November 1, 2006
thought leaders | The DC Velocity Q & A

Where the rubber hits the road: interview with Bob Brescia

where the rubber hits the road: interview with Bob Brescia

Whether it's a dusty battlefield in Kuwait, a gleaming North American DC or Michelin Tires' corporate offices, Bob Brescia says that when the rubber hits the road, logistics operations are pretty much the same.

By Mitch Mac Donald

Bob Brescia's first exposure to logistics and supply operations dates back to 1971, when he was working as a mechanic for the U.S. Army. And ironically, he wasn't always impressed with what he saw there. As Brescia diplomatically puts it, "I learned how supply operations either helped me or hindered me in my maintenance operations."

Brescia has parlayed those early lessons into a career as a supply specialist—first for the military and later in the private sector. During his 27 years of service in the U.S. Army, he held a variety of supply leadership positions, including command of the maintenance and supply organization within the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment when it was deployed inHs achievements netted him two citations of the Legion of Merit, four awards of the Meritorious Service Medal, the Southwest Asia Service Medal and the Kuwaiti Liberation Medal. Brescia put his logistics and supply chain expertise to use in the private sector. His first civilian post was an executive position with third-party service specialist Exel Logistics, where he spent two years developing global supply chain and logistics solutions for automotive customers like GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler. In 2001, he moved from the third-party side of the business to work for a manufacturer, Michelin. Today, Brescia is chief logistics officer for the $7.2 billion North American subsidiary of Group Michelin, the world's largest manufacturer and distributor of tires, inner tubes and wheels (and of course, the travel guides).

A graduate of the Army War College and the Command & General Staff College, Brescia holds a bachelor's degree in civil government from Norwich University in Vermont, where he graduated first in his class. He has also earned two master's degrees: a master of arts in international relations and a master of science in computer information systems, with high honors, both from Boston University. In 1984, under the auspices of the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation Scholarship program, he attended the University of Paris and the University of Strasbourg, France. During his two years in Europe as an Olmsted Scholar, Brescia, who is fluent in French, delivered speeches on behalf of the Departments of State and Defense, most notably in conjunction with the 40th commemoration of the WWII Normandy beachings.

Brescia is still making speeches, though today it's generally on the industry conference circuit. He also serves on the boards of several supply chain and logistics organizations. In 2004, he was honored by the Logistics and Supply Chain Forum as one of the top five logisticians within North America.

He met recently with DC VELOCITY Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald to talk about what Corporate America could learn from the military, why we need superhighways for trucks, and what a real leader does when he or she finds trash on the DC floor.

Bob Brescia

Q: You've become very visible in the industry through your involvement in professional associations and efforts to, for lack of a better term, advance the cause of logistics and supply chain management. I get the sense doing that is very important to you. I trust you find it rewarding?

A: I really do. Primarily I am very active in this field because I am a firm believer in increasing the knowledge base among all logistics and supply chain practitioners. At the practitioner level, I am interested in advancing the cause of logistics, the effects, and improving the profession of logistics in the world today.

Q: Your initial immersion in the logistics field came from your experience in the military. Tell us about that.

A: I went into the Army as a private in 1971, reluctantly. My first duty assignment, which was in Germany, was as a mechanic, of all things. I learned about maintenance operations. Then I learned how supply operations either helped me or hindered me in my maintenance operations. I became much more interested in supply logistics and eventually the entire supply chain. So through a series of progressively more challenging positions, I became more of a logistics and supply chain aficionado.

Q: Wonderful. That represented nearly three decades of service to our country, and I, as an American citizen, thank you for that.

A: You're welcome.

Q: You then moved into a position with third-party service provider Exel Logistics. Was that your first experience in the private sector?

A: Yes, it certainly was. I had the opportunity to learn the automotive business, backwards and forwards, as I say. I quickly learned that there were some similarities to what I had learned and practiced in the public sector with the Department of Defense and some dissimilar things. I dis covered that the automotive supply chain can be at times quite obtuse. It really takes some deep level of understand ing to appreciate why some supply chains need to be as complex as they are. I understood that and worked under the constraints, but also tried to bring some breakthroughs to the table so that these supply chains could be simplified. I am a great believer in simplifying as much as possible the seemingly complex situations that confront us. For exam ple, when faced with a supply chain challenge, one of the first things I do is a visual supply chain mapping exercise.

Q: Meaning?

A: If it is a worldwide supply chain flow, let's say supporting manufacturing in various places in the world for a worldwide customer base, I tend to go to the whiteboard and draw out the particular flows that are involved by product or by line of products until I get to the understanding that is necessary to proceed. After that time, of course, we use all kinds of automated tools to help us to do analysis, but I first ensure that there is a common and clear understanding among all of the people who are charged with solving that particular problem.

Q: I approach things in much the same way. I won't pretend that publishing is anywhere near as complex as setting up a well-integrated supply chain, but it is always the details and the devils therein that hang us up, right?

A: Without question. Over the years, I have read many initiatives, including e-business initiatives like supply chain optimization plans, mission-critical logistics applications, transportation systems, warehouse management systems, all of those things. I have found that the best way to approach those types of challenges is to seek and obtain a clear understanding of why we are using such systems and to what ends before we begin to pick apart the means.

Q: In other words, let's figure out our needs and objectives and build a system around them rather than amending our needs and objectives to fit the system we currently have in place.

A: Exactly. My first stop is with the customer, and since I'm usually in a support mode, that generally means my internal customer. That internal customer has external customers that he is responsible to support, so I will find out what key operating indicators are important to enable his business and provide subsequent superior supply support to the external customer.That's really what drives the train, if you will.We certainly are interested in efficiency and effectiveness, but we don't want our efforts to be mitigated or watered down in any way with respect to how they correlate or their linkage to both the internal and external customer base.

Q: Absolutely. Do you ever go so far as to interface directly with the Michelin customer?

A: I do.

Q: Do you find that helpful?

A: I have had several occasions where I have done just that. When we do that, it is in conjunction with whoever is responsible for the account so that we speak with one voice as a company. One of the novel initiatives or projects that we have ongoing is what we refer to as a cost-to-serve initiative. That is where we assemble the stakeholders around parts of our business—such as sales and marketing, distribution, supply chain, logistics, and customer service— and we decide what is the best way to serve a particular customer or set of customers, such as clubs or wholesalers or dealers. We work regularly in a cross-functional way to ensure that we get the optimal solution for that customer.

Q: I'd like to circle back just a bit and close the loop in terms of your career path. At what point did you make the move to Michelin?

A: In 2001, I was recruited to the world's leading tire manufacturer as a logistics expert to craft and to execute supply chain redesign and the outsourcing of Michelin's physical finished product distribution network.

Q: Within the United States or worldwide?

A: In North America.

Q: You've gone from logistics operations within a military environment to a third-party service provider (3PL) environment and then on to a manufacturing environment. Tell us a little about the similarities and differences.

A: Let's start by talking about some of the basic logistics principles of excellence that remain the same in the private sector and the public sector. I would say the first one is inventory maintenance and health. In the military, for example, inventory health is the number one priority. That didn't change as I moved into the private sector. If anything, it became more important. I believe it drives all other successes or failures. Such things as cyclical location surveys and inventories have to be accomplished to standard or cutbacks will occur.

Another important common denominator, specifically within, say, a DC, is cleanliness and neatness. It is the first thing that I notice on a visit. It tells me a lot about the facility's leadership. Believe me, in the military, we are all about leadership. If the leadership doesn't enforce a clean and neat environment, how can that same leader expect the associates to? So DC leaders and supervisors all have to join in the maintenance of very high cleanliness standards by example. They pick up stuff from the floor that does not belong there. It is a safety concern as well. In summary, no leader walks by a mistake. No leader ever walks by a mistake.

Q: Great concept.

A: Workforce stability, that is key, and that is the same everywhere. Workforce stability is the key to a good operation. If a DC has a lot of turnover, it will operate almost always in a constant training mode. It will affect the DC's productivity and the health of its inventory. Some of the systems that we are using require the warehousers to not only learn how to operate them, but also to teach others and stay around long enough to become what we call power users. If a DC has a workforce turnover problem, it really needs to deal with it expediently.

Q: Is this a fundamental difference between logistics operations in a military environment and the private sector? I'm assuming that in the military, you enjoy the advantage of a built-in base of people assigned to that operation that makes things a bit more stable.

A: It's a valid assumption, but there's more to it because over the past 10 to 15 years, the Department of Defense has outsourced many of the distribution center operations. Those private companies are the same ones generally that service large corporations in the private sector so they have the same problems and they have the same challenges.

In the military, one of the biggest challenges that I had to overcome was when I was a member of a cavalry regiment. I was commanding the maintenance and supply organization within the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Now, providing logistics to a cavalry regiment that was a fast-moving, lethal combat force capable of moving almost 100 kilometers of displacement on a daily basis is like trying to hit a moving target. The goal was simple: keeping the fighting forces well supplied so they could shoot, move and communicate. That was the biggest challenge I faced, but one, nonetheless, that we were able to overcome. We succeeded by planning for the future moves, not the present location. That is kind of the same methodology that needs to be applied in the private sector. It's like a well-known Wayne Gretzky quote: "It's not about where the puck is now. It's about where the puck is going to be next."

Q: Tell us a little about the operation you currently oversee at Michelin.

A: A I have a logistics department that is responsible for physical product distribution, warehousing, storage and transportation for Michelin North America. That includes Mexico, Canada and the United States.

Q: I suppose, then, that a large part of your role is manA agement and oversight of any 3PL service providers Michelin contracts with?

A: Yes. It is relationship and contract governance. We face the same challenges as most shippers with respect to the evolution of transportation both internationally and domestically. With the rise of fuel prices it obviously takes more dollars to operate than it did previously.

Q: Let's shift to some of the macro issues in the logistics profession. Let's start with technology. Obviously, a number of enabling technologies have emerged in the past decade that have allowed some pretty substantial gains in efficiency, velocity of product flow, those sorts of things. What, if anything, do you see as the next big thing in terms of supporting technology for logistics?

A: Well, you know, the DC finds itself as somewhat of a variable within the constant optimization efforts between network speed and network storage. So the main concepts there again are speed vs. storage. How much should we store based on how fast we can move it through the network? When transportation begins to cost more, should we favor storage over speed? Einstein's theory of relativity dealt with the relationship of space and time. Well, the logistician, too, has a theory of relativity and it deals with speed and storage and the constant struggle and optimization between them.

As far as the next big thing, most people who know me understand that I am a proponent of the development of radio-frequency identification technology. I have been quite active in that since Desert Storm. I have dealt with a lot of people and companies and I have spoken on the circuit on behalf of Michelin's efforts, but I think maybe the next big thing will be the maturation of mobile distribution schemes and storage in transit. I have read some articles about dark castles. Those are DCs with few or no humans, basically an automated shipping and distribution complex staffed only by robotic gantries and forklifts. They're named "dark castles" because of the dim lighting used in such facilities—after all, no humans means no need for lights.While this may be some time in the future, we are seeing a trend toward more automation, more mechanization and systems that run on principles of exception-based handling of materials. My personal view on this topic is anthropomorphic in the sense that we can rightfully regard DCs as living organisms that learn and get smarter. After the initial binge in the late 1990s, companies learned and relearned that they need a vibrant, responsive DC network to handle those electronic orders coming over the transom.

Q: Precisely.

A: Probably one of the best examples of that would be Amazon is an extremely smart company; that is, it's a knowledge-based company that learns fast. It learned that in order to maintain the rhythm and rate of its own success, it needed to develop a very viable DC network, which it has done. Personally, I believe it to be a great company. So I think the next big thing would be to get away from the extremely fixed facilities that are hallmarks of the industrial age and find ways to be more agile and responsive to business needs, so that when, say, General Motors, Ford or DaimlerChrysler sets up an automotive park, all of the suppliers can be more mobile in support of the automotive business park. Logisticians and supply chain people need to be more agile and have more agility in support of these fast-moving business imperatives. I think that is the huge challenge for the future. I have come across some mobile warehousing alternatives, but I don't believe we are anywhere near viable yet in that area. I would like to see more academic research and more partnership between universities and companies to try and develop some of that stuff.

Q: What is your definition of the mobile warehouse or DC?

A: A mobile distribution scheme would be where you could construct a warehouse that would be durable enough and safe enough to house product, but not for an extremely long period of time. That is, if you had a program that you were supporting for two or three years, you could go to a green field and put up a mobile warehouse or distribution center. Then if you needed to displace it, you could do so after the period of support was finished or if it needed to go somewhere else.

Q: Understood.

A: This idea is an extension, or spin-off, of Desert Storm practices, where, for example, General [Gus] Pagonis was charged with providing support to the combat forces as they were on the move. To do that, his team established a concept of mobile support bases. What was a mobile support base one day at a particular set of grid coordinates was gone the next day. Now, I realize that in many cases, the comparison is lacking and that more work needs to be done to be able to accommodate the various requirements that we have for storage and distribution here in North America, but I do believe, nevertheless, that the concept could be applicable in the private sector.

Q: So you're suggesting the concept of mobility carries over nicely from the Desert Storm experience to the private sector—the difference being that in the private sector, you're talking about mobility on a two- or three-year cycle as opposed to a one- or two-day cycle?

A: Correct. You know, there are a lot of warehouses that you see that are empty most of the time. We see the developers' signs in front of them. As you drive around, you see quite a lot of them. So there is a lot of infrastructure.

The other next big thing, I think, would be a paradigm shift in transportation that would lead us to a new wave of infrastructure on the highways in the United States and pretty much throughout North America. I would like to see superhighways for trucks.

Q: Now we're getting into the notion of a national freight transportation policy.

A: We would get the most payback from an infrastructure paradigm shift for transportation. I don't think we can continue too much longer under the same small incremental improvements in the road structure that we have in this nation. I think we need a new way of thinking about that. There is no substitute for truck transport. For all the efforts to shift freight to intermodal where possible, intermodal will never replace over-the-road transport.

Q: I couldn't agree more. Rail and intermodal transport make sense on a lot of fronts, but not when it comes to time-critical transport. I'd like to shift gears a bit, if I may. Let's say a recent college grad or perhaps someone who's just been in the work force a year or two were to ask you for advice about a career in logistics. What would you identify as the single most important skill set needed to succeed in this profession?

A: That is a very good question. I have had occasion to meet such people who are considering careers, younger people coming up through the ranks. In today's world, universities are offering very specialized tailored programs to future logisticians. These degree programs normally wind up under the engineering departments and they carry various names—like supply chain and logistics. I would say the single most important competency is no different from that of the, well, let's call it a mainstream business person, and that is leadership and management. I have found that what has served me well was number one, to show up. Who was it who said that half of life is just showing up and the other 90 percent is sheer determination: blood, sweat, and tears and hard work? I do believe that leadership and management will take a person to where he or she would like to go in whatever discipline he or she chooses. I just think that you have to have a good head on your shoulders. You need to be a plain speaker. You need to be the type of person who can distill complex situations down to terms that everyone can understand and work with, and you have to have dogged determination to succeed. Don't be afraid of hard work.

Q: What is Bob Brescia's definition of "supply chain management"?

A: I think supply chain management is taking care of the business because supply chain management doesn't really support the business; it is the business. When people start using that perspective as opposed to a limited perimeter or circle of influence, then the results that they have transcend much more effectively into the business. If you have noticed, I think there is a trend that is continuing of supply chain practitioners who are reaching permanent high-level positions in their businesses in various capacities that traditionally they did not. That's happening because in order to practice supply chain, you need to know manufacturing. You need to know sales and marketing. You need to know the customers, customer service. You need to know logistics. You've got to know all these facets of the business. Over time, you learn all that. Therefore, it is normal that such people are being selected to run businesses in various capacities.

Q: I wholeheartedly support that view. I often challenge people to point to some aspect of their business that is not touched by the supply chain in one way or another.

A: I do as well. However, no one person owns the supply chain. For example, when you have a VP of supply chain, there is a tendency for people who aren't intimately familiar with what that person does to say that that person owns the supply chain. Well, of course that is untrue. That person just knows a lot about the various stakeholders and ownership involved from cradle to grave in that particular supply chain.

Q: More of a facilitator than an owner, per se.

A: Exactly. A master facilitator.

Q: Any closing thoughts?

A: Generally speaking, I would say that we are moving into an era that can be categorized as loosely coupled architectures or loosely coupled arrangements among companies. What used to be your own company perimeter is fading. The line between your company and others that are involved in your operations is blurred. Therefore, these loosely coupled architectures become, in effect, organizations unto themselves.

About the Author

Mitch Mac Donald
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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