Towson University student wins job through contest

Senior gets marketing position at McCormick through ‘Apprentice’-like competition

April 28, 2010|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

When people ask Allison Murray in 20 years how she got her first job out of college, she'll have a doozy of a story for them.

She'll explain how there was this preposterously self-important real estate mogul named Donald Trump who became the star of a television show by telling preposterously fame-hungry people, "You're fired." Murray will tell them that "The Apprentice" became so popular that it spawned a knockoff known as The Associate at her alma mater, Towson University.

She'll note that she was a little shy when she began competing with seven fellow seniors for a job marketing spices at McCormick. But then, the New Jersey native will remember how McCormick CEO Alan Wilson pushed her into leadership roles and how, in his words, she "stepped up and grew."

Finally, she'll say, Wilson, playing Trump's role in a much lower key, told her, "You're hired."

Murray, 21, learned Tuesday evening that she won the sixth version of Towson's Associate competition over Pikesville native Dov Hoffman, 22. With it, she won the promise of a marketing job at McCormick after she graduates next month. To say that certain work is a big prize for a college senior in this time of 10 percent unemployment is an understatement.

"I felt like I was going to pass out," Murray said of the moments after Wilson uttered the good news. Her mother would be even more excited, she said. "She'll probably scream even louder than me."

The competition mimics the TV version closely. Students work in teams, devising solutions for real-world clients. They present their cases in a boardroom before cameras and a panel of McCormick executives. If the project manager doesn't demonstrate enough authority or the client's desires are ignored, the students face a scolding or, in the worst case, termination.

Wilson might not lay it on as thick as Trump, but that doesn't make it any more fun to hear the CEO say he won't be offering you a job. Hoffman's expression dropped when he heard the bad news, and he maintained a small, tight smile as a room full of onlookers pressed in to congratulate Murray.

"That's part of it, I guess," he said of the disappointment.

The Towson students generally had four days from the time they were given a case to the time they had to present solutions to clients. They balanced the competition with full course loads and part-time jobs and internships. In the last round, Murray and Hoffman had to devise marketing plans to expand the customers for McCormick's Grill Mates line of dry-rub spices.

Towson officials said that in addition to creating excitement, the competition forces business students to apply all the skills they have learned over four years and to do so under the scrutiny of real-world bosses rather than professors.

"It really forces them to pull everything together," said Towson President Robert L. Caret. "It's the kind of thing that I would hope every major could do."

When "The Apprentice" became a reality television sensation in 2004, Laleh Malek, Towson's director of professional experience, asked students if they were watching. Almost every hand in the room shot up. Other business professors also noticed a buzz around the show.

They wondered whether a competition based on the show might get students excited about cases that would otherwise be yawn-inducing abstractions. Sure enough, the initial contest, with 1st Mariner Chairman Ed Hale playing the Donald, kept the competitors fiercely engaged.

"It was no longer a professor telling them their ideas were right or wrong," Malek said. "They paid attention."

After every competition, she asks the students whether Towson should continue The Associate for another year. Every year, Malek said, they've told her, "You have to do it again. It's too valuable not to."

The 2010 competitors said that the chance to test their mettle before real business executives remains the most enticing part of the competition.

"The real-world experience of competing and meeting with CEOs was something I just couldn't pass up," Hoffman said. "That ability to think on your feet and beat deadlines demonstrates what happens out there."

Wilson judged the students just as he would any consultant.

"I look at what kind of engagement they've created with the client," he said. "How responsive were they? How creative? How were they able to respond to questions? A lot of it is how quickly they're able to think on their feet."

In truth, he sounded more like a proud papa than a haughty executive when assessing the work of his Associate cast.

"They had to present to people who know a lot more about the subjects than they do," Wilson said. "But some of the clients told me it would have taken a consultant a few months to put together research and ideas of that level."

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