At HEC Paris, A Splash Of ‘Ooh La La’ In An MBA

Andrea Masini, dean of the MBA program at HEC Paris

‘WE’RE A SCHOOL FOR STUDENTS SEEKING TRANSFORMATION’

HEC’s appeal derives from a confluence of attributes: Its location just outside Paris, its reputation for quality, the strength of its highly connected alumni network news French power circles, and the diversity of its students who hail from more than 50 countries. Nine out of every ten students comes to HEC Paris from outside France. As Masini points out, it’s also a more intimate MBA experience with only a quarter of the MBA students at INSEAD or little more than half the size of the annual 425-student intake at London Business School. Masini also notes that HEC’s MBAs have more “well-balanced aspirations,” versus the dominance of consulting at INSEAD or finance at LBS.

The new leadership at HEC Paris is placing three program area bets: entrepreneurship, digital innovation, and social enterprise and sustainability. “We see a market need in these three pillars and we already have competencies in them,” believes Masini. “We’re a school for students seeking transformation with three to four years of work experience, students who want to work in truly multinatioal environments. Our diversity is a key difference. Students open up to a lot of different cultures. Afterall, in one hour you can be in Brussels, London or Milan by plane.”

MBAs here spend their first eight months on core courses before they enter two four-month-long terms HEC calls the “customizeed phase” where they can take electives, do a fellowship project or international exchange with 40 options, or accumulate enough courses for a specialization in entrepreneurship, finance, management, marketing or strategy. Masini says the school is adding specialization and an academic center in digital innovation as well as a specialization in sustainability. The school is adding modules in tech in existing courses and also adding more electives. “But employers have to be absolutely sure you have learned the fundamentals of management,” he adds to explain why fully half the program is given over to business basics.

LEARNING FROM REAL-WORLD EXPERIENCES, EVEN IN THE OLD WORLD

What’s a tour of a two-century-old wine cellar without a couple of barrel tastings?

HEC is also doubling down on leadership development with a compulsory seminar with the French Army as well as a newly designed seminar on resilence that will begin next year. And Masini is pairing the school’s MBA students with scientists in the tech and scientific centers around the campus. “There is an oversupply of their projects and there is only one HEC,” says Masini, “so we get the best of the best projects. I clearly want to leverage that more and more.”

Learning from real-world experiences is an essential part of HEC’s MBA experience which is why the school assigns students to consulting projects with companies and does faculty-led trips everywhere from the Antwerp diamond district to the Faiveley wine cellars in Burgundy.

Among the students on this trip are a pair of Americans, a Brazilian, a Canadian, a Frenchman, and an Italian. The excursion itself is luxurious by any standard. Students are brought by a chartered bus to Burgundy and put up in the Hotel de la Poste in Beaune, a picture-postcard town on a plain by the hills of the Côte d’Or. The evening before their visit to Faiveley, students are treated to a lavish multi-course dinner with wine pairings in Beune. During the all-day visit with the young CEO of Faiveley, the group is given an elaborate wine tasting in the cellar, along with a couple of oak barrel tastings, and then a private lunch with him where four wine glasses await each guest at the table.

‘IN BURGUNDY, SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL’

The domain produces slightly under one million bottles a year, though its Burgundy properties yield about 400,000 bottles annually. As the MBA students stroll past racks with tens of thousands of bottles of unlabeled wine, mostly stored as inventory for high-end restaurant clients, Faiveley describes every intricacy of the wine business, from the placement of the vineyards on the 300 acres the firm owns in Burgundy to the worldwide distribution of its premium wines.

“In Burgundy,” explains Faiveley, “small is beautiful. Every digit of growth has an important rent. When you are too well distributed, you are not rare enough and you dilute the brand.”

Faiveley took over the business, established in 1825 when his family realized they were more skilled at making wine than shoes, at the age of 25. Five years later, after becoming CEO of the family’s holding company which included a firm that made train components, he decided to go to Columbia Business School for his MBA. He was put on the school’s waitlist and asked to retake the GMAT. Instead, Faiveley sent admissions a glowing five-page profile on him and the domain in Wine Spectator. He got in.

Overhearing the story, Dean Masini laughs. “That wouldn’t work at HEC,” he quips.

HEC Paris MBA students listen to CEO Erwan Faiveley on selling luxury

‘I LOVE MY MBA’

The remark draws an immediate smile from Faiveley, a bon vivant who clearly enjoys the good things in life. His ideal dinner party, he once said, would include Her Royal Highness Queen Elisabeth II, Sir Winston Churchill and Mark Twain. Asked what three wines he would serve them, Faiveley would kick things off with Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill, move on to a great Bordeaux and end with a Chambertin from his cellar. “A magnum of each should be enough, as I supect her Majesty doesn’t drink too much,” he says.

The students are impressed, perhaps less by the MBA on Faiveley’s CV than by his command of the family business and the thought that he was given full reign when in some places he would have been only four years older than the legal drinking age. Still, he says, “I love my MBA. It enables you to be much quicker in making decisions and you feel quite confident about it.”

In the mid-afternoon sun, after uncorking quite a few bottles of wine, the students and faculty leave Faiveley for their return trips back to campus. They are more confident, too, about what it takes to run a global wine business out of Burgundy and a bit more knowledgeable about the good life as well.

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