Many factors set the team Bucknell's School of Management sent to this year's Johnson & Johnson Case Competition apart: it represented the smallest school in a field packed with flagship state universities; the team contained a sophomore and no seniors; and while most of the competing squads were male-dominated, Bucknell fielded five women. But what distinguished them most of all was the package of recommendations they offered the consumer giant at its New Jersey headquarters, which won the University its first-ever grand prize.
The national case competition challenged teams to take a real-world product from development to market by choosing and defending strategies for producing, marketing and selling the item. This year's product was a knee replacement based on an artificial knee from the company's medical devices division, far from a familiar subject for the team made up of accounting and financial management majors Steffanie Katz, Stacy Cox and Lauren Smith, and markets, innovation and design majors Carly Riemann and Caitlin Flynn.
"Getting started was really difficult, because we had all of these decisions to make, and we could really see both sides," said Katz, a junior. "We had to weigh our decisions and there wasn't necessarily a best answer or a right answer, but we had to pick the one we could defend best."
Professor of Accounting and Financial Management Mark Bettner, who organized the contest at Bucknell, said that difficulty came by design; it mirrors the difficult decisions Johnson & Johnson's executives must make.
"At J&J when you're working with limbs, lives are involved — quality of life and people's ability to be mobile are at stake," Bettner said. "You're working with real problems with very real impacts and it makes the students pause, because there are no real right answers."
The competition was started in 1999 by Larry Holden '68, former worldwide controller for Johnson & Johnson's consumer products division and a founding member of the Bucknell Business Advisory Board, as a way to provide Bucknell students greater opportunity for experiential learning. In 2002 Johnson & Johnson expanded the contest by inviting other schools it considers key to its employee recruiting strategy, including University of Florida, University of Illinois, Penn State University and two Rutgers University campuses. Each school would host its own on-campus competition, with the winner travelling to New Brunswick, N.J., for the final round. That year Bucknell took home its first award, a third-place finish, but hadn't returned to the podium since.
"We're the David among these Goliath programs, and we were always the bridesmaid, never the bride — until this year," Bettner said. "This year our students knocked it out of the park."
To get to the finals the team bested a field of six competing teams at Bucknell, and refined their presentation through nightly meetings and advice from School of Management faculty, including Professors Curtis Nicholls, Richard Kedzior and Cindy Guthrie.
"The professors were so helpful," said Flynn, a junior. "It was a huge case packet, and they read through the entire thing before they sat down with us. They were so passionate about it, and we felt good going into the competition knowing that we had that support."
By the time they arrived in New Brunswick, the group was confident in its case.
"At that point we had been working on it for a few weeks, so it was more about getting the nerves out," Flynn said. "We just kept telling ourselves, We know this. No matter what question they throw our way, we know this case inside and out."
Confidently defending their recommendations under questioning from high-level executives proved more challenging than anticipated, but the group knew its case, and impressed the judges. Bettner said the case scenario was based on a real product that until recently had been under development by Johnson & Johnson, and the group was also pleased to learn it had made many decisions coinciding with the company's recommendations.
"It felt pretty cool that we were touching on some of the stuff that they had just started doing," Flynn said. "We walked out feeling really good about that."
Besides the $5,000 prize and an impressive line for their resumes, the group members said they took from the experience a real-world educational experience that's hard to simulate in the classroom.
"I learned that there's not always a right answer, but that how you defend and support your answer is what matters," said Reimann, a junior. "We touch on that in a lot of my classes, but this was a real-world example."
Bettner added participating in the Johnson & Johnson competition is one of many ways in which Bucknell and the School of Management take advantage of opportunities for experiential learning. Others include: Management 101, the Student Managed Investment Fund and the PwC Challenge.
"The more of this type of thing we can do, the better," Bettner said. "These opportunities contribute to the professional maturity of our students and give them poise and confidence when they begin the interview process."