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INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS | Multinational Perspective

MBA Programs Are Serious About Giving Students Experience Abroad

July 04, 1996|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Greg Zikos is a lawyer, a consultant, a software entrepreneur, the father of two youngsters and, in his spare time on Fridays and Saturdays, a student in UCLA's executive MBA program.

He can now add "veteran of foreign assignments" to his resume.

Zikos, eight classmates and one of their professors recently returned from a 10-day trip to Russia, where they delved into the travails of a bearing manufacturer striving to make the shift to a market economy.

When some of the factory's executives visit Los Angeles beginning Tuesday, the UCLA group plans to present them with formal recommendations on how best to compete in international markets.

These days, going for a master's degree in business administration increasingly means going global. Zikos and his classmates, all working professionals, prove the rule. For their efforts, initiated and coordinated by Zikos, each will receive four course credits--and a leg up in corporate America, where experience in international business is a much-sought-after commodity.

"Everybody these days is talking about what it means to do business globally," said William Broesamle, who oversees UCLA's MBA programs for working executives and "fully employed" students. "Business schools are struggling with this on an everyday basis."

Indeed, in the last decade, scores of schools have added programs to help students understand the rigors of doing business in the expanding global economy. Some universities are more adept at it than others.

"It's easy for business schools, like companies, to throw around the phrases 'global' and 'international,' " said Charles W. Hickman, director of projects and services at the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business in St. Louis. But "there's no doubt that several schools in California have serious commitments and have been at it a while."

Among the nation's executive MBA programs--those that cater to working professionals--about 75% include an international study trip as part of the curriculum, Hickman said. That percentage is much smaller for regular MBA programs, which tend to build in an optional trip or the chance for individuals to take courses at schools in other countries.

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In California, UC Berkeley, USC, Stanford, the University of San Francisco and Cal State Hayward also have significant international programs for graduate business students.

USC's International Business Education and Research program, for example, offers an intensive 12-month program in international management, leading to an MBA. It is designed for mid-career managers with six or more years of full-time experience in business or government.

Participants spend half the year on a consulting project for one of the program's many corporate sponsors, which include Andersen Consulting, Walt Disney, McDonnell Douglas and Sony Pictures. Past projects have required travel to Argentina, Brazil, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore and Taiwan.

For their part, UCLA students have done free consulting work for Nokia, a Finnish producer of cellular phones; Nestle; VA Technologie, an Austrian industrial construction firm; Microsoft; Disney Europe; and others. In each case, a class of 60 to 70 students splits into small teams, each supported by a faculty member, to work with a company. If the project requires travel abroad, UCLA underwrites some of the cost. Each student typically pays his or her air fare. Other costs are built into the tuition.

Broesamle said the work generally does not lead to jobs for the students. "The goal is exclusively educational," he said.

Companies appreciate the help and recognize the benefits such consulting work imparts to potential employees. Working overseas "really helps them tackle the complexities that they are going to face in their real jobs," said Tom Reeve, a Microsoft executive in charge of developing interactive media products for overseas markets.

The trip Zikos, 38, and his classmates took was unusual in that it was orchestrated by a student.

In February, Zikos approached his class with a proposition: Let's develop a comprehensive business plan for VPZ-15, a maker of roller bearings based in the city of Volzhskiy, near Volgograd. VPZ, with limited funds, wants to convert from a state-run enterprise to one primarily owned by its 10,300 managers and employees. It wants to compete in quality and price throughout the world by specializing in niche products.

Zikos knew of the company through his connections with Business Development Partners, a management consulting service that has advised several Russian enterprises. He also had structured an agreement to enable VPZ to distribute its products in the United States and Mexico.

After a whirlwind tour of Moscow, the UCLA brigade, which dubbed itself the "Thunder Lizards," dug in beginning May 13, working long days at the company factory. By week's end, the UCLA team had produced a set of Western-style financial records to replace the company's awkward Russian accounting system.

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