Putting the Scholar in Scholar-Athlete

Chris Tan, Ursinus (middle)

Chris Tan is all business on the mat, a quiet leader with a clinical approach and tireless dedication to his craft.

So when the chance arose to showcase those traits off the mat, by competing in the Rochester University Simon Business School's Early Leaders® Case Competition, the junior on the Ursinus College wrestling team did not hesitate to take it. Like he has so often in the athletic arena, Tan delivered.

Tan and four teammates took first place in the prestigious annual competition, earning a cool $5,000 cash prize.

"We were in disbelief," Tan said. "It was very unexpected and awesome to see how all of us were like, 'what, we did it?'"

Facing real-world decisions

The event, held annually at the University of Rochester's Simon Business School, brings together 50 students from a wide range of undergraduate institutions to take part in a competition designed to simulate real-world decisions faced by business leaders across the world. Tan decided to apply after receiving an email from Professor Carol Cirka, who encouraged students to participate in a competition in which Ursinus students have traditionally stood out.

After being invited to participate, Tan received the case, for which he was expected to prepare before arriving in Rochester.

Once there, Tan learned the identities of his teammates. Ten groups of five were formed by the Simon admissions office with an eye on creating diversity within each group and uniformity across all competing teams. According to the school's website, the amount and type of summer work and internship experience, as well as undergraduate coursework, were the primary criteria used in team formation.

After meeting their counterparts, the teams were given a room in which to prepare their case. Starting at 5:30 p.m., Tan and his teammates worked deep into the night, eventually wrapping up their presentation at about 3 a.m. After a few hours' rest, they spent the remainder of the morning practicing their presentation, which was to be 13 minutes with an extra four to seven minutes allotted for questions.

"The bulk of our morning was spent rehearsing and making sure our presentation would be organic and natural," Tan said. "What gave us the advantage is how well we interacted with each other."

Team chemistry is a factor

Thrown together so quickly, team chemistry becomes paramount, with little room available for ego.

"I was very lucky with my team," said Tan, who was paired with students from Rochester and another from Hobart. "We meshed very well, and there wasn't anyone with an ego. It was open-minded, and it was nice to work with individuals who are as talented and easy to work with."

Presentations were to be judged on originality, depth and insightful analysis, relevance, responses during the question session, and completion of the presentation within the allotted time limit. Competition rules allowed for the use of textbooks, notes, and use of Internet, but discussion of the case with outside sources, including faculty and advisers, was prohibited.

Late Saturday morning, Tan and his group took its best shot at tackling the presented prompt: How to help Fitbit regain its prominence after a market decline resulting from the advent of various smartwatches.

Their solution?

"Instead of going the fitness route, we decided to focus on the health tracking route," Tan explained. "We targeted insurance companies as well as primary and secondary health care providers, giving them the ability to remotely access users' data and save costs to make things more efficient. The other part of our solution was to initiate an aggressive social media campaign to get out brand out there."

After a 13-minute presentation in front of a panel of esteemed judges, including Ursinus Business and Economics Professor Rudolph Henkel, Tan and his team anxiously awaited the final results. Unable to watch other teams' presentations (and thus having nothing with which to compare their own), Tan's group went into final judging with confidence and anxiety in equal measure.

The format of the prize announcements only ratcheted up the drama. Third and second place were revealed first, leaving Tan and his mates less reason for optimism.

"We were like, 'oh well, it was a really good try. Nice job, guys,'" Tan said.

Of course, it was much better than a good effort.

"We looked at each other and we were so surprised when they announced us as the winners," Tan said. "We expected to do pretty well, but maybe not to actually win."

A win for Tan's team

But win they did, an especially fulfilling development considering Tan missed the wrestling team's season-opening tournament at Messiah. Coming off a breakout 27-6 season at 125 pounds and a trip to the NCAA Division III Championships a year ago, Tan was eager to get back on the mat. This particular opportunity to compete in the business realm, however, was too good to pass up – and it didn't hurt that he had the full support of his teammates and coaches.

"Coach Racich is very supportive of our academic pursuits, and I was so appreciate of that," Tan said.

Tan was not totally out of the loop, though – he said teammates were texting him updates throughout the weekend.

"It was cool to see the success we were both having," Tan said. "They were very supportive. Our team is very close, and it's great to share in each other's success."

Tan plans to put his $1,000 prize money to practical use. "I don't see myself spending it superfluously," Tan said. "Maybe cover the cost of some books or other expenses I may have."

Tan's victory extended a staggering run of success by Ursinus students at this event. Tan estimates that an Ursinus student has been on the winning team for the last five years. A year ago, former men's swimmer Keith Larkin was on the third-place team, as was Amanda Kane this time around.

"Our business classes give us a solid foundation in terms of knowledge, but what really separated us from a lot of teams was not the knowledge, but how we looked at the prompt and were able to generate a dynamic solution," Tan said. "How well can you interact in a small team setting? What I find a lot in classes at Ursinus is getting used to working with others in small teams."

And, of course, the opportunity to emphasize the student in "student-athlete."

"It shows how lucky I am to be at an institution like Ursinus, with such a great program and coach who told me to do this from the get-go," Tan said. "(Racich) told me to go and make us proud. We stress academic excellence and athletic competition, so it's great to have the skills in both worlds that transfer to each other." – By Andrew Edwards