It’s not what you learn on your MBA but how you ap­ply it. Not ev­ery grad­u­ate goes on to suc­cess but there are lessons to be learnt from those who have

Financial Mail - - COVER STORY - David Fur­longer

Be­fore Jo­han Ek­steen stud­ied for his MBA, his pel­let­ing busi­ness was a hobby — a means for him and his brother to earn some ex­tra in­come. Ek­steen’s mas­ter’s de­gree in sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture was a nice-to-have but it hadn’t trans­formed his ca­reer. So when he found him­self posted to Uganda by an em­ployer, he de­cided it was time for change.

He en­rolled for a dis­tance MBA at the Univer­sity of the Free State Busi­ness School and al­most im­me­di­ately be­gan to see his hobby in an­other light.

Agri­con to­day is a world leader in agri­cul­tural pel­let­ing – the pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion of pel­lets for an­i­mal feeds, fer­tilis­ers and biomass prod­ucts. It has been re­spon­si­ble for de­vel­op­ing new tech­nolo­gies and its ma­chines are ex­ported to 27 coun­tries in Africa, Europe and Asia.

When Ek­steen be­gan his MBA, how­ever, Agri­con, founded in 1993, was still “some­thing I kept on the back­burner”. He and his brother pro­duced a cou­ple of ma­chines each year. “One sale funded the next. The busi­ness was some­thing to fall back on in an emer­gency.”

He adds: “I doubted my­self and my abil­ity to take it to an­other level.” That changed with the MBA. “It opened up the world. It dragged me out of my com­fort zone. What I learnt on the pro­gramme helped me see the busi­ness as an in­ter­na­tional one, not a lo­cal one.”

Change hap­pened rapidly af­ter Ek­steen,

46, grad­u­ated in 2003. In­stead of putting ma­chines to­gether at home, he out­sourced pro­duc­tion to spe­cial­ist man­u­fac­tur­ers. Mar­ket­ing was ramped up, new ter­ri­to­ries were ex­plored. Ev­ery­thing was self-fi­nanced.

“By the time a bank fi­nally of­fered me an over­draft, the com­pany was al­ready up and run­ning,” he says.

Agri­con’s suc­cess has earned him a slew of awards, in­clud­ing SA small busi­ness and over­all en­tre­pre­neur of the year, as well as a na­tional in­no­va­tion prize.

Ek­steen has no doubt that, with­out his MBA, none of this would have been pos­si­ble. “It helped me be­lieve in my­self and my judg­ment,” he says. “It was the mak­ing of me.”

Plenty more grad­u­ates make the same boast. But not all. Many of those who go through the MBA mill come out the other side thou­sands of rands poorer but with no en­rich­ment of their work­ing lives.

Not long ago, a ma­jor re­tailer an­nounced it would no longer pay for man­agers’ MBA stud­ies be­cause pre­vi­ous ben­e­fi­cia­ries had added no value to the com­pany.

“They come back think­ing they know ev­ery­thing but ac­tu­ally of­fer noth­ing new,” ob­served the HR direc­tor.

Mar­ket re­search for this cover story shows other em­ploy­ers are not con­vinced their staff, spon­sored or not, re­turn as gamechang­ers. The prob­lem in many cases is that they don’t know how to use their new knowl­edge in the busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment.

The sit­u­a­tion may im­prove. The 2016 de­ci­sion to change the MBA from an aca­demic de­gree to a pro­fes­sional one means it is more fo­cused on ap­plied learn­ing. The re­search com­po­nent of MBA pro­grammes is no longer lim­ited to aca­demic pur­suits but may also in­clude in­dus­try case stud­ies and even in­house projects for em­ploy­ers.

Wits Busi­ness School MBA direc­tor Con­rad Viedge thinks there is a case for schools to teach em­ploy­ers how to get the best from MBA grad­u­ates. “Stu­dents want to go back and make a dif­fer­ence but com­pa­nies haven’t al­ways thought how they will use them,” he says. “To spon­sor some­one on an MBA, or even to let them go off and study, and not have a plan for that per­son to cre­ate value, is ex­tremely waste­ful.”

How­ever, he says grad­u­ates are ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing things hap­pen. “Don’t go back and wait for your man­agers to do ev­ery­thing. You are the one who must push and vol­un­teer.” Re­ge­nesys Busi­ness School direc­tor Penny Law agrees: “We tell our stu­dents that they bear the re­spon­si­bil­ity for

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