Base camp for your brain

Professor Philippe Levy rallies the troops at Desautels base camp. / Photo:Owen Egan
Professor Philippe Levy rallies the troops at Desautels base camp. / Photo:Owen Egan

By Chris Chipello

On a balmy mid-August evening, while nearby bistros begin to fill with the 5-to7 crowd, a few dozen adult students pack into a Desautels Faculty of Management classroom for a three-hour session on financial accounting.

Many set up laptops to follow the presentation by Prof. Philippe Levy. All listen intently as he begins to march them, item-by-item, through the balance sheet in a major pharmaceutical company’s annual financial report to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Welcome to Desautels base camp—an intensive three-week program to help aspiring MBAs fill gaps in their math, statistics or accounting backgrounds before regular classes start September 2.

The base camp marks a first step in the faculty’s revised MBA program. More than 60 full-time and 40 part-time students are in the incoming class, with over 50 per cent taking at least one of the base camps. On average, they are about 30 years old and have more than 5 years of work experience.  Over half the full-time incoming students are from outside Canada; 13 are from Latin America.

The first semester of the new two-year program is devoted to a “core curriculum” composed of five modules: global leadership, business tools, value creation, managing resources, and markets and globalization. The courses are designed to cut across the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines, providing a more “real-world” sense of what managers need to know, says Don Melville, director of the MBA program.

After completing the core curriculum, students select concentrations in one or two of four fields: finance, marketing, global leadership, and technology and innovation management.

For 29-year-old David Engonidis from Toronto, the redesigned curriculum was the “main draw” at McGill.  Because students begin to specialize during their first year, they’re well positioned to land attractive summer-internship opportunities, he reasons.

Engonidis, who worked in the human-resources area at a major Canadian bank, has a bachelor’s degree in math and statistics. So, like engineers and others with math or science backgrounds, he was able to skip the first two weeks of boot camp.

Thanks partly to the Internet, the new class has networked quickly. While visiting Montreal to line up housing a few weeks ago, Engonidis stayed with Raja Uppuluri, another incoming student who had started a Facebook group for members of the MBA 2010 class. The group already includes 50 members, according to the Facebook site.

At base camp, the pace is brisk. Within 90 minutes on this recent evening, Levy has moved from basic questions about the nature of the balance sheet and the income statement, to critical analysis of information contained in the documents.  To analyze financial statements effectively, he tells the students, readers must look beyond “what’s being presented”  by the company and figure out what more they need to know.