Now that’s affordable Featured

9:52am EDT July 22, 2002

It was an irresistible offer: Let a few MBA students explore international marketing opportunities for your company as part of a class and they’ll turn over to you — for free — all the information they dig up, including an analysis of the material.

How could John Li refuse?

“I was very comfortable with it because I’d just completed my MBA a couple years ago and we did projects like this,” says Li, marketing director for B.H. Thermal Corp., a $9 million Columbus manufacturer of flexible electric heating products.

So earlier this year, Li invited three Ashland University graduate students to visit the 49-year-old East Side company. He spent a couple weeks explaining to the students what, exactly, B.H. Thermal did and how its products — which include flexible heating tape, cables, blankets and jackets — were used.

“Then we talked about where we’d been from a marketing standpoint and where we wanted to go internationally,” Li says.

Roughly 10 to 15 percent of B.H. Thermal’s revenues are already generated overseas, Li says, but he’d like to see that increase to 30 or 35 percent in the next couple years.

“We’d already done some research on some countries because of that,” he says. “Asia happened to be an area [the students] were interested in exploring and it happened to be the area we were most interested in expanding into.”

The group did preliminary research on Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong before settling on Taiwan for their class project.

“That was one of our strong targets,” Li says, noting that once the country was selected, he turned the threesome loose. What they came back with about three months later amazed him — armfuls of research reports, journal articles, Internet print outs and the like, which, when stacked upon Li’s desk, stood about 8 inches high.

“I was shocked when they came walking in with it,” Li says. “And they did it all for free. Most consulting groups would probably charge a couple thousand dollars to do something like this.”

Although Li confesses he’s not yet gone over every page of the research, he’s been impressed with the items he’s read through.

“I know the information is good because I can see the sources they used,” he says, pulling an article from Harvard Business Review out of the stack as an example. “They did a good job of keeping track of where their information came from. They even brought me printouts of pages off the Internet so I can go back to the site and dig deeper.”

In addition to data about the potential market for B.H. Thermal’s products in Taiwan, the group uncovered names of possible selling partners, competitors and general economic trends there and in adjacent countries.

“There’s just all sorts of stuff in here,” Li says. “My expectations were essentially zero going into this. I was doing it first and foremost to help these business students ...[But] they’ve given me a lot of data I need to go ahead and make decisions — without having to gather the data myself.”

In fact, Li plans to set up meetings with some of the potential distributors and manufacturer reps identified in the students’ report when he travels to Asia later this year.

“Sometimes students put forth more tunnel-vision effort than an employee that wears lots of different hats,” Li says. “That’s the only thing they’re working on. They only have one priority from you.”

Nancy Byron ( is editor of SBN Columbus.