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October 25, 2001 Lessons gleaned from history - professor studies explorer's strategies



Martin L. Martens

Martin L. Martens of the Department of Management

Photo by Christian Fleury

by James Martin

Martin L. Martens can’t remember his hula chants. He has, by his own admission, fallen out of practice since moving from Honolulu — for a city of plenty, Montreal lacks in things hula. After several false starts, he gets his groove back, locking into a singsong string of monosyllabic words. He is not your typical management professor.

Martens is a new addition to Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, and is currently teaching a fourth-year course on strategy and competition. (He becomes Dr. Martens early next year, pending final dissertation approval from the University of British Columbia.)

Before pursuing his MBA, he worked for over 10 years as a manager in the Hawaiian newspaper business. Never a career, hula dancing is just one of his many and varied interests. The initial plan was to use his MBA training in the newspaper world, “but going through the program just raised more questions,” so Martens decamped for UBC’s doctoral program.

Exhilarating period

For his PhD dissertation, he looked at how strategy and risk were presented in every single American IPO launched from 1995 to the first quarter of 2000 — no small feat, because that period marked a massive burst of activity.

Beginning in 1995, IPOs — initial public offerings on the stock market— caught a wave of techno-enthusiasm. Traditionally in the neighbourhood of 250 per year, the number of annual IPOs began skyrocketing, peaking at nearly 900 before the bubble burst in 2000. (This year, by comparison, will likely see no more than 50 IPOs on the US stock exchanges.)

For Martens, it was an exciting time to be studying the market, and not just because he was using his research to guide personal investments. (He good-naturedly noted that “like a lot of people, I probably didn’t pull out quickly enough.”)

Martens’ research looks at how various forces (legitimization, unconscious assumptions, government and industry regulations) change how firms behave. IPOs, specifically, reflect the “legitimized expectations of how a firm should think and act.”

“I’m interested in the social and environmental influences on how people perceive and make sense of the world,” he said. “Bringing it into a business context: What social and physical forces shape how managers think about risk, and consequently formulate strategy to deal with that risk?”

His interest in risk extends past the boardroom, all the way to Antarctica. Martens is a Sir Ernest Shackleton buff. In 1914, the British explorer and his crew set sail for Antarctica on the 144-foot Endurance, hoping to complete the unprecedented deed of crossing the continent on foot.

The ship became trapped in the ice en route, and there the men remained for two years. Incredibly, every last crew member lived to tell the tale.

Surviving adversarial times

There is, not surprisingly, a business spin to this story. The happy ending is testament, Martens argues, to “Shackleton’s exemplary understanding of leadership, and his ability to influence his crew’s perception so they came out of these unbelievable conditions alive.”

Almost a century later, the “Shackleton Model” is an emerging management strategy, and Martens has taught the expedition in his organizational behaviour classes. On November 8, he’ll present an elaborate multi-media lecture, “Why Leadership Matters — Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition,” at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, which is currently hosting a travelling exhibition on the Endurance.

It’s an impressive show, using dramatic readings of crew diaries (Martens hired actors to record them) to guide the audience through a play-by-play dissection of the events, and the lessons to be gleaned from Shackleton’s actions.

Martens is a bit of an adventurer himself. While living in Hawaii, he climbed all of that state’s volcanoes, dormant and active including the 13,000 foot, five-day hike to the summit of Mauna Loa. When the Soviet Union opened up in the early 1990s, Martens helped cash-strapped Russian volcanologists raise funds for a research trip in Kamchatka, home to over 50 active volcanoes concentrated in a California-sized peninsula.

The catch, naturally, was that Martens be allowed to tag along — and so he spent a month camping in the caldera of a volcano named Ksudach, merrily collecting radon gas samples and swimming in volcano-heated hot springs. (A caldera is a large depression at the volcano’s summit; the Ksudach’s last big eruption was in 1911.)

He and his wife are also avid kayakers. They’ve spent two weeks alone in the southern-most part of Gwaii Haanas, in the Queen Charlotte Islands. They look forward to kayaking in Quebec, and hope to kayak around Elephant Island, where Shakleton’s crew camped for four months before their rescue in the Antarctic.

Martens is also a dedicated chaser of total solar eclipses, having witnessed the midday sun fade to black on three “mind-boggling” occasions: North Dakota in 1979, Hawaii in 1991, and Peru in 1994.

Although he cites the Hawaiian people’s relationship to volcanoes as yet another example of “how social and physical forces determine thinking,” Martens is hard-pressed to relate solar eclipses to strategy and risk — unless you count his excuse for missing this year’s eclipse action in Angola: “I couldn’t go,” he laments, “because I was finishing my dissertation!”

Martin Martens will give a talk on Shackleton in the Department of Management’s brown-bag workshop series on Nov. 1 from noon to 1 p.m. in the GM Building, GM-300-24.