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It is four years since Melbourne Business School merged with Mt Eliza Business School in Victoria, bringing together a leading local MBA provider with its executive education counterpart. Yet both Paul Kirkbride, the enlarged school’s new executive education supremo, and John Seybolt, its dean, say there are still significant synergies in the planning pipeline.

The timing of the 2004 merger of the two schools was fortunate, given the growth in executive education mirroring an economic boom in Australia that was causing widespread skill shortages.

As a result, executive education now accounts for two-thirds of the overall – albeit small – revenues of the school, up from about half three years ago. Revenue is slated to double by 2012, under an ambitious strategy formulated by Mr Kirkbride, who took up his position as associate dean, executive education, last September after a stint at Duke Corporate Education in the US (see box).

Central to Mr Kirkbride’s vision for MBS Mt Eliza is a new take on customised executive education. Open enrolment has reached a plateau worldwide, says Mr Kirkbride. “It is the corporate side where the growth is. That’s where the most interesting things are happening.

“Customised starts with a blank piece of paper,” he adds. “One of the things I have noticed here is that the market seems to be fixated around delivery. Even in our initial conversations, we are coming up with fairly challenging and probing questions – let’s drill down into what exactly are the issues here. We also want to design together, to brainstorm jointly. Only at that point do we think about delivery.”

While it is too early to evaluate the new approach, Mr Kirkbride says it has gone down well and that conversion of leads into sales has doubled in recent months.

It has necessitated some restructuring. There have been no job losses and not many new hires, although Mr Kirkbride says there will be openings, starting with project managers: “We’ve won some big contracts in the last couple of years. Clients want totally seamless delivery. We have to get a lot better at project management.”

The school is relatively small. There are just 35 full-time academics on the Carlton campus in central Melbourne, the old MBS, with a further 16 at Mt Eliza, which is located on the Mornington Peninsula about an hour’s drive away.

In terms of subject matter, Mr Kirkbride says there is a focus locally on leadership programmes, but that he wants to look at issues such as operations and supply chain management, which are key for Australia given its geography. Another important area of focus for business, both locally and globally, is how to move from transaction-based relationships with customers to being a trusted adviser.

He maintains that sending top executives off on intensive open courses at big-name institutions in the US often represents poor value. “I think it is a big mistake,” he says. “You need to work closely with a provider. A lot of executive education is getting people to work on the same page. Real top-level management development is probably an area that is neglected.”

Mr Kirkbride has ambitions to make the school a national provider, something he says that Australia – with its strong state structures – lacks, and to win further business in Asia and beyond. “We already do quite a lot of work for multinationals,” he says. “I have had people delivering in London, New York, Hong Kong and a number of other places just in the last two months. But that’s not really being international, it’s following others going international.”

Examples include programmes for Axa Asia Pacific, the insurance and fund management group, and BHP Billiton, both with headquarters in Melbourne.

This latter, aimed in part at sharpening the management skills of the mining group’s graduates, has involved alliances with the University of Cape Town and Chile’s University of Adolfo Ibanez, says Prof Seybolt.

“The next stage is actually winning clients in China or India or Singapore,” says Mr Kirkbride. “We are just about to win a couple of those but then we will need a much more coherent strategy [for international expansion] and to go beyond the opportunistic.”

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