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After a 28-year career in technology and telecommunications, Carol Stephenson was looking forward in early 2003 to a holiday in France and a year off work.

Instead, a headhunter called to gauge her interest in taking the helm at the Richard W. Ivey School of Business in London, Ontario.

Ms Stephenson, at the time chief executive of Lucent Technologies’ Canadian subsidiary, recalls that her first thought was to remember her motto: “Never say no to something until you think about it.” As she reflected on her interest and skills in education, communications, business and interaction with government, “I thought: that sounds like the dean of a business school”.

Almost two years into the Ivey job, Ms Stephenson, aged 54, has discovered a more challenging similarity between her old and new careers.

In much the same way as Canada’s telecoms industry has been moving from dominance by a handful of companies towards a more competitive market, Ivey is no longer the undisputed leader among Canadian business schools.

Ivey, which is affiliated to the University of Western Ontario in London, two hours’ drive south-west of Toronto, slipped to 34th in the 2005 FT MBA rankings, from 29th last year and 22nd in 2003.

“Ivey’s strengths relative to the competition have diminished,” says Donald Thain, a professor emeritus who lectured at the school for over 40 years. Mr Thain adds that “Carol faces a very, very tough job”.

For a start, Canada is no longer the force in international business that it was in the 1960s and 1970s. The country’s big five banks, once global powerhouses, are now mid-sized regional institutions. Many of the most prominent businesses have been taken over by US, European and Asian companies. Likewise, Canadian business schools are smaller players in a bigger pond as they try to grab the attention of prospective students, teaching staff and donors.

Though London, Ontario, is a pleasant town, big-city business schools like the University of Toronto’s Joseph L. Rotman School and the Schulich School at York University, also in Toronto, have the advantage of being close to donors with the deepest pockets. The FT’s MBA rankings now put Ivey behind both Rotman (number 21), and Schulich (22).

Still, Ivey retains some enviable strengths. While it continues to receive a government subsidy, it was the first Canadian business school to charge fees covering the full cost of tuition. The extra resources have enabled it to compete more aggressively for top-flight teaching staff. A C$100m endowment campaign is currently in the pipeline.

Roger Wolff, a former Rotman dean who now teaches at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, says that Ivey’s connections with its 16,000 alumni are rivalled only by privately funded US business schools. Prominent Ivey alumni include Scott Beattie, head of Elizabeth Arden, the US cosmetics group; Arkadi Kuhlmann, chief executive of ING Direct, the Dutch bank’s US subsidiary; Chris Matthews, chairman of Hay Group, the human resources consultancy; James Prieur, president of Sun Life Financial, the Toronto-based insurance group; and Robert Ritchie, chief executive of Canadian Pacific Railway.

Non-Canadians now make up more than half of Ivey’s student body, giving the school a cultural diversity that few others can match. Hong Kong’s former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa was on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony of Ivey’s Asian campus in 1998. The premises, located in the Hong Kong convention centre, were donated by Henry Cheng, an Ivey graduate who is managing director of New World Development, a prominent Hong Kong conglomerate.

About 65-70 students have enrolled each year for part-time and executive MBA courses in Hong Kong. The school has a job placement office for MBA graduates in Shanghai and plans to open another in Beijing later this year. It claims to have translated more case studies into Chinese than any other business school.

Ivey plans to launch a “China business stream” MBA this September. Students will spend about a third of the two-year degree in Hong Kong immersed, Ivey promises, “in Chinese culture, language and business practices”, including trips to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Ms Stephenson insists that Ivey is not “an airy-fairy, theoretical kind of school”. As one way of keeping in touch with current business issues, she still sits on several corporate boards, including the Canadian units of ING, the Dutch bank, and Sears, the Chicago-based retailer, as well as the Ottawa Airport Authority.

According to Mr Wolff, “they’ve been totally committed to the case study of instruction They’re still extremely applied.”

In spite of this emphasis on the real world, the adjustment from boardroom to business school has not always been easy for Ms Stephenson. “The number of stakeholders you deal with is enormous”, she says, citing Ivey’s 18,000 alumni, 1,000 students and 85 teaching staff. “They all expect a one-on-one relationship with you. The demands on your time are quite extraordinary.”

Ms Stephenson cites a marketing campaign that was due to be launched shortly after she arrived in London two years ago. Her initial inclination was to follow her business instincts, putting the need for decisive action and secrecy ahead of wide consultation. But her assistant quietly suggested that it might be wise first to run the details past Ivey’s senior teaching staff.

“That was one where I nearly made a mistake”, Ms Stephenson recalls. “More people want to know in a university setting than in the private sector.”

Ms Stephenson tries to spend weekends at her home in Ottawa, almost 700km east of London. But being the dean of a business school, she is discovering, is as much a vocation as a job.

Ticking off the Friday and Saturday functions that have recently kept her in south-western Ontario, she says that “whereas the other things I did were exciting and challenging at the time I did them, I never felt as consumed by them. This is all-consuming.”

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