You want to be a referee?" That was a common response I received when I told people that I was going to pursue an MBA. I explained that I was going to graduate school, not to work for the NBA (National Basketball Association).

Many people were unable to understand why a reasonably successful, 43-year-old pork producer with a college education and two decades of business experience would want to go back to school.

I had a bit of encouragement from my friend, Mark Stapleton of Alpharma Animal Health. In 1996, Mark was part of the executive MBA (EMBA) program at the University of Illinois. I would see him at meetings, and he would be all excited about something he was studying. I vividly recall his enthusiasm for Monti Carlo simulation from quantitative analysis. (Monti Carlo simulation is a computer model where the user assigns probability - mean and standard deviation - to an unlimited number of variables. The model is then run several times to show the range and frequency of outcomes.)

Mark kept saying, "You're somebody that can really use this stuff."

I knew that the tools that made Oasis Farms successful in the past wouldn't necessarily carry over to the 21st century. We needed more tools. After much deliberation I was ready to make the commitment.

Illinois EMBA Program The EMBA program is a two-year curriculum focused on the middle and upper level executive with at least 10 years of experience. The two years are divided into four semesters with four classes each semester. The course of studies included accounting, microeconomics, statistics, organizational theory, macroeconomics, quantitative analysis, marketing, finance, law, managerial accounting, organizational behavior, investments, operations management, the global economy, international business and strategy.

Four, 90-minute classes are on campus one day each week (Friday one week, Saturday the next). Study groups meet at least once each week to review course material. Personal study time generally took 30-40 hours/week.

In addition to a few independent business people, the 36 executives of the EMBA class of 1999 represented many major corporations including Caterpillar, IBM, Motorola, General Electric, Illinois Power, Kraft, State Farm and several health care institutions.

When I got up on the first day of class and said, "My name is Bob Brauer. I'm a pig farmer," most in the class had no idea what to do with that bit of information.

Investment Payback The EMBA program helped me take a lot of knowledge and turn it into wisdom. Although I had a lot of accounting and finance experience, this program helped me make those tools more usable. Annual reports make more sense now - not only in what they say, but also what they don't say.

I also have a better framework for evaluating investment opportunities. I look at the incremental after-tax cash flows measured on an opportunity cost basis. In other words, what is the net present value of the cash flows compared to other uses for the capital, such as buying land, investing in a stock, mutual fund or starting a restaurant?

The course on investments helped me understand risk and the types of risk. (Read "A Random Walk Down Wall Street," then fire your broker. I did.)

Organizational theory covered managerial structures. And, I more fully appreciate the power of regulatory agencies after the law course. Now, the role of monetary and fiscal policy in an economy makes more sense, as does the role of financial and operating leverage in a firm.

The course on setting strategy gave me tools to analyze our firm and the pork industry. I have a lot more respect for marketing. There is statistical process control in my future.

The Bottom Line What does all this mean for Oasis Farms? Three points stand out:

- I understand one of our important competitive advantages is our ability to attract, train and manage people.

- We have to continue to improve our cost structure. Our long-range plans include finishing a separate-site sow center. This will simplify our organization and lower our costs $4-$5/cwt.

- We have to align ourselves with the correct marketing chain. Pork is rapidly moving from a commodity to a branded product. Will we be better off with one of the giants - IBP or Excel/Cargill - or should we join with other producers to build a packing plant and eventually develop our own brand? I'm not sure.

I do know that I now have more tools to analyze the factors that go into these decisions.