University of Pennsylvania, '05
Question: How can you be in constant motion while remaining in place at the same time? Answer: By working at MBI… if you’re Michael O’Donnell. His physical moves are only the most obvious ones. Mike joined the American parent company just after he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2005 with a dual degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. (Never one to rest on his laurels, he also obtained an MBA from Cass Business School in 2017 while working at MBI.) This entailed relocating from Mike’s native environs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to work at MBI’s offices in Norwalk, Connecticut, some 150 miles away.
He recalls, “I started out in our jewellery group in the US as a product manager, but a few years into the job was asked to form a group that focused on print production, purchasing and quality control. I then moved across the pond to our UK offices and back into product management.” Long an internationalist, “I spent most of my youth in choirs or other musical endeavours. My singing took me around the globe and allowed me to perform at events like the baseball World Series and in historic venues like Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. During university, I also challenged myself to learn Mandarin Chinese and I spent one summer at an immersive language programme in Beijing.”
Even before his hiring, Mike looked in many directions: “I cast a wide net when I started my job search. I interviewed for finance and consulting jobs as well as several FMCG rotational programmes, but my ultimate plan was to gain business experience before moving into a career in government (the role I wanted required real-world experience before you could apply). However, I soon realised MBI was much more than just a place to start my career, as the rewards of seeing a product through from start to finish captured my imagination and made me reassess my career path.” His interviewer, a Penn alum, described the kind of “collegial, flat, and fast-paced” environment he wanted.
Mike has certainly learned to expect the unexpected. When he first heard about the company via Penn’s on-campus recruiting, “a note that MBI worked with the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NCAA caught my attention. Convinced I could add value to MBI’s sports memorabilia business, I was surprised on my first day that I’d be joining our relatively new jewellery business. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. Not knowing the category very well, it forced me to let the numbers be my guide and really dig in to what we’d done previously. I spent a lot of time reviewing the products I’d been given to formulate a strategy on how to grow my jewellery lines.”
Later, upon arriving in the UK, “I received a phone call from our CEO with a simple directive: ‘I want you to build a coin business.’ Having spent the first seven years of my career in jewellery and not having much of a background in numismatics, this felt like a particularly challenging request. But my MBI experience to that point gave me the confidence and the tools to tackle the challenge head-on.” Displaying commendable cooperation across the Atlantic, “we had multiple product groups in the US that were incredible internal resources that I was able to mine for information. I also spent a lot of time attending trade shows and calling coin dealers who might be willing to educate me.”
This experience epitomises the promise to “harness your inner-entrepreneur” that Mike saw in the online advert back at Penn. “Our first few product launches were the definition of bootstrapping. I worked with our IT, Finance and Operations teams to ‘hack’ the system to allow for a product line that was very different from our traditional jewellery and collectable businesses. It was all very new to everyone in the UK team, but we worked together to make it happen. The coin category is now one of our largest and shows no signs of slowing down. I was given the opportunity to build this business from the ground up, and it is certainly one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my career.”
Moving from strength to strength, Mike now has responsibility for all marketing and product management in the UK, “focused on corporate strategy, staff development, and process and system improvements. This means lots of meetings and memo-writing to ensure everyone is on the same page and that actions we take are appropriately vetted and documented. I also approve most of our cross-channel marketing campaigns, and chip-in when an event-driven campaign like a football club winning a trophy or a royal celebration means we need to get products and campaigns out on a very tight deadline.”
And the surprises continue, including an ability to stay relevant: “You’ll often hear people remark that ‘collectibles is a mature business’ or ‘print advertising is dead,’ yet MBI continues to defy the odds while growing and adapting to an ever-evolving marketplace. The strength of MBI is its people, and with good people we continue to rise to new and unexpected challenges. I’ve found the most rewarding aspect of the job being able to hire, encourage and develop our young product managers. Nothing beats the realisation that you’re no longer speaking with a trainee but rather a colleague who can offer up new insights and a different perspective on how to approach a new challenge.”