Michael Griesbach ’94
Vice President of International, Grande Cheese, Wisconsin
Previously: Director of Asia Pacific, Hormel Foods, Singapore
What has your career journey been like?
During my 27 years with Hormel Foods I spent 11 of them in Asia during three separate stints in Shanghai (twice) and Singapore. My international experience started three years into my career when Hormel asked me to be a part of our initial foray into the region when we opened manufacturing plants in Beijing and Shanghai. I was there for our first three years before transitioning back into our US domestic business unit. 13 years later, I returned to China to run our sales & marketing for the country for a few years. From there I was asked to open our Asia Pacific HQ and run our business development for the region from that new office. After four years I was offered a position at Grande Cheese to start up an international division for them.
I ended up getting that first job abroad as I tactfully communicated my interest in my company’s international endeavors. Three years into my career I was approached about a position in Spain and another in China. I indicated my preference was China and the company accommodated my request.
Did you study abroad? If yes, how did it prepare you for living abroad after graduation? Were there any particularly influential experiences? What useful skills did you develop?
Yes, I studied in Seville, Spain in the spring of 1992. Afterwards I found a job at the International Expo and worked for four months before returning to St. Thomas for my junior year.
When traveling to a new country for the first time there’s a bit of culture shock and naivety inherent with the experience. One tends to be less confident about even the most mundane of activities until a certain level of comfort works its way in. After living in Spain, and having the chance to travel to neighboring countries, that window of time to get comfortable and settled becomes less with each succeeding trip to somewhere new.
My study abroad experience was very beneficial once I went to work in another country. I was able to get focused rather quickly without having to first adjust to the culture. It’s really an experience driven understanding that people from all corners of the globe typically want the same things and wish to be treated respectfully. Had I not had the study abroad experience I’m certain my international career trajectory would have been different.
If seeking to work globally, what are some essential things that you think students should know as they approach their career journey?
There are certain companies and organizations who have plenty of history with business outside of the US. However, many of them are new or simply quite limited in that regard. In the latter case, you have to take a very balanced approach to working abroad. The home office will want you to enact certain rules and standards which work well in the US, whereas your local international environment may very well call for something to the contrary. That’s not to say you should ever do something that’s impractical, illegal or immoral, but you’ll need to be flexible to balance the wants of the organization and the needs of the market. It’s never easy to find the sweet spot, but if you keep in mind the end game of being successful is the same in all cultures, you’ll learn to adapt your working and communication styles.
What was the best piece of advice you received before you went abroad?
Best piece of advice was to do everything possible to blend in with the local people and their culture. It helped me learn a second language much faster than what I saw with my fellow American classmates. The language skills (Spanish) helped me land my first job at Hormel and subsequent language skills (Chinese) led me to an extended career living in Asia Pacific.
What helped you decide to pursue a career outside the US?
It’s always very rewarding to succeed in an environment where resources are limited and one’s creativity is challenged. Being able to chart a successful path outside of your home country is incredibly gratifying.
Was there a difficult culture change difficult for you? What tips do you have to overcome the challenges?
Thanks to advice received before I first journeyed abroad I never really had issues with culture shock. I simply embraced it and tried to be a part of it. I’ve seen both student and professionals try and force their way to change culture and it never works. If you take the mindset of adding to culture, and even taking a bit of that culture back home, you’ll be much better off.
How has the world of work in your country adjusted to COVID-19?
Singapore has taken one of the stricter approaches to stopping the spread and resulting hospitalizations from COVID. As I type this 97% of the eligible population has been fully vaccinated.
Although the virus continues to circulate the hospitalizations under age 70 have dropped to almost nothing. Hence, they’ve done an exceptional job in safeguarding the health of its citizens and residents. However, that does come with a cost. There’s been little freedom of movement in and out of the country which makes business challenging and sometimes rather tedious.
What do you miss the most about the US?
Being away from family is always the most difficult part. However, technology advances give the sense of having loved ones being right next door. When I first went to study abroad in 1992 and work abroad in 1997, I was limited to, perhaps, a short monthly phone call to connect.
Thank you, Michael, for sharing about your career journey and life in Asia! Check our Instagram @ustcareer and watch this blog for more Global Alumni Spotlights throughout the semester!