The supply chain's public face: interview with Rick Blasgen
It's hard to imagine a higher-profile job than his former position as ConAgra's supply chain chief, but Rick Blasgen may have found one: as the supply chain's ambassador to the world.
When we last visited with Rick Blasgen, he was busy overhauling food giant ConAgra's supply chains. But since our interview with him in May 2004, his career trajectory has taken an abrupt turn. Late last year, Blasgen accepted the position of president and chief executive officer of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP), the profession's premier educational association. After 23 years as a practitioner, he says, it was high time for him to give back to the profession that has offered him so many opportunities.
Blasgen began his career at Nabisco's regional customer service center in Chicago. Over time, he worked his way up through various inventory, customer service, and transportation and DC management positions to become Nabisco's vice president, supply chain in June 1998. Four years later, he became vice president, supply chain for Kraft Foods when the two companies merged. He joined ConAgra Foods in August 2003 as senior vice president-integrated logistics.
Despite all his management responsibilities, Blasgen has remained active in professional associations over the years. He's been an executive committee member of the Council of Logistics Management (CSCMP's predecessor) and is a past president of the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC). He was also chair of the Grocery Manufacturers Association's Logistics Committee and is a member of Northwestern University's Transportation Center Business Advisory Committee.
Blasgen spoke last month with DC VELOCITY Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald about his change in career track, his vision for CSCMP, and what logistics and supply chain professionals should be careful not to say when they take their message to the boardroom.
Q: When we last spoke in 2004, you were the senior VP of integrated logistics at ConAgra. Since then, you've made a significant career change. What prompted the move?
A: It was somewhat of an evolutionary thing from both my side and the association's side. I have been on the board at CLM, now CSCMP, for years. I have a huge passion for the association and obviously, for the profession. After changing its name from CLM to CSCMP about a year ago, the association wanted to continue with some changes in course. As part of that, it wanted to bring in somebody who really understood the supply chain field and could serve as an ambassador for it, someone who would be out in front as opposed to an association executive. I had been a very vocal proponent of the name change because I felt that we needed to evolve. It just sort of fell into place.
Q: You sound excited about the change.
A: I obviously have a lot of passion for education, or in this case, I guess we'll call it career development, in this field. From the earliest days of my career, I was lucky enough to be associated with companies and logistics professionals who engaged in a lot of advanced thinking about things like systems integration and focus on the customer. Just a lot of the things that you hear about today under different names, like CPFR. We were constantly thinking about and trying to do those things because we were so passionate about serving the customer's needs back then.
Q: How do you answer someone who asks what value you—a logistics practitioner, not a professional association manager—bring to the council as it positions itself for the future?
A: It's certainly a debate with pluses and minuses on both sides. Do you bring in a person who is a professional association manager or someone who is a business executive and a longtime member of that association? I think the board went with the latter because they believed I could bring value as an ambassador for this profession. I want to take everything I learned over the last 23 years on the various facets of logistics and supply chain management and I want to be that ambassador, reaching out to those who are coming into this field and those who are already in this field. I want to spearhead the dissemination of research and education. I want to bring people together. I want to help CSCMP act as a consolidator of information and connections and linkages. I really want to spread my passion for this field.
Q: Why now?
A: Well, aside from the good fit between my career goals and the association's objectives, I think the profession is now at a critical stage in its development. For years, we've wanted to have access to C-level executives. Well, now we have that access. Now we are there. Now what do we do with that heightened visibility?
Q: Sounds kind of like that old Robert Redford movie, "The Candidate," where the entire film focuses on his frantic campaign for a Senate seat. In the closing moments, after he's won, he looks up at his campaign manager and says, "Now what do we do?"
A: Yes, exactly. "What do I do now?" For starters, we have to explain to CEOs in their language what it is that we do. I mean, tossing around terms like "seamless," "fluid," "fully integrated," "satisfying the needs of the customers at the total lowest delivered cost" and so forth just doesn't cut it. You can talk about ERP, DRP, SAP and CPFR all you want, but the CEOs don't know what the hell that means.
Q: They just want assurances that you're going to do one of two things: You're either going to drive revenue or reduce costs.
A: Yes. In fact, in most cases, they want both, and they want the strategy presented in terms they can understand. The challenge is to explain supply chain matters in ways that CFOs and CEOs can understand and wrap their minds around and then talk about it. Ideally, that conversation with "corporate" should also focus on how logistics and supply chain operations can become a revenue generator, not just a cost center.
Q: You want the profession to be viewed as something other than a necessary cost of doing business.
A: That's right. When I worked in the food industry, I would ask customers: If you're going to carry just one product, one of ours or a competitor's, how do you decide which one? In most cases, they want to work with whichever company is easier to do business with. What does that mean? They want someone who is there for an emergency shipment. Someone who will consistently deliver it on time, provide an accurate invoice and make sure the shipment is damage free. Those are all factors that depend on how well you run your supply chain. To me, then, if your supply chain is functioning efficiently and effectively, you're going to win. You're going to grow revenue through it.
Q: Essentially, they want the "perfect order"—one that's accurate and arrives on time, damage free, and at the lowest possible cost, right?
A: Right. And no complexity. People are more often than not looking for simplicity and transparency. The analogy I like to use is when you walk into the room, you flip a switch and the light goes on. You don't call up your power company and thank them. We are the wire between the switch and the light. That is what logistics people are. Customers don't want to know how it got from the switch to the light—they just want you to get it here. My goal now is to take that concept and my passion for this business and [bring] them into the organization here. Our members are now my customers and I've got to deliver for them.
Q: CSCMP is widely viewed not just as the nation's premier supply chain and logistics association, but as one of the better run industry associations in the country. How do you take something that is already one of the best and keep moving forward?
A: You have to evolve it.We want to do everything we do now and do it with a global perspective as well. We have a higher proportion of international members than ever before and their needs are different. The things we take for granted here in this country—things like infrastructure and technology—don't exist in some other countries. How do you educate them in terms of the natural evolution of logistics and supply chain management? A lot of what we are doing is internationally focused with the goal of bringing people together under one global perspective.
Q: Might we see a day when the annual conference is not U.S.-based?
A: You very well might. There is a lot of talk here about that. In the meantime, we've been hosting some international events. We have three conferences coming up this year.We have one in Dubai, we have one in Brussels, and we are going to have one in Shanghai.
Q: Are there associations like CSCMP in Europe and Asia?
A: Yes, there are others—the European Logistics Association and the Japan Institute for Logistics, to name a couple. Many of them are coming to us for guidance and advice because they are comparatively new. They want to know how we can collaborate.
Q: I know there's been talk of CSCMP's launching a trade show. Some folks think the group is leaving a lot of money on the table by not leveraging its position and reputation to create a trade show for logistics and supply chain equipment and service vendors. Is it possible we'll see CSCMP moving to more of a trade show type of organization?
A: No.We will not be a trade show organization.We will be an organization for professionals, an organization whose members are individuals, not companies. But that doesn't mean we won't look for ways to enhance the value of membership in our association. In fact, our desire to do more for our members has led us to offer sponsorships to the conference for the first time in 2006. These would be sponsorships to things like evening receptions and so forth. In no way, shape or form, though, will the sponsors influence the nature of the conference. They are not going to have any input into the educational aspects. We also want to explore expanding our educational venues because we know that people have less time for professional development than they used to. We've got to go to the masses as opposed to the masses' coming to one big conference.
Q: Ironically, people have less time for professional development in an era when the need for it is perhaps greater than ever.
A: That's absolutely right. In fact, one of the things we're doing to enhance the value of membership in our organization is continuing to develop educational venues outside the annual conference. Seminars, Web events, other ways to bring the message to you locally. In other words, we have recognized the demands on your time are greater than ever before. The annual conference is still a big event for us—it's an opportunity for people to get to know one another, shake a hand, have a drink or whatever. But we also recognize you don't have the time to travel everywhere. We've got to bring the message to you.
Q: It's been about a year since the association changed its name. Are the members generally satisfied with the change?
A: Generally, they are, absolutely. There will always be logistics purists and that is a definitely the core for us. We will not leave that. I think most would agree, though, that it was both timely and appropriate to make the change. I think it was a logistics professional who said, "Look we have to look beyond our four walls into this beautiful thing called the supply chain, and we've got to start working internally and then externally to make it more effective."
The name change followed changes that had already taken place within the profession and within the association. We were already doing more outside of the lines of what we traditionally call logistics. The change in name demonstrated that we recognize that in order to fully serve the needs of the logistics profession, we have to expand and offer things to professionals that, while not purely in logistics, are key parts of the supply chain that logistics interacts with every day.
Q: What changes can we expect to see at CSCMP as a result of your arrival?
A: It's important to me that I continue as I did as a practitioner in bringing parties together for greater success. I consider myself a natural consensus builder and collaborator, and there are other organizations that we need to collaborate with. I will be really focused on that. It's an area that we should be doing more in. I think it is natural for us to collaborate. I am going to be working real hard to do some of that for the benefit of all our members.
Q: As you look at feedback from members, what kinds of information are they looking for?
A: They want to know more about collaboration, and that means a number of different things. For instance, you've got technical collaboration, where systems talk to one another, and you've got the kind of collaboration in which you partner with other people in the supply chain to your mutual benefit. There is a lot of discussion on that.
There is also a lot of discussion about talent. To attract college graduates today, you need to map out a clear, well-defined career path for them. They want to hear how they can achieve their aspirations with a career in this field. That's where magazines like DC VELOCITY and associations like CSCMP come in. We are the vehicles for getting them the information they need to advance their careers.
Q: So in your view, CSCMP is not only about advancing the profession, but also about advancing the professionals working in the discipline.
A: That's exactly right. And we will continue to maintain our focus on the individual, not trade association-type stuff.
Q: You occasionally hear talk that there's a void in the market for certification within the field. Is that something CSCMP might offer?
A: We debated it, but the board chose not to for a host of different reasons; administration is one and making sure that you're standing behind real critical content is another.
Q: Any closing thoughts?
A: I would urge professionals in this field to embrace change rather than resist it. You know, sometimes we have to learn to forget the past. I think sometimes we rely too much on the past to guide us in the future. What I'm going to try to do here is keep one eye on the horizon. I think of it as going down a river in a canoe where you only see the next bend. Only after you've rounded that bend do you see the next part of the river. We always need to be thinking about how to see beyond that next bend.
About the Author
Group Editorial Director
Mitch Mac Donald has more than 30 years of experience in both the newspaper and magazine businesses. He has covered the logistics and supply chain fields since 1988. Twice named one of the Top 10 Business Journalists in the U.S., he has served in a multitude of editorial and publishing roles. The leading force behind the launch of Supply Chain Management Review, he was that brand's founding publisher and editorial director from 1997 to 2000. Additionally, he has served as news editor, chief editor, publisher and editorial director of Logistics Management, as well as publisher of Modern Materials Handling. Mitch is also the president and CEO of Agile Business Media, LLC, the parent company of DC VELOCITY and CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly.
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