2020 Best & Brightest EMBAs: Arnulf Penker, North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)

Arnulf Penker

University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School

A thoughtful learner and strategic leader who challenges the status quo and strives for excellence.”

Age: 39

Hometown: Vienna, Austria

Family Members: My wife Barbara and twin daughters, Hemma and Theresa

Fun fact about yourself:

  • My wife says that I am a positive thinker who even in the most desperate situation finds a silver lining.
  • My twin daughters love the April Fools tricks I play on them (usually about 20 of them…)
  • I like playing the trombone, wearing the traditional Austrian Lederhosen, hunting, hiking, skiing….

Undergraduate School and Degree:

  • University of Applied Life Sciences Vienna: “Wood and Natural Fiber Technology” (Bachelor/BSc.), 2006
  • University of Applied Life Sciences Vienna: “Wood Technology and Management” (Master, MSc), 2009

Where are you currently working?

FunderMax (multinational manufacturer of engineered wood products and building materials, headquartered in Austria)

Up through April 30, 2020, I was managing director of the U.S. subsidiary, FunderMax North America, in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was promoted and effective May 1, I am managing director/CEO of FunderMax Group.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work, and Leadership Roles:

  • Completed the Leader for Next program
  • I do not hesitate to take the leadership role in several team projects in school or at work.
  • I enjoy playing the trombone in a local brass band in Austria.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I especially enjoyed the simulation projects, “Littlefield” in Operations and Sabre in Marketing Management. I took the leadership role in these team assignments and as a team, we did very well. I especially enjoyed the team aspect: Each team member brought a wealth of experiences in various fields to the table. The individual contributions to our team’s discussions helped each of us to learn a lot along the way.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? In 2015, I moved with my family from Vienna, Austria, to Charlotte, North Carolina, to establish our U.S. subsidiary. In a few years, we were able to start up the company, find the first customers, and now we have a great team of employees. The team has built a sizeable and profitable business of more than $ 20M in sales, which continue to grow rapidly. I am especially proud that the organization I built is like a family caring for each other, our partners and the community. Everyone in the FunderMax North America team lives our central values of trust, integrity, transparency, partnership, decency, and a sense of responsibility.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? There are several great professors at UNC.

Christian Lundblad is a great teacher and researcher in the field of macro-economics and global finance. Both the asynchronous videos and the classes were extremely engaging and valuable. It was a good mix of well-prepared content from Christian and class discussions. I learned a lot about how global markets are interconnected and the driving forces of the economy.

Mabel Miguel did a great job in the Management and Leadership course. The approach of case studies, engaging class discussions and team assignments was very effective. I especially appreciated that Mabel put emphasis on leadership and management in a global context, which is important in an increasingly global, interconnected, multicultural, and dynamic business environment. Based on my 360° Benchmark Feedback report, team feedback, and self-reflection, I developed a professional development plan and started executive coaching, which was very helpful for my professional and personal development. This course also kicked off our study groups, which were extremely helpful for the learning experience during the core program at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? UNC Kenan-Flagler’s emphasis on leadership development and entrepreneurship caught my attention. The choice was clear after my pre-admission visit, where I had the chance to observe a class (Professor Atul Nerkar’s Global Context of Business) and have lunch with students. Everyone – admissions staff, faculty, and students – were welcoming, engaged, and genuinely caring. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a Tar Heel.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? The community aspect. UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Weekend Executive MBA Program encourages collaboration and team-based learning. Time spent building and developing interpersonal relationships is a valued part of the business school experience. The Weekend Executive MBA Class of 2020 is an extremely talented and diverse cohort by any measure – demographically, geographically, and professionally. Each of my fellow students has an immeasurable impact on my MBA experience. The fellow students are the ones where I learn most from and they have become friends for life.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? The power of diversity and inclusion. During the team projects, I realized how strong teams, comprised of diverse individuals with different backgrounds, can be. I apply this even more now in hiring decisions and when I put together project teams at work.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family, and education?I have an awesome family. My wife Barbara and my twin daughters, Hemma and Theresa, are very supportive. I remember when I told my daughters that I was going to go back to school. At first, they were very surprised but when I explained that one should never stop learning, they understood and started asking how it will be. It even motivates them more to do their school work or attend German school on Saturdays when they see me studying as well. It became a little family tradition that we go to a nice restaurant when I come back from Chapel Hill on Saturday evening. Then we share how our last couple of days were. This helps us to better support each other.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? My advice is to find the right timing and prepare well. Start an MBA when things are in quite good order at home and at work.

I recommend that you discuss the idea to do an MBA with your boss, your coworkers, and your family before you make the decision. It is important to openly share expectations and ask for support. Also, ask for their expectations. I, for example used the opportunity to give much more responsibility to my direct reports so I had less on my plate and I could provide room to grow for them.

I just got a major promotion and now I have members in my team who are able to take over.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? I think, for everyone, the experience is different.

Going back to school is super hard and that you need to learn how to learn again is a myth in my case. I got into the new routine very quickly during immersion week. My cohort is great and makes it enjoyable.

One thing that did not change is that then and now I especially enjoy the activities outside of the classroom. We are an active cohort and we use the time during class weekends and even between very well to build a strong network and lasting friendships.

What was your biggest regret in business school? It was definitely the right decision to do an Executive MBA despite a few tough phases where I had to power through.

COVID-19 turned the weekends classes into e-learning. Faculty and staff did their best to make it still interesting and enjoyable. However, a full day in front of the screen is not my preferred learning style. I regret that I could not meet my classmates in person. I selected the Weekend program over the Evening MBA program to have more networking opportunities. This component was missing to a large part in the second year of the program due to distance learning.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? There are so many, but I want to mention one classmate particularly: Shellon Blanchard Clark. Shellon was in my study team and she was able to help me overcome and improve on some of my weaknesses, which are her strengths. She was an integral part of our team. I especially admire her because she is a working, single mom extremely dedicated to family, work, and school. A few months into the program, her daughter got seriously sick. Over several months, Shellon helped her daughter overcome the illness and at the same time complete the program very well. I have tremendous respect for Shellon and her mental strength, her stamina and expertise.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I completed my engineering master’s and thought about it regularly. However, I got too busy during the first 10 years of my career. I feel that I did it at the right phase in my life. The learning experience at an Executive MBA is much better due to the wealth of knowledge and experience in the cohort.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? During the program, I got a major promotion to become the CEO at FunderMax, a medium-size manufacturer with about $500M annual revenue. This was my long-term goal, so I guess I need to find a new one. No seriously, my long-term goal is to make a significant contribution to the success of the organization I am managing. Another goal is to become a better leader – an area where there is always room to grow.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I would like that they remember me as their Austrian friend. One that they can count on anytime and one they will call with anything I could help with. Whether it is related to manufacturing, general management or when they plan a trip to Europe and need a place to stay.

What are the top two items on your bucket list? When the program is finished, to spend the extra time with my family and my favorite hobbies: hunting, playing the trombone, hiking, and skiing in the Alps.

What made Arnulf such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2020?

“Arnulf Penker is an extraordinary entrepreneurial leader who engaged in the coursework of our Weekend Executive MBA Program with focus and clarity of purpose. He had the challenge to establish U.S. operations for his Austrian building materials company FunderMax, relocating his family from their home in Vienna to Charlotte, North Carolina. Arnulf leveraged his MBA coursework to achieve the growth goals set for him for U.S. operations, taking full advantage of the coursework in innovation, global marketing, and entrepreneurship. His company develops novel laminated exterior panels for construction applications. As evidence of his entrepreneurial mind, he expanded a family project to build a treehouse with his children in Charlotte to consider building a treehouse-building venture to bring families together with a “kit design” framework using his company’s product. Arnulf recruited a team, built the business model, and developed the venture, which he plans to implement with his UNC classmates. A great analogy for entrepreneurship is a “builder” and Arnulf clearly demonstrates a commitment to entrepreneurship as both creative business leaders and builders, combined with a global mindset that allows him to scale business models to potential global markets. He is a model entrepreneurial leader, and he used the foundation and frameworks of the MBA coursework to realize his full potential.”

Ted D. Zoller
T.W. Lewis Distinguished Clinical Scholar and Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship
Director of the Entrepreneurship Center at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School







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