During their spring break, 75 college students from around the world descended on West Palm Beach, Fla. They weren't there for the sun or surf, though. They came to save a Toyota dealership.
The students tackled a computerized automobile dealership competition sponsored by Midland, Mich.-based Northwood University. The competition was held at Northwood's Florida campus earlier this month.
Written by Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., the program creates a computer-simulated, virtual dealership called Central Toyota Inc. that is losing $500,000 a year.
Each of the 11 multicultural teams faced the same problem: Make Central Toyota profitable. The teams made up to 12 decisions in each of four departments: new cars, used cars, parts and service.
Robert Glen, a Canadian who attends Northwood in Michigan, represented the United States at the competition. He and another Canadian were joined by four Europeans on the team.
One of the decisions Glen's team made was to extend service hours to seven days a week. The two North Americans were behind the idea. The Europeans could not believe it.
'After some coercion, they decided to trust (the North Americans),' Glen said. 'We captured a market that no one else had. Whether it would work in real life, I don't know. But for this exercise, it did.'
Glen's team won the competition.
Because the automotive world is becoming increasingly global, exposure to different cultures is essential, Northwood President David Fry said. The simulation helps grant that exposure.
'The original focus (of the computer simulation) was to practice making business decisions,' he said. 'What we found out along the way was that we had to learn how other cultures work.'
This was the third year for the international competition and the first year it was held in the United States.
The competition is like a flight simulator, said Don Denham, retail operations manager for Toyota. It gives students a taste of decision making they might not get in the classroom.
'Rather than studying marketing theories, the program lets the students get their hands dirty in the automotive retailing environment. It's not just text-book classroom learning,' Denham said.
He said students who complete the competition are better educated, and that helps Toyota and the automotive retailing industry.