“The Academic Equal to Harley Davidson’s ‘Rolling Thunder'”

Three years ago, Wilson Cheng, Deputy General Manager JV of EMC Computer Systems (China), was starting to feel out of his league. He was managing more people, and his bachelor’s degree in engineering offered little in the way of business know-how. The Shanghai native decided to pursue an MBA. “CEIBS was the only EMBA program I was interested in,” he recalls.

No school sums up the voracious appetite for business education in China better than the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS). Fifteen years ago, the school enrolled a mere 42 students on its Executive MBA program. In 2010, it tallies 700 executives on its Chinese EMBA program alone. The 16-year-old B-school is currently teaching six Chinese EMBA classes in its Shanghai hub, four in Beijing and two in Shenzhen. That’s in addition to its popular International EMBA program, which seats about 60 students from 27 countries every year.

With so many students, CEIBS holds the prize for the world’s largest EMBA program. “We’re the academic equivalent of Harley Davidson’s “rolling thunder,” says John Quelch, the school’s Dean as of February 1.

Why stop there? EMBA Director, Charles Chen anticipates steady growth for the Chinese EMBA program. The school will focus its expansion on regions where local economic development is relatively more rapid than in the rest of China. That’s not insignificant if you trust figures from the International Monetary Fund that show China’s real gross domestic product rising at a 10.5% clip in 2010 (compared with the US’ 2.6%, or the UK’s 1.7%).

B-school stats coming out of China are equally compelling. Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) data show the number of Chinese citizens taking the GMAT exam has averaged 18% annual growth since 2004. In 2010, B-school hopefuls took 41,218 tests in East and Southeast Asia, most of these in China. The number of scores sent to schools in the region also spiked. According to GMAC data, Asian schools attracted 42,617 scores in 2010, up 116% since the 2006 testing year.

China’s appetite for MBAs is enough to make the deans of US and European B-schools drool at the prospect of demand that they cannot meet. What’s worse, fewer Chinese applicants are choosing to study in the US. GMAC registered 66% of Chinese test takers sending scores to US schools in 2010, down from 75% in 2008. It’s no wonder that GMAC President, Dave Wilson, recently told Poets&Quants that Asia is the hot spot to earn a business degree.

As more Chinese execs staying put to learn, local programs gain. “The most successful Chinese entrepreneurs, state enterprise leaders and government officials sign up each year,” Quelch says of CEIBS’ EMBA programs. “Many are already company chairmen, chief executives, presidents and general managers.” Among its most illustrious former students are Jin Zhiguo, head of the country’s popular Tsingdao Beer Brewery, and Pan Gang, who leads Yili Dairy, China’s largest dairy company. “This is evidence that the education we provide has contributed to the economic boom in China,” Professor Chen boasts.

Such classroom caliber has helped the young Executive MBA program – the school is just 16 years old – steadily ascend the Financial Times’ Executive MBA rankings. In 2010, CEIBS grabbed the No. 18 spot in the EMBA list, up from No. 29 in its 2001 debut. (It’s full-time MBA program is currently No.  17, up from No. 92 in the 2002 listing.)

Tutoring EMBAs comes at a price for any school, but especially at CEIBS. “They are hugely demanding and our faculty have to be totally on their game to succeed in this classroom,” Quelch says. “We typically dry run new-to-EMBA faculty in a short elective course before evaluating their capacity to take on core teaching assignments.”

CEIBS’ International EMBA program has also become a popular school among expatriates. The program is custom made for mid- to senior- level managers who are expert in their field, but new to China, Quelch says. “This follows our philosophy of offering “China Depth, Global Breadth” in every course. “By the time they graduate, after two years of intensive, China-focused study taught by the best China business professors in the world, they also benefit from our extensive network of Chinese alumni. This is a combination that no other school in China can offer.”

“Incredible alumni” were one draw for 2009 graduate Simon Bisbo, Chief Representative for Sourcebynet Shanghai Representative Office, a building materials company. “It was also an “opportunity to “make the most” of my time in China,” he says. “It combines theory and experiences that specifically related to China, but still maintained an overall international perspective.”

CEIBS gleans that international perspective from a mix of visiting professors from European and U.S. business schools, with local faculty who have extensive experience beyond China. “The classes derived as much value from cultural and experience exchanges between students and professors, as they did from traditional one-way learning, and thus you ended up learning as much or even more from your peers than from your professors,” says Bisbo.

Just as ‘Western’ B-schools aim to improve their Asian acumen, so too does CEIBS outside of Asia. In 2009, CEIBS sent its faculty to Accra, Ghana to welcome its first class of EMBA students in Africa. Their first class graduated in December 2010.

Wilson Cheng will graduate in September. So far, the accounting, finance and marketing principles have been most useful at work. In particular, lessons from his accounting and organizational behavior classes are helping to inform his analysis of potential investment opportunities. But the best return on his $70,000 program (CEIBS’ International MBA program costs $3,000 more) has been his classmates. Before the CEIBS, he’d expected his classmates to have “advantages and experiences that I could learn from.” And that’s proven “absolutely true.”

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