Q&A with MBA@UNC Student Mike Szalkowski

In the interview below, Mike Szalkowski, family office manager for S Partners, LP, discusses why he decided to pursue an MBA and what prompted him to choose MBA@UNC.

What factors influenced your decision to choose MBA@UNC over other programs?
The flexibility of the online format coupled with a top-20 program were the overwhelming factors in choosing MBA@UNC. I wanted the degree to hold weight in the business community and provide a schedule that would allow for class and projects to be completed wherever my business responsibilities took me. I have attended classes on business trips, vacations and at our lake house. This would have been impossible with a traditional MBA or an EMBA program. Another advantage to me was the flexibility of when to complete the coursework. I can fit in the asynchronous material when I have breaks in my job responsibilities, in the mornings while working out, or on weekends when I have free time.

When looking at traditional MBA and EMBA programs, some had classes every other Friday and Saturday or offered classes one week out of every month. The thought of sitting in class either 16 hours in two days or 40 hours over five days seemed daunting to me. I learn better on my own schedule when I am ready to study. I could see myself zoning out after the first four hours of sitting in class. Thus, much of the class material would be lost on me.

Can you walk us through some of the responsibilities of your current position?
I have been employed at the same job for the last 14 years. I run a family office for a wealthy family. This consists mainly of investing the family’s assets, but it can be anything financial: income tax preparation, estate planning, bill payments, financial statement preparation, and/or purchase of real estate and aircraft. The family is becoming much more active in the venture capital arena, and the evaluation of small-growth companies has increased in importance over the past few years.

Which courses or other learning initiatives have been most valuable for you and why?
Through the core courses and the Business Strategy class, I have been given a framework to do the due diligence required before investing in a portfolio company. The Economics class with Bill Weld was excellent. Many of the investment views the family implements begin with a macroeconomic view of what is happening in the world. I also look forward to the Entrepreneurship classes with Atul Nerkar.

Are there any weaknesses in terms of skills that MBA@UNC has enabled you to address or overcome?
Business Communications was fantastic. Being an accountant by training, numbers come easily to me. Written communication is another story. However, much of my communication with my employer is by email. By strengthening this weakness, I have been better able to communicate with the family members and educate them on a particular issue much more efficiently.

MBA@UNC has helped tremendously as the family’s investment focus has switched to the venture space. I use the tools provided in class on a daily basis. I don’t need the MBA title to advance in my career. This is strictly about gaining knowledge, and the program has been fantastic in that respect.

What strengths did you have coming into the program that you've been able to develop even further?
Surprisingly, my accounting skills have grown during the program. The Financial Statement Analysis class with Ashraf Jaffer has been fantastic. While some of the material has been review, the majority of it has provided new value for me. My ability to glean insight into the financial health of a company through what it reports in its financial statements has been greatly enhanced.

Can you recall a specific experience that stands out in your mind as being particularly meaningful to your education?  
The SABRE Simulation definitely rises to the top of the list. The SABRE Simulation is part of the Marketing Strategy, Analysis and Development course. It was an all-encompassing business simulation in which a four-person team makes decisions for a company in a virtual marketplace. These teams compete over ten weeks with teams from all sections of the course to produce the most net income. As an accountant, I have done my share of pushing paper. The SABRE Simulation allowed us to look at all aspects of running a company. Pricing, marketing, production, research and development, personnel and resource allocation all came into the decision-making process. Couple that with trying to effectively work on a team, it was definitely one of the most interesting, eye-opening and educational projects I have done.

In choosing a program, determine what is important you. Is it having the MBA title? Is it getting a quality education? Is it having a recognizable name? Is it having flexibility? For me, MBA@UNC met all of these criteria.

Learn more about MBA@UNC students.