Dollar Tree "International" Case Competition Delivers Real-World Strategic Insight

In heartfelt keynote speech, new UVA Head Football Coach Bronco Mendenhall discusses potent combination of outstanding strategy, organizational excellence, and very hard work
Published: 
May 2016
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Bronco Mendenhall

For the 60 students in McIntire Professor Brendan Boler’s third-year course, “The Advice Business: Basics of Strategic Consulting,” Friday, April 22, offered a double helping of invaluable real-world strategic insight: In the midst of an intense, day-long case competition requiring fine-tuned recommendations as to whether or not value retailer Dollar Tree should seek to expand internationally, the students were treated to a compelling discussion of the meaning and power of strategy by new UVA Head Football Coach Bronco Mendenhall.

“The Dollar Tree Case Competition offered students a terrific opportunity not only to bolster key consulting-related skills, but also to really think hard about what it means to successfully execute strategy in the real world,” says Boler, noting that he hopes to make the competition an annual event. “I am incredibly grateful to PwC for sponsoring this event; to Dollar Tree Chief Strategy Officer David Jacobs for preparing an outstanding case for our students; to Coach Mendenhall for offering us his invaluable strategic insight; and to our fantastic alumni and friends at top-notching consulting firms Bain, BCG, Deloitte, McKinsey, Oliver Wyman, and PwC for so generously offering us their time and expertise.” Indeed, says Boler, “it was the combined contributions of this fantastic team that made the competition such a resounding success.”

Should I Stay or Should I Go
The competition, which was open only to students in Boler’s class, presented students with a single, seemingly simple question. Should Dollar Tree attempt to expand internationally?

The student teams’ challenge was to develop—over the course of some three weeks—a persuasive, comprehensive justification for the question’s less-than-simple answer. If the answer was yes, what foreign markets should the company attempt to enter, and why? More, should expansion be undertaken through organic growth, or by means of an acquisition or joint venture? Finally, what risks—including such factors as the strength of established competitors, the possibility of political and economic instability, and the inelasticity of culturally determined shopping habits—might act to hamper the success of expansion?

“This was a great case for the students to cut their teeth on,” says Boler, himself a former management consultant with Accenture. “There were so many interesting and consequential issues for the students to weigh—everything from the financial implications of Dollar Tree’s recent acquisition of the highly leveraged Family Dollar chain of stores, to the spending habits and buying power of foreign consumer groups, to patterns of urbanization and development within different countries.” More, he says, the case presented students not only with the challenge of recognizing and researching such questions, but also of synthesizing their findings and then clearly, convincingly communicating them—in just 10 minutes—to a panel of successful practitioners.

“This was a first-class example of McIntire’s integrated, real-world approach to education—and many of the judges were former students of mine, which made the event particularly special,” says Boler, again stressing the indispensable role of alumni, friends, and corporate partners in making that approach a success.

Top honors in the competition were earned by the team of Sami Bautista (McIntire ’17), Megan Carr (McIntire ’17), Adam Rathgaber (McIntire ’17), Zach Reuss (McIntire ’17), and Clara Smith (McIntire ’17) who—based on painstaking consumer and urban commercial development research, framed within a compelling storyline—recommended that Dollar Tree expand, in measured phases, into Mexico by means of a joint venture with established Mexican value retailer Waldo’s.

“Every presentation was impressive,” Boler said, speaking on behalf of the panel, “but what stood out about the winning team was the close attention they paid to critically important consumer habits, and the way they were able to synthesize the results of their research into a clear, concise story—with the data to back up their key points.”

Strategy and Success
The four finalist teams’ presentations were preceded by an inspiring keynote address delivered by UVA’s new head coach, Bronco Mendenhall, who offered his own take on what strategy really means—and the purpose-driven hard work and determination it takes to truly successfully execute a strategic plan.

Mendenhall, who was named UVA’s Head Football Coach in December 2015, formerly served as Head Football Coach at Brigham Young University. During his 11 years at BYU, he compiled an overall record of 99-43, guiding BYU’s Cougars to 11 straight bowl invitations and two conference championships; in all his years as a head coach, Mendenhall has never had a losing season.

A quietly fierce advocate of the potency of disciplined strategic execution, Mendenhall told the audience—composed of Boler’s students, as well as students in McIntire Professor Jason Williamson’s third-year "Project Management" class—that with outstanding, purpose-driven strategic frameworks in place, the seemingly impossible can be achieved. “I’m a firm believer that anything is possible, and that there’s an answer to every problem,” Mendenhall told listeners. But the key to achieving success, he went on, is coupling such profound optimism with an unflinchingly honest assessment of reality. “It’s a complete faith that things will work—along with a very realistic acknowledgment of how hard it will be to get there,” he told listeners.

An admirer and collaborator of business strategy guru Paul Gustavson (Gustavson’s 2012 book on strategy, Running into the Wind, is an examination of Mendenhall’s winning ways), Mendenhall outlined for the audience his David and Goliath-inspired “five smooth stones” of strategy: seeking a competitive advantage by either doing the same things differently, or doing different things; realizing that organizations are perfectly designed to attain the results they get; understanding that outstanding organizational processes are critical; learning that knowledge is the purest form of competitive advantage; and accepting that leadership means capturing hearts and minds.

With a blueprint for success in place—and the heart, will, discipline, and determination to succeed—the sky is the limit, Mendenhall told listeners. “Impossible is an opinion, and impossible is temporary,” he said, offering the example of a friend who had completed 50 Iron Man contests in 50 consecutive days, in each of the 50 states. In the end, he said, “Impossible is nothing.”

McIntire extends its great appreciation to the following alumni and friends, all of whom generously gave their time to serve as judges in the Dollar Tree “International” Case Competition: Gordon Avery (Engineering ’07, Darden ’09), Strategy&, PwC, Director; Jess Bailey, PwC, Senior Associate; Mike Freed (Darden ’10), Bain & Company, Principal; Bryan Furman (McIntire ’09, Darden ’14), Deloitte Consulting, Senior Consultant; Biniam Gebre, Oliver Wyman, Partner, Retail & Business Banking and Finance & Risk; Erik Hladky, PwC, Director; Jess Huang (A&S ’09), McKinsey & Company, Engagement Manager; David Jacobs, Dollar Tree, Chief Strategy Officer; Sarah Kokinos (Engineering ’10), Oliver Wyman, Associate, Health & Life Strategies; Ahmed Malik (M.S. in Accounting ’13), PwC, Senior Associate; Alston Mann (Darden ’12), The Boston Consulting Group, Project Leader, Dallas; Graham McIvor (A&S ’02), Dollar Tree, Director, Strategic Planning; Rachel Miller (McIntire ’10), The Boston Consulting Group, Consultant; and Katie Owen (A&S ’10, Darden ’16), McKinsey & Company, Associate.

Watch Mendenhall's full keynote address here.