Wharton EMBA Student Applies New Lenses to Shipbuilding

As CEO of Aker Philadelphia Shipyard, second-year Wharton EMBA student Kristian Rokke has been in the news quite a bit lately. We asked him to fill us in on what’s happening as well as share some of the highlights of his Wharton experiences.

Aker Philadelphia Shipyard has received a lot of media attention lately. Can you tell us why?

Our shipyard has seen tremendous growth in the past few years, with a tripling of our work force since 2011. Just over the past four months, we’ve signed orders for nearly $1 billion, which has attracted a lot of media attention. Internally, we like to say that we’ve gone from surviving to thriving as a way to describe our company’s transformation. We went from nearly closing the doors in 2011 to being in great shape organizationally and financially. It is all very exciting.

It sounds like you’ve been very busy.  Why did you decide to take on Wharton’s executive MBA program?

The timing has worked out well and was in connection to a significant career transition: I moved from an intense hands-on operational role as head of operations to president and CEO. I was looking to make a step-change in how I could serve my various stakeholders in terms of personal leadership, and also broaden my perspective beyond our niche industry of shipbuilding. I knew I would be tremendously busy as CEO, so the time investment in an EMBA program had to be worthwhile. If I was going to do this, I only wanted to go to the best possible program. The caliber of the faculty, quality of the student body, and rigor of the curriculum really stood out at Wharton. And I saw the residential format of its EMBA program as a great way to immerse myself in that learning experience.

What impact has your Wharton experience made so far?

Now that I’m in my second year of the program in Philadelphia, I look back to when I began and it feels like ages ago. So much has changed.  A lot has to do with experiences on the job, including mistakes that I have learned from, but the Wharton education has been a transformational experience for me.  I believe that everyone has an infinite capacity to improve and the program allows you to develop really as much as your ambitions dictate.

What’s been great has been the opportunity to take knowledge from the classroom and apply it directly at work. There are many examples, but just the other week we raised $125 million in a term loan. This process went on for months and it was happening concurrently with a Corporate Finance class I was taking. I have a great team that helps me on these types of things, but the Wharton classroom knowledge allowed me to support and challenge my team in a much more powerful way than I could before.

I’ve also tried to soak up as many best practices from my classmates about other companies as possible that are relevant to our company and industry. It ranges from strategic planning processes to the nitty gritty of evaluations, meeting protocols, and company communications. It’s been inspiring to find better internal processes.

What are some of the highlights from your time at Wharton?

There are many things in the context of academics, but a highlight for me is definitely getting to know so many great people and being exposed to their wide-ranging experiences. Wharton does a great job of putting learning teams together with a diverse background. My first-year learning team, for example, spanned healthcare, financial services, technology, and of course shipbuilding. We bonded over the challenges and experience of the program, which was great. It was also nice for my wife, as she has become very good friends with a team member and also some spouses.

What are the biggest challenges?

Not surprisingly, the biggest challenge of Wharton’s executive MBA program has been time management. Before I began the program, I didn’t fully appreciate that there are 10,080 minutes in a week. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about prioritizing and effectively managing my time. It’s still a challenge, but I’ve gotten a lot better at it and expect to take this skill with me further in my career.

While it has been a huge investment of time, I would make the same decision to come to Wharton’s executive MBA program without hesitation.

To view an interview with Kristian Rokke on CNBC, click here.

Wharton EMBA Student Kristian Rokke, CEO of Aker Philadelphia Shipyard