How do you learn to lead a department, regional division, fleet, or multinational organization? Theory based-education will only get you so far. It’s experience that truly hones your skills.

From creating cost-saving systems to developing new growth strategies, students in the Texas A&M Executive MBA Program at Mays must use their business knowledge and leadership skills to tackle an important challenge facing their organization. This effort, their Capstone Project, creates solutions for a real problem, giving immediate application to their classroom learning—and creating value for the individual students, their companies, and their customers.

In fact, The Wall Street Journal recently ranked the A&M Executive MBA Program first in the nation for precisely this sort of experience: when examining factors such as raises received after graduation, company-sponsorship figures, tuition, and out-of-pocket costs, the program was ranked number one for individual return on investment. This program is a point of differentiation for Mays, most executive MBA programs don’t incorporate participants’ professional work into an individualized curriculum.

Below are some of the most interesting and impactful Capstone Projects to come out of the EMBA Class X, which graduated in May 2010. Their work will save millions of dollars and create more efficient organizations that will grow the economy. You don’t have to be considering an executive MBA to learn something from their experiences, too.

Shawn Corkran

Director, Transmission and Distribution Operations, Entergy Texas, Inc.; Beaumont, Texas

Hurricane winds blow, ripping off roofs and siding, shattering windows, relocating trees and trashcans, and downing power lines. When the storm is over, the vital work of restoration begins. Key to the recovery is turning the power back on—a job that customers expect to have completed very quickly. A job that requires a huge investment of manpower.

Shawn Corkman developed a model to optimize Entergy's decisions for supporting emergency operations.
Shawn Corkman developed a model to optimize Entergy’s decisions for supporting emergency operations.

For a business utility company with approximately 500-1,000 employees, the restoration process after a catastrophe can temporarily swell their ranks to more than 10,000-15,000. Acquiring the additional workers from contractor companies and other utility companies, then providing for them logistically (equipment, housing, food) in a storm-damaged area is a huge resource management and supply chain challenge.

As a longtime Gulf Coast resident and Entergy employee, Shawn Corkran knows how vital timely response to natural disasters is. The focus of his EMBA Capstone Project was improving Entergy’s ability to bring in thousands of new employees and put them to work as quickly as possible. Applying what he learned in operations management, Shawn developed a model to optimize Entergy’s decisions regarding crew deployment, housing, and meals. After many hours spent building and validating the model, Shawn’s work resulted in his promotion to director of operations.

When he presented his project to his storm team at Entergy, his ideas were enthusiastically embraced. Shawn expects that his proposal, which includes the creation of a new resource management model, will be applied in the near future.

“My storm team loves this,” he says of the new model. “It allows us to take people who are under a lot of stress and a lot of duress, and make good decisions on behalf of everybody.”

Sara Bucaram

Brand Manager for Services Marketing department, Dell; Dallas, Texas

“Many hands make light work,” says the proverb—but how many hands are needed depends on the job. For her Capstone Project, Sara Bucaram evaluated her team of IT professionals at Perot Systems, delving into the daily details of their work to create a scalable model so that as customer volume grew, the appropriate number of staff would be added.

Her ambition was not micromanaging her employees, but rather understanding the demands of the position so that each team within Perot was right-sized for the workload of a particular client. Sara measured and analyzed the time spent on each IT request, the number of requests each employee handled per month, and the customer feedback. She says it was enlightening to turn over every rock and analyze specific components of the employees’ days.

When all of the data was collected, Sara determined that each team member should be able to respond to about 200 requests per month. Using this and other variables, she developed a model that could forecast staffing adjustments based on a client’s growth rate.

After her Capstone Project, Sara says there is great value for managers in any kind of business to closely examine the output delivered by a team of employees. Only after fully understanding the objectives and the nature of the job can a manager determine if modifications to team size or workload would lead to greater productivity.

Before Sara’s models could be applied to other teams within the company, Perot was acquired by Dell. As the companies merge, Sara has moved from service to marketing, but the experience she gained from her project and from the EMBA degree are not wasted. They have opened doors for promotion for her in the reorganization phase. When the dust settles, Sara plans to implement certain elements of her models to teams within Dell.

Michael Hopkins

Production Control Group Leader, IAH/HOU Heavy Aircraft Maintenance, Continental Airlines; Houston, Texas

Mike Hopkins can easily quantify the value of his Capstone Project: millions of dollars in corporate savings.

From the trucks that tow the luggage from the gate to the plane, to the tugs that push aircraft into position on the ground, it takes a fleet of thousands of support vehicles to ensure that your flight leaves safely and on time. Mike’s Capstone Project was to improve efficiency in the strategic organization of Continental’s ground services equipment division.

A problem of this magnitude was more than Mike could handle alone, so he enlisted the help of four Mays Full-Time MBA students, Justin Zsiros, Derek Egbert, Imraan Mulla, and James Kress. Together the team collected and interpreted more than 60,000 lines of data on vehicle performance and maintenance. After eight months of hard work that required the cooperation of many units within the organization, Mike was ready to present his recommendations to Continental’s top executives.

The results were received with excitement and will be used to drive change and reduce costs at every hub within Continental’s system. Mike’s timing couldn’t be better. Continental is currently preparing for a merger with United Airlines, and both companies will place a high priority on streamlining operations as they integrate.

Bruce Pool

South Business Unit VP for North America, Aggreko, LLC; Houston, Texas

Not all growth is good. If expansion isn’t strategic, then it may not be sustainable. So says Bruce Pool, whose Capstone Project examined the growth patterns of the rapidly expanding global firm, Aggreko, LLC, a rental power, temperature control, and compressed air systems company.

Bruce Pool's Capstone Project has helped Aggreko take a more critical look at their expansion plans.
Bruce Pool’s Capstone Project has helped Aggreko take a more critical look at their expansion plans.

As demand for services outpaced strategic planning, Aggreko had followed customers’ growth into new markets, committing $8-$12 million in facility, rental fleet and people with each new site. In many cases the investments were successful. But if the customer they were following had a downturn, if the market was too narrow or already saturated, or if they could offer no advantage over area competitors, then they experienced only marginal results at best.

To help Aggreko understand the dynamics of rapid expansion, Bruce gathered and analyzed economic and market data for 50 existing sites that had performed best for Aggreko in recent years, not in terms of total revenue, but for year-over-year increases. Using these data, he then developed a model to evaluate six sites under active consideration for expansion.

The data he collected challenged assumptions about the way Aggreko does business, such as the long-held belief that growing in areas with a large energy trade was the best strategy. It turned out, however, the best markets are far more diversified.

Based on Bruce’s project, Aggreko has put expansion into one of the markets it was considering on hold. During the next year, he hopes to refine the model to more effectively incorporate pricing and demand data by sector. As the company grows globally, his models will be at the forefront of expansion decisions.