Coming up a winner despite getting fired

Students competing in Towson University's adaptation of `The Apprentice' show learn the value of networking


As Steve Kruskamp Jr. can tell you, getting fired is not the end of the line.

Even though he was the second contestant booted last year from Towson University's knockoff of The Apprentice, Kruskamp got another chance.

First Mariner Bank Chairman Edwin F. Hale Sr., playing the Donald Trump role in the campus contest without the cameras, was so impressed with Kruskamp that the Baltimore executive rehired him.

Unlike the cutthroat competition featured on the television show, the university's production showed that winning may not be everything in the business world. If anything, networking is just as important. And as the second season of the grueling two-month competition is under way at Towson, graduates like Kruskamp said it proves that Baltimore's business community is a small world.

"Network, network, network," says Kruskamp, who snagged a job as an e-commerce marketing manager at First Mariner.

"More so, try to position yourself as much as possible. Repeatedly get in front of the movers and shakers, so people start remembering you," Kruskamp says.

Instead of competing for a six-figure job with Trump, eight contestants from this year's Towson competition are vying for something a little more modest. The winner will get a full-time gig at Bank of America with a salary that's closer to $30,000 to $40,000.

Like the television reality show, the Towson competition - which is separate from the business school's curriculum - pits two teams against each other in a series of business assignments. One member of the losing team is fired.

Trump's contest, airing on prime-time television and in its fifth season, starts with 18 contestants and features different themes and business tasks for big-name companies such as Mattel, Post Cereals and Sam's Club. The current episodes showcase international candidates.

In the Towson contest - called "The Associate" - students this year are trying to woo Frank Bramble, the longtime Baltimore banker who served as chairman of Allfirst Financial Inc. and was chief executive of Maryland National parent MNC Financial. Bramble, now a Bank of America board member, is playing the part of the New York real estate mogul. Already, he has uttered the dreaded two words - "You're fired" - to two students.

The contestants are on spring break this week and return Tuesday to receive their next assignment.

When the competition wraps up April 25, Bramble plans to hire one person, which is not to say that it has been easy to fire others, he said.

"They are all very talented," said Bramble, predicting that the fired contestants will not have a difficult time finding jobs. "The intent is to have one winner, and I think that's where we will end up."

A strange thing happened after the curtain fell on last year's contest. Besides Kruskamp, Hale hired three others, including another fired contestant and the two winners.

As the boss to nearly 830 workers at the bank, Hale Properties and the Baltimore Blast professional soccer team, Hale said "firing people is a way of life." But Hale, too, wrestled with the task during the competition because he was awed by the students' work ethics and abilities.

"After a week or two, I would have hired all eight [contestants]," Hale said. "I'm not exaggerating.

Since its debut in 2004, Trump's hit reality show has become fodder for water cooler talk in corporate offices and has been used as a teaching tool at business schools across the country.

When Laleh Malek, director of professional experience at Towson's College of Business and Economics, first pitched the idea of replicating The Apprentice, she had three goals in mind. Besides a job offer, Malek wanted to provide networking opportunities and show students that their classroom knowledge can be applied in the real business world.

Last year's competition also included eight seniors from Towson's College of Business and Economics who each took on 20 to 30 hours of extra work outside the classroom. They received no credit.

Malek said outcomes from that competition far exceeded anything she had imagined.

"In having Mr. Hale offer four of them jobs in the company, that wasn't part of the deal," Malek said. "But it turned out to be a great part of the deal."

Kruskamp, 25, of Westminster entered the contest to win. But when he got axed because his team miscalculated a project's figures, overstating them by $140,000, he took the fall as the team leader. In spite of the bad fortune, Kruskamp stayed motivated.

"The funny thing was, even though I was fired, I didn't stopped doing stuff," Kruskamp said. "I continued to help out my team. I was still talking to them."

The other fired contestant, Matt Leebel, kept up his new contacts by staying connected with Dennis Finnegan, executive vice president at First Mariner Bank, who was Hale's right-hand man during boardroom deliberations - when executives decided who to fire.

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