November 19, 2019
thought leaders | The DC Velocity Q & A

An appetite for challenges: interview with Craig Weiss

An appetite for challenges: interview with Craig Weiss

Craig Weiss of Conagra Brands was drawn to logistics by the promise of lots of problems to solve. It's safe to say he hasn't been disappointed.

By Mitch Mac Donald

Craig WeissAs a college student, Craig Weiss was attracted to logistics because of the problem-solving opportunities it offered. By that measure, the profession has clearly delivered on its promise. In the 20 years since Weiss entered the field, the logistics world has been rocked by a technology revolution, regulatory upheaval, and an epic trucking capacity crunch, to name just a few of the challenges.

Weiss has had a front-row view of the turmoil. For the past 16 years, he has held supply chain leadership positions with the Chicago-based packaged-foods giant Conagra Brands, whose portfolio includes such household names as Hunt's, Healthy Choice, Duncan Hines, Birds Eye, and Bertolli. Today, he is the company's senior vice president, supply chain, responsible for the full gamut of supply chain planning functions as well as transportation and warehousing.

Prior to joining Conagra Brands, Weiss held managerial roles at third-party logistics service providers ODW Logistics and Total Logistic Control (now part of Ryder), and served as a consultant at Ernst & Young. He spoke recently with DC Velocity Group Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald about the shifting tech landscape, the supply chain of the future, and what keeps him up at night.

Q: Let's start with your career migration. How did you end up in the supply chain profession?

A: Actually, I got a degree in logistics in college. A professor of mine [at Central Michigan University], Dr. Robert Cook, convinced me that logistics was a great field to go into, and that if you like a fast-paced environment with opportunities to resolve operational challenges and work with people, logistics would be a great career choice. That is ultimately what helped guide me into a career in logistics.

Q: Could you tell us a little about the operations you oversee?

A: My current role at Conagra is leading the back end of our supply chain, meaning I oversee our supply chain planning functions, which includes demand planning as well as supply and inventory replenishment planning. I also lead Conagra's logistics team, which is transportation and warehousing, and our customer supply chain team, which is our strategic interface with our customers. I'm involved in several other initiatives as well, including our corporate enterprisewide productivity program and our DC network optimization program.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you face in today's market? That is, what keeps you up at night?

A: There are a couple of things that keep me up at night. Number one is the speed at which the supply chain and our customer's expectations are evolving and the challenges of staying relevant and competing in that fast-changing world.

Another, more tactical, challenge is how to enhance the efficiency of our freight-handling operations. The trucking capacity challenges of the past few years have really forced us to look at our distribution centers and examine our traditional notions about how long it should take to turn a truck around. We're now looking at ways to speed up the loading/unloading process and move trucks through our yards faster—including the possible use of some sort of advance reservation system.

We've set some pretty aggressive goals for improving the speed at which trucks can get in and out of our facilities.

Q: Turning to your distribution and fulfillment centers, are they internally staffed, outsourced to a third-party service provider (3PL), or a combination of the two?

A: It's a combination. We operate a number of our own distribution centers, and we also partner with some of the industry's leading 3PLs.

Q: One of the questions that often come up with 3PLs is how to maintain oversight of their operations and ensure that you're working toward the same objectives. How do you handle that?

A: I think it starts with having good strategic alignment of the two organizations, in finding ways to ensure that what's good for Conagra is also good for our third parties and vice versa. We want to be seen as a strategic customer with our third parties, so we go out of our way to ensure that they understand not only what we're doing in distribution but also what we're doing as a company.

We regularly bring our third parties in to discuss our growth plans, our customers' expectations, and our cost pressures. We include them as part of our staff meetings and truly operate as though they were an extension of our organization.

Q: Turning to your own DCs, are you having difficulty finding the labor and talent you need, and if so, how are you addressing that?

A: It can be challenging to find good, qualified people, especially for the more technical roles in some of our rural locations. We are constantly in search of the next great way to attract, retain, and develop talented people.

We have found that our teams are most effective when we create the right work environment for them and provide the right tools to succeed. This includes giving teams the freedom to own their work and results by promoting independent decision-making and eliminating bureaucracy, as well as ensuring that they are both accountable for their results and recognized for their contributions.

We also put a lot of emphasis on modernizing our processes, including investing in the right technology to help bring it all together.

Q: You provided a nice segue into another topic I wanted to touch on with you, which is technology. What are some of the technologies you're using to manage your DC and fulfillment operations?

A: I think we have a great track record at Conagra of leveraging technology to stay competitive in today's world. We use a suite of best-of-breed technology solutions to manage our supply chain operations. And we are constantly looking for new opportunities we can take advantage of, whether it is cloud computing, artificial intelligence, or predictive analytics solutions.

Q: Are there some technologies on the horizon that you think hold a lot of promise for your operations?

A: Yes, one example would be technologies like sensors that have the potential to provide true end-to-end visibility across the supply chain—visibility that in the past was sometimes hard to get.

Another area is automation—distribution center automation not just for e-commerce operations but also for facilities that are still shipping a combination of traditional truckloads, full pallet loads, and e-commerce orders. We are looking to take advantage of that both internally and with our third parties.

Q: Let's talk about the future. If you were to come to work tomorrow and it was Q4 2029 rather than 2019, what would look different to you?

A: The future of how food will be purchased and delivered will be very different, and as a result, I think that the forward-thinking nature of our operations will be very different. We will be focused on more predictive analytics of events that will occur months in the future—largely because we'll have access to cross-functional operations data that will enable us to foresee potential constraints and obstacles, and then respond to them.

The folks doing that will work across a broader swath of the supply chain. As the lines between transportation planning, inventory planning, and warehouse planning begin to blur, I think we will have fewer people in functional roles and more in cross-functional roles who will have a better understanding of the implications of their decisions.

Q: What should supply chain organizations be doing now to prepare for the future you just described?

A: Get the right people, with the right skills, and with the right structure, and then make the right investments in processes and technology to meet the goals of the company and its customers. Structurally, work to merge supply chain disciplines with analytic disciplines. Recruit people who not only have good operations skills and want to work with the products but also bring that analytical skill set. When you bring the operational and the analytic together, I think that is where you have your future supply chain.

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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