Living and working like directors

CIOB’s Global Student Challenge 2016 winners Glasgow Caledonian University’s team Cali Construction:

Duncan McAslan, Sam Belkaid, Richard Boyle and Peter McElroy

The whole Global Student Challenge was inspiring. Learning about company and financial management at a level beyond any of our experiences, realising the importance of teamwork and leadership, coping with competition and pressure and, at the Final, networking with senior industry executives was a priceless experience. To win the Global Student Challenge was the biggest confidence boost we’ve ever had. We’re now more equipped ready to take on the challenges that our construction industry has to throw at us. We now know we will succeed.

Glasgow Caledonian’s School of Engineering and the Built Environment had a great record in The CIOB’s Global Student Challenge. The Global Student Challenge started in 2014 and GCU teams were second in 2014 and winners in 2015.
We, the 2016 team, had the frightening responsibility of defending GCU’s reputation.

When our tutor first presented us with the opportunity to compete in the Global Student Challenge, none of us believed that in a few months’ time we would be going to Hong Kong as finalists let alone being crowned the CIOB’s Global Student Challenge Champions for 2016.

As finalists of the GSC the CIOB sponsored the team to participate in the two day final in Hong Kong and they also integrated us into their Members Forum which was running in parallel.

The Global Student Challenge is a construction based business game, MERIT, in this game we play the roles of Directors. The advice to succeed in the competition is to think like directors, act like directors, be directors. This is part of the learning process is intended to lift our thinking to higher levels and to face decisions that we haven’t taken before, to see the issues of construction from a more strategic and a more integrated, interdependent level. In Hong Kong the CIOB took the advice of playing the role of Directors a step further and they treated us like Directors. We lived in the luxury of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, we were integrated into the Members Forum, we attended workshops and we met and had discussions with distinguished senior executives from the industry.

The entire Members Forum introduced to us the concept of industry co-operation and the chance to participate in this experience was stimulating. Working with the CIOB in the future was clearly attractive and advantageous. As we were being treated like directors we were not allowed to just observe the proceedings. We had to participate. The team leaders from each of the six Global Student Finalist teams from Hong Kong, China, South Africa, two from Australia and us from Scotland, were interrogated by a panel of executives from the CIOB in front of an audience in a Q&A session. The experience, testing our approach, our strategy and the basis of our key decisions was challenging, daunting even. Throwing in surprise questions and gauging how we dealt with the pressure, really made it feel like we were a focal point of the forum. Yet whilst we were enjoying and learning from all of these experiences we still had to remain focused on the main task at hand, The Global Student Challenge.

The early online stage of the Global Student Challenge allowed us, using the MERIT software, to manage the running of a full-scale construction company competing against the computer simulation. It became clear that organisation was key and as individuals we took on the responsibilities of directors for specific areas of the business, such as, Finance, Overheads, Estimating, Bidding, Personnel and Construction. After each director analysed their individual area, we came together as a board of directors to make the decisions that would guide the company through the next 3 months in game time trying to attain the targets set in our strategy. Decisions were always compromises as the data supporting the decision generated conflicts that had to be resolved. These compromises required teamwork, individuals couldn’t always get their own way and teamwork is hard to achieve. It requires leadership to resolve. To quote one of last year’s winners ‘Team working sounds easy—it is difficult’.

The Final had a significant difference. We were no longer just competing against the computer simulation we were competing against the five other finalists. The level of competition for jobs and staff was raised to a new and intense level.
Right from the beginning of the event we wanted to implement a strategy of rampant growth. We did this by building up the essential infrastructure necessary to support a vast amount of construction work. Pushing our company to its limits our early years were fuelled with hiring staff across all departments, with a heavy focus on Marketing and Construction. To implement this approach we were forced to hire agency staff to assist our overhead departments.

The heavy focus on Marketing staff paid off as it allowed us to see the majority of the market. The investment into construction staff early on allowed us to bid for the majority of the work that we could see from small jobs to large.

Our strategy had a catapulting effect, throwing us into an early lead which continued to stretch as we approached the final.
Coming in to the final as the leading team meant that we had a target marked on our backs, the rest of the teams had us in their sights.

The danger, as we saw it, was to become conservative and attempt to defend what we had. The chasing teams could and would take more risks. Our strategy had worked well up until now, so we decided that we would continue to push as far as possible to see if we could leave the other teams behind early on. At this stage the company continued to grow, but the emerging threat was developing from our rivals. They hit the bidding hard and undercut the market cutting the legs from under us. Losing job after job saw us needing to use our reserves of capital that we had been holding in our investments just to support the company. Pay offs of construction staff and a greatly reduced turnover from a lack of future work became a reality.

Something drastic needed to be done otherwise we might watch the company completely collapse in on itself. Hard conversations were had within the team to get to the root of the problem. Our bidding strategy was painstakingly revised over several rounds. Going one better than our opposition we found the very bottom of the barrel. Bidding at this level allowed us to secure work and have no possibility of being undercut. Suddenly things were changing, we were winning work again. The forward workload began to climb bringing with it our turnover.

With the possibility of a chasing team being close behind we knew that the final round had to be a strong one. Securing the lion’s share of the market was the key. Taking away forward workload from other companies as well as finishing four jobs amazingly increasing our score by 7%, cementing our place at the top of the table.

The whole experience gifted us with a view of the pressures that directors can come under in their professional life. We saw how our decisions would have ripple effects throughout the company, for the better and for worse. The importance of having a strategy was clear but also having the sense and strength to revisit and revise the strategy was just as important. But we believe that one of the most important lessons learned in the Global Student Challenge was that we had to work together to achieve. Whether it was pushing each other to achieve more, or challenging someone to defend their decisions and prove they were the best option. Teamwork, leadership and disciplined decision making. We knew that at the end of the day we had the support we needed from each other to perform like a successful group of young professionals.

These lessons will stay with us.