Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Thunderbird could easily be described as one of the most successful pieces of business school marketing. Throughout the US, and in many parts of the world beyond, it is viewed as the most international business school in the US in spite of being situated in the middle of the Arizona desert and most of its faculty and students being American.

But with a change of boss in place, it looks set to build the infrastructure to support the brand, the student body (43 per cent non-US) and the faculty (31 per cent non-US citizens) throughout the world.

Angel Cabrera, Spanish by nationality and Spanish and American by education, took up the job of Thunderbird president in August 2004 and is one of the few Europeans ever to have been appointed to the top job in a US school. Moreover, at 37 years old he is undoubtedly one of the youngest.

With youth comes an infectious enthusiasm for his second job as business school dean – he became dean of Madrid’s Instituto de Empresa when he was just 33. He already has ambitious plans for transforming Thunderbird, now named the Garvin school after the $60m donation from Sam Garvin, into a business school with a substantial global presence to match its brand image.

His job at Thunderbird is very different to that at IE, he believes. “I sometimes feel that at Instituto de Empresa I built strong academics into a school that was already servicing the students very well. Thunderbird is a school which is more solid in academic terms. My contribution will be to make sense of the business model.”

There are obvious similarities in the environment in which he will operate, though. IE was set up as a business school outside the Spanish university system and so was unfettered with that bureaucracy. Thunderbird, too, is not part of a university system and has only postgraduate students – no undergraduates for the new president to worry about.

Prof Cabrera describes the organisation as “more corporate” than other business schools and, with just a board of trustees to answer to, the institution will prove much nimbler in introducing change, he believes.

And so it will have to be if it succumbs to the persuasive charms of its new president. Just six months into the job he has already drawn up sweeping plans of how he will make sense of the the Thunderbird model, and has bold ambitions for developing the school into a global network of partners, facilities and friends. “We will build a global network like McKinsey,” he says. In each location there will be a “node”, not a campus. “Let’s not think campus, then you think big building, big investment.”

Instead there will be partnerships. Clearly in some locations there will be a campus – in France, near Geneva, one already exists and the home base of Glendale, Arizona, will remain as the largest node. But nodes of differing sizes – everything from corporate friends to hotel suites – are already in place in Prague, Moscow, Beijing and Shanghai. At the planning stage are further nodes in Korea and India.

The network will be dynamic, says Prof Cabrera, with a web of faculty around the globe. Nodes may appear and disappear as required. “Every time you open a node it will add value to the whole network,” he argues.

The regional nodes will be used to teach degree students on the executive MBA (EMBA) programme as well as corporate education programmes. The full-time MBA will remain firmly in Glendale, though Prof Cabrera believes the international network will help MBAs too. “All of a sudden you have a platform to find internships and help recruitment.”

He is also optimistic that the multi-node approach will help Thunderbird recruit new faculty. “Pockets of expertise will gravitate to different parts of the world,” he says. “One central source of supply doesn’t apply any more. It forces you to rethink the basic business school model.”

Adjunct faculty will clearly come into their own in this network in which “the periphery becomes the core”, The school could form alliances with consultants as well as faculty, as required, believes Prof Cabrera.

The decision to appoint a non-American to the job was clearly part of a concerted plan by Thunderbird to build its international reputation. Indeed, of the four short-listed candidates for president, three were from outside the US. Prof Cabrera’s appointment follows in the wake of a series of high-level appointments of Europeans, most notably Jerome Couturier from Insead, who was initially appointed as senior vice-president for executive education at Thunderbird, but who has not been put in charge of managing the Thunderbird global network.

Having a Spaniard for dean has proved popular with the students, says Prof Cabrera. “The students thought it was a neat thing. There was an excitement about the novelty of it.”

In spite of the initial enthusiasm, though, the president is aware there are several parts of the job that will be new to him, notably fund-raising US-style. Even so, he is already practising his sales patter.

“Fund-raising is about selling an idea and making people excited about it. Most people are not giving to a charity, they are investing. You have to try and frame a gift that appeals to them.”

The other big issue now facing the school is the technology needed to implement the global network to which Prof Cabrera aspires. He believes some of Thunderbird’s existing technology, such as the “My Thunderbird” network for students and alumni is leading-edge. “For some of it we are in pretty good shape. In other areas we need to do some work. We need to change the paradigm of what a library is, we need journals online.”

He has high hopes for his first five-year term.

“If I have built the first and only truly global learning network that’ll be a success. It’s a very exciting goal. You are providing a place which is qualitatively different for students and faculty. I want to have better professors and attract better students.”

An exciting goal indeed and the progress towards which many more highly-ranked US business schools will monitor with interest.

Get alerts on Business education when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article