Bill Kieffer is an unlikely hero. He's a thermometer factory manager -- not the kind of role model you'd expect today's college students to identify with. But students are often savvier than we give them credit for.

Kieffer runs a thermometer plant for Figgie International, the Richmond conglomerate whose products range from Rawlings sporting goods to American LaFrance fire trucks.

Not long ago, Figgie's Thermometer Corp. of America division had a chance to buy out the rival Ohio Thermometer Corp. What they should do about the offer and how they should do it was the problem presented to teams of college business students last weekend at the University of Virginia's annual McIntire Commerce Invitational.

The U. Va. event is like a basketball tournament for business students, a competitive tryout for would-be Type-A's. Undergraduates from five of the nation's better business schools tackle a case study of an actual business problem, recommend a solution and defend their decision in 45 minutes of grueling grilling. The judges include executives, educators and, this year, a business journalist.

Unleashing a bunch of undergraduate overachievers to develop a takeover strategy is an exercise that is not without pitfalls. Takeovers tend to be tacky at best, sleazy at worst, and often lacking in redeeming social value. The $1.5 million merger of the two thermometer companies could easily become a micro example of the macro ailments that plague American business.

In the real world, takeovers do not bring out the best in business executives. In the classroom, you could face a teenage T. Boone Pickens Jr., a Carl Ichan-aborning, the kind of kids who want to grow up to be robber barons.

There turned out to be only one team of those, a group that offered to buy the thermometer company for about one-sixth as much as the owners wanted to sell it for. "If you don't like our price, file for bankruptcy," they told the sellers. Boone Pickens would have been proud of 'em. They didn't win the competition, but they deserved a golden parachute for audacity.

Yet even those most ruthless of collegiate conglomerate builders did not mess with Bill Kieffer. Like every other team, they recognized that good management was essential to making the merger of the two companies work.

That is a lesson that could not be easily learned from any of the mega-buck mergers that have dominated the business news pages for the past three years. Usually, all that the merger maniacs worry about is whether they can buy the company, not whether they can run it successfully. The fallacy of that philosophy can be seen in Mobil Corp.'s struggle to shape up Montgomery Ward or Exxon's failure to assimilate Reliance Electric.

The students knew better, knew even from the cold clues in their case documents, that Kieffer's ability to merge the operations of his plant with his crosstown rival was the key to the acquisition. Unexpectedly, the plant manager emerged as one of the critical elements in the case, the person who could make it all work, the hero -- if a business case study can be said to have a hero.

That a thermometer plant manager could become a college hero says something good about what students are learning in business schools these days. The emphasis on good management, the importance of individuals to business success, the appeal of strong leaders -- these are valuable lessons.

The students' stress on people came through in another aspect of the case, an element that demonstrated the generational differences between the students and the judges who were evaluating their performance.

In discussing how to merge the two thermometer makers, the students operated with an implicit jobs policy. Each of the teams stressed the importance of preserving the jobs of the production workers in the two factories. Even those who figured out they could save money by putting both plants under one roof called for keeping the full work force of both factories.

All of the students made saving jobs a priority of their business plan, but none of the judges did.

To the judges, the two crews were an expense to be pruned, a duplication to be eliminated, a cost to be cut in the same way that David Stockman would encourage "disinvestment" in agriculture to eliminate excess farmers.

Perhaps that is because we who were judging have grown old and cynical and unfeeling. Maybe it is because we are too far removed from the reality of unemployment, which is a genuine fear for college students about to seek their first job.

On the other hand, maybe the kids are right. Jobs should have a higher priority in business decisions. What good does it do to save a company and lay off all the workers? The kids should have been challenging the judges about that question rather than the other way around.

That's what I like about going back to college. You learn things.