MBAs abroad

By Chris Green
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:36

Barcelona has everything you could want – including three business schools.

Such a beautiful horizon … like a jewel in the sun.” So sang Freddy Mercury and Montserrat Caballé on their 1988 hit Barcelona. The Queen frontman was a longs tanding fan of Spain’s easygoing second city, and the record will forever be associated with the Olympic Games of 1992. With its sports facilities, famous football team, art galleries, cuisine and night life, not to mention its beaches, Barcelona has become one of Europe’s most glamorous cities, more accessible now by air than ever before. It is also becoming an increasingly important business centre. Barcelona’s two main business schools, ESADE and IESE, are internationally recognised and their MBAs are triple-accredited by the main ranking associations, placing them among the top 30 schools worldwide. This year they are joined by the well regarded ESC Toulouse, which has leapfrogged the Pyrenees to open a new campus in the city as part of a long-term expansion project.


Walking into the main building of ESADE Business School, situated in the leafy university district in west Barcelona, feels like disappearing into the belly of a giant glass-and-steel whale. A raised central walkway leads you through the cavernous entry hall, passing beneath a series of interknitted steel arches into the heart of the building. On the clay-coloured roof terrace, MBA students drink coffee and gaze eastwards towards Camp Nou – the home of FC Barcelona – and the Mediterranean beyond. Like most top business schools, ESADE has the wow factor. Although it attracts students onto its programmes from all over the world, in terms of MBA student numbers ESADE is a fairly modest institution. Only 93 were enrolled on the 18-month MBA in 2006, and a mere 25 on the one-year course in 2007. The school’s central philosophy is based around teamwork, unlike other business schools where individualism and competition is often encouraged. In the first week of the course, MBA students find themselves literally team building: they must attempt the ancient Catalan art of creating els castells,or human towers.

“One of the reasons I chose ESADE was because of their emphasis on a teamwork culture,” says 33-yearold Adam John, a recent graduate of the 18-month MBA. “As well as all the academic side, you learn how to work as a team: this mirrors the working world, where you have to pull together to get projects finished.” John, who specialised in marketing for the pharmaceutical industry before attending ESADE, describes his research into his MBA options as “rigorous”. Although he knew he wanted to speak Spanish at the end of it, he was faced with a difficult choice between studying in Barcelona or Madrid, home of Spain’s third big business school, Instituto de Empresa. “I’d been here on business many times beforehand, and it was always one of my favourite cities,” he says. “You might say that the Spanish centre of business is still Madrid, but I don’t think we got penalised at all for this – the school didn’t seem to have any problems attracting really good companies onto the campus. And there’s a lot of big business here anyway.” Learning Spanish, the language of the emerging Latin American markets, is one of the big advantages of studying in Barcelona: although the local dialect is Catalan, most students will master Castilian, the country’s official language. “Our British, American and Asian students know that they’ll come out of the MBA with Spanish,” says Gloria Batllori, executive director of the MBA programmes unit at ESADE.

“And at the moment, Spanish is the second language of business after English. So if you come to Barcelona you will not only gain the usual skills, you’ll learn how to do business effectively in Latin America.” ESADE was established in 1958 by a group of local entrepreneurs in collaboration with the Jesuits. The past eight years have seen a good deal of growth and a greater emphasis being placed on internationalism, but Batllori says most people at the school are now happy with its global position and influence. The full-time 18-month MBA costs €57,500 and the 12-month MBA €47,500. The job of Alfons Sauquet Rovira, ESADE’s new dean of management, will be to consolidate, rather than overreach. “When you are growing, as we are, you often do too many things,” says Batllori.” So now we need to focus on value, not volume.”

ESC Toulouse

Not all of the business schools in Barcelona simply seek to consolidate though. ESC Toulouse, which also boasts triple accreditation, has had a strong presence in the city since 1995, when it located a secondary campus there in partnership with the French Chamber of Commerce, named ESEC. Toulouse is renowned for its aerospace MBA – the city is the home of Airbus – but the decision to form ESEC showed its ambition: it aimed to extend the school’s reach, making it more European and less provincial. The success of ESEC has prompted Toulouse to create yet another campus in Barcelona, which is due to open later this year. Student numbers will triple, from 150 to around 500. It is a major statement of intent by the French school, which appears keen to grow as rapidly as possible. The aim is not to displace either IESE or ESADE: instead it is to become a premier European school, not a Spanish one. The school’s two-year, fulltime Masters in management will cost €15,580.

“We’re teaching our courses in Castilian rather than Catalan, the local language,” says Dr Hervé Gasiglia, director of ESC Toulouse, “because our target is the international market of Latin America.” Taken with the surrounding area, Barcelona has a population of around four million, much bigger than Toulouse. “Only today I was told that in Europe the sexiest towns are London, then Paris, then Barcelona,” says Gasiglia. “In strategic terms, maybe in 10 years this will take precedence over the Toulouse campus.” ESC’s new base in Barcelona, squashed into the ground floor of an unimposing building in the heart of the ancient Barri Gotic orGothic Quarter, could not be more different from the lush suburban headquarters of IESE and ESADE.

Toulouse has set out to train students, not impress existing executives: the gleaming interiors and state-of the- art teaching equipment suggest it will succeed. But Gasiglia is under no illusions about the scale of the task. “By international standards we are small: we are not a Harvard. We are very aware that we’ll have to go step by step to get up to those standards. It’s really an international strategy – we’re less interested in developing the Spanish market – and we know it will take time. But a lot of our alumni are already based here, and have good links with big companies.” ESC Toulouse is not the first institution to arrive in Barcelona with dreams of expansion. Chicago Business School moved here in 1995 but relocated to London after 10 years. Whether or not Toulouse will follow in Chicago’s footsteps is a matter for speculation, but at the moment the school looks fully committed to Barcelona. And walking alongside Hervé Gasiglia through the Gothic splendour of the Old City, it is easy to see why. “This is such a beautiful city,” he says.


IESE Business School, an offshoot of the University of Navarra in Madrid, is ESADE’s big rival here. The campus is split between two sites which perch amid the quiet, winding streets of the Collserola hill, rising above the west of the city. The two year, full-time MBA costs €64,900 and is taught in a string of hi-tech buildings arranged around a Romanesque villa and gardens. The crowning glory is the new executive education site, opened in January and funded mainly by the school’s alumni association. It’s an eight-storey gleaming bullet lodged into the hillside, with cool marble interiors and some of the best views in Barcelona.

IESE shares some common ground with its local rival. Both are celebrating their 50th anniversaries, and both have religious roots. Tiny, unobtrusive crucifixes adorn the walls of the IESE lecture theatres, a nod to its Roman Catholic founders Opus Dei. Although religion plays no part in the MBA experience here, both IESE and ESADE are keen to emphasise the importance of ethical and moral responsibility in modern business, and suggest that their Christian values help them teach this more effectively. However, the similarities end there. IESE is well known for teaching its MBA using the case study method pioneered by Harvard Business School, which involves studying problems that have been faced by modern companies and suggesting solutions. The approach is intense, and according to current student James Browne, 30, the first term is “a hell of a lot of work”. But IESE’s students have plenty of time to adapt, as the full-time MBA lasts for two years.

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