22 May 2015
“Mature student reaps handsome dividends with DBA studies”, Dr Lewis Rutherford, DBA 2015 graduate, was featured on Education Post
Not many people commit to pursuing a DBA (doctor of business administration) after the age of 50, but for Lewis Rutherfurd there were two compelling reasons.
Firstly, he wanted to get to the bottom of a specific, business-related problem. That was to understand, if possible, why certain investments in emerging markets had underperformed consistently over an extended period, when judged against initial expectations and against comparative results in more established markets.
And, thinking ahead, he also saw that completing the qualification would open up all kinds of new opportunities to teach university classes in the United States once his current business career in Hong Kong draws to a close.
Having effectively achieved both objectives by graduating in June last year, he is in no doubt that the part-time DBA programme at City University (CityU) was the right choice. With its focus on research and analysis of issues relevant to real-world decisions, it was an engrossing academic challenge with a practical goal. And the foundation courses, seminars and expert supervision, leading towards a 50,000-word thesis, provided a structure which gave experienced executives new insights on the broader business world and the skills needed to conduct research, test theories and draw meaningful conclusions.
“Essentially, I wanted to solve a problem that my industry has struggled with and felt I had an approach that was possibly unique,” says Rutherfurd who, as managing director of Inter-Asia Venture Management, works as a general partner helping venture capital and private equity investors identify and back likely enterprises.
The problem was that investors generally assumed returns in Asia would outpace those in the US – and were disappointed if they did not. But there was little consensus as to why that kept happening.
The executives who apply to do the CityU DBA are high-quality, so you benefit from an excellent exchange of ideas both in and outside the classroom
“The professors and advisers at CityU were very good at helping a semi-amateur like myself examine this by establishing a methodology, carrying it out, and putting the results into an academic format,” says Rutherfurd, who took a first degree in East Asian studies at Princeton and, later, an MBA at Harvard before making Hong Kong his business base in the early 1970s. “In a business doctorate – unlike a ‘find something new’ PhD – you need a rigorous, disciplined approach to solving a specific problem. At CityU, the initial courses taught that, and your advisers are very good at giving ideas, sources, assistance and direction.”
Much of his research centred on exchanges with industry experts and practitioners. The aim was to collect views on the various factors cited for the underperformance of emerging market investments. At different times, these could range from political unrest and corruption to currency fluctuations and problems to do with enforcing contracts.
“A conclusion in the industry was that these ‘contextual variables’ would continue to confound. But investors can also make decisions to manage the variables and – to use a golfing analogy – get around the sand traps and water hazards. Those choices are the ‘independent variables’, and my contention was that mismanagement and not applying best practices was a major reason for the failure to achieve better investment returns.”
From the outset, the key advice he followed was to let people give different answers and suggest solutions in the interviews, surveys and focus groups and, in due course, see what consensus emerged. From an academic standpoint, despite years of experience, it was essential not to go in with fixed preconceptions or knowing what he wanted to hear. Otherwise, any findings would just be incidental or of no particular interest to the industry.
“Another source of learning is your fellow students who, I believe, are a very important part of the process,” Rutherfurd says. “The executives who apply to do the CityU DBA are high-quality, so you benefit from an excellent exchange of ideas both in and outside the classroom. In areas where I was weak, people were willing to help and, with classmates like that, you learn about their industries, build a broader network, and gain new perspectives on what you do.”
After a few early nerves about going back to class, Rutherfurd threw himself into every aspect of the reading, thinking, listening, and getting up on his feet to debate and discourse. He recommends it as entirely positive experience, especially for anyone with an inquiring mind and a somewhat “academic” approach to life.
“It was a wonderful challenge and reduced my mental age by several years,” he says.
All being well, the next step will be to adapt his thesis for publication in journals connected with the venture capital and fund industry. There is also the prospect of part-time teaching appointments at two US universities during the next academic year.
“CityU recognised that if I came up with a consensus on why the investment returns were sub-standard, it would be publishable and bear some wider usefulness,” Rutherfurd says. “Without their help and guidance, my work would have been insufficiently rigorous.”