CFO Industry Immersion: To Pivot or Not to Pivot
A prospective student gets a fresh take on teaching by case study
This wasn’t some random case study far-removed from the teacher and the students. It was a real problem faced by a real company, presented by a key decision maker with first-hand experience.
I was attending the CFO in Technology Industry Immersion at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management. The course brings in CFOs from Bay Area technology companies and beyond and provides a fresh take on the case study method of teaching.
The session I attended featured a talk from Kyle Wakamiya, comptroller for Origin Materials. (He was recognized as the Sacramento Business Journal’s CFO of the Year in 2017). The company, founded as Micromidas in 2008, originally focused on a biorefinery technology that converted wastewater into a basic raw material of various polymers. Yet as the company matured and required more capital to scale, it faced a dilemma.
In a nutshell, they had to decide whether to:
- Continue their established method of producing a product with fewer uses but potentially higher margins.
- Pivot to a new process (i.e., start over) to create a lower-margin but highly scalable product.
- Pursue both, which would be capital intensive but allow the company to funnel the end product of the first method into the second.
This was the problem the class was tasked with solving. After an initial download of the issues at hand, it was left up to us to decide which path to take.
The Industry Immersion program is a big reason why I’m considering UC Davis for my graduate studies.
The students were split into groups to identify the best path forward based on the information available. One group served as the C-Suite, examining the three different courses of action and developing a proposed solution. Another group acted as the Origin board members, providing critiques of the recommendations and deciding which option was best for the company.
This portion of the exercise was particularly interesting to watch, as each group had a unique take on how to solve the problem. The case study was designed to give us some, but not all, of the facts, to encourage groups to problem solve and craft arguments based on assumptions. And by splitting groups into the C-Suite and board, students were forced to look at the issue from different perspectives and carefully consider the pros and cons before proceeding.
While my classroom memories aren’t exactly fresh, I certainly don’t remember having this much fun during a three-hour class.
In the end, the proposed solutions were varied. Several groups advocated for the second option, which is also what the company ultimately decided to do, but persuasive cases were made for each possibility.
Beyond the material, I was surprised at how much fun and how engaging the class was throughout the exercise. At no point did I check the clock or get lost in the material, even as someone who is eight years removed from college. It was accessible, digestible and interactive. While my classroom memories aren’t exactly fresh, I certainly don’t remember having this much fun during a three-hour class.
The Industry Immersion program is a big reason why I’m considering UC Davis for my graduate studies. This real-world experience, coupled with top-tier faculty and a collaborative environment, would provide a lasting tool-kit to succeed in any career.