Season 2, Episode 7: Kai Bockmann

January 10, 2024

Stacey Copeland: Welcome to FCAT after school, a podcast project from SFU's Faculty of Communication, art and technology. In each episode, we joined student hosts in conversation with alumni as they explore career journeys since graduation, and gather advice for the next generation. On this episode of after school communication student Eric Militaru talks with SFU communication alum, Kai Bockmann about his time at SFU and the skills he gained while pursuing his degree. The duo also dig in to some of Kai's globe spanning personal and career driven stories that brought crucial life lessons to his understanding of the world and helped him to become the current president and CEO of Blue Diamond Growers. The California based organization with claim to be the world's largest tree nut processing and marketing company. Here is our episode host, Eric Militaru.

Eric Militaru: Communications at SFU is great, there is a lot to learn and do with our degree that can help us when we start looking for options outside of school. But as I go through my degree, I noticed there's a lot of emphasis on perspective and how the environment around us shapes the way we think. Now I don't know about you, but to me, just doing readings and writing papers doesn't seem like it's giving me the full benefit to learn about all this stuff. I feel as though we don't totally gain all the skills necessary if we were to get out there and work in you know, large team settings or do all kinds of things in the field. I mean, sure, you'll learn more on the way but you'd want to feel a little bit more prepared. So at this point, there are a lot of questions that I'm asking myself, should I be branching out? Have I gone through many adversities? Does the world around me exposed to new ways of thinking or beliefs? Am I doing enough? For our guest today, a lot of these questions were beginning to be answered when one day his parents decided to buy a VW camper van and drive around North America to get outside their bubble and learn more from different cultures. Soon this road trip would turn into a worldwide hitchhiking journey. That would be a cornerstone of how our guests built his future and became the person that he is today. Through trying many different fields and taking on multiple international roles with major companies. Our guests used his experience at SFU communications, and the adversities he faced along the way to get where he is right now. But before we embark on this global journey, we need to know who this person is.

Kai Bockmann: Okay, my name is Kai Bockmann, and I'm a Simon Fraser grad, I graduated back in way, way back in the 90s 91 in business, and then 93 communications. And then because I loved school, so much, ended up getting an MBA 95 When I was doing my MBA program I actually was in the business school, and there was a bulletin board there and they had a poster for students to encourage them to apply to a program that would send them to Canadian embassies across Latin America. And it was like the last day to apply and I said, "You know what? Probably not gonna get it. But hey, what the hell, let's just put my name in the hat and see what happens." So, you know, as luck would have it, I ended up getting in touch with the folks in Ottawa, the Canadian foundation for the Americas. They signed me up for an opportunity to do an internship at the Canadian Embassy in the trade section in Bogota, Colombia. wonderful experience, went down there, spent a year they ended up asked me to come back in a full time capacity. And so I did that for a while. And then McCain came knocking McCain Foods, large company out of New Brunswick. And they asked the ambassador, hey, do you know any talented young individuals that might want to join a company like McCain? And they said, well, there's this young kid, Kai Bockmann who works in a trade section and I jumped at the chance to join McCain Foods. And from there I spent 15 years at McCain in a variety of roles, which took me to places like China where we lived with our family for three and a half years in Shanghai and then two and a half years in Singapore, lived in Florence Ville, New Brunswick, Chicago, so took me to a lot of different places around the world and in wonderful roles, you know, which included the heading up the international part of the business. And then from there, I I jumped to Saputo, which is one of the largest dairy companies, again, Canadian based Montreal based and took on the role of president for their international business. And then, after five years took on the global role for running the day, the day to day operations. So I've been very fortunate, I've had a lot of great roles throughout my career, you know, it was 20 miles an hour for 25 years, and then decided to retire back in April of 2022. But after a few short months, my wife said, driving me absolutely crazy. And I was going bored, I was getting very bored. So I'm actually jumping back on back into things and starting a role as the CEO for Blue Diamond, which you might know of, as you know, the Almond Breeze brand, which is big in the almond milk, they do a lot of snacking, and a lot of ingredients and that sort of thing. So excited about jumping on to the next chapter of my career, which will take me back to the west coast to California.

Eric Militaru: Wow, that is that is quite the resume. But going back to your time at SFU, from what I understand, you've been through a couple of different fields and faculties, what kind of pushed you to switch it up and say, "You know what, let's try this," or, "let's move on to this"?

Kai Bockmann: Yeah, like when I, when I first went to SFU, my dad's a teacher, and I thought I wouldn't want it to do the same thing. And so I wanted to be an elementary school teacher and I started taking courses. And one course was like arithmetic or math for elementary school teachers. And I started out in the class, and I love teachers, don't get me wrong. But you know, for me, it's about cultural fit, when it comes to like joining a company or, you know, that sort of thing. And I just felt that the culture within that environment didn't really resonate with me. And so I said, "You know what, this isn't for me, and I'm just going to try a whole bunch of different things." So I think, you know, in those first couple years, I did a liberal arts certificate, which exposed me to a lot of different courses, philosophy, languages, history, you know, all kinds of stuff. And then I decided to get into business. So I went into the business school, did marketing and finance. And then from there, I went into communications, totally different field, an arts degree. And then from there, sort of found my way, because the more courses you take, the more you better understand yourself what you enjoy. And so I would encourage people to just take as many courses as you can. And, you know, a lot of courses are offered for free. And there's a lot of online stuff that you can, you know, get exposure to different topics and that sort of thing. But I always gravitated towards that international, anything that had an international component, international business was was the right fit for me. And that's why I did my MBA in international business. And that ultimately led me to, you know, my career which focused on international business activity. So I tried to find, through my education, the type of subject matter, that was interesting to me. And fortunately, I found something that I enjoyed and loved and was passionate about, and was very lucky to embark on a career that touched on those same areas.

Eric Militaru: So you said, when you were going back after your business degree, you said you try to communications, what kind of interested you into going into communications then?

Kai Bockmann: Like, when I did the marketing degree, I felt that, you know, that media component was an important element that would help me in marketing, and that's what drew me to communications. And then there was a course that you know, like, intercultural communications, which I found really interesting. I learned a lot there. And it helped me actually my career, like in terms of dealing with people in different cultures, like, you know, why people think and communicate and the way they do it's, you know, kind of the background, the cultural the historical background, I found fascinating. And I know, there were a bunch of courses, like, you know, this was back in the 90s so I can't remember the name names of the profs. But just as an example, there was one course I do remember the prof his name was Steven Klein, and he was focused on media, and you know, we decided to do, you know, a course with it was media and celebrity something along those lines, like, and so a friend of mine, and, you know, we decided to connect with Nike and Canada, and they had a little office, and I think it was in Port Coquitlam. So we drove down there. And then we met with the folks there. And they put us in touch with an SFU grad from marketing, who ran the marketing for the basketball division for Nike. And so that very night, we actually just got in the car with some video gear, and drove down to Portland, Oregon, to Beaverton. And we went to the Nike campus. And then we did the interview, had an opportunity to tour the campus and just learn about how they go about their marketing and how they use celebrity endorsements as part of their strategy and all that. Really fascinating stuff. And those are the kinds of courses where you're actually doing real things like rather than just reading about stuff in books, and actually going out there and working on projects and developing Like a video piece a documentary, really love that project that was probably the highlight of my comms, you know, degree days. And then just working with groups, people with different backgrounds. That's like one of the biggest learnings in going through all of the coursework is, you know, later in life, you're always going to be working with teams. And so you have the the opportunity to kind of like work with people of different backgrounds, and make sure that you capture everybody's perspective, you learn a lot of critical skills in those type of programs and those type of courses and got a lot of out of those during my my younger days.

Eric Militaru: So we should be looking for courses that can get you in the field and help you gain these critical skills at SFU. But another thing that was very influential in Kai's journey. And what I thought to be really interesting was when he hitchhiked around the world for over six years at a young age.

Kai Bockmann: Yeah, in a nutshell, like I could go on and on, because it's, you know, those, those were quite some memorable adventures, but my parents, you know, they're from the the hippie generation, a different kind of thinking. And I was in Montreal, hitting the books at an early age, and they felt that I was only being exposed to Canadian things, Canadian culture, Canadian history, those sorts of things. Montreal is cosmopolitan, but if you're in a classroom, you're really exposed to kind of a, you know, kind of a narrow view of things. And so they said, "you know, what? We're, we're going to, we're going to pack up and travel and we're going to hit the road. So see the world out there." And so with the few dollars that they had, at the time, they bought this butt ugly orange VW camper. As a family together with a puppy, we hit the road and traveled around North America went through Mexico, Central America, and then the Pan-American Highway ends in Panama. So you have to kind of take a ferry, find different forms of transport. But my dad said, You know what, we're not really connecting with the people really, we're kind of like tourists wandering around in this butt, ugly orange VW camper, so you know, what we're ditching the van and from now on, we're going to hitchhike. And for the next six and a half years, we just hitchhiked through, you know, 100 plus countries. And we weren't staying at fancy places. This isn't like staying at the Western, Sheraton, you know, those types of hotels and flying first class, this was like, hitchhiking, roughing it, not knowing where you were going to sleep that night, not knowing where your next meal was going to come from. So this was really roughing it, and I would say that through those journeys, having witnessed wars, poverty, crime, you know, drugs, and all those things, living through that adversity, living through that constant change, it really has made me the individual that I am today. And, you know, I spent a lot of time at SFU and, you know, those degrees were very helpful, but, you know, the biggest education I gotten, and I am forever thankful to my parents, is that global world tour and hitchhiking and, you know, having the opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds, different cultures, learning about their cultures, I always found very fascinating and that's, that's what I that's why I do what I do today. You know, like heading up global businesses, it gives me the opportunity to work across cultures travel, interact with, you know, whether it's growers, people in the agricultural side of the manufacturing environments, customers, employees, I find that part of business fascinating and really love it.

Eric Militaru: Wow. Like, not not everybody goes through that kind of stuff.

Kai Bockmann: Yeah, no, I've been very fortunate, then, you know, I know that kids and the world is different. It's a lot harder to travel these days, but I would encourage, you know, young people to really get out there, because if you limit yourself to what's in your backyard, and listen, I love Vancouver, Vancouver is always going to be home for me but, you're really constrained if you just kind of live and work in your backyard. So I would encourage young people to go out there travel, and look for opportunities to work abroad, because it really, it's life changing. And it's not forever. And when you're younger, and you don't have a family, it's a lot easier to kind of move around. And it really changes you as an individual. It really helps you grow as an individual. And it's, it's going to just help your development and help you in life. And you'll meet a lot of fascinating people, you make great friendships, you might find love as well. You know, take the plunge. Have the courage to take the time and go on those adventures?

Eric Militaru: Yeah, no, I had a friend recently who, like a few months ago, he was saying, I just want to go on a one way ticket to Spain, and then go just travel as much as I can for six months and then come back no plan or anything like that. And so he's doing that. I think he's leaving this Monday or something like that. So yeah.

Kai Bockmann: And he's going to be supercharged and when he comes back, he's going to be a different person.

Eric Militaru: Yeah.

Kai Bockmann: You know, we were talking about it. The other day, Eric, where when we look to hire employees, when I look to hire employees, you know, young kids out of college, I really don't give a rat's rump about, you know, their grades and where they went to school. It's about those life experiences about that curiosity, that willingness to learn, and trying new things, that's really what stands out. So I know kids are really focused on, "okay, I gotta get the gotta get the a's and b's, and I gotta go to the top school." But, you know, most organizations, you know, that's obviously a consideration. But in many instances, it's not the driving force behind the hiring decision. So you know, this friend of yours, you're talking about going to Spain, I would like, that'd be a great conversation starter during the interview process. And it'd be like, "okay, this kid's curious about the world is courageous wants to go, you know, learn and those sorts of things." Those things really resonate with employers. It's how the person's wired, like, you know, how have they lived their life? Have they gone through adversity? We talked a lot about, you know, are they open to learning new things and experiencing new things. That curiosity, it's that the makeup of the individual I feel is more important than what's on their resume in terms of where they went to school and the grades they've achieved, if a young person has gone through some adversity in their life, family, work, school. You know, those things really resonate with me because it builds individuals, you know, in terms of that resiliency, and being able to deal with change and uncertainty, which is something you come across every day, every week when you're working, right? And there's a lot of uncertainty, and it's that ability to adapt and react, and you see the true colors of you know, your teammates under those extenuating circumstances. So I would say that, for young people, it's just like, how they've lived their life, their outlook, their aspirations, you know, those are the things that are more important to me than where, you know, when goes to school and what grades you get.

Eric Militaru: What Kai said struck a chord with me, I'm sure most have experienced the same, but I was influenced by the idea that grades were the most important thing. And as I went through high school especially, grades were the main thing on everyone's mind, it was always a panic because of the competition. And asking your colleagues what you got in the latest test was just one of those many false ledges you can climb on to, to feel better about yourself. The same adversity, if you can even call it that, happens now in my post secondary education. But this drive to be curious and see the world feels right. We can only do so much with our degree for Kai it helped him as he worked on all these roles. But as you can probably guess, it wasn't just his time at SFU that helped him through it. It's one thing to read about stuff and another thing to actually go out there and see it with your own eyes, much like Kai did when he hitchhiked around the world. In other words, maybe we should give into our curiosity every once in a while and go on an adventure. Even if you have no idea what you're doing. Much like Kai's first venture in the Canadian Embassy in Colombia, it was like a leap of faith that paid off for him.

Kai Bockmann: Yeah, like in my first gig and my boss, his name was Zinberg Yannick, and he gave me a lot of rope. And I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I just came in there and he gave me a very broad mandate and said, help us develop the AG sector, help Canadian companies set up shop in Colombia. And I loved it, like just the very, you know, a very wide open brief and just, you know, doing it, like just rolling up my sleeves and getting in there and just reaching out to Canadian companies, you know, fumbling around, you know, like, a little clumsy at the on start. But again, the more chances you take, the more you reach out, the more experiences you seek, the better you get at things, right? You kind of refine your skills, you find your way, everybody's different in terms of the way they approach things. But it's really just that entrepreneurial spirit, that willingness to roll up your sleeves, that bias for action. Don't overanalyze things. It's not an analysis, paralysis exercise, a lot of folks, you know, try to make, you know, they want to have their like, project to their business case, perfect buttoned up. And, you know, that's fine. But in many instances, the opportunity will have passed by the time you've dotted all the i's and cross the T's, if you got, you know, like 80 90% of what you feel is right, just run with it. Because you know, that bias for action is absolutely critical. That speed.

Eric Militaru: I know, for a lot of students, it's really hard to sort of branch out because there's kind of like a barrier, like, oh, I don't want to bother this person, you know, but you said you just went and saw or talked to the the Nike, like the Marketing Manager for Nike. They're like, how did you? How did you just build that courage to just say, Hey, can we do this? Like, do you have any sort of tips and tricks for that?

Kai Bockmann: Well, you can just use Nike's model just do it. It's really just you have to have the just take the courage and be vulnerable, like, don't be, don't be so pre calculated in everything you do just have the courage to try things. And you know, we talked about it, you know, embracing those learning experiences. And you will learn when people say no, but in most times, you know, in most instances, people are happy to help, and they love talking to young people. And you know what? In today's day and age, a lot of these folks are dying to recruit top talent, and they see an opportunity in talking to young people to kind of plant the seeds for, you know, when they graduate, that they might be a place that they might want to consider, right? People like myself, I love talking to young people. And you and I talked a little bit about this earlier, you know, I wish that people from the business world, or people from the professions that come out of these schools would have an opportunity to come talk to students, because a lot of times, students need to hear the skills and you know, what it's like out there and, and build, you know, relationships, connections with people that will, that could help them later on in life. So, you know, again, I would just encourage students to have the courage, take the courage to take the leap, and go out there and try different things and try to make connections, because that's what it's all about business. And professional life is about relationships. It's about communication. So, you know, just do it.

Eric Militaru: It seems so simple, yet, so daunting, and you hear it all the time, you know, just do it, man, just do it. But it's easier said than done. But for Kai, the career stuff was actually easy. The adversities he faced along the way, were not where you'd expect it.

Kai Bockmann: Like, I would say that, as you take on roles of increased responsibility, there are, you know, tremendous pressures on your family life, especially in an international role, where you have a lot of responsibility, like if you're overseeing an operation and business, whatever, you're on the road a lot, you're away from your family. So I would say that's the biggest impact, when you take on these types of roles is the impact on family and I have two daughters one 15, one 18, and it was really rough on the older one. And I thought because I was raised in a certain way, like not knowing where I was going to sleep one night and where the next meal was going to come from. And the kids having lived in different places like China, Singapore, small village like Florence Ville, New Brunswick, Chicago, like moving all over the place, I thought, "okay, you know what? they're going to become resilient, they're going to become adaptable." But it wasn't as easy for the older one as it was for the younger one. And it was hard for the younger one as well. So and then, you know, I'm so focused on my job. And then, you know, I feel that my wife's got her under control, because she sacrificed her career to make sure that the kids, you know, we're going to be okay, that she was going to be the rock at home, that things were gonna be all hunky dory. But you know, it was very challenging, very difficult went through some, you know, very difficult chapters. But fortunately, now, things you know, I've come come out on the, on the right side of things, but it was tough. And I would say that a lot of executives, a lot of people in demanding roles, especially ones that require travel, and I'm not talking about traveling from Vancouver to Calgary or Vancouver to Seattle, we're talking about people that have to be gone for two to three weeks straight, you know, traveling to the other side of the world, it's really taxing on the family, and a lot of families don't make it, like a lot of couples end up getting divorced because, you know, the partner at home feels like they're doing everything. And then the other partner comes home and they're, like, exhausted, and they don't want to do you know, and then so it becoms kind of like, there's a lot of animosity, and that can lead to broken relationships. So that's, it's, it's a risk, a real risk, that a lot of people just kind of sweep under the rug and just say, oh, you know, because they want to portray, like, everything's hunky dory. But there's a lot of that that goes on behind the scenes. So I would say that's the greatest adversity that I've had to face throughout my career. It's more on the family front than it was on the professional front.

Eric Militaru: I think that this is a crucial piece that a lot of people overlook. Instead of just focusing on your professional life, you should also take the time to focus on your relationships with others, make sure that they are healthy and reach out to those outside of your circle that could potentially help you further in your professional life. It's a balance, a tightrope, we need to walk in order to cross this chasm. But we're still in school. Most of us haven't been through much for some not many adversities have been faced. So if we go back to the questions I asked at the beginning: Have I gone through many adversities? Should I be branching out? Am I doing enough? The simple answer is, maybe. But a way to make sure that we're doing enough is just get out there and see the world with our own eyes, whether that is through some courses or just on your own and who knows have maybe even buy your own Westfalia or VW campervan and hit the road, it's the start of something, probably life changing. That was what Kai taught me and, I think it's what we should all do. If we want to take the right steps, not only in our communications careers, but for our life in general,

Kai Bockmann: Really that curiosity to learn, being open to new experiences, I think is critical. And we talked about not looking only in your backyard, because it's a small pond in Vancouver, get out there, you know, there's tremendous opportunities out there, and you're going to continue to learn, you're going to continue to grow as an individual, and you're going to have an amazing opportunity to have a long and great career. School is important, you know, the, the classes you take, again, I would, you know, encourage students to not only check off the boxes and cover the courses that are required for the degree but try look at some different courses that you know, will get you exposed to different topic areas, you never know, you might find a new passion. So I think that's, you know, I wish I was given that advice, but I lived it, you know, after stumbling around a little bit. You know, remember, it's not just the grades and the school you go to, but it's the experiences you have. It's your ability to interact with people. So, you know, go out there, develop relationships with people outside of your cliques, your groups, and I think that travel is one way of kind of promoting those opportunities to develop relationships with others. So those would be some of the nuggets that I would leave with that next generation.

Eric Militaru: So with all that said and done, I have some thank you's to give out. First of all, a big thanks to Kai Bachmann for doing this interview with me it was very insightful and helpful as always, thank you to the producers at the FCAT after school podcast for giving me this opportunity. And thank you guys for listening. So yeah, hope you guys have a great day. And that's about it. See ya.

Stacey Copeland: Interested in learning more about the FCAT community. Stay tuned for a brand new episode of FCAT after school, hitting your feeds every other Wednesday this season. A big thanks to Kai Bockmann for joining us here on the show. You'll find links to resources mentioned and more info on Kai, Eric, and the School of Communication in the show notes. Our hosts for this episode was Eric Militaru, production by Eric and me, Stacy Copeland. FCAT, after school respectfully acknowledges the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish), səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), q̓íc̓əy̓ (Katzie), kʷikʷəƛ̓əm (Kwikwetlem), Qayqayt, Kwantlen, Semiahmoo and Tsawwassen peoples on whose unseeded traditional territories our three campuses reside and where many of the stories shared in the series take place. Make sure to rate and subscribe to FCAT after school in your podcast app of choice so you don't miss any of our upcoming episodes. And, you can follow us on social media at FCAT at SFU. That's F C A T at SFU on Twitter and Instagram. See you next time.