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Company Town : Shell Gives Students Chance to Take Charge : Contest: Participants in the Dutch oil giant’s annual game face the challenge of running one of its companies.

From Reuters

A 21-year-old college undergraduate was recently made managing director of one of the world’s most powerful companies.

Well, sort of. In fact, 30 university students were in charge at oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell, and it was only a game--albeit a very serious one.

Teams from Britain, Hong Kong, Norway, France, Germany and the Netherlands took part in an annual challenge issued by Shell: to run one of its operating companies on the assumption that its entire management has been magically wiped out.

“This is not cosmetic. The tensions are real,” said Sven Gudde, the head of recruiting for Shell International in The Hague who is partly responsible for selecting some 200 highfliers in Europe annually for real jobs at Shell, the world’s largest oil company.

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In the game, called “The Chance,” students have to deal with real Shell employees in attempting to solve the complex problems facing an oil company at every level. They make strategic decisions about securing and developing oil fields, and work out ways to negotiate political sensitivities and environmental concerns.

They also venture onto a mock trading floor and negotiate with real-life hard-bitten Shell oil traders, dealing in crude oil and products to try to maximize returns.

“I don’t get the impression the traders are particularly gentle,” Gudde said. “The tough way helps the students learn.”

A brief tour of the teams in the two-day contest’s final hours revealed classic cultural differences. The office of the all-male team from Oxford University, which supplied last year’s winners, was hot and very sweaty.

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The Norwegian side coolly examined a computer graphic. The Dutch joked about S and M--supply and marketing--while the French gestured earnestly. The Germans were deep in thought.

The Hong Kong side, made up predominantly of women and ultimately this year’s winners, were all smiles and giving away none of their secrets. Each won $1,000 worth of prizes.

“I never imagined the oil industry could be so exciting,” Losa Yee, 21, a business administration student at the University of Hong Kong, said enthusiastically. “I used to think of Shell as just petrol pumps. Now I might consider applying for a job.”

Charged with trading oil and products for her team, Yee underlined the game’s toughness in recounting her side’s biggest blunder.

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They tried to boost profits by short selling (selling oil they did not have) when the price was high, and buying it back at cheaper prices in the future. But they forgot to check how much oil they could buy back. Of course, no one reminded them.

“We didn’t know the seller had a ceiling,” she said. “We asked for 800 tons and he could only give us 400. It was a big mistake--it meant we had no oil to refine.”

Gudde said the game’s main objective was to show students the opportunities in Shell and to change perceptions of the firm outsiders call “The Mighty Mollusk” as a bureaucratic, faceless monolith whose staff just drills holes or pumps gas.

The game can also be a first step in recruiting future top managers. But even if the students catch the Shell recruiters’ eye, they must still undergo careful testing before being invited onto the company’s fast track.

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Yee’s colleague June Tang, responsible for presenting her team’s plans to Shell managers, was enthusiastic about the opportunity to put college theory into practice.

“We’re using stuff we’ve learned--the jargon--like the four Fs: fast, focused, flexible and friendly,” she said. “It sounds so empty when you hear it in college. Here it slots into place.”


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