GMAC随后开始采用公开招标的方式选择业务合作伙伴。ETS与其他三家对手展开竞争，最终失去了它的合同。涌现出的赢家是培生VUE专业考试服务中心(Pearson VUE)，后者的母公司培生集团(Pearson Plc)是全球最大的商业考试服务公司和教育出版商。威尔逊与总部设在爱荷华州的美国大学入学测试中心(ACT)签订了测试开发合同，培生VUE则接手了考试管理和分销业务。
威尔逊成功地抵挡住了ETS发起的市场份额抢夺战——2011年，ETS开始推广研究生入学考试(GRE)，希望它能够代替GMAT考试。ETS最近承认，只有2%的受访者参加了这项以申请MBA项目为目标的考试。威尔逊奋勇向前，于2012年推出了下一代GMAT考试，其中包含一块名为“集成推理”( Integrated Reasoning)的全新内容，旨在测试申请人的信息评估能力。为了让这部分内容融入考试，GMAC进行了逾3年之久的研发工作，参考了几十位商学院院长、招生官员、教师和公司招聘主管的意见，共花费了大约1,100万美元。
One powerful trend that Wilson had in his favor was the meteoric growth of the MBA degree. Some four decades ago, U.S. colleges graduated near equal numbers of lawyers and MBAs. Today, MBA grads outnumber J.D. grads by nearly four to one. And with many law schools struggling to fill classes, that ratio is likely to tip further in favor of the MBA. Outside the U.S., the growth in both business schools and the degree has exploded.
For the past 18 years, until Dec. 31, when Wilson retired as GMAC's top official, he had been the most visible cheerleader for the MBA degree. As he puts it, "What the MBA allows people to do is to build a foundation. You can use the degree to change your career or to accelerate your career."
Once in charge of GMAC, Wilson immediately applied his accounting skills to his biggest cost center, ETS. Among other things, he noticed that ETS was selling 140,000 copies of three guidebooks with the GMAC imprimatur. "I couldn't understand how you could sell that many copies each year and lose money," says Wilson. It was largely because two of the guidebooks -- on schools and financial aid -- were money losers, and in this pre-Amazon era, ETS was responding to fax requests to ship copies of the books. Wilson also put the organization's money management to bid and moved that task away from the testing contractor.
Despite the group's limited resources at the time, he also pushed forward to eliminate the rather limiting paper-and-pencil test and move to a computer exam that would adapt to each test taker's answers. The effort cost GMAC between $10 million and $12 million, but once GMAC was able to launch its new test in 1997, the organization could deliver the same exam everywhere, every day.
The single biggest contributor to the growth of the organization took place in 2003, when GMAC broke with ETS. Some 12 years later, Wilson vividly recalls the details of the rupture. On Nov. 11, 2001, he received a phone call from the CEO of the testing service. "He said they were closing six test sites in Europe and it wouldn't affect me," says Wilson. "On Dec. 7, the head of the program and the CFO would come and talk to me about it. When they came down, they said they were closing 116 sites. They weren't there to seek our input. They were there to advise us."
ETS' decision undermined Wilson's global ambitions. But his contract with the firm required him to give ETS two years notice if he wanted to fire them. The existing contract would end in just three weeks. So he went to ETS' Princeton, N.J., headquarters to negotiate a two-year extension so GMAC could, in his words, "learn a whole lot more."
Wilson put together a task force, hired Booz Allen to oversee the study project, and brought aboard 11 MBA interns to take apart every facet of what ETS actually did to administer the test and deliver the scores. Half way through the study, at the end of 2002, he created four study groups to examine together with ETS such issues as next-generation technology for the exam, global reach, test security, and customer service. "But the next generation group kicked it down the road like a tin can. They didn't want to change, and we had real issues."
What troubled Wilson more than any other issue was the security of the test. "Without a doubt, one of the most important things we do is provide schools with the assurance that the candidate who shows up on campus is the same candidate who took the test," says Wilson. In 2003, as GMAC's study of ETS and its procedures continued, the biggest scandal in the history of the GMAT erupted. A New York-based ring of five men and one woman were arrested for taking the test hundreds of times on behalf of other test takers in exchange for money. Federal and state investigators found that between January 2001 and July 2003, they sat for a total of 590 exams administered by ETS. A tip led investigators to the ringleader, Chinese-born Lu Xu, who was filmed on camera at a test center in Columbia, Md., not far from GMAC's headquarters in Tysons Corner, Va.
"He was testing as himself in this case, and he was trying to capture questions with a camera velcroed underneath the desk," recalls Wilson. "We got his hard drive and discovered that he and a cadre of proxy test takers would take the exam up and down the northeast," recalls Wilson. "He [Xu] took it 160-odd times, sometimes for a lady, when he wore a bad wig, and sometimes for a man. He took the test with a forged driver's license or a passport."
Quickly, however, a conflict arose between Wilson and ETS officials over how to handle the problem. "ETS wanted to send a standard neutral test cancellation score letter to the schools," says Wilson. "Scores get cancelled for all kinds of reasons. You could have a brown out. You could have a tech failure. You could have somebody spill Pepsi on a keyboard, or you could have a candidate get sick partway through the test. But they would not change the letter for us to explain why these candidates had their scores cancelled."
Furious, Wilson says he personally called the deans of every business school to which the scores were sent and told them the truth. He explained how Xu and his friends were caught and how the scores for the 160 applicants -- retrieved from Xu's computer hard drive -- were bogus. "One dean said, 'That is fascinating," says Wilson. "'We are just now in our boot camp and we can't figure why this one guy who scored well on the test is struggling so much on the easy stuff.' Another guy was doing a summer internship for the dean on ethics." The suspected cheaters weren't corralled, however, because of a lack of evidence.
GMAC put the business up for grabs. ETS fought it out with three other rivals and lost its contract. The emerging winner was Pearson VUE, a part of Pearson Plc, the largest commercial testing company and education publisher in the world. Wilson contracted with ACT (American College Testing) based in Iowa for the development of the test, while Pearson took over the administration and distribution of the exam.
The break with ETS led to a substantial increase in staff for GMAC. Today, the organization has in-house capability to do test design, research, marketing, and technology support. "We had to start managing our own research to build our own test questions so we added a psychometric group," explains Wilson. "We built a more efficient algorithm for choosing the questions."
Wilson successfully fended off an aggressive effort by ETS to grab market share away when it began in 2011 to promote the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) as an alternative to the GMAT. ETS conceded recently that only 2% of surveyed respondents sat for its exam with the objective of applying to an MBA program. Wilson plowed ahead, launching in 2012 a next-generation GMAT exam with a new section called Integrated Reasoning, which measures a candidate's ability to evaluate information. In an R&D effort lasting more than three years and involving dozens of business school deans, admissions officials, faculty, and corporate recruiters, GMAC spent $11 million to get the section into the test.
All these changes occurred while GMAC became far more candid than ETS ever was about a test taker's ability to improve their performance on the test. Reminded that ETS used to tell prospective students that they couldn't really study for the exam, Wilson lets out a laugh. "There's no question that you can do better on the test if you study for it. That's a good thing. It's like any sport or any skill." GMAC's own research shows that 60 to 100 hours of study can improve a person's score by an average of 30 points. "There are some who jump by 100 points because they hadn't prepped at all," adds Wilson, who was succeeded as CEO on Jan. 1 by Sangeet Chowfla, a former executive at HP (HPQ).
By all accounts, Wilson has done a spectacular job in making GMAC a highly professional organization with a secure financial footing. "I would give him the highest grade you could imagine," says Bill Broesamle, Wilson's predecessor at GMAC. "We had little staff, no infrastructure, and no reach beyond ETS. I think it had run its course. Dave was right to go in a much different direction."
For his successor, there is much uncertainty at GMAC. Can the organization find a way to test for innovation and creativity in prospective students? Will the exam survive competition from less expensive alternatives in emerging economies? Will the inevitable unbundling of education through free MOOC courses and online programs lessen the need for an entry exam altogether? If anything, thanks to Wilson, Chowfla has inherited a stable and strong organization with the financial clout to weather a storm.
Ask Wilson what his proudest accomplishment is over the 18 years he served as president and CEO and he will immediately give credit to the team he put together. "I managed to find 150 of the best people in the world," he says, "and they have pretty much carried me over the years."
But he has also managed to create a significantly larger non-profit, with 30 times the number of employees he inherited, along with some very generously compensated employees. When a prominent business school dean was recently asked to guess what Wilson made in a year, he said about $400,000, which is not much more than one fifth of the reported compensation for GMAC's president and CEO in 2012.