Going above and beyond

In Finance Academy, students gain real-world experience amid crisis

From left, MS Finance students Fernando Lemonje Westrupp, Turya Vardhan, Roshit Badjatiya and Guodong Huang photographed in February inside the magnificent Shea's Performing Arts Center. (Ashana Dave, who is not pictured, was also on the Shea's team.) Photo: Tom Wolf

Guodong Huang and his teammates stood inside Shea’s Performing Arts Center in mid-February, taking in every ornate detail of the gorgeous 1926 theater and listening as John Herbert, chief financial officer, explained the organization’s financial model.

Every season, the theater hosts several Broadway tours, selling tickets to Buffalo audiences when the schedule is announced and paying each show’s producers months later when the production takes the stage. With that in mind, the students’ mission was twofold: Develop a forecast model for Shea’s cash flow, as well as a short-term investment strategy for the period after ticket sales come in and before bills get paid.

The project was part of this year’s Finance Academy, an experiential learning opportunity for students in the UB School of Management’s Master of Science in Finance program.

Working in teams, students use their analytical skills to consult on projects with local organizations, providing them a chance to collaborate with business executives, gain real-world experience and make an impact in the community. In addition, Finance Academy students hear from guest speakers and attend workshops focused on leadership, careers and preparation for the Chartered Financial Analyst exam.

“This experience was different from any other project I have done,” says Huang, who will earn his MS in Finance this fall. “The most valuable lesson I learned was how to stay focused under external pressure. In my career going forward, it will be important to recognize challenges as they come and tackle them one by one.”

For Huang and his fellow Finance Academy participants this spring, that external pressure was, of course, the coronavirus pandemic, which upended life in Western New York and at UB about a month after his meeting at Shea’s.

But the team stayed focused, adapting as their project—and all of their coursework—went virtual, even making substantial changes to their proposed investment policy when financial markets went haywire. Huang says the experience reaffirmed his career goal of assuming a corporate leadership position.

“Along with working on my part of the project, I was also responsible for communicating with different parties,” Huang says. “I was glad to help my team get across the finish line and would love to be in such a helping role again.”

On other projects, one team worked with Oro Sports, a cooling garment brand, to assess a potential youth sports market, and another developed a valuation model for Ferric Contrast, a biotech startup based at UB’s Technology Incubator.

“We learned how to research an industry with a lack of public market information, and how to evaluate startups through our meeting with an industry expert,” says Steven Ronca, a student on the Ferric Contrast team, who graduated this May. “This project also illustrated how important communication is, especially when you are unable to meet with your team members or key stakeholders in person. As more of the working environment shifts virtually in the future, I am thankful to have this experience.”

At Whiting Door Manufacturing Co.—a leading designer and supplier of overhead roll-up doors for trucks and trailers—students were tasked with building a model to compare the company’s revenue and costs from shipping products to customers.

“It was a complicated project because there were hundreds of thousands of lines of data coming from several sources,” explains Craig Gaume, director of finance at Whiting Door. “Each freight carrier has its own system for billing and data transmission, and we may have multiple shipments for one customer charge or multiple charges for one shipment. It was a herculean task we couldn’t handle internally.”

The students met Gaume at Whiting Door’s local headquarters in February, and then shifted their work to videoconference and other digital platforms in March. “That led to a moment of levity at the height of the crisis when a student’s mother interrupted our video meeting to put away his laundry,” Gaume says. “I teased him quite a bit after that.”

Despite the disruptions to life and work, the team delivered a successful project, including recommendations that Whiting Door is now implementing with its freight partners to improve efficiencies.

For Nolan Dunn, BS ’19, MS ’20, on the Whiting Door team, the experience allowed him to continue building his knowledge in the financial field—which will prove particularly useful now that he’s joined Citi as a risk report intermediate analyst following commencement.

“Through COVID-19, I learned that just because some things change, that doesn’t mean the end goal has to,” Dunn says. “When the virus hit, I believe we did even a better job with communication and teamwork. It feels better, during times of crisis, to go above and beyond than take the easy way out.”