Written by: Patrick Hulsman

NU MBA Students Learn How to Do Business in China

Eight NU MBA students spent 12 days in China to experience the business climate in that country firsthand

“Globalization is the inexorable integration of markets, nation states, and technologies to a degree never witnessed before — in a way that is enabling individuals, corporations and nation-states to reach around the world farther, faster, deeper and cheaper than ever before, and in a way that is enabling the world to reach into individuals, corporations and nation-states farther, faster, deeper and cheaper than ever before.” — Thomas L. Friedman

On May 29, 2010, eight students in Niagara University’s MBA program departed for China for what would be 12 days of intensive in-country education and intercultural studies on how to do business in the world’s most exponentially increasing economy.

With an expanding population of more than 1.3 billion people, 63 percent of whom are in the workforce; an economy that has experienced an average annual growth rate of 10 percent over the past 30 years; and a nominal gross domestic product of $4.99 billion (USD), China’s economy has become the third largest in the world, surpassed only by Japan and the United States.

The China voyage was offered through the MBA program’s MGT 683 Business in China and Study Abroad course. The curriculum includes an intensive semester-long preparation of text readings, journal article reviews, case studies, videos, and podcasts that are designed to assist Niagara’s MBA students to develop a conceptual and theoretical framework for understanding the business environment in China. Students are also encouraged to bring business cards and résumés with them for networking purposes.

“It is critically important for our MBA students to understand the special nature of how the market economy has evolved in China since limited and cautious market reforms were introduced there as early as 1978,” says Dr. Peggy Choong, director of the program, who accompanied the students on their trip along with Ed Kowalewski, the course instructor. “It is most important for this course as well that a sense of cultural intelligence is integrated into the curriculum.

“The globalization of the world’s economy is radically changing the ways that organizations manage and companies do business,” Choong adds. “Niagara’s MBA program places special emphasis on the overwhelming fact that today’s business executives are required to have the ability to function effectively in a multinational environment, manage operations in different countries, and conduct business in strikingly diverse cultures.”

Choong emphasizes that understanding a country’s cultural intelligence is of considerable importance to succeed in the new and interdependent global environment. “Culture expresses itself in all facets of human societies including business practices, communication and education,” she says, warning that “shortfalls in cultural intelligence have been shown to lead to expatriate failure as well as breakdowns in joint ventures and acquisitions.”

Course instructor Ed Kowalewski is particularly well-versed in the concept of cultural intelligence. Kowalewski, director of international trade and investments for the Empire State Development Corp., has more than 20 years of international business experience in the private sectors of Asia, the Middle East and Europe, as well as an exceedingly rich and working understanding of public sector initiatives for economic development.

Throughout the curriculum, he stressed that understanding and pursuing cultural intelligence to support commercial relationships is the key to opening and sustaining successful business ventures in China and all international markets. Under his mentorship and direction, his students spent the spring semester preparing for the study-abroad experience in China. That preparation included not only understanding the metrics of China’s economy, but also China’s diverse culture, an interwoven and complex tapestry of languages and traditions that belie its monolithic appearance to many Western observers.

The study-abroad experience included travel to three Chinese cities: Shanghai, Shenzen (which was the first “Special Economic Zone” created by Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao Zedong as China’s leader after Mao’s death in 1978) and Hong Kong. Over the course of the three-city trip, the Niagara group visited 10 companies and enjoyed opportunities to experience cultural sites and venues as well.

The group called on a wide range of companies to gain insight into industries such as semiconductor manufacturing, integrated logistics, automobile electronics, banking, and market research. In every case, the students were provided an in-depth presentation by company executives of each company’s internal operations, how each functioned in the Chinese economy, and how its successes in negotiating the fabric of China’s hybrid command/market economy assisted its competitive standing in the global marketplace.

A very special aspect of the China experience for the Niagara group was a visit to the Hong Kong office of DFS Galleria, whose chairman and CEO is Niagara alumnus Ed Brennan of the Class of 1978. DFS is the world’s largest luxury retailer for travelers with 150 stores in 18 countries and more than 6,000 employees. Its latest available annual financial metrics report sales in excess of $2.7 billion (USD).

The DFS visit was made possible due to the enduring relationship between Stephen T. Burger, ’78, director of AT&T Investment Management Corp. in New Jersey, and Brennan, Niagara classmates who have remained lifelong friends. This spring, Burger and his wife, Kerry, hosted a group of new Niagara students from the New Jersey area at their home to introduce them to life at NU. During the event, Gerri Goerke, Niagara’s major gift officer for the tristate region of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, told Burger about the study-abroad trip and asked him if he would be willing to contact Brennan to arrange a visit to DFS Galleria for the Niagara group. Burger immediately called Brennan, who eagerly arranged for the Niagara group’s stop at DFS. The visit became the highlight of the tour, according to Choong.

Brennan was unable to join the group in Hong Kong as he was then, and remains, involved in charitable work in Haiti.

For the MBA students, the entire China experience itself was a tremendous initiation into the growing and often bewildering complexities of creating and managing business opportunities in a globalized economy. For one in particular, Wen Wen Chen, the trip became a stepping stone to her career when she was selected to be part of the management trainee program at DFS Galleria in Hong Kong.

Robin L. Makula summed up the experience of the course, the China tour and her studies in Niagara’s MBA program by sharing that, “This has been one of the most valuable experiences that I have had as an MBA student at Niagara University. I have appreciated the expertise of our faculty, particularly in this course of study with Mr. Kowalewski and Dr. Choong; the comprehensive preparation for our study abroad, which mirrors the rigor of all of my other classes; and the take-away that preparation has provided us in terms of what to expect and how to act in culturally diverse business relationships to seek fair and equitable profits for all parties concerned.”