How An MBA Helped This Former Sports Pro Switch To A Global Career In Consulting

The latest in our series of China MBA stories from the book—Changing Careers, Changing Lives—written by BusinessBecause editor Marco De Novellis

This story was originally published in a book written by BusinessBecause editor Marco De Novellis, in collaboration with Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB).

Players sped across the ice hockey rink. Skates carved out thin lines in the ice. The puck crashed into the boards and zoomed across the smooth, flat surface.

It was a Swedish second division ice hockey match. The second period was underway. The clock was ticking. A young Italian forward was in the thick of the action.

Then, suddenly, it happened. Mauro Emanuele Buongiovanni was hit by a standard body check—the kind you see countless times a season. But this time, things were serious. Mauro was hauled off the ice and rushed to hospital—he almost lost his right eye.

Mauro started playing ice hockey at six years old. He achieved his dream move to a team in Sweden. Now, two years in, his professional ice hockey career was over.

“In the beginning, it was hard to figure out what was the next step,” Mauro recalls. “But I’m very rational. I accepted I had to quit and move on. I knew that, entering a professional career later than most, I’d have to work twice as hard.”

Mauro took the intensity, pace, and vigor from his professional ice hockey career, and applied it to a career in business instead.

Mindset

As a youngster in Italy in the 1990s, ice hockey was everything for Mauro growing up—for years Italy was competing at the top levels of the sport alongside Russia and Canada.

Inspired to become a professional ice hockey player, Mauro moved constantly throughout his childhood—from Bolzano in northern Italy, to Verona, and, alone, to Germany where he trained twice a day, aged 14.

For Mauro, it was the perfect preparation for a career in business: “I think sport challenges you,” he says. “It gives you a sort of resilience, a sense of never giving up, of every day having something else to improve.

“Ice hockey gave me that athlete’s mindset and an international mindset as well—I can’t stay in one place for more than two years.”

When injury hit, Mauro, in his early 20s, studied law and economics in Rome before going into his family’s accounting business. He ended up in Russia, studying, and advising wealthy investors looking to buy luxury Tuscan real estate.

“I thought: why not use my sports contacts in Russia as professional contacts?” he says. “Back when the Soviet Union was still up and running, many of the Russian national ice hockey team players were KGB members. After the Soviet Union collapsed, many went to the US or Europe. A couple played in Italy, and one of them became my coach.

“That’s why I travelled to Russia, got to know the language, and started bridging investment between Russia and Tuscany.”

In March 2014, after the military intervention in Ukraine, the US, the EU and Canada slapped sanctions on Russia and the financial situation worsened. Mauro thought it better to look elsewhere. For Mauro, China, the world’s leading emerging economy, was the obvious choice.

“I’ve never been interested in moving to London, for example,” Mauro explains. “Going to emerging markets gives you the chance to work on problems that have already been solved elsewhere. There’s so much more to do, and so much more that you can bring to the table.”

Network

Mauro came to China for his MBA with one goal in mind: to join a consulting company. He arrived in Beijing before the program started, meeting with future CKGSB classmates and alumni, building his network, and laying the groundwork for his China experience.

“I did everything I could to get familiar with Beijing and CKGSB. In China, guanxi is very important— building personal connections takes time and I wanted to accelerate the process,” he says.

Throughout his MBA year at CKGSB, Mauro lived and studied right in front of the KPMG Tower in Beijing. He soon got to know KPMG consultants and partners, and became close with one of KPMG China’s directors, an Italian staffed in China.

At an Italian restaurant, watching Italy versus Sweden in the 2016 European soccer championships on TV, Mauro was introduced to a senior figure from KPMG Italy’s consumer goods department. A couple of weeks later, he received an offer for a full-time job.

“Macroeconomics or statistics are the same whether you do an MBA at CKGSB in China or at Harvard in the US,” Mauro continues. “What’s important is what happens outside of the classroom.

“It’s all about the people. You have to go into an MBA with a sense of purpose, network, and find the right contacts.”

Mauro had several job offers on the table towards the end of his MBA. After meeting with the China-based CEO of Italian luxury goods firm Salvatore Ferragamo—and although he knew little about luxury in China—he got offers from both Ferragamo and luxury group Bulgari.

Still, he stuck to his guns and joined KPMG Italy, thriving under the pressures of a high-octane career in strategy consulting.

“Consulting today is changing,” he says “It’s more about the implementation of things; going from a high-level view to being on the ground, finding solutions, and creating value. You have to compartmentalize. You have to insulate yourself from the external noise. You have to have that knack for solving problems.”

The two-year rule

Mauro speaks 10 different languages. He’s lived in six different countries across three continents. His time at KPMG Italy is already up. In late 2017, he was on the move again—this time to Russia and KPMG’s offices in Moscow.

There, Mauro starts work at 9am every day. Sometimes he doesn’t finish until 4am the next morning. One of the things that drove Mauro to KPMG Russia was his knowledge of China. In 2015, Russia and China launched a $2 billion agriculture investment fund. In 2017, China agreed to $10 billion worth of investment in Russia—the ties are only growing stronger.

“Following a straight path in your career doesn’t work anymore,” he says. “You have to zigzag. You have to have a sixth sense, to be able to foresee what will happen in the next six or 12 months and jump to different opportunities.

"Today's careers are global," Mauro  continues. "I was keen to relocate and find a country where I could leverage my capabilities."

In two years' time, he'll likely be saying the same thing.

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