The countdown to the ninth annual Citi International Case Competition (CICC) has begun. On the morning of November 1 this year, 20 teams, each made up of four undergraduate students from some of the most prestigious universities across Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific region, will gather at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) campus in Clearwater Bay.
There they will be presented with a business case study and given 26 hours for research, and the preparation of an analysis and recommendations.
Over the following two days, the teams will have the opportunity to present their work to a panel of judges including senior executives from the company providing the case study. The final round of the contest will be held at the Harbour Grand Hong Kong Hotel on Thursday afternoon, and the teams will then be whittled down to an overall winner.
Kathy Cheung, country corporate affairs director at Citi Hong Kong, says there are several reasons why her company launched the contest back in 2003, and has continued to sponsor it since.
"Most universities have case competitions but not many of these are international," she says. "Because Citi is a global bank we have a presence in countries around the world and we want to bring people from these countries together.
"This competition allows us to help nurture the next generation of business talent, while also engaging our clients in new ways and promoting Hong Kong," Cheung adds.
The involvement of Citi in CICC goes well beyond simply writing cheques. Together with the HKUST Business School host, the company works to develop a business case for the competition. The case provides background about an organisation and outlines a pressing issue that its senior management needs to address.
"We work very closely with HKUST, which has its own case centre," Cheung says. "We discuss the current market environment and try to find cases that won't be too far outside the experience of students from other countries. The cases come from Citi's clients, who are all key players in their industries."
Over the years, the businesses taking part have included Cafe de Coral, Towngas and Ocean Park. "An enterprise like Ocean Park, for example, is selected because each of the countries the teams come from will have theme parks, so the workings of the business won't be that foreign to them."
As usual, the participants in this year's contest will not find out about the nature of the case until the morning of the competition. Stephen Nason, professor of business practice at HKUST Business School, has served on every CICC judging panel, bar one. This year, he will again be instated as the head judge. He has noticed some striking changes over the years.
"When the competition first began, the performances of the undergraduate teams would range in quality," Nason notes. "Some would come with very optimistic ideas that didn't have much solid practical grounding. But over the years, the teams and their presentations have become more and more professional.
"Today you would see these undergraduate students and think they were Harvard or HKUST MBAs. They are very sharp, very polished. They come up with a range of interesting ideas for which they have solid support," he adds.
"One of the first years we had a mainland university involved in the competition," Nason recalls. "Their presentation was almost like a lecture, while the judges were looking for presentations that were much more dynamic, proactive and convincing.
"The second year that team came back, their presentation was up to top international standards. They had been surprised by what the multinational Fortune 500 companies were looking for but learned from the experience and adapted," Nason says.
It seems that everyone can benefit from involvement in the case contest, he notes.
"To get feedback from the senior executives of the client firm as if they [the participants themselves] were executives from that firm is an opportunity that is very rare for undergraduate students," he says.
And, Nason adds, given the region's economic rise, the opportunity to work on a case with a Greater China focus is appealing to students from around the world.
While CICC may be a challenge for the students taking part, it's not always easy on those passing judgment on their efforts.
"Occasionally, there's just one team that stands out," says Nason. "But most years, there is really fierce debate among the judges that continues even after dinner is on the table."