Celebrating Forty Years in Business

By Erin Elaine Casey | spring 2016

Turning 40 is a big deal in anyone’s book. Some of us pretend it’s not happening at all, and some of us pull out all the stops and party like it’s 1999. For the Master of Business Administration program at Saint Mary’s, the big four-oh really is something to celebrate – not just with a party, but with new and exciting changes that promise to reinforce the program’s outstanding reputation in Canada and internationally.

Flash back to 1976, to the very first graduating class. It had only 15 members, most of whom were men. Tuition was around $600 per year, and a professor’s annual salary was about $16,500. Today, the program has 171 students, 60 full-time and 111 part-time. Forty per cent are women, and 40 per cent of the full-time students are international. Tuition fees and faculty salaries have also gone up—just a little!

George McLellan was in the first graduating class. The Deputy Minister of Finance and Treasury Board with the Province of Nova Scotia was actually working for the Department of Municipal Affairs back in 1976 when a superior noticed he had smarts that he wasn’t necessarily using. “He told me he was tired of watching me waste my life and that I needed to smarten up. Then he challenged me to further my education and promised me a job at the end of it all. He took a chance on me.”

This led to McLellan taking his GMAT, getting a good score, and applying to the new School of Business. “SMU accepted me on the spot and turned my life around,” he says. “They put me on track to four or five fulfilling and different careers. It’s been wonderful – there’s no one luckier than me.” 

Paul Baxter, the Senior Vice President Operations and Chief Operating Officer for the Halifax International Airport Authority, agrees. The 1980 graduate says that the education he received from the School of Business also made a big difference in his life path. “It’s served me very, very well not just here at the airport, but in the progression of my career.” The MBA program gave him exposure to a lot of different disciplines. “I’m more versatile, more flexible, and open to new ideas,” he says. “The MBA gave me a very broad perspective in terms of what’s important.”

Baxter, who was born and raised in Halifax, did all his post-secondary education at Saint Mary’s, starting with a Bachelor of Science. When he took a few commerce electives and discovered a love of business, the MBA was a natural next step. “I chose SMU because of its reputation and all the positive things about a small school. Now I can give back by serving on the Board of Governors, and do something for the institution that’s done so much for me.” 

In 1992, Zeda Redden from Windsor, Nova Scotia, graduated with her MBA. She was already well into her career, and found that other universities didn’t accommodate “real life” the way Saint Mary’s did. “SMU was absolutely set up for working people,” she says. Now the Vice President of Finance and Business Services at Heritage Gas, Redden agrees that the program opened her eyes to different ways of doing things. “What the MBA gave you was how to work with people from different backgrounds. You’d have Sunday morning meetings at the library with a nurse, an engineer, a marketing person. You’re always working in groups – you can’t get through it by yourself.”

Sumant Kumar appreciates the international perspective he gained at Saint Mary’s. From Rothsay, New Brunswick, he did his undergraduate degree in International Development Studies and finished his MBA in 2002. “I wanted to stay in the Maritimes, and SMU had by far the best reputation. They made me feel very welcome and very wanted. It was a family feeling. I was more than just a number.”

Today, Kumar is Asia Pacific HR Manager for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Reflecting on what the program did for him professionally, he says, “The majority of my job is dealing with different cultures and ways of life. I didn’t mix much with international students in my undergrad, but in the MBA we did, and I learned so much from all of them.”

Monique Fares, from Halifax, graduated just last spring. She started her business while she was still in school. Today, she co-owns Signature Health, a corporate wellness clinic in Halifax. “I always heard great things about the business school at SMU,” explains Fares. “It’s internationally known, and always top of mind. I really liked that the Sobey School of Business focused on students who have some business experience. So we could take real world experience and theory and put it together.” Doing an internship allowed her to develop a business plan for her clinic while getting credit towards her degree.

2008 grad Nicole Casciato-Csinos agrees that the foundation she built during her MBA was critical to her success, saying, “It opened up a lot of doors into some of the larger, tier-one organizations. My ability to manage others and understand other personalities improved significantly.” And because the atmosphere at Saint Mary’s was “less cutthroat” than at other institutions, she was able to enjoy a more personalized experience. “Everyone in the class knew each other, and no one was trying to outdo anyone else.”

Casciato-Csinos hails from Newmarket, Ontario and now works in Toronto as Client Marketing Manager for LoyaltyOne, the Air Miles program. She’s new to the job, and will be working directly with Sobeys, which she hopes will bring her back to the Maritimes more often. “It’s kind of cool to be able to work with Sobeys – because of the Sobey School of Business. It’s a good fit for me.” 

The numbers don’t lie. The largest business school east of Montreal, the Sobey School is accredited by AACSB International, the prestigious Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. Only five per cent of business schools achieve this designation. 

The Sobey MBA has recently been redesigned. According to Dr. Cathy Driscoll, the academic lead on the program review, there’s been a trend toward shorter MBA programs. “We wanted to respond to market demand without sacrificing quality, so we’ve made it a 16-month program down from 20 months,” explains the long-time MBA professor. “We’ve refreshed a lot of the courses and introduced some preparatory modules to replace the two courses we’ve eliminated and still ensure students have the foundation they need.” 

What’s the advantage? A shorter program and more immersive learning experiences gets MBA graduates out in the workforce sooner, and with better skills. The focus of the immersive experiences is on giving students hands-on learning opportunities. “These can include a service learning program where students work with a charity, social enterprise, or small business that needs support as a way to give back to our communities,” says Dr. Margaret McKee, the MBA Program Director. “We will also emphasize creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation through activities such as case competitions and collaborative problem solving activities.”

Making sure more students get a chance to learn firsthand about the wider world is also central. “We know from research that only about 2% of students will take advantage of a study abroad program, so we’re working to make it more accessible,” explains McKee. Students can do a traditional study abroad, or take advantage of a seven- to 10-day international and intercultural experience. “We’ll focus on countries that have existing ties or might be important to Canada for social, political, or economic reasons.”

Leah Ray is the Managing Director of the MBA program, and she’s also a graduate. “It’s a safe place to try different leadership styles and roles, and you’re not going to get fired,” she laughs. “You come out with lifelong friends. It’s such an amazing support network, and it’s been nice to come back and be part of that. You can help people who know they need a change, but don’t know what that change is. My MBA was a huge transformation for me. It was a game changer, and I wouldn’t be where I am now without it.”

The copy from the new MBA ad campaign tells the story: “Succeed, Win, Triumph – On your own terms.” And this isn’t an MBA for only hard-core business types. Students can focus in a range of areas: finance; entrepreneurship, social enterprise and sustainability; marketing; or consulting. They can also take advantage of professional development tailored to their needs. “We have a very special and welcoming community here. We give you the bigger business school experience in the small university environment,” says McKee. “We really are equipping our students with the knowledge and skills they need to meet their personal goals as well as their career goals.” 

And succeed they have. Every grad has their favourite memory. 

Forty years later, George McLellan fondly remembers the flexible learning experience and the way students were encouraged to team up and learn from one another. 

Paul Baxter developed strong relationships and networks during his MBA over three decades ago that he still counts on today. 

As president of the MBA Society in her second year, Monique Fares and fellow student Andrew Ling started the MBA Leadership Series, which brings in guest speakers regularly. 

Sumant Kumar met his wife Porntina Tangsajjavitoon, an international student from Thailand, in the program. “I remember the first time I noticed her in class, and we still argue about who made the first move,” he laughs. They’ve been married 11 years.

Nicole Casciato-Csinos says it best. “It was probably the best time of my life, to be honest! It wasn’t just the school and the friends I met and the involvement in community projects – I just love that place! I’d do it all over again.”

Campus Notes: “I give because I believe in Saint Mary’s University.”

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