High schoolers learn business strategy from simulated management program

Four Big Sky High School students took on the role of young entrepreneurs this spring and managed a fledgling DVD manufacturing and sales company.

They made key business decisions on purchasing, product development, market research, price, advertising and ethics.

They used financial reports and market research from previous business quarters to forecast upcoming weeks.

They decided on sales staff size, plant expansion and loan repayment.

By the end of eight weeks, their stock price had soared from $25 a share to $82 a share.

Though the business wasn't real and neither were their profits, the students did gain knowledge as to how to operate a business in a highly competitive environment and saw the effects of their decisions.

The Montana High School Business Challenge is both a game and competition - a business simulation using a computer model in which other high school teams from across the state participate. One week equals one business quarter. The eight-week period represents two years of business.

The Big Sky team's management decisions proved to be the best among 159 teams made up of 477 students from 29 schools across Montana who competed in the challenge.

First place went to the team of Jeni Gardner, Steven Larsen, Bryan Luke and Henry Wheeler, all seniors and students of William Langlas' advanced business topics class. On Tuesday, each student received $25, a certificate and an invitation to the Governors' Cup Golf Tournament in Bigfork in August.

The tournament hosts about 400 people in business and government and more than 100 corporations from Montana and around the nation. The event aims to facilitate business contacts and promote Montana's opportunities for business and investment.

The business challenge was sponsored by the Montana Chamber Foundation, administered by Montana Council of Economic Education and funded by the Montana Chamber Foundation and Governors' Cup Golf Tournament.

Langlas said the game helped students gain a better grasp of business terminology and an appreciation for the goings on in the business world. Students also learned to work in groups and make joint decisions, an important skill and one in which they must learn to respect each other's opinions, he said.

The state challenge is new to Montana, replacing Montana Business Week. The latter was revised in 1999 to get economics education directly into the classroom. Montana Business Week ran only one week instead of eight weeks and took place at Montana State University.

"We decided to take the program to the classrooms. We've had a lot more participants with it so far," said Webb Scott Brown, Montana Chamber of Commerce president.

For Gardner, 18, who will study physical therapy at Montana State University after she graduates, the game challenged her by requiring she learn new information such as how product development can lower costs and increase profits.

The team's decisions to invest money in advertising and product development may have played a part in their success, she said.

Luke, 18, who will study education at Miles City after he graduates, enjoyed the team aspect of the game, although members struggled with the team aspect at times when decisions had to be made.

For Larsen, the most challenging aspect of the game was determining the best place to invest money. Putting it in different places and then monitoring what worked and didn't work might have helped in the team's success, he said. The highlight of the game for Larsen, 19, who plans a career in culinary arts, was learning what it all entails to run a company.

Wheeler, 18, suggested the team's success may have been in how it purchased product and monitored sales and inventory.

"When sales were high, we bought a lot of product and sold it at a higher price," he said.

Wheeler didn't find the challenge that difficult. The best part was the $25 check at the end, he said.

He hasn't decided on a career yet, but is considering several options including Westwood College of Technology in California or the Navy.

For organizers, next year's challenge promises to encompass even more students. In the 2000-01 school year, 29 schools and nearly 500 students participated. Brown said the chamber expects to add 20 more schools next fall and another 15 schools the following season.

"We think it is valuable to show what the decisions are in business," he said. And the eight weeks of exposure to business economics instead of just the one week should improve learning.

"Hopefully it will stick with them longer," Brown said.

Reporter Jane Rider can be reached at 523-5298 or at jrider@missoulian.com.

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