doing business. My TVP (Technology Venture Programme) at Tanaka was about evaluating the business opportunities for solar power. There was a moment at the end of it when I realised how it fitted with the entrepreneurship and innovation projects in a logical framework. I thought, "Ah, I get it, this is why I'm here." Suddenly it all clicked.