They were young, intelligent, enthusiastic and ready for anything - including an MBA at Cranfield. But where are they now?
Remember 1991? Chill recessionary winds were buffeting the British economy, unemployment was high, business confidence low. In that inauspicious economic climate, 153 bright, well-educated, ambitious, largely employed, mostly solvent, aspiring business Turks opted to give up combined salaries of £3.9 million and spend £1.3 million in fees, more than £1.4 million in living expenses and over 471,000 study hours pursuing a full-time MBA at Cranfield University School of Management.
In return for their investment, the students of 1991/92 could, of course, have become the MBAs of popular business legend - Monstrous, Brash and Arrogant. Armed with a good qualification from a leading business school, Cranfield's newly-minted MBAs should (according to the 1980s stereotype) have developed a sadly superior manner, insatiable demands for larger and larger paychecks and an unstoppable urge to hop from job to job.
The course itself began in late September 1991 and, after four terms separated by three two-week breaks, ended mid-September 1992. Most of the students found the MBA's reputation as extremely hard work entirely justified. An 'MBA is not for wimps' philosophy meant a minimum of 10 hours of study a day. Mornings were filled by lectures, afternoons by work in study groups and evenings with preparation for the following day's lectures. A never-ending round of tests, assessments, verbal presentations, case studies and examinations gave would-be senior managers a perfect preview of the sleep-deprived, stress-filled lives that lay ahead of them.
In reality, for those who quit jobs to start an MBA in that then-recessionary climate, the costs were certain, the benefits less so. At Cranfield, the 135 self-financing students each paid £9,500 in fees, spent perhaps another £10,000 on accommodation and living expenses, and gave up salaries averaging £28,000.
Fortunately, most of the class of '91 survived the course. Just for the record: one person dropped out during the course; 3 failed and had to resit final examinations; 14 people later married people they met on the course; 15 babies were born; 3 couples separated and a substantial number of existing relationships floundered. A survey taken immediately after the course ended revealed that: over 60% went to work in the south of England; 22% became consultants; 13% went to work in banking and finance; 22% found their subsequent jobs through networking; 56% said they were likely to change jobs within the next 12 months; and salaries increased immediately by an average of 21%.
The course itself changed the perspectives of many participants at the time and pushed many on the road to successful and fulfilling careers.
But perhaps more importantly, the intervening years have led many to reassess their own definitions of what success and fulfilment actually mean. At the time, no one really knew whether it had all been worth it. Now, more than five years on, the MBA's value is easier to assess. Here, then, are 10 very individual opinions on what returns this investment has brought.
THE OUTDOORS TYPE
ALASTAIR BRAMWELL Director, Bramwell International, import and distribution company Age and marital status now: 33, single
Pre-MBA: Instructor, Operation Raleigh, Borneo Age and marital status then: 26, single
When a tanned Alastair Bramwell started the MBA, he still had his sights set on a corporate career. Admittedly, he had just returned from working as an instructor with Operation Raleigh in Borneo, but his CV was pretty pukka - a classic general management training with Tate & Lyle, followed by three years as a business analyst and consultant. At the time he said he did an MBA to gain more specialist knowledge in areas such as finance.
'If I'm honest I also saw it as a safety net that would let me try other career avenues but still provide an entry back into corporate life,' he admits. After the MBA he applied, half-heartedly and unsuccessfully, for some posts with UK blue-chip companies. Instead, Bramwell joined his father in setting up a business to import and distribute specialist outdoor equipment (climbing boots, for example). After a slow start, the company is now growing rapidly. Is this success?
'Success, for me, is about enjoying myself, building something of my own and having the freedom to do what I want to do,' he says. 'Before the MBA I was on the track I felt I should be on, now it's the track I want to be on. In my previous jobs I had appalling problems with lines of authority. I thought it was a factor of immaturity. But now I think it was just a factor of Alastair Bramwell. If I hadn't done the MBA I would probably have thrown a wobbly somewhere further down the corporate track. The MBA was a very constructive way for me to take time out.'
SHEILA ROSS HAMILTON Account development executive, Newell & Budge Age and marital status now: 41, single
Pre-MBA: Project manager, Micrognosis Age and marital status then: 35, single 'If MBA success is viewed in terms of bigger salaries and greater responsibility, then I'm a failure,' says Sheila Ross Hamilton. 'I left a well-paid project management job to start the MBA. Since gaining the qualification, I've had three different jobs and been unemployed for 18 months. The MBA certainly gave me something - but it wasn't in the least what I expected.'
Ross Hamilton thought the MBA would broaden her general management knowledge, which she insists it did. 'In fact I could have used it to get the sort of job I thought I wanted when the course began. Only, by the end of the course, what I wanted had changed. I didn't want to become the sort of business person it was equipping us all to be. The MBA pushed me into sorting out what I really wanted to do.' Everything isn't sorted out yet. But Ross Hamilton believes she's moving in the right direction. 'My current job is interesting and I'm learning useful skills. I've also got enough time to pursue my other interests.
I'm not a success in classic MBA terms. But, then, you could say I didn't just get an MBA. I also decided to get a life.'
THE WORKING MOTHER
KATHRYN GRAY Commercial director, Monaghan Middlebrook Age and marital status now: 35, married, two children
Pre-MBA: General manager, Christian Salvesen Food Services
Age and marital status then: 28, married
At the end of the MBA course, Odgers Prize winner Kathryn Gray was voted the 'Person Most Likely to Succeed' by her fellow students. She had excelled on the course and begun it with an impressive track record - general manager of a Christian Salvesen food-processing plant and its 400 employees at the age of 27. 'It was a job many people aspire to reach by 40,' she points out.
The MBA, she says, gave her a 'safe way to take a year out', a good qualification, some business jargon and broader knowledge of sales and marketing. Post-MBA, she joined Middlebrook Mushrooms in a sales and marketing role and is now commercial director for leading mushroom firm Monaghan Middlebrook (turnover £80 million). Did her fellow students make the right choice by picking her? 'Lots of people on that course were equally likely to succeed. True, I'm a key player in a small company with lots of autonomy and a significantly larger salary than before the MBA. But I think the greater success has been to maintain my career while having two children in the past four years.'
THE HIGH FLYER
CHRIS HOPSON Corporate affairs director, Granada Media Group
Age and marital status now: 34, married
Pre-MBA: Communications consultant, Corporate Communications Strategy Age and marital status then: 28, single
The Chris Hopson story is enough to make anyone sign on the MBA dotted line. Made redundant from a communications consultant job shortly before the course began, he spent the second half of the MBA working as a part-time political advisor to David Mellor MP, landed a high-profile job working for Granada plc six months after the course ended and married fellow MBA student, Charlotte Gascgoine, the following year.
Hopson hoped the MBA would help him step from his previous life in politics/communication into a business career. 'I knew I wanted a business career but I didn't know what or where.' he admits. His new job is a satisfying combination of his previous PR experience and big business. 'The MBA gives you an understanding of business and its jargon. But it doesn't, for example, turn someone with no marketing experience into the marketing director of ICI. The MBA works best if used to build on previous experience.'
Hopson feels the MBA has given him a business 'language' and an understanding of Granada's commercial orientation. But there were other gains too: 'I started the MBA thinking the important thing was a very successful career and the approbation of one's peers. One of the most important things I learned at Cranfield is that success is not about money but about striking the right balance between work and what you do outside work.'
MARK GLOYENS Partner/brewer, The Rebellion Beer Company Age and marital status now: 34, single
Pre-MBA: Manager, Chiltern Valley Wines/Ales
Age and marital status then: 28, single
'Prior to the MBA I had worked only three and a half years out of seven,' says Mark Gloyens. 'I had been floundering around mostly travelling or working in the wine and brewing business. I finally decided I wanted to work for myself and produce something tangible - beer. I had no business experience and thought the MBA would give me the knowledge I lacked.
'To be honest,' he continues, 'I probably got more out of the MBA than just about anybody else. I started from an incredibly low knowledge base yet knew exactly what I wanted to achieve. Everything I did at Cranfield has proved useful - even the statistics. The only thing I don't use is Business French.'
In the second half of the year Gloyens opted for all the small-business courses such as business planning (including how to raise venture capital), tax, and entrepreneurship. He set up a brewery in Marlow with a partner, Tim Coombes, in January 1993, and now brews 20,000 pints a week for sale to pubs and off-licences. Current turnover is £750,000 and the company employs seven people. 'Money rewards are not that important - we enjoy what we do, hopefully people like the product, and the long-term aim is to be in a position to take two or three months off a year to go travelling. Not having a boss is probably the most rewarding thing.'
Would he be where he is now without the MBA? 'Possibly yes,' he says, 'I would have had a go at setting up a brewery anyway and Tim has a business background. But, it's certainly helped us make fewer mistakes.'
THE CITY SLICKER
GORDON GRAY Director, equity research, Salomon Smith Barney
Age and marital status now: 37, married
Pre-MBA: Senior mining investment analyst, Edey, Rogers & Co, South Africa
Age and marital status then: 31, married
'Since leaving university I had only worked in South Africa, for a small, 20-person niche player. Now I'm employed in London by a major global firm,' says investment analyst Gordon Gray. In the early '90s, Gray wanted to move back to the UK but felt he lacked the skills and experience which larger investment firms required. 'I thought the MBA would give me the strategic, analytical and financial depth and breadth which I lacked,' he explains. Not only did the MBA fulfil those expectations, it opened the door to a priceless job.
'The MBA gave me enough credibility for a major global firm like Salomon Brothers to look at me when my previous experience had only been with a small, parochial firm. I saw their advert on the Cranfield noticeboard and applied. I doubt I would even have got an interview without an MBA.
I don't have to justify the course or its content at all. It opened the door to a job I'm very happy with. My career has progressed as I hoped and I simply don't see any reason to leave because I still have plenty of challenges here.'
ANDREW JARDINE Self-employed Age and marital status now: 35, single
Pre-MBA: Audit manager, Blue Circle Industries
Age and marital status then: 29, single
Prior to the MBA, accountancy-trained Andrew Jardine advised Blue Circle Industries on their acquisitions. Now, he invests in businesses on his own behalf. The transition has been helped by having an MBA, but Jardine is still not certain by just how much.
'It helped broaden my understanding of professional management, differentiated me from many other accountants and gave me some credibility. Without it, I probably wouldn't have got such a good financing deal for the parcel carrier business I purchased after Cranfield. But really the biggest benefit was the people I met and the very good friends I made. As an accountant, I wonder whether the investment was worthwhile.
The financial justification just doesn't stack up. I could probably have learned a lot of the course from a book.
'On the positive side, I'm undoubtedly where I want to be now. My dream was to work for myself, be comfortably off and in charge of my own future.
I don't want to be a manager. I like to spot opportunities, buy companies, sell them and move onto the next deal. If success is achieving that dream, then I guess I'm a success - and much sooner than I would have anticipated.'
THE PEOPLE PERSON
PETER YARROW Account director, Fidelity Pension Fund Management
Age and marital status now: 37, single
Pre-MBA: Self-employed project manager
Age and marital status then: 31, single
Peter Yarrow thought the MBA would give him some more 'hard' business skills and a useful qualification. But what he really felt he needed was 'time to take a deep breath and decide what direction my career should take'. In helping him choose that direction, he considers the MBA to have been invaluable.
'The "softer" side of the Cranfield year, including personal development courses, gave me a set of tools to analyse my career requirements and personal goals which I didn't have before. The course also helped me sort out what I'm good at doing. But, in helping me understand myself and sorting out my priorities, the other course members were probably most help of all. In fact, with a few exceptions, I probably got far more out of the other people on the course and its overall environment than any of the lectures.' During the year, Yarrow reformulated his view of career success. 'For me, it's about a steady career with upward potential in a world-class company, working with colleagues I like, and using my skills properly in an intellectually stimulating job.' Two years ago he joined leading investment managers Fidelity Pension Fund Management. 'The culture suits me perfectly - it's very positive, enthusiastic, team-orientated, trusting and open. Earlier in my career I had worked in a similar culture and failed to appreciate it. This time I understand how and why it suits me and realise how fortunate I am. I wouldn't be here without the MBA.'
DUNCAN ANGWIN Lecturer in strategic management, Warwick Business School
Age and marital status now: 37, married, three children
Pre-MBA: Assistant director, Corporate Finance, Mitsui Taiyo Kobe Bank
Age and marital status then: 31, single
In 1991, Duncan Angwin ran a mergers and acquisition team for a major world bank. Now, he's an academic earning less in a year than he used to pay in tax. The leap from high earner to highbrow was exactly what Angwin wanted to achieve through the MBA. Even so, he hadn't reckoned how much financial pain it would involve. 'I'm staggered at how little academics earn,' he admits.
After five years at Warwick, the future is looking rosier. Angwin has academic credibility, a deal to publish a book on the results of his PhD research on the strategy of mergers and acquisitions, and a growing profile in this area. 'You could look at the last five years as an upfront investment.
I've been betting on the sort of future I want for myself and family.
I could have stayed put in my previous job and earned a great deal of money, but would I have been happy? Probably not.
'The MBA gained me entry to academic life. Now, domestically, I'm very happy. I also seem to be proving my academic worth. But, in comparison with my life before, the wheels of academe grind very slowly.'
JUDITH OLIVER Self-employed journalist
Age and marital status now: 37, single
Pre-MBA: Horseracing journalist
Age and marital status then: 31, single
Of all the poor reasons for doing an MBA, the author of this article boasts definitely the worst (although without doubt the most original) - 'The person sitting next to me at a dinner party (an ex-Cranfield MBA) told me I wouldn't get in. At the time I was working as a journalist on a horse-racing magazine and didn't know what MBA meant, so I suppose he had a point. But an MBA seemed very attractive. All the men at the party had one and they also had BMWs, careers that were going somewhere, Amex Gold Cards and self-belief.
'While I wouldn't recommend that anyone else start an MBA on such flimsy reasoning, it's the best ill-considered decision I've taken to date. I gained much from the MBA but nothing that I expected. True, I do now understand what opportunity cost means and can read a balance sheet but I didn't get the BMW nor a "proper" job. Instead, the MBA provided a year to think about myself, liberally peppered with some excellent self-development courses and the support of many intelligent, lively people. By the end of the course I had finally found out what I wanted - to work for myself, do something worthwhile, and earn enough money not to worry about bills.
Six years on, I'm more or less there. I don't believe it would have happened without the MBA year.'
Was it worth it? Should you do one? As this article shows, the answers to those questions will vary from the simple to the unsatisfyingly complicated.
For career climbers and salary seekers the answer's plain. Recent research by both the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and the Financial Times provide convincing proof that an MBA gives graduates an immediate return on their investment. A study of almost 800 full-time UK MBA students shows salary increases of 92% over a four-to-five-year period. Moreover, before studying for their degrees only 4% were at director level: three years after graduation, 16% had reached the boardroom. The evidence points in one direction: the MBA is truly a passport to career progression and employment success.
For many, however, the benefits of the MBA course are rather more unexpected.
In every MBA class, next to the 'career climbers' will sit a fair proportion of students with more ambiguous motivation. A good number of Cranfield's Class of '91, albeit bright and well-qualified, started the MBA having lost their way in their careers. For them, a stimulating and safe environment in which to undergo a mid-career crisis probably proved more valuable than the qualification itself. For many students it was a year in which the hoary management exhortation to do the right things rather than simply do things right changed their careers and probably their view of life.
Two years of weekly psychotherapy would, doubtless, achieve the same result.
But it wouldn't look nearly so good on a CV.
Cranfield School of Management, established in the 1964/5 academic year, offers a one-year full-time MBA, a two-year part-time Executive MBA and a full-or part-time Public Sector Management MBA. Current fees for the one-year full-time Cranfield MBA are £15,000. Each year, the course attracts around 160 students (including 40% from overseas).