Towson University student wins job through contest

When people ask Allison Murray in 20 years how she got her first job out of college, she'll have a doozy of a story for them.

She'll explain how there was this preposterously self-important real estate mogul named Donald Trump who became the star of a television show by telling preposterously fame-hungry people, "You're fired." Murray will tell them that "The Apprentice" became so popular that it spawned a knockoff known as The Associate at her alma mater, Towson University.

She'll note that she was a little shy when she began competing with seven fellow seniors for a job marketing spices at McCormick. But then, the New Jersey native will remember how McCormick CEO Alan Wilson pushed her into leadership roles and how, in his words, she "stepped up and grew."

Finally, she'll say, Wilson, playing Trump's role in a much lower key, told her, "You're hired."

Murray, 21, learned Tuesday evening that she won the sixth version of Towson's Associate competition over Pikesville native Dov Hoffman, 22. With it, she won the promise of a marketing job at McCormick after she graduates next month. To say that certain work is a big prize for a college senior in this time of 10 percent unemployment is an understatement.

"I felt like I was going to pass out," Murray said of the moments after Wilson uttered the good news. Her mother would be even more excited, she said. "She'll probably scream even louder than me."

The competition mimics the TV version closely. Students work in teams, devising solutions for real-world clients. They present their cases in a boardroom before cameras and a panel of McCormick executives. If the project manager doesn't demonstrate enough authority or the client's desires are ignored, the students face a scolding or, in the worst case, termination.

Wilson might not lay it on as thick as Trump, but that doesn't make it any more fun to hear the CEO say he won't be offering you a job. Hoffman's expression dropped when he heard the bad news, and he maintained a small, tight smile as a room full of onlookers pressed in to congratulate Murray.

"That's part of it, I guess," he said of the disappointment.

The Towson students generally had four days from the time they were given a case to the time they had to present solutions to clients. They balanced the competition with full course loads and part-time jobs and internships. In the last round, Murray and Hoffman had to devise marketing plans to expand the customers for McCormick's Grill Mates line of dry-rub spices.

Towson officials said that in addition to creating excitement, the competition forces business students to apply all the skills they have learned over four years and to do so under the scrutiny of real-world bosses rather than professors.

"It really forces them to pull everything together," said Towson President Robert L. Caret. "It's the kind of thing that I would hope every major could do."

When "The Apprentice" became a reality television sensation in 2004, Laleh Malek, Towson's director of professional experience, asked students if they were watching. Almost every hand in the room shot up. Other business professors also noticed a buzz around the show.

They wondered whether a competition based on the show might get students excited about cases that would otherwise be yawn-inducing abstractions. Sure enough, the initial contest, with 1st Mariner Chairman Ed Hale playing the Donald, kept the competitors fiercely engaged.

"It was no longer a professor telling them their ideas were right or wrong," Malek said. "They paid attention."

After every competition, she asks the students whether Towson should continue The Associate for another year. Every year, Malek said, they've told her, "You have to do it again. It's too valuable not to."

The 2010 competitors said that the chance to test their mettle before real business executives remains the most enticing part of the competition.

"The real-world experience of competing and meeting with CEOs was something I just couldn't pass up," Hoffman said. "That ability to think on your feet and beat deadlines demonstrates what happens out there."

Wilson judged the students just as he would any consultant.

"I look at what kind of engagement they've created with the client," he said. "How responsive were they? How creative? How were they able to respond to questions? A lot of it is how quickly they're able to think on their feet."

In truth, he sounded more like a proud papa than a haughty executive when assessing the work of his Associate cast.

"They had to present to people who know a lot more about the subjects than they do," Wilson said. "But some of the clients told me it would have taken a consultant a few months to put together research and ideas of that level."

Instead of prefacing his firings with harsh words, he offered advice on how to impress executives. "We want to see that passion for what you're doing," he said before the penultimate termination. "They expect you to come in and do your day job. But what can you do to make a difference?"

Hoffman and Murray had already given plenty of themselves by the time they reached the last week of competition.

Hoffman pulled several all-nighters as he balanced Associate cases with four classes and a job at the American Eagle in Towson. Murray spent 20 to 30 hours a week on her cases in addition to four classes and a 24-hour-a-week job with a local financial consultant.

A week before the last firing, the finalists listened as Andrew Faust, a marketing manager for McCormick, told them about Grill Mates.

McCormick controls 70 percent of the dry grilling market, but only 19 percent of households own dry grill spices compared with 70 percent who have barbecue sauce. The final mission for Murray and Hoffman: Pick a target audience and devise a $2 million marketing strategy to attract new customers to Grill Mates.

"What you recommend, you could actually see in the marketplace next year," Faust told the students.

On Sunday afternoon, Hoffman stood before Wilson and his executives in a gray pinstripe suit and a red paisley tie. "That's good, you get to go first," said his mother, Susan, watching from a few feet away.

"Yeah, get it over with," he said with a tense smile.

But Hoffman hardly sounded tense as he unfurled a series of recommendations, backed by arcane statistics about grilling habits and gender divides in grocery shopping. He suggested a celebrity endorsement from chef Bobby Flay and his wife because "Behind every great griller is an important woman." He recommended advertising on fantasy football websites. He said Grill Mates should be placed by the meat rather than in the spice aisle at the grocery.

Aside from a few questions about the prioritization of his ideas, the McCormick brass seemed impressed. "Now we can breathe," Hoffman's mother said after they clapped.

Then Murray came up in a black pantsuit and blasted out a more personalized presentation, which featured pictures of her team using Grill Mates in a home kitchen and information from a survey she conducted. She said spice samples should be attached to Perdue chicken packages, urged a Grill Mates tour of 40 football tailgating sites and presented a website that would allow grillers to submit recipes for a Grill Mates cookbook and submit audition videos for a grill-off at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

"I love the idea of playing to the male ego with all these contests," Faust said.

Two days later, Wilson kept an impassive face as the competitors awaited his final verdict. He praised Hoffman's consistency and "keen grasp of facts." But Murray, he said, "really connected with clients," the trait he had most favored throughout the contest.

So one student left the boardroom knowing that a major company will sign her paychecks after graduation. Another left realizing that he'll have to dispatch resumes just like most of his peers.

"I constantly hear from people who are struggling to get a job," Hoffman said. "I don't have a backup plan right now. I'd like to think I've built a network that I can reach out to."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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