For Billings native Curtis Wallette,there was no stereotypical silver spoon background to accommodate the business acumen that helped him win an internationally renowned business competition called the Capsim challenge this spring in Chicago. And that’s probably why he won.
Following what he described as growing up with a “rough” early childhood before he was adopted when he was 3, he lived in various places from Lame Deer to Oklahoma and where his father’s Indian Health Service job took the family.
After eventually graduating from Colstrip High School, Wallette headed “out west” with all of his belongings in a backpack and lived in major cities from Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles to San Diego, Las Vegas and New Mexico.
“I was just drifting, basically,” he notes. “I worked a lot of good jobs and operated businesses for people, but if I got tired of someplace, I’d just go. ‘I want to see what LA looks like,’ and I was off down in LA.”
He eventually came back to Billings and worked in a recycling center and Walmart. After the birth of his daughter, he went back to school.
“The light switch turned on,” he said, “and I didn’t want to struggle and work all of these jobs with a glass ceiling without a degree.”
Starting off as an unconventional 29-year-old freshman student at Montana State University Billings, Wallette initially had doubts about whether he was college material or not. A 4.0 grade-point average after his first semester erased those doubts.
“You got to be intelligent, but it’s mostly about putting in all the hard work,” he said.
A Northern Cheyenne tribal member, Wallette became involved with the American Indian Business Leaders while at MSU Billings and was part of the College of Business’ American Indian Business Leaders team that won first place at the 2009 AIBL contest in Phoenix.
After graduating with a double major in marketing and management, he attended the University of Montana School of Business Administration where he’s due to graduate in 2014. Recalling the experience of reveling in the spirit of that competition, he entered this year’s Capsim Challenge, which pits students “against each other in a biannual competition to crown the world’s best at running a multi-million dollar simulated company.”
While competing against 1,750 students from 280 universities representing more than 20 countries from Australia and India to China and the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, just to make it to the finals was an honor in itself. Wallette, however, wasn’t content just to be a part of the experience.
“I didn’t just want to make it, I wanted to win,” he said.
In describing what the competition was like, he said, “It’s like a game of chess, but with 1,000 pieces.”
Eight rounds in two weeks represented eight years of running a theoretical $100 million company that was in decline, and Wallette took a long-term strategy that had him dominating from the get-go. He never relinquished his lead.
“I exposed the weaknesses of my competitors, and took advantage of my own strengths,” he said. “What I did was focus on the big picture.”
While there were complexities that added up to “hundreds of decisions per round,” part of Wallette’s strategy was he’d borrow money with a 10 percent interest rate, but with a steady 25 percent turnaround continually coming his way via his other strategies, his lead kept extending.
For instance, one strategy he used to further his comfortable lead included shifting the overall cost of labor from manpower to machines so his competitors couldn’t keep up with his production.
“I kind of did what like a Walmart would do. It’s kind of dirty,” he said with a chuckle, “but it’s fair. You’re not in business to be nice or help competitors.”
His theoretical company ended the competition with $250 million in sales with $100 million in profits. “There was only one person that was relatively kind of close [Yijao Jiang from Australia’s University of Queensland], but he was still way back, so it was great to compete against the best students in the world and do so well.”
In such a multi-ethnic diverse international competition, Wallette’s Native American roots gave him added motivation.
“It was good to represent my tribe and be a Native American,” he said. “We always get all of this negative press, and for me to be Northern Cheyenne and do something like that, it’s really cool. My family was proud, my tribe is proud, and the school is real proud and making a big deal out of it.”