The Real Deal: MBA Students Learn What It's Like to Build a Company


Olympus Enterprise Computers is not a real company. It is part of a complex market simulation that serves as the backbone for one of Northwood’s most unique courses. Known simply as Simulation Week, it is the capstone course for all students pursuing a master’s degree in business administration on any Northwood campus. Students from across Michigan and around the country gather in Midland and spend six days immersed in a computer-generated world of business opportunities and challenges.

This July, 165 students took part, broken into 10 teams. Faculty assign each student a role in finance, operations, marketing or sales. Four students in each team are assigned to serve as vice president of a division. One student is assigned to be president. Beyond that, the teams make all the decisions required of an organization. And there are a lot of decisions to be made, as the computer continuously redraws the market landscape in response to actions by all teams, demanding new decisions several times a day.

“It’s exhausting. Your mind is going at all times. There’s not much sleep,” said Valisa Downing, a student from Grand Rapids who served as the Olympus vice president of sales. “It’s been a great experience.”

The simulation is competitive, but students’ grades are not based solely on their companies’ financial success. Faculty have developed a sophisticated assessment system that values good decision making and working effectively with teammates.

“They have to learn to work together through the week to run a successful business,” said Scott Pontious, director of Graduate Programs at Northwood and a veteran of Simulation Week himself. “Every university has a capstone course. What makes us unique is that we bring all of our students from all over the country to campus together. We have full-time students, part-time students, online students. No one else, that I know of, offers an experience like this.”

For each simulated company, a faculty member serves as board chairman, providing guidance but, like Grether, also holding the students accountable.

“Part of the challenge of this simulation is distinguishing which of the outcomes are the result of good decisions and which are just luck,” Grether observed.

Each company sets up headquarters in a Naegele Village apartment. Board meetings are held in classrooms. Olympus was one of several companies fortunate to hold its meetings in the new Richard DeVos Graduate School of Management building, an icon of modern design and educational technology that offers students the ideal setting for learning.


“We’ve had a lot of fun this week,” Wood said near the end of his time as Olympus president. “It is really intense. There’s a lot of work, but there have been very few times when we weren’t walking around smiling.”


MBA Students Learn What It's Like to Build a Company

Sunshine streams through walls of glass into a glittering high-tech classroom inside the Richard DeVos Graduate School of Management building. But dark clouds seem to be forming in the classroom. The 16-member management team of Olympus Enterprise Computers is fielding questions from the chairman of the board, and he isn’t satisfied with some of the answers.

“Are you reacting to your competitors, or are you following your mission statement?” Chairman John Grether asks the team.

Olympus President Thomas Wood speaks for the Northwood students who make up the fictional company in this academic simulation. He attempts to summarize the company’s intentions for the most recent reporting period, during which sales suffered a disturbing drop.

“I don’t care about your intentions. Your execution is the measure of your intentions,” Grether responds calmly. “I just want to hear you guys ...”

“Cry?” Wood interjects, to laughs from the rest of the team.

“I want to hear that you guys understand what happened,” Grether finishes.

When the meeting is over, the team members do understand. They understand what happened, what they will do next, and a whole lot more.