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Shining anew

HKUST triumphs in the CICC for the second year in a row

For the second time in a row, a team of students from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) scooped first place in the annual Citi International Case Competition (CICC).

At the start of the contest, 18 teams from universities across Asia, Europe and North America were given a business case from the Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group. They then had just 24 hours to analyse the issues facing the company and come up with recommendations as to what the business should do, before presenting their ideas to a team of judges that included Chow Tai Fook managing director Kent Wong.

Kenny Ng Cheuk-him and Jessica Kwok from Hong Kong, Liang Shu Yu from Taiwan and Falk Christoph Seiler from Germany made up the HKUST team, together with coach Chris Doran, adjunct associate professor in the  university’s department of management.

At the competition’s awards dinner, Liang spoke about the moment the team first realised they were in with a shot at the title. “I think it was when we did a run-through of everything, had a pep talk, realised we had a bold and feasible idea, and we said we could do this,” he said.

But the road to this point was not an entirely smooth one. “In the preparation room, it was a mess, it was chaos,” Ng acknowledged.

Seiler said: “There were so many pieces we had to put together and time was running out. I think if you only have 24 hours and you start with nothing, that is the most stressful part. But I think we broke through this barrier when we started generating some ideas, assessing their feasibility and putting things down on paper. Then things started going more smoothly as we went into more detail with our recommendations and had some clarity on what we were going to do.”

Ng is clear that it was their ability to work as a team that ultimately pulled them through. “I enjoy working with these guys because we are good at different things and we all have very different personalities,” he explained.

Once the case company was announced, coaches were allowed no further contact with their team. Doran said that finding himself in the spectator’s role, unable to offer advice or encouragement, was “quite frustrating”.

It wasn’t any lack of quality in his team’s work that had him most anxious to chip in, but the fact that he felt they weren’t as confident in their Q&A defence as they could have been.

“I wanted to tell them, ‘Just push back. [The judges] are giving you a hard time, but you’ve got a great idea so just stand up for it.’ But it is really hard when you are a student and you’re talking to the MD of a huge company,” he said.

Despite having seen their presentation in the qualifying round and the final round of four, it wasn’t until the competition was over that Doran felt he could praise their efforts. “It was only today, after the presentation, that I could finally say, ‘Good job,’” he said.

Before the competition began, Doran was confident, but not complacent, about the team’s chances. “I run a course on business analysis with about 30 students, and each year I pick – based on their performance on that course – a team to represent us in the Citi competition. This team was picked about two or three weeks before the contest and, while I knew they should be finalists, I wasn’t sure they were up to winning,” he said.

What particularly impressed him was the team’s ability to operate outside their comfort zone. “They are natural analysts and they were able to do marketing,” he said. “The presentation they gave was all about the emotion and the experience, how the customers will feel and how you create that good feeling around jewellery. I knew that this wasn’t their strongest suit; they’re more analytical than that. So it was very impressive that they were able to activate the other side of their brains.”

Even if they hadn’t won this year’s CICC, the HKUST team said that just taking part would still have been a very rewarding process.

“[The CICC] is different because of the way the case company was exclusively interviewed for this competition and because we got the chance to visit the company and get a lot more real-time market insight,” Kwok said.

Meanwhile, the opportunity to meet and learn from students from around the world was a memorable experience for the whole team.

“One of the most valuable things I’ve got from the competition was the chance to get to know people from different countries and see the different ways in which they approached the competition,” Seiler said. “I spoke with the teams from Spain, Florida and Thailand and they all have different approaches to problem-solving. The European teams also pointed out that the Asian teams seemed so professional and detail-oriented.”

This observation was borne out by the fact that the first three places in this, the 11th staging of the CICC, were taken by Asian teams. Second and third places were taken by Thammasat University in Thailand and the National University of Singapore, respectively. The fourth team was from the University of South Carolina.

“I’ve met the Asian teams before at other case competitions and made friends with them,” Ng said. “And I’ve made some new friends in some other teams, especially those from America and Europe, places we don’t get teams from very often in Asia-Pacific case competitions.”