Bain & Co. Helps to Overhaul HEC Paris

After jumping into the assignment early last year, Bain’s first conclusion will put a knowing smile on any B-school dean’s face. “There was a strong realization that this is a pretty complex business,” says Pointeau, a Wharton MBA who received his undergraduate degree from HEC. “It’s complex both from a strategy and an operational standpoint. The inner processes of a business school are not trivial at all. And secondly, in comparison to many of the service operations we look at, there is in MBA education all kinds of questions about the brand, the positioning and the quality of the execution. My learning is that there are probably many advantages to scale in this MBA field but you need to grow reasonably and not to leave your value proposition. There is a risk when a program moves and changes over a short period of time.”

HEC has, in fact, changed over time—for the better. “It used to be a school that was very French only seven or eight years ago. Now it is 80% international and the MBA students study and work in English. So the students and faculty have changed dramatically because it has moved from 40 to 50 years old French or European professors who were 40 to 50 years old to people who are more in their 30s and relatively fresh PhDs with a few years of teaching in the U.S. They have been joining this program to build their careers and have an American sense of reference in education.”

To get under the hood of this school, the Bainies interviewed corporate recruiters of MBAs, examined best practices at a number of other business schools, including London Business School and the Yale School of Management, and rolled up their sleeves to do the series of workshops last June.

COMPANIES WANTED A STRONGER EMPHASIS ON THE FUNDAMENTALS

“One of the things which we found talking to the large recruiters—global multinationals—was that more often than we anticipated there was a demand for back-to-basics or fundamentals,” says Pointeau. “It’s very nice that these students have done all kinds of fancy softer skills work, and they can be very creative around leadership. But what they told us they are looking for is very robust core business and managerial skills. They want to be reassured that the school is putting the hurdle high enough to guarantee quality. That has a lot of implications in our recommendations around the core phase of the program.”

The Bain team also found that an MBA from HEC represents “good value for money” and that the school provides a more intimate experience than several of its major rivals. “It’s a 16-month program which is a little longer than INSEAD but shorter than many other programs in Europe,” adds Pointeau. “It’s priced competitively. Indian students were looking for an attractive return on investment and a good cost quality tradeoff. It’s an interesting value proposition. That is one element of positioning.”

Another revolves around the student experience at HEC. “INSEAD is very much as it sounds, a very scale-oriented program with large classes with relatively well-defined standard offering. What a school like HEC is trying to do is create an alternative, more personalized experience, with more access to faculty, more tutoring and mentoring.”

LEVERAGING HEC’S PROXIMITY TO FRANCE’S TOP ENGINEERING SCHOOLS

HEC, he and his Bain colleagues believe, also have another advantage over most of their European rivals, which tend to operate as standalone schools rather than an integrated part of a larger university. “Another element of positioning is that HEC is close to other leading educational institutions in France—all the top engineering schools are a five-minute car ride from HEC,” says Pointeau. “The government is really trying to make the southwest suburb of Paris the Silicon Valley of France as well as one of the leading integrated platforms of top advanced education. One of the distinctive cards that HEC can play is to have really strong collaboration and a joint curriculum with the engineering schools.”

The Bain team also is suggesting a change in admissions policy. “The admission of students is probably more industry and large corporate and a little bit less banking and consulting,” says Pointeau. “There is a question of whether the program should live with that or boost recruiting and placement in those industries. The short answer for HEC’s MBA is that there is a realization that they need to make progress in those areas.”