Global Study Trip in New Zealand

In many ways, the MSx / Sloan program is in a major period of flux. Several changes have been introduced to the program over the past few years – and the inclusion of a Global Study Trip option is new this year. Since it is just a pilot test, only 20 or so MSx fellows have been offered GST opportunities (over 40 MSx fellows applied).

I just returned from my GST in New Zealand and had a fantastic trip. In the new pilot test, MSx students are allowed to join the MBA-led GST trips – I believe that at most, there were 2 MSx’ers invited to a single GST. In my case, I was the only MSx fellow on the New Zealand trip with 29 MBA students (mostly first-year MBA1s), 1 faculty member and 1 GSB staff member.

I heard several folks say that this was the best GST ever – I really don’t know how to validate this, but I certainly had a great time. Sure, I was the only MSx’er, but the MBAs welcomed me into their group – and many of them were also just getting to know each other. It was an excellent opportunity to get to know so many additional GSB students, many of whom I see walking around every day, but with whom I’ve have had little reason to interact.

The trips are led by MBA2 students who spend a lot of time coordinating travel plans, scheduling business meetings, creating GSB alumni mixers and generally pressing the alumni network very hard for meaningful trip opportunities. Our MBA2 trip leaders went above and beyond to create a jam-packed itinerary that demonstrated the New Zealand entrepreneurial spirit.

GroupMe app:

On first glance, I was appalled that the trip leaders would force me to download an app just for the purposes of communicating with group members. In actuality, GroupMe turned out to be a great tool. It allowed for focused communications with the group as a whole and also provided a history of group chat. I’ve been educated… Almost as important as the SpaceTeam app

Day 1: Meeting with Prime Minister John Key and Maori welcome ceremony:

Unfortunately, due to Air New Zealand’s 747 springing a leak in the center fuel tank, me and seven other MBA students were unable to make the first day meetings. Our flight left San Francisco nearly 24 hours late and stopped in both Honolulu and Fiji to make refueling stops. Needless to say, this was a horrible way to start the trip and immediately made me feel like it would be an overall horrible experience.

anz747-1

 

ANZ 747-400 at our scheduled departure time…

 

anz747-2

 

ANZ 747-400 when they finally told us we could go home and come back the next day…

Day 2: Meetings with Ray Avery & Sealord BBQ w/ Graham Stuart & Siobahn Cohen:

Upon arriving in Auckland (roughly 5:45 am), four of us piled in a shuttle and made our way to the Auckland Sofitel. What a beautiful hotel! It is located on Viaduct Harbor – this entire neighborhood was built to host the 2000 America’s Cup race and is filled with great restaurants, a fish market, an artist’s market, food trucks, etc. – and HUGE yachts. After a croissant and coffee (after all, it is a French hotel), everything started to look a lot better…

Each guest / host speaker was introduced by a trip participant – I happened to be selected to introduceRay Avery. He’s an inventor / innovator, self-made wealthy guy and atypical of the “tall poppy syndrome”New Zealander. He gave us some interesting insights about being in a small country – how it limits their ability to do basic research at scale, but conversely gives them a “MacGyver” ability to make great innovations in simple settings (e.g. baby incubators developed in a garage).

The day’s schedule included a few hours to roam the city on our own – which is when I found the Burger Queen in Silo Park. Great place to walk, buy trinkets and eat!

We closed out the day with a BBQ hosted by Graham Stuart and Siobahn Cohen from Sealord. Gillian, one of our MBA2 trip leaders, had built a very close rapport with Ms. Cohen (GM Human Resources at Sealord) and we were honored to be treated to a BBQ at her home. Mr. Stuart also represents the Lamb and Beef industry in New Zealand, so we had some fantastic red meat too – the MBA1s were hovering around the grill, pretending to ask business questions – but, in reality, they were snatching up all the lamb chops as they came off the grill!! Hey, they’re smart… What can you say?

Day 3: Meetings with Fonterra Dairies, University of Auckland, NZ Merino, Icebreaker and GSB alumni mixer:

After a horrible flight experience, missed meetings with the head of state and the Maori welcome delegation, the BBQ really loosened things up and got things restarted for me. The last few people who elected to change flights all arrived by Monday morning and we were a complete group by lunchtime.

We met with the VP of Public Relations of Fonterra – she provided a different outlook on corporate life in NZ. Fonterra is huge, even from a global perspective. She discussed crisis communications and the challenges of being one of the largest exporters in an export-centric economy.

Lunch was hosted by the University of Auckland School of Business. In many ways, it is the exact opposite of Stanford GSB. Whereas GSB only teaches graduate students, they only have an undergraduate business school and it is huge and modern. Arguably the best b-school in NZ, they are fighting the local perception that doesn’t value a graduate business education. The few people who value an MBA generally leave the country to study in the US / Europe and don’t return to NZ until they are ready to raise a family.

In a joint meeting, NZ Merino and Icebreaker extolled the virtues of Merino wool and how they were able to revive a downtrodden commodity business into a premium products industry. There is definitely an interesting bit of tension between NZ Merino and Icebreaker over brand and value creation / capture, but they are currently working together delivering fantastic products! Several of our GST participants shelled out a ton of cash to buy premium workout shirts / shorts and performance underwear. Supposedly, the stuff simply doesn’t stink either – let’s hope the MBA1s don’t test that claim too seriously!

One of the best elements of the trip was the small group dinners. In Auckland, we had our first small group dinner – I joined Kathleen’s group at Blue Breeze Inn for some Pacific / Chinese food (modern dim sum?). What a meal!! Definitely get the pork belly steamed buns…

Day 4: Meetings with Icehouse, Les Mills, Villa Maria and fly to Wellington:

Icehouse is a Silicon Valley style incubator in Auckland. Met with their CEO and a couple of their portfolio companies. Interesting to hear their challenges – everyone we spoke with on the entire trip talked about how difficult it can be to raise funds from NZ investors. Particularly for tech startups, they tend to prefer to come to Silicon Valley for VC money.

Les Mills is creating a workout paradigm that makes gyms more fun. Lost on me…

Villa Maria is a large-scale wine producer in Auckland. They are one of the largest wine export brands in NZ and have been fairly successful in both their domestic and export markets. Their soft-spoken “tall poppy” founder, Sir George Fistonich, walked us through their history and challenges. In addition to a winery tour, they fed us a great meal with some more NZ lamb. YUM!

So far, the trip is turning out to be a culinary delight!

Late evening flight to Wellington followed by a short bus ride in the dark! Bolton Hotel is a quirky little luxury hotel in Wellington, but was pleased to see dual king-size beds in the rooms and a small combo washer-dryer unit – was able to do some laundry! Very comfortable hotel…

Day 5: Wellington meetings with Parliament, US Embassy and free time:

We began the day with several officials from the NZ government. Dep. Secretary of Finance, Treasurer, “Minister of Everything” and an MP!! We even got a tour of their legislature (our guide was a former American who renounced his US citizenship to become a Kiwi). Clearly, our trip leaders pulled every string they could to get us high level access – they all added their individual perspectives which was very helpful context for their economy.

Note: The NZ executive office building is called the Beehive

We had lunch at the US Embassy – nice little break on home soil! Ambassador Huebner and his deputies from the commerce section discussed the New Zealand economy and their heavy reliance on exports. This repeatedly brought up the relative importance and influence of China – clearly high on their minds. Unfortunately, the American lunch did not measure up… At least they’re not wasting taxpayer dollars on free-loading Stanford students, but it was a really horrible sandwich…

After returning to the hotel, many of us took the inclinator / funicular / inclined railway / cable car up to theWellington Botanical Gardens. Be sure to stop at the rose garden greenhouse cafe and have a Cheese Scone – supposedly the best in the Southern Hemisphere! Slathered with butter, I thought they were delicious…

We then had our second small group dinner – this time I joined Gillian’s group at Ancestral – simply one of the best Chinese meals I’ve even eaten. Fantastic food, fantastic small group! Prof. Baba Shiv joined us for this dinner – can’t wait to take his class in the Spring Quarter.

Day 6: Wellington meetings at Xero, Meridian, Weta Workshop, Park Road Post and Hobbit 2 viewing:

By this time, it was obvious that we were on the “back nine” of the trip. People were much better acquainted with each other and everything was much more light-hearted, including the business meetings. Our visit to Xero might as well have been to any Silicon Valley tech startup – people were clearly working hard, whether pounding out some code or rocking a headset and solving customer issues. It’s no surprise they have been successful.

Meridian Energy is one of the few electric power utilities in the world with a 100% renewable generation portfolio. Our meetings with their CEO and head of Maori-relations was unexpectedly casual – they came to present in t-shirts and jeans. They also have a fantastic view of the harbour in their LEED Platinum HQ(supposedly the most efficient building in the world). New Zealand also has a mostly deregulated consumer-facing electric power market – something that the US should have learned from…

Best picture of Baba: 

We then visited Weta Workshop and Park Road Post Production – these movie production power houses lay in a tranquil Wellington suburb – nothing like their American counterparts in Hollywood. Our tour at Weta included seeing their staff actively working on props, miniatures and costumes for future films (we have no idea what they were working on). A few blocks up the road at Park Road Post, we were given a chance to delve into the NZ filmmaking industry and get all our questions answered.

Dinner was a whole-group affair at Soi – great seafood and drinks!

After dinner, several of us went to Peter Jackson’s “The Roxy” cinema for a public screening of The Hobbit 2. Great place to watch a movie, throw a party or have dinner. Sadly, I simply don’t follow the storyline of the LOTR / Hobbit franchise. I dutifully watched the movie, but really had no idea what was going on…

Day 7: Transit to Queenstown and lots of fun:

At this point, the atmosphere of the trip had completely changed. What started as a very serious deep dive into NZ business had slowly transformed into simple enjoyment of everything what New Zealand has to offer. While our flight to Queenstown was delayed, we enjoyed the airport downtime to grab some breakfast. Upon arrival, we immediately hustled to the hotel St. Moritz for a meeting with Graham Budd and David Kennedy – both leaders in the Queenstown tourism industry. They explained what the region had to offer – then surprised us with free rides on the Shotover Jet (jet boat excursions on the Shotover River).

shotover

The 700 horsepower jet boats were a blast! The pilots did a great job of making the rides thrilling – the wind in our hair and the occasional blast of snow-melt river water made for an exhilarating trip. A short bus ride away, we were given a chance to speak with Henry van Asch – co-founder of AJ Bungy. This firm pioneered the bungy jumping industry and still operates at their original location from the Kawarau Bridge.

Conveniently, we had a lot of free time scheduled after this meeting. Several folks opted to use this free time to arrange their own bungy jumps. Not me…

Pizza for everyone topped off an action-packed day at Winnie’s Gourmet Pizza. The menu offered a wide range of pizza possibilities. All were tasty. Beer was served in 1 meter tall spigot-pitchers – a nice (somewhat civilized) communal version of a beer bong.

Day 8: Queenstown vineyards:

On our last full day, we took time to visit more of New Zealand’s wine industry (yeah, right!). Gibbston Valley and Amisfield were both able to offer us tours and tastings. The grounds at Amisfield proved to be the best place for us to film our trip video.

After a great day at the vineyards (with excellent weather), we took the Skyline gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak and drove the Skyline Luge carts with freezing rain and hail. Certainly not the best weather to do outdoor activities, but was fun nonetheless. Great vistas and photo opportunities from the Skyline Bar.

Our final group dinner at Captain’s Seafood and Steak was our last chance to get some NZ lamb chops. It was a great chance to share (several) bottles of wine with new friends. The MBAs arranged “Most likely to…” awards for everyone on the trip. Some were nice, a few were just plain weird (and awkward), but most were just plain funny. From what I hear, much drinking followed this event, but I turned in early…

Day 9: Sheep and fly home:

Our last day consisted of a boat ride across Lake Wakatipu to Whites Bay and the Merino sheep farm. We learned about Merino wool, shearing sheep and even had the chance to virtually shear some sheep. A few of the MBA1s chose to … virtually … molest … the sheep instead. Fortunately, it was just a video game…

A reflection exercise over lunch allowed us to recap our “learning goals” for the trip and think about how great a week it had been. I was surprised to hear that most of my fellow travelers were going to stay in NZ for several more days. A few would go to Australia and others would fly to their home countries for the rest of winter break.

For me, it was a mad dash back to the airport, a stop in Auckland, another in LA and finally back home to my wife and puppies.

I’m glad to have been part of this MSx / GST pilot program. I can’t imagine not having had this opportunity – and I can’t think of any better way for MSx fellows to meet and network with our MBA counterparts. It is a great “out of classroom” opportunity to have conversations well outside the standard GSB discussions of classwork or job prospects. I sincerely hope that this is a permanent addition to the MSx experience and made available to all fellows who want to participate.

I’d like to thank the MBA2 trip organizers – it was so obvious that you all put so much time and energy into planning this trip. Except for the first leg on Air New Zealand, the trip couldn’t have been any better – simply superb! I also want to thank my MBA1 / MBA2 travel partners – you all made me feel very welcome in the group. I can only hope that future MSx’ers will also feel this welcome in their GST trips!

For future MSx’ers – if you join an MBA-led trip, try to purchase air tix that have you arriving a day early. At worst, this will give you extra tourist time… Missing the first day was a major downer. Fortunately, the trip was awesome so recovery was quick – but not meeting the Prime Minister was a big omission.

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