It seems everyone knows Brandon Budnicki. No, really. Ask around Land O’Lakes, Inc. headquarters and most people have heard of him. Brandon started as a Land O’Lakes IT intern before joining our team full-time as an associate with the Talent Acceleration Program (TAP). Since then, he’s helped lead pilots, been a part of award-winning projects and even had a personal chat with our CEO.
Not too shabby for someone at the start of their career. But the road to his current role wasn’t always clear. Instead, it was a path filled with slight missteps, readjustments, chance encounters and a strong social network.
The first connection
Brandon grew up five miles from Land O’Lakes, but the idea of working for an agriculture cooperative wasn’t on his radar. A creative and outgoing student, he spent the summer after his senior year of high school going to art fairs making spin art paintings. If you’re curious, it’s a technique where you drip paint onto a spinning canvas. So, when the time came to think go off to college, Brandon picked the obvious major—computer science (CS).
Well, not so obvious, and things didn’t go quite as planned. He’d had prior experience and an interest in programming, but for him technology was not appealing for technology’s sake.
“After two weeks, I knew it wasn’t the major for me,” he says. “If I stayed with a strict CS degree, it really seemed like I’d end up at a large tech firm as a developer. I knew I enjoyed working with people and collaborating on new ideas. I was looking for more interaction.”
He made the decision to apply to the Carlson School of Business to pursue a marketing major. Although he got accepted right away, there was a catch. “Carlson only lets students start on the full year,” Brandon says. “So, I had wait until the next year to start at Carlson. That meant a year of CS classes.”
The experience would come in handy. By the time his junior year rolled around, Brandon had been working away in business school and on a variety of tech projects. There was a mobile app aimed at replacing business cards, work on new QR technologies and he was working on a class project with Cort Lunke, a software engineer who was an intern for Land O’Lakes at the time.
“I went to an info session for Land O’Lakes to see what Cort was up to,” Brandon says. “They had already filled all the intern positions, but Cort ended up talking me up to Bryan Shelstad, an IT manager for Land O’Lakes. He began asking me about the startups I’d been working for.”
The connection paid off. When an internship opened up at the last minute, Bryan gave him a call. He interviewed and accepted an offer two days later.
Brandon started in the spring of 2013 as an intern in the IT project management office. At first it was building the project intake forms, redoing a lot of project templates, but he soon started taking on smaller projects. Things went well, and at the end of his internship, his managers came to him with a new opportunity.
“They asked if I’d be interested in being an IT TAP associate,” he says. “TAP is a two-year rotational program focused on developing future leaders.”
The answer was yes.
A chance Clinton encounter
By the time 2014 rolled around, Brandon knew he would be heading to Land O’Lakes full-time in the spring, but he was still looking for networking opportunities. He decided to head south—to SXSW in Austin, Texas, to be more specific.
“I got a student pass to the interactive portion,” Brandon says. “Going to the talks and demonstrations, I learned more that week than my entire senior year in college. And what ended up resonating with me the most was the keynote with Chelsea Clinton.”
Chelsea discussed the Clinton Global Initiative’s work in Africa as an example of how the philanthropic and technology communities could come together. Brandon says she told an amazing story about a mobile app the initiative had funded that tracks the birth cycle of cows.
“In one year, they saw a 200 percent increase in calves born,” Brandon says. “That really resonated with me. Technology should be about scaling up to help as many people as possible. And I had been thinking of my own idea—how to create an educational resource to help small businesses that couldn’t afford their own IT department.”
At the end of her speech, he slowly made his way through the packed crowd.
“She was taking selfies with people and security was starting to take her away,” Brandon says. “I pushed my way through the crowd and managed to get her attention. I called out and told her I was working on a similar idea. She stopped her security, came over and gave me her business card.”
Just a few months after SXSW, Brandon started his first 6-month TAP rotation. One of his first projects was helping the Communications team launch a new employee intranet. Something on the site caught his attention—a link for the President’s inbox. He decided to send a message.
“I sent our CEO a message, asking if he’d like to chat. I got a reply a day later. ‘Chris would love to meet with you.’”
A few weeks later, Brandon sat down with Chris Policinski, CEO and president of Land O’Lakes. Brandon didn’t have a clear game plan, so when Chris started to talk about the company’s international work, Brandon had to tell him about his Chelsea Clinton encounter—and his own ideas for where technology could help us go.
“What was supposed to be a short meeting turned into an hour-long conversation. We just kept talking!” he says. “Eventually, we had to part ways but he told me, ‘If you want to keep this up, I’d love to meet on a regular basis.’”
Today, Brandon’s on his fourth and final TAP rotation, working as a business analyst, visiting Land O’Lakes plants and facilities across the country. His creative streak is still there, so is his pension for networking and exploring new ideas. But his experiences here have given him a new perspective.
“I think my experience at Land O’Lakes has helped ground me,” he says. “The more I work here, the more I get behind the concept of trying to help feed the world. Working with the people in our facilities and going out to farms has given me a greater appreciation for what they do—this is back-breaking work. It's great being in school and theorizing or reading about the world’s problems. It’s a different matter to see the people who are trying to address it firsthand. And for me, working in IT means leveraging technology to help these people solve problems.”