Ask an executive to describe day-to-day operations at the DCs he runs for an $11 billion a year retailer, and you might expect to hear about cutting-edge technologies and revolutionary best practices. But when Paul Marshall talks about the DCs he oversees for Limited Brands, he steers the conversation to what could only be called the basics: keeping inventory as lean as possible, for example, and the challenge of accurately tracking goods throughout the distribution system. Today's dazzling new technologies provide managers with powerful tools to do their jobs faster and better, he acknowledges, but in the end, the fundamental values remain the same.
As vice president of distribution operations for Limited Brands Logistics Services, Marshall today ranks among the highest-profile executives in the business. But he got his start in the logistics profession on the other side of the fence.While in college, he worked part-time in a United Parcel Service (UPS) distribution center. After graduating, he was able to parlay that experience into a position with Limited Brands as a floor supervisor at one of its Columbus, Ohio, distribution centers. From there, he worked his way through a variety of corporate transportation, logistics, and distribution postings to his present position.
Marshall currently serves as the president of the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC) and is an active member of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP).He spoke last month with DC VELOCITY Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald about his career, the value of professional associations, and what the future holds for supply chain management.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your current role and responsibilities.
A: I'm vice president of distribution operations for Limited Brands, Logistics Services, responsible for the Victoria's Secret, Limited, and Express stores. I am primarily responsible for distribution operations as well as the interface with many of the cross-functional departments within logistics and these brands, working with them to evaluate and execute the flow of product through the supply chain.
Q: Obviously a very big company. What are Limited Brands' annual sales?
A: About $11 billion.
Q: Given the size and scope of the operations you manage, your distribution system must be fairly far reaching in terms of geography. Could you give us the nickel tour of the logistics network and operations for Limited Brands?
A: We source from a number of countries around the globe. We are a large user of air freight, shipping thousands of tons annually from around the world, including direct flights to Columbus, Ohio. We're one of the larger ocean shippers as well, importing thousands of containers annually. In addition, we ship thousands of truckloads each year into our distribution centers from domestic suppliers and outbound to our stores.
We have seven distribution centers in Columbus, Ohio, and two third-party DCs, one on each coast. Our distribution centers are relatively sophisticated, with high-speed conveyors, paperless light-directed and RF picking systems, and shipping systems that can automatically sort about 90 percent of our product.We operate our distribution centers five to seven days a week.
Q: Columbus has really emerged as something of a logistics hub, hasn't it?
A: Yes, Columbus has turned out to be a great distribution hub. It is located at the crossroads of the highway system, which allows us to reach a large percentage of the U.S. population within one day's drive. We reach about 50 percent of our stores within a day.
Q: How many stores are we talking about just in the United States?
A: As of right now, about 3,700.
Q: Do you have stores outside the United States?
A: No, we do not.
Q: Let's shift gears and talk about your career path, if we may. How long have you been with Limited in various capacities?
A: I joined the Limited in 1989, so just over 17 years.
Q: Have you always been based in Columbus?
A: Yes. Limited Brands is headquartered in Columbus, and the majority of our distribution operations reside here as well. So, I have been fortunate to have a variety of different roles since joining the company without having to relocate.
Q: What was your first position with the company?
A: I began my career as an operations supervisor in one of the distribution centers.
Q: So you really have had a chance to experience the operation from the working end of the shovel, if you will.
A: Absolutely. It provided me with an opportunity to learn and to develop leadership and fundamental operations skills in a fast-paced environment. I enjoy the people, the pace, and the challenges that come with operations in the retail industry.
Q: How did your career progress from there? What sort of path did you follow through the Limited?
A: I spent my first eight years in various distribution operations positions and was fortunate enough to be promoted to director of one of our distribution facilities. Next, I was given the opportunity to lead our national shipping operations, which among other things, was my first experience managing third-party logistics service providers. I was director of domestic transportation for a couple of years and then served in a similar role leading our international transportation operation before moving into my current role.
Q: Prior to joining Limited, you worked for a time on the service provider side of the fence at United Parcel Service. Tell us a little bit about that, if you would.
A: It was a great start to a career in the logistics profession. That's really where I first learned that I enjoyed logistics and being a leader, and began thinking that this might be a career path for me. It was a job that I took in college working my way through school. I was a supervisor at UPS for a couple of years. It was very rewarding and a great learning experience for me.
Q: You have a bachelor's degree in business administration. Did you take any courses in transportation, distribution, or logistics while earning that degree?
A: It was really my work at UPS that gave me exposure to the profession. But while in school, I was able to do some independent study based on my work experience, which enabled me to better think through the leadership side of things. It wasn't a traditional logistics supply chain degree as we know it.
Q: Let's step back a bit and talk about the logistics and supply chain profession. What characteristics does it take to succeed in this field today?
A: I think a key ingredient in a logistics professional's skill set is the ability to attract and develop talent. It's very important to surround yourself with talented people. It's equally important to have a supportive leadership style that provides your team with an opportunity for continuous learning and innovation while coaching and remaining grounded in the fundamentals. Having a talented team that enjoys the freedom to be innovative, yet can execute the basics is a winning combination.
Another important requirement today is a fundamental understanding of the supply chain and the role of logistics from source to customer. I have had the opportunity to lead many different logistics functions. My experience has enabled me to better develop, evaluate, and articulate a big-picture view of supply chain capabilities, services, and associated costs.
Q: Is that the route you would recommend to a young person just starting out in this field?
A: Absolutely. Growing your career laterally enables one to get a broad view of the business and, in my opinion, increases the probability of success in the long run. If you have a solid understanding of the entire supply chain or of the role of logistics within the supply chain, you will be a much more effective leader. I would also encourage someone interested in this field to take advantage of the educational opportunities that are out there. A number of schools offer good operations, logistics, and supply chain programs. There are also several professional and trade associations that can be a great resource.
Q: I know you're the president of the Warehousing Education and Research Council and a member of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, so you're clearly active in some of the industry's leading professional associations. I take it you'd recommend that to newcomers to the field as well?
A: Yes, I would. Continuous learning is important for career growth. The industry can change quickly and your ability to stay close to new technology, processes, and ideas not only benefits your company but also allows for your continued professional growth. One of the best ways of doing that is through these associations. They are a rich source of education and professional development, whether it's through seminars, conferences, or online learning.
Q: You just touched on how quickly and constantly things are changing within logistics. In your 20-plus years in the field, what has changed the most?
A: The first thing that comes to mind would be the recognition of the role that the supply chain and logistics play in today's business environment. It is not simply seen as the cost of doing business. It is widely viewed as a very real competitive advantage.
Q: In other words, logistics is no longer just a source of red ink. It's something that can be leveraged in an almost infinite variety of ways for business success?
A: When production decisions can be postponed until there's more certainty about what the customer wants because your logistics team can deliver product and information with speed and accuracy, it's a genuine competitive advantage. If inventory can be lean and costs can be driven out of the business because of the value that logistics can offer, that is a tremendous advantage. Today, in many cases, we are asked to take on additional expense in distribution operations because there is greater value derived elsewhere in the business. This may not have always been the case. Technology is an obvious catalyst of this change. Speed and accuracy of information continues to improve. The ability to share information across business functions— not only within your business, but also with your trading partners— continues to drive out costs and improve inventory deployment strategies. At the same time, warehouse management systems have improved labor planning, and paperless picking tools used by DC associates continue to make the operation more efficient.
Q: Are there any other changes over the past 20 years that come to mind?
A: The level of talent entering the field today from the different universities offering logistics-related degrees and the opportunities for continuous learning continue to help drive logistics performance.
Q: Do you think that's a reflection of logistics and supply chain management's growing stature?
A: I do. Senior leadership realizes the need for a sound logistics operation and places more demand on recruiting and developing talent to sustain and improve service. We recognize the value of growing logistics talent and building bench strength for long-term success.
Q: On the flip side, is there anything that hasn't really changed over the years despite the explosion in technology and the profession's rise in stature?
A: The importance of concentrating on the fundamentals remains unchanged. Basic activities like work methods, accurately picking orders, and good inventory management are essential. Technology has provided us with new tools that enable us to disseminate information more quickly, but the fundamental skills and the need to execute the basics remain the same.
To use a sports analogy, you can have the most talented football team in the world, but if you don't do the basic blocking and tackling, you're not going to win. Winning teams are those with talented players that execute the fundamentals.
Q: Speaking specifically to technology, what do you see as the next big thing? What's going to change the game in the next decade?
A: There are two big things that come to mind. One is the technology piece, and another is collaboration. Businesses will continue to seek technology that will provide more precise information about inventory availability and demand. Knowing the exact amount of inventory on hand, what is required in stores, and what's in transit will continue to enable businesses to run lean on inventory and also increase the value of a responsive, agile supply chain operation.
Q: What about the collaboration piece you mentioned?
A: Collaboration within businesses, with trading partners, and even among non-competing businesses will be invaluable in the future. Even as technology improves, we need to remain mindful of the fact that the technology is only a tool. Successful companies will be those that are highly integrated and can plan together through the use of technology. Future demands will require dynamic networks that will have the ability to fulfill customer demands from any point in the supply chain. Success will increasingly be determined by how well you can accelerate the movement of goods from any point in the supply chain to meet customer demand. The ability and willingness to share information with supply chain partners and even non-competing businesses that are willing to share resources can help you achieve greater capacity, higher speed, and lower costs.
Q: Any closing thoughts?
A: It is an exciting time to be in the logistics business. It is rewarding because of the growing recognition of supply chain management's value. A fast, flexible supply chain is truly a competitive advantage. Logistics and supply chain professionals can bring value not only to the bottom line by reducing expenses, but also to top-line sales by getting the right product to the right place at the right time.