Change has come fast for Jeff Knabe since he stepped away from his career as an alternative rock drummer in 2000 and enrolled in business school. During his post-MBA journey at PepsiCo, Campbell Soup and now spice manufacturer McCormick and Co., Knabe has guided major consumer brands through multiple marketplace disruptions.
“The marketplace keeps changing, so it’s always fresh,” says Knabe, a senior marketing manager who oversees the Grill Mates and Lawry’s brands at McCormick. “That’s what’s kept me so engaged in food and beverage, and that’s why I’ve done it for 15 years.”
Knabe’s own pivot from music to marketing started at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “I was very comfortable with the tradeoffs of leaving an unconventional career and going to a more conventional track,” he says. “I’ve been super happy with the choice, and Smith enabled me to get there. I couldn’t have done it without Smith.”
Although markets and careers may change, Knabe has focused on building long-lasting relationships wherever he goes. His former band, Burst of Silence, has stayed close over the years and reunited in September 2017 for a benefit concert. “We played the charity gig and raised over $6,000 to help people with cancer,” he says.
Smith School relationships also have been key. “Every job I have gotten during or after business school has come through a relationship with a Smith School student or alum,” Knabe says. “That network would be very hard to replicate without being a student at Smith.”
Knabe also has kept in touch with his soccer teammates at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he earned a spot on the Virginia Intercollegiate Soccer Association All-Star Team while completing an undergraduate degree in financial management. “We still see each other,” he says, “even though we’re spread out all over the country.”
Soccer has taken Knabe outside the United States, as well. In January 2018 he joined a mission trip to Belize with a group called More Than Fútbol. During the mornings he taught leadership and teamwork classes to youth on San Pedro Island, and in the afternoons he reinforced the same lessons on the soccer field.
“It was a way to build character and confidence in kids who don’t necessarily have those things day to day,” Knabe says.
The connections keep Knabe grounded in the fast-paced world of consumer foods, where McCormick must maintain its own relationships with regional, national and global chains.
“Retailers have gotten more powerful, more sophisticated and more strategic,” says Knabe, who grew up 5 minutes from McCormick headquarters in Hunt Valley, Md. “That means that we, as a provider of products, need to understand them even more and partner with them more effectively.”
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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business
The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty master's, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.