A job for a generalist: interview with Ken Miesemer
Not every problem calls for a specialist. Some are best solved by someone who knows a little bit about everything.
In an industry teeming with specialists, Ken Miesemer stands apart. Unlike his peers in the consulting world, he's never cultivated an expertise in productivity optimization or supply chain strategy fulfillment. Instead, he's done a little bit of everything during his career—from ERP installations to distribution network design to international logistics. And he makes no apologies for that. In fact, he believes his wide-ranging experience will prove to be a big plus in his new consulting gig at St. Onge and Company.
Before joining St. Onge in January, Miesemer spent 14 years at Hershey Foods, most recently as director of distribution operations. In that post, he oversaw approximately 4 million square feet of DC space in the mainland United States, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Many might consider a position like that to be the capstone of their career. But for Miesemer, DC management was just another waystation along a journey that has included stints in material management, systems implementation, project management, transportation planning, network design and international operations.
A graduate of Millersville University in Millersville, Pa., Miesemer has continued his education through the American Production and Inventory Control Society (APICS) and Penn State's Logistics certificate programs. Today, he is both a speaker and an educator as well as the author of a book, Start Up of a World Class DC. He currently serves on the Warehousing Education and Research Council's board of directors.
Miesemer recently spoke with DC VELOCITY Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald about his unconventional career path, his secret for keeping his team interested in their work, and what to avoid when designing a DC network.
Q: Share with us a little bit about your career progression. Where did you begin and how did you end up where you are?
A: We are definitely talking about a tossed salad of jobs. I have been fortunate to have had experiences in areas like materials management, production planning, and transportation operations/planning. I spent years putting in MRP [materials requirements planning] and ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems, which were followed by supply chain planning and execution software implementations. I moved into distribution and warehousing and led several U.S. network redesigns. Recently, I had an opportunity to work in international logistics, exports, imports and customs. I guess I would say that having been moved around has really helped me to understand supply chain. It has been very positive for my career.
Q: It has certainly given you a broad view.
A: Absolutely. While I didn't get to focus as much on any one particular area as I might have liked, it certainly helps to understand the big picture. This is especially valuable when you drive change and must understand the impact on the organization. I have been very lucky to work in multiple areas and certainly recommend a broad scope to others.
Q: What prompted your decision to leave Hershey Foods?
A: That's a good question. I had a lot of fun there. It was a good run. But most of the tough work was completed, and I was starting to get a little bored. So now I'm back in the fray again. I can't talk about my clients, but I am involved in two very exciting network redesign projects. It is what I love doing.
Q: What do you see as the skills needed to succeed in the logistics profession?
A: I would say that you've got to be curious and want to continuously learn. You must be able to think strategically and not get caught up in the tactical stuff. If you find you're spending too much time on, let's call it the tactical piece, you try to refocus some energies back into where you need to be in three to five years. I think one of the best ways to do that is with your team. Spend some time doing strategy visioning. Talk about the near-term initiatives, but also talk about what the next big project will be. You can put a lot of energy into the business if you get people excited about where they are going.
Q: It's all about the journey, not the destination.
A: Right. I think people often focus only on what they've got on their plate right now, but you really have to look several projects down the road or several years out.
Q: Essentially, you've got to keep yourself and your people out of the trap of "I don't have any time to think today; I'm too busy doing my job."
A: Absolutely. If you focus solely on day-to-day tactics, you'll definitely fall behind and won't be leading your team.
Q: What do you consider the biggest accomplishment of your supply chain career to date?
A: The most exciting project—the one that really stretched me—was Hershey's Eastern Distribution Center III project. That project entailed building a 1.2 million-squarefoot DC—the largest distribution center Hershey had ever built—from the ground up and on a fast-track schedule.
Q: What made it so special for you personally?
A: Well, it was big. Certainly I had done warehousing and distribution work in the past, but nothing on this scale. I had responsibility for most of the projects to get the building up and running. The project also included selecting both a new WMS [warehouse management system] and a new 3PL [third-party logistics service provider]. On top of that, we were redesigning processes, metrics, and financials to be world class. In the past, every Hershey distribution center had been run independently. They had separate systems and nothing was standardized. The vision was to put up a world-class center that we could use as a model as we added more facilities.
Q: Turning to another topic, I know you have some strong views on the dangers of complacency. You argue that logisticians should aspire to something more than just a smooth-running logistics operation whose workings have become "transparent" or invisible to others.
A: You're absolutely right. I believe that as logisticians, we cannot be satisfied with transparency. Several years ago, one of my [initiatives focused on going beyond simply] delivering to customers' expectations. We implemented a program we called "Distribution Alliance" to actually reach out and build relationships with customers, and to create more of a competitive advantage in the marketplace. We didn't want to [be satisfied with just delivering orders on time]. We wanted sales people to be delighted with the service. As we progressed, the sales force commented that the services we were providing [allowed them to spend more of their time on] sales and less on discussing problems with customers. I think that we were wrong in the past to be satisfied with simply delivering goods on time, damage free, etc., etc.
Q: What is the next big thing in supply chain?
A: I'm going to give you two areas. First of all, we see more and more people jumping into low-cost, offshore sourcing. In my opinion, it's putting a strain on our distribution networks. The old network designs aren't optimal anymore. Everyone seems to be going to the same place, where the ports are. There is a huge strain on labor, carrier capacity, highway congestion, and so forth.
Q: It seems that companies are continuing to cluster around what we all know are bottlenecks.
A: Absolutely. That's really the point. We need to look at ways to spread out that volume. I have talked to some companies that are looking closely at bringing goods in through Mexican ports and then sending them into the United States via rail.
We really need to start looking at the big picture, not short-term issues like how to squeeze another nickel out of our manufacturing costs. The hidden costs of global supply chains are often overlooked. In some of the congested port areas, labor is in short supply. You see companies forced to lower their standards when hiring workers. Turnover is very high and productivity is dropping off rapidly.
Q: It sounds similar to the truck driver shortage, but we don't hear much about it in terms of DC operations.
A: You're right and that gets me to the next point. I recently attended a large conference that featured a panel discussion on today's transportation issues—fuel costs, highway congestion, problems at ports, and so on. I got the impression the panelists were throwing their hands up and saying, "Fuel is going up, we need to pay drivers more, and there's not much we can do." But I didn't hear anyone talk about things that we can manage, like the amount of driver and equipment time wasted when we make a driver wait six to eight hours to offload. As an industry, we've got to start focusing on keeping the drivers and equipment moving.
The other thing that just amazes me is how much equipment is moving at partial capacity. The fact is, everyone is looking for more frequent replenishments—you know, smaller orders. We've got to work together to maximize this limited capacity.
Q: Who do you think should champion this cause—associations, elected officials, industry professionals, journalists?
A: It should start with industry leaders.
Q: Could the answer be these distribution alliances you keep referencing?
A: Possibly. It's a concept that I developed some years ago as we were rebuilding a U.S. distribution network. I wanted more out of our group than just another transparent back-end function. My feeling was that we had an opportunity to synchronize with customers. The process was started by making simple customer calls. It turned into a much more focused effort over time.
Q: Are you saying it's as simple as opening channels of communication?
A: In some ways, yes. You have to start somewhere. I generally recommend starting with a couple of strategic accounts. When you start meeting with them and sharing tours, you'll quickly learn whether they have any interest in working together to cut down on waste.
Q: As you know, logistics and supply chain professionals have long clamored for a seat at the boardroom table. Are we there yet?
A: I think a lot more companies understand the strategic importance of supply chain. However, a number of companies still are not there. They don't recognize the competitive nature of supply chain. They're just assuming that once it gets to a certain point of excellence, it will sustain itself. Focusing on cost and basic service alone will not drive competitive advantage.
Q: So they set it up the way they want it and then put it on autopilot. They're not asking themselves where they're going to be 18 months from now or what the next project will be.
A: Unfortunately, business change is so rapid that unless you have the best people driving and responding to change, you will fall behind. I do see companies failing to devote high-level expertise to their supply chain. The companies that recognize the value and have senior supply chain leadership positions will win.
Q: Any closing thoughts?
A: You hear about so many changes in the supply chain—rapid developments in systems, people and the processes that drive this industry. It is a time when we, as supply chain professionals, had better keep current if we are to stay in the business.
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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