Kicking off the school year with a successful case presentation

I knew our team did something right when I saw the Pepsi executives deep in thought following the class of 2019’s full-time MBA case competition presentation, held Aug. 25. Later, Dean Alex Triantis came up and congratulated us on our presentation, another good sign.

Finishing in second place in the class-wide case competition to cap off orientation was a great way launch my first year at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. A shout out to my teammates, Noah Pennartz, Won Heo, Lacy Kline and Montrelle Green.

The topic was presented by Pepsi executives, which made the competition exciting, and made me take it quite seriously. The company is trying to increase sales of its beverages in the so-called club channel (Costco’s, BJ’s and Sam’s Clubs).

Left to Right: Noah Pennartz, Won Heo, Becca Kerr (Robert H. Smith Alum and Pepsi’s general manager of Tropicana North America), Lacy Kline , Varun Saxena and Montrelle Green.

We suggested a co-branding partnership with Costco’s Kirkland store brand. The idea arose from our field visit to Costco’s. Visiting the store was a smart move, and helped set our group apart. It was fun to ask “innocent” questions to store employees, and we noticed some inconsistent price labels, leading one of the employees to scramble in search of her manger.

 During the visit, Noah noticed that some prominent candy brands were packaged in a container bearing the Kirkland label. Crucially, the outer package displayed the Kirkland label, but the wrapping containing the individual candies did not. This limits brand dilution.

By putting some of its non-premier (not Pepsi-Cola) brands in a similar label, PepsiCo could gain access to the center of the store, and increase their sales.

It turns out that our suggestion was a hot topic, for during the feedback portion of the competition, the Pepsi executives said they were arguing about whether to engage in co-branding immediately after our presentation. Whether they accept our suggestions or not, I am glad it was thought-provoking and interesting enough to evoke debate. 

We debated proposing a new idea after our one-on-one question and answer session with the Pepsi executives. One of them flatly said that Pepsi products would never be seen in a Kirkland package. On the one hand, we were supposed to tell Pepsi to try new things, and the company had just admitted that it was losing market share in the club channel. But hadn’t the executive already rejected our idea? Would it be offensive to propose it anyway?

Finally, Professor Paulo Prochno encouraged us to stick to our guns. The gutsy decision paid off in the end. (I was relieved when the same executive said he found our idea intriguing during the Q&A session that followed our presentation.)

The case competition consisted of two rounds. Only five teams out of about 20 made it to the final round. The final round presentation was given in front of the entire class, as well as all the Pepsi representatives on campus.

Won was the MVP of the first round. In response to a question about our group dynamics from Professor S. Lele, he gave a heart-warming response about how we made him feel like an integral part of the team despite his challenges adapting to a new life in the U.S. As he answered the question, I felt like giving him a hug then and there. I’m proud that we helped him to adjust to the country, just a few days after arriving from South Korea.

The Pepsi executive who was judging us, and would become our coach for the final round, was also moved by his answer, and said it convinced her to pick our team to advance since Pepsi also values diversity and inclusion.

The case competition has been one of the most meaningful things that I’ve done so far at the Smith School of Business. It has increased my confidence in my ability to handle stressful situations and engage in public speaking. I have also benefited tremendously from the constant feedback, both positive and negative. By the time orientation ended, I had already given about five presentations, with the final round case competition being the most intense.

Varun Saxena

Varun Saxena is a first-year, full-time MBA student at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of business. He covered healthcare as a journalist for publications such as FierceMedTech, Medical Device Daily and S&P Global News. He is aiming to work in the healthcare industry upon graduation. In his spare time, Varun enjoys playing intramural sports and reading. He has a Bachelor's in economics from George Washington University and a Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.