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Pung Speaker Series: There is no direct path to success

By Grace Griffin, student writer
Monday, November 20, 2023

On Oct. 26, Chris McGraw (MBA Supply Chain Management and Finance ’00) continued the 2023–24 Roy S. Pung Executive Speaker Series by sharing his path to success, explaining how he learned from experience that your career is not always a straight line.

Throughout his career, McGraw has saved $1 billion as a procurement executive, having led negotiations for more than 20 Fortune 500 companies for contract values of more than $100 million. Today, he serves as vice president of procurement at AeroFarms, which he described as “a tiny startup,” and said, “I have never been happier.”

Before discussing his career path and sharing lessons with the aspiring Full-Time MBA students in the room, McGraw listed the key takeaways for the audience:

  • Some perspectives on how to manage your career (and how not to manage it!)
  • What it’s like to work at a startup
  • How to grow a corporate department from the ground up
  • Some novel ways to think about the procurement function
  • How to use documents and meetings to drive executive decisions

After earning his B.A. in English Literature from Vanderbilt University, McGraw had a vague notion of an international career and decided to pursue teaching English in Chile as his first job out of college. While in Chile, he developed an interest in business and eventually joined Forus, a South American marketer of international brands. He felt that he had a knack for business but needed formal training, which led him to Michigan State University to earn his MBA. He credits part of his career accomplishments to his academic foundation: both a humanities degree and the MBA background.

Through trial and error, McGraw discovered his passion for consulting. This put him in the path of Helen Dashney, fixed-term faculty in the Broad College’s Department of Finance and organizer of the Pung Series, who, at the time, was working in career services advising for the MBA program. Dashney developed a group of students who wanted to learn about consulting and case studies. With the help of the resources provided at MSU, McGraw and his group eventually constructed their own case studies, which helped him receive multiple job offers from top consulting firms.

He chose to join Kearney, where he spent the first six years of his postgraduate career. He then spent two years at AlixPartners before establishing his own independent practice, McGraw and Company, from 2008 to 2014. After a stop at top consulting firm McKinsey, he founded consultancy Procapture with five partners.

McGraw explained that not every startup or venture he tried to launch was a success, which helped him recognize the importance of selling people on your ideas.

“We had these people with all these great ideas and great knowledge, but none of us was a very good salesman,” he said.

McGraw urged students to stay focused on the big picture: It can be easy to want to do a little bit of everything; to succeed, it must be one step at a time.

After 18 years in consulting, McGraw took a management position at BP in 2018, and then joined AeroFarms in 2020.

AeroFarms, one of the world’s largest indoor vertical farming companies, focuses on growing microgreens and selling them through grocery and foodservice channels. McGraw joined this startup company in 2020, and since then, he’s helped it move to the expansion phase. AeroFarms recently launched a farm in Virginia, with customers like Whole Foods Market, Walmart and Costco. They have plans to expand by building three to five new farms by 2026.

McGraw illuminated for the audience of students how, even when you have experience and the right idea, someone will always question your idea. When he entered AeroFarms, it was still a startup; they only had a small procurement team but needed to make some big purchases. With experience in the field, McGraw was able to step in and plan for the company to successfully and intelligently spend.

He knew he needed to think long term about what would create the best outcome. He knew that a larger procurement team was needed. However, to make changes, he must appeal to the senior executive leadership team. McGraw said, “Procurement is most similar to sales in the sense that you are constantly making commercial deals and trying to persuade people.” He knew how to sell to his audience, and he showed how the choice would benefit them exponentially in the future.

“When you are communicating with different executives, different people, they bring their own perspectives and preferences and biases,” McGraw said about the challenges he faced in trying to appeal to different people.

Eventually, he was able to get every leader on board. With that example, he reminded the class to always start a presentation by letting people know why you are there, to use past documents and case studies to further prove your point, and to know your audience. McGraw ended his presentation by urging students to stay focused on the big picture: It can be easy to want to do a little bit of everything; to succeed, it must be one step at a time.

More information on the upcoming 2023–24 Pung Speaker Series, as well as information on past events, is available via the Full-Time MBA program.

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