Interview: Justin Wolfe, MOT '20
Justin Wolfe (MOT ’20) was recently named Director of Process Technology at Cambria in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. He credits TLI’s Management of Technology (MOT) program for helping him prepare for a leadership role. We talked to him about what put him on the path to MOT, what the program was like, and how it benefited his career in the manufacturing industry.
Q: Hello, Justin! Tell us a little about yourself, and about your background in business.
A: I grew up in Illinois and went to school at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. From there I got a job with General Cable, and they moved me around – you can only go where the plants are. My first stop was in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Part of the rotation is, after a year you move to a new location. So I was transferred to Tennessee. I finished my time there, and my next stop was going to be Boston. That was a little too far for me. Now that I was married and wanted to have a kid, that was really far away from our families being in Illinois and Minnesota. And moving all the time made it harder for my wife to establish a career of her own.
Q: What made you decide on Minnesota?
A: I had always enjoyed going to Minnesota, doing the outdoor stuff, and was able to find a job up here with my wife as well. So, it just made sense for us. I found an opportunity to go to Cambria as the process engineering supervisor. When I started they needed help directing some younger people in their careers with engineering and what to focus on, what kind of projects will make the most impact for the business. I enjoyed the leadership aspect of it and wanted to do more. I always knew that I would go back to school when the time was right. For me, I didn't know what I wanted to master. It wasn't until that I was a direct leader of highly educated people that I felt the TLI program could help me build that skill set for leadership.
Q: Where did you first hear about TLI?
A: I did a lot of online research initially. I don't get up to Minneapolis very often, so I'm not as exposed in person to the billboards and other advertisements. I started by looking up MBA programs in Minnesota. Along the way I kept seeing references to TLI and the MOT (Management of Technology) program and wondered, what's this all about? The program is similar to an MBA, but focuses on the more technical side of things. That made sense to me as an engineer.
I approached my boss about it. That's when I found out that he was an MOT grad. And he strongly recommended that path for me as well.
Q: What were some of the challenges going through the program, and what worked well for you?
A: When I started in the fall of 2018 my son was almost a year old. So it was a bit easier than if I’d had three kids in sports, and the sort of time commitment that goes with that. For me at that time, the schedule really the best it possibly could have been. It’s not realistic to miss every Friday of work for two years, and it’s not realistic to give up every weekend either. So being able to balance the Fridays and Saturdays, that worked out really well.
Q: Was Cambria supportive of your decision to go through that program?
A: Absolutely. It helped that my boss had gone through the program himself. And he’s very successful -- he oversees a lot of the business right now. We’re still a relatively new industry; the technology of making quartz slabs has only been around for 30 years or so. People are still figuring it out and trying new things. That's the name of the game to excel in our industry. You can do all the things with sales and marketing and customer service, which we do really well. But I believe the biggest thing for us is going to be our design innovation, the more ways that we come up with new designs and looks, the better offering that we have. That's what keeps us competitive. And a strong leadership team is critical to that.
Q: How do you feel that the MOT program helped you prepare for the role that you are in now?
A: What I got out of the program wasn't necessarily what I thought I would get going in; I thought I would have a toolbox of tools that would make me a better technical person.
What I did get, and it’s a little hard to verbalize, is a lot of experience in delivering a concise but technical message. I got a lot of experience working in a team identifying people's strengths and weaknesses. And I gained a general understanding on how business works. For the role that I'm in, that's what I need -- I need to understand what procurement does, how HR and business ethics work so I can interview properly, I need to learn how finance works so I can prioritize the right types of things and plan for the future in the right way. I can't sit here today and run a balance sheet, like we did in class, but knowing that I could go back to that and understand it and refresh myself with it helps me lead a larger group of people. It helps me direct and prioritize their work on the right things.
Q: The MOT program does a study abroad segment. Your class (2020) went to Korea and Vietnam. Tell me a little about that experience.
A: I’m not a world traveler -- I haven't had that experience in life. So I didn't know what to expect. But what I learned was that “normal” is different in other countries. If you’re going to source from these other countries, they just do business differently, they're funded differently. The shipping process is different, where they get their materials is different, how much control you have is different. I think it's important when you're going to invest in a relationship or a supply chain internationally, understanding that culture matters. It matters especially in times like this, when supply is short.
One very specific thing we learned in Korea was all about chaebol. The Korean business culture is very loyal within its borders and is run on very close personal ties, but is hesitant to reach and welcome new people in. But once you're in, you're in. That was a very specific thing that I would have had no idea without seeing it up close.
Q: How did you learn about these cultural differences? Was it in a classroom, walking around a factory floor?
A: We got to visit a lot of companies while we were there. Three or four of the companies there identified chaebol as something worth talking to us about, because it matters so much in Korean industry. Some of it was also clear just from context. You could tell just with the language itself, how language is structured around respect for elders and people with whom they have close
Q: What would you say to someone thinking about entering the MOT program? How will they know if it’s a good fit for them?
A: It isn’t a good choice if you want to get briefed on the latest technological innovations -- it’s not that kind of program. You gain leadership skills, and you gain a lot of confidence. There’s a great lineup of faculty and professors and speakers that we had. A lot of them have industry experience. One of the complaints that I had my undergraduate program was, maybe 10% of my professors had industry experience – they had spent their careers in academia, while in my industry, manufacturing, it's all application. There’s very little theory.
No matter what industry you’re in, being able to communicate effectively with people is one of the strongest skill sets you can have. That was evident, not through any specific lecture that we had, but through drawing commonalities between everyone. I also really benefited from a small class size; we became a tight-knit group learning from each other's daily struggles. We talked about our experiences within different industries – you get some great perspective talking about the differences between the medical and manufacturing or packaging industries. You will learn broad strokes in all these different topics. You won’t come out being a master in any of them, but you will know how to reflect on them.
Q: We talked about your recent promotion at Cambria. What else has been happening with your family since graduation?
A: We built a house. We moved from St. Peter to Cleveland, Minnesota. It’s a town of only about 600 people -- it's a little southeast of the production facility here. Our son has one more year of preschool yet, and we have a little girl due in August. So we’re really excited.