MBA students devise global logistics solutions at first China Connexion Challenge

Students from seven U.S. MBA schools grappled with the intricacies of China’s free trade zone regulations at UNC in April. The challenge: develop an optimal mix of cost and transportation logistics for global manufacturer United Technologies Corp. (UTC) to move its products worldwide.

China’s growing urban population, more than 600 million in 2009, provides fertile ground for UTC to grow its infrastructure-building business. The high-technology maker of aerospace and building products and services generates more than 60 percent of its $53 billion in annual revenues from outside of the United States, $2.6 billion from China alone.

The students’ immersion into UTC’s global logistics came during the inaugural China Connexion Challenge. The new competition, created by the Kenan Institute with UNC Kenan-Flagler's Global Supply Chain Management Club and led by students, exposes MBA students to critical issues of competitiveness in one of the world’s most important markets.

“This competition is near and dear to the Kenan Institute’s heart and its core competencies,” says institute director John D. Kasarda. “Logistics and transportation, once seen only as costs to be minimized, are now understood to be value-added services to be optimized for competitive advantage.”

Leveraging institute connections

The brainchild of Noel Greis, director of the Kenan Institute's Center for Logistics and Digital Strategy, and Lingmei Howell, the institute's director of outreach, draws on the institute and business school’s world-leading expertise in logistics and supply chain management as well its unique partnership with China’s top technology university. Greis co-directs a joint research center, the UNC-Tsinghua Center for Logistics and Enterprise Development, with Tsinghua University in Beijing.

The UNC-Tsinghua Center works to enhance trade between the United States and China by conducting research into logistics and supply chain issues that affect their global competitiveness. It also develops tools and techniques to reduce costs and more effectively move goods around China and the countries with which it trades.

“China is a major focus for the institute,” says Greis. “We have had the opportunity to put a footprint on the ground there with our partnership with Tsinghua University. This competition offers the opportunity to extend that work with partners in industry, such as UTC, our corporate sponsor for this event.”

UTC provides a living laboratory for students and researchers. Greis' center, for instance, conducts research into issues of food safety and “cold chain” supply; that is, moving perishable items safely from farm to market to consumer using cold storage transportation and facilities. UTC, parent company of Carrier, a leading maker of refrigeration equipment for trucks, hopes to grow its market share in China. Research collaborations on issues of food safety, storage, and logistics can expand the body of knowledge that companies, like UTC, need to make better strategic choices.

“One of the goals of the UNC-Tsinghua Center is to add industry partners through our logistics and supply chain work,” says Greis. “We hope the China Connexion Challenge furthers that effort by offering unique partnership opportunities with companies like United Technologies.”

UTC executives say the format provides immediate benefit as well as opportunities for future collaboration.

“The subject matter and location is a natural fit,” says Kwame Fluker, UTC’s manager of diversity partnerships and corporate recruiting. “We do a lot of business in China and the ability to get young, energetic MBAs to attack an issue is a worthwhile effort.”

UTC global logistics manager Jacqueline DeMatos, who served as a competition judge, agrees.

“There are a lot of synergies between our institutions and this is a wonderful opportunity to partner with UNC,” she says.

Real-world challenge makes competition unique

The China Connexion Challenge offers a unique, two-part experience for students: a real-world challenge and the opportunity for the winning team to travel to China after the competition to present its plan to company executives, conduct further research, and consult with UTC’s logistics team.

The opportunity to continue the project after the competition ends is extremely valuable, says Juan Mantilla, a member of the winning 2010 team from Purdue University’s Krannert School of Business.

“This competition focused on real deliverables. It is not a blackboard competition,” Mantilla says. “We are very excited to go to China and focus on results.”

Teams from UNC-Chapel Hill and Massachusetts Institute of Technology were finalists with Purdue. Teams from business schools at Howard University, North Carolina State University, University of Connecticut, and the University of Virginia also competed.

Suzi Mahrt, president of UNC Kenan-Flagler's Global Supply Chain Club and one of the student organizers, says the experience was worthwhile for all who participated and gratifying in the real-world application of its outcomes.

“The students were able to work on a valuable project,” says Mahrt, “and devise a solution that will make a real impact.”


Entrepreneurship • Economic Development • Global Competitiveness

Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise
Kenan-Flagler Business SchoolThe University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Campus Box 3440, The Kenan Center, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3440 USA
919/962-8201 •