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Nov 3, 2021 Accountancy Alumni Business Administration Faculty Finance Student

Celebrating 25 years of Illinois Business Consulting

Originally from Montreal, Normand Paquin remembers fondly his experience being part of the first cohort of Illinois Business Consulting – which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2021. His experience was more impactful and invaluable than he ever could’ve imagined.

“We did a project for Lucent technologies in the United Kingdom. So a group of students flew to the UK to meet the client and talk about what they were looking for,” he said. 

Illinois Business Consulting (IBC) was founded at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1996 by Dr. Paul Magelli and was initially called the Office of Strategic Business Initiatives (OSBI). Now, 25 years later, IBC has exploded into the largest professionally managed, student-run consulting organization in the United States. 

Paquin is now the associate director for research at the Coordinated Science Laboratory (CSL) on campus. But back then, the freshly minted MBA went to work for a Springfield, Illinois consulting firm tasked with helping government agencies make sure their systems weren’t going to crash due to Y2K.

“After about two and a half years Paul Magelli recruited me back,” said Paquin, who recalled doing six projects per year as a first-year MBA student. “I became the first assistant director for OSBI, overseeing the organization’s day-to-day operations.”

When he returned four years after his initial experience – having gained extensive corporate and professional experience himself - IBC was handling about 15 projects a semester. 

“To see the scale where we’re getting 700 applications, 200 projects a year now is truly remarkable,” he said. 

One of the most distinguishable factors about a company engaging with an IBC team is that it’s an opportunity to tap into the students’ creativity and ability to think outside the box. Paquin said he knew that IBC had, in the very early days, sponsors who would have an internal team in their company doing a project, but they would give the same project to a team of students – just to see what the students would come up with.

“It’s kind of surprising and immensely beneficial for the company,” he said. “In corporate America, you can start wearing blinders. You see things from a certain perspective. And I know for sure there was more than one occasion where the IBC team delivered its report and the company was like ‘Really? Oh, we hadn't thought about that.’”

As associate director for research for the CSL, Paquin’s relationship with IBC has come full circle. The Center for Network Intelligent Components and Environments is in partnership with a company called Foxconn Interconnected Technologies, a company IBC currently has a project with. 

“In the previous semester, we had another project that we did with IBC, “said Paquin. “I can tell you that, to me, the level of professionalism and confidence you see in the students now is phenomenal.”

Mark Smith, now a professor at Gies College of Business agrees with Paquin about the fresh perspective a team of IBC students can bring. Smith was also one of the few students who were part of the organization’s first team.

“We had four or five of us. It was a small crew,” Smith recalled. “It was a focused team to do a specific thing to evaluate technologies coming out of engineering for the University of Illinois licensing office.”

After Smith graduated that May, he became a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist. He returned to Gies in 2013 to teach finance.

“Sometimes when you’re a professional consultant, you have a hammer, and so all you’re looking for are nails,” he said. “So I can see how corporate experience can almost be like having blinders on.”

He explained further, saying that that the best advice he could give to anyone just starting out was to listen to your clients, listen to their needs, and make sure you're addressing those needs.

“It's human nature to look for patterns that we want to fit,” he said. “Sometimes we look too hard, and we try to force patterns in situations where they don’t exist. It is almost basic human psychology that patterns give us a level of comfort. So these student teams can bring an invaluable fresh, outside perspective.”

With every year that passes, IBC becomes a more well-oiled machine. In a project that IBC was involved with early in 2021, the students developed a unique profit and loss model. Paquin said that the team did a great job, and the company was able to say that with the students’ profit loss model the estimated market penetration was in fact higher than what they had expected.

“The assessors were like ‘How did you dig up that number?’ And the students were able to completely justify it,” he said.

This concept of experiential learning, which began at Gies as a co-curricular activity 25 years ago has now been integrated into all of the College’s programs. As a result, employers and alumni report that Gies graduates are better prepared to hit the ground running and add value from day one on the job.

Now, the College has developed a way to offer this critical type of learning at scale. In Fall 2021, Gies launched Business 301: Business in Action – the largest experiential learning course in the US. Unlike typical programs, this mandatory course for 800+ students will be offered to every junior every semester. Instead of one or two client projects filtered through an instructor, each student team works with their own client organization – that’s 140 student teams working with 140 unique clients. It’s a huge leap toward the future of experiential learning, and it’s all possible only because of the foundation IBC laid 25 years ago.

Today, the confidence in the process and the students’ confidence in their abilities are higher than ever. The student teams are intentionally organized to give everyone the chance to contribute to the project.

“Everybody gets a chance to interact with the client, everybody gets a chance to talk about certain aspects,” said Paquin. “It has been the greatest journey to see how far IBC has come.”