Supermarket clerk, grocery buyer, picking supervisor, DC transportation manager, executive vice president for finance, real estate developer, CEO, president, founding partner … Bob Shaunnessey's been all of these at some point in his career. But now, as they say, he's doing something completely different: heading up a non-profit. After working in almost every operational area of logistics during the past three decades, Shaunnessey last October became the executive director of the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC), where he oversees programs and services for the association's 4,000 plus warehousing and distribution professionals.
Shaunnessey himself characterizes his career path as a long and winding road, and his resume bears that out. His career began with a part-time job at National Supermarkets during his college years. He swapped that part-time job for a full-time slot upon graduation, quickly rising from grocery buyer and merchandiser to project coordinator for construction of a $20 million distribution center, where he eventually served as transportation manager.
From there, he joined DSC Logistics (known at the time as Dry Storage Corp.) as the controller and worked his way up to executive vice president for finance and administration. One of three key executives reporting to the owner, Shaunnessey was responsible for all real estate development.
Next it was on to the leasing company ITEL, where he served as president for Midwest distribution. When he joined the company, the business unit was losing $100,000 a month. Shaunnessey quickly assembled a team that was able to turn the operation around in just 15 months. When the company was sold to GATX in 1992, he assumed the same role there.
Unable to resist an opportunity to run his own show, Shaunnessey left GATX to become president and CEO of Records Management Services (RMS), a commercial record storage business. During his tenure, which sped by in a blur of acquisition and technological upheaval (including the conversion from microfilm technology to electronic imaging), RMS emerged as one of only five national players in the industry.
Following the sale of RMS, Shaunnessey joined with several partners to found Sterling Logistics Corp., a third-party facility-based logistics company. At Sterling, he helped launch a transportation operation that provided both management services and hard asset services—a business that achieved profitability in its first year of operation and roared ahead at a 15-percent annual growth rate after that. Sterling itself more than quadrupled in size during this time. It was acquired in 2002 by Ozburn-Hessey Logistics.
Prior to this month's WERC Annual Conference in Atlanta, Shaunnessey spoke with DC VELOCITY Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald about his career, his goals for the organization, and what the future holds for logistics.
Q: How did you come to find yourself in this profession, never mind running one of the field's leading professional associations?
A: It's been a long and winding road, as the old Beatles song would have it. I started out working for a retail food company called National Supermarkets. At the time that I finished my MBA, I was working in the corporate office and decided I needed some operational experience on my resume. So I accepted a position in the new distribution center we had just built. I was really seduced by distribution: I loved the pace. I loved the variety. It just seemed to match my personality. The constant movement, the need to think on your feet in operations was really very appealing to me. I was a grocery picking supervisor, a dispatcher and a transportation manager.
Q: Sounds like you learned something about all of a DC's moving parts, if you'll forgive the pun. What came along next in your career?
A: As so often happens today, the division was sold off to someone who already had all the distribution centers they needed. I realized it would be a good time to move on, so I went to work for DSC Logistics.
Q: Anyone who has tracked the emergence of third-party logistics over the past 15 to 20 years certainly knows the DSC name. You guys really got out front early with the idea of outsourcing logistics services. DSC was a third-party provider before anyone had ever heard of such a thing.
A: We got into the third-party business early, and we were among the first to offer full, integrated services. In fact, a big part of DSC's success grew out of a very active freight consolidation program that was able to save an awful lot of money for small shippers. We developed our own consolidation software in-house, which gave us a real advantage at that time.
Q: When you moved from National Supermarkets to DSC, you went from a role that supported a grocery chain's core mission, selling food, to a role with a company whose core mission was logistics in and of itself. Did you notice a big difference when you left a place where logistics played a supporting to one where it played, I guess we could say, a "starring" role?
A: Absolutely. It was all about focus. DSC's sole focus was on making logistics operations as efficient and costeffective as possible.My role there was more corporate than operational in scope. I had responsibility for the IT function, human resources and the real estate developing company, and I was the chief financial officer. Yet even in that position, I was focused on the customer and the customer's needs. Everybody was actively involved with clients and in making sure that the operation really met the client's needs.
Q: In that sense, again, weren't you folks ahead of the curve? I mean, an external, customer-based focus is very much in vogue today, but that wasn't necessarily the case 15 to 20 years ago, was it?
A: Well, yes and no. There's no question that you have to focus on the customer if you want to succeed today. Of course, it was a little easier to maintain an external focus at DSC because as a logistics services company, we really had no choice. If you don't do a good job, the customers simply won't pay you.
Q: I guess that brings us up to just about 1990, when you made your next career move. Tell us about that.
A: I was offered a position as president of the Midwest region for ITEL, which was later purchased by GATX.
Q: Tell us about ITEL.
A: It was originally a computer leasing company that had been acquired by a turn-around artist from Chicago, who brought it out of bankruptcy. He had been successful in real estate and a couple of other business ventures and had substantial money to invest. One of the company's major assets was a large container leasing business. He launched an acquisition program to create a national—or in fact, international—multifunctional provider all within his company. He purchased a half dozen public warehousing companies and bought a substantial interest in APL and the Santa Fe Railroad. His plan was to tie a large multimodal, worldwide logistics network together.
Q: Sounds like that popular 1990s notion of growth by acquisition.
A: That's exactly what was going on. I joined that company because I really couldn't pass on the opportunity to run a division. I worked for them and for GATX for about three years. Then I was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. I went to work for a small company called Records Management Services, where I was president and CEO. We expanded its service coverage from a strictly Midwestern operation to a national player. We provided nationwide record service for a number of large law firms, American Express, a couple of insurance companies, and so forth.We grew that company to be the fourth largest in the country.
Q: Did stepping away from operations and logistics for a time bring any new skills to your set?
A: One of the things it did was give me a different way of looking at logistics. In that business, it was so much about the speed of the logistics operations, but it was also very much about customer service and technological change.
Q: Change, especially as it relates to emerging logistics technologies, is a challenge in and of itself for an executive to manage. There's certainly been no shortage of new technologies and, therefore, process changes over the past 15 to 20 years. How important is it for a logistics professional to know how to manage change?
A: Very important. Even critical. You have to recognize that change is indeed a constant, and that if it's a change for the better, it's something to be embraced, not fought. One of my favorite quotes is, "There is no power on earth like the power of an idea whose time has come." An idea whose time has come will drive change. It's like a glacier in that it may not be fast, but it's inexorable. And if you don't move, it's going to roll over you. A good example of that today is the rather sudden emergence of RFID. It's been around for years, moving at us slowly but surely. Now it seems poised for a real break-out. The change it brings will be huge.
Q: It's certainly the hot topic right now. In your current role at WERC, how do you help your members deal with the changes that are rocking the logistics world?
A: Our business is really an information business. WERC is an information business. We are in the business of researching and figuring out the optimal way to run facilities in the supply chain and educating our members about that. To be a genuinely successful professional in the logistics field you have to continually hone your skills and stay abreast of all the things that are going on. People do that in a number of different ways, and we help facilitate that. One of them is by networking with colleagues. Networking represents an informal, but nonetheless invaluable, way to really add depth to your knowledge base.
Another way to keep up to date is by constantly seeking further education, whether it's taking courses, attending conferences or seminars or even reading a publication like DC VELOCITY. That type of education gives you the framework or skeleton; then it's up to you to put flesh on the bones by applying what you've learned from others and from your own experience. It's a continuous process. I don't think you can really call yourself a professional unless you continuously hone your skills. It is a lifelong task. Lawyers have to do it. Doctors have to do it. Real estate professionals have to do it. If you're not doing that, you shouldn't call yourself a professional.
Q: That's probably never been more true than it is today with all the expectations that have shifted onto logistics. It was not so long ago that logistics was viewed as a cost center or a necessary evil of doing business, not a strategic tool.
A: I had a professor once who described logistics as the "time-place utility," which is another way of saying logistics' job is to make sure that the right thing's in the right place at the right time. That's really what it's all about. The day-to-day logistics tasks may be handled differently, but the fundamental principle hasn't changed. Sure, the business has gotten faster. Sure, in some ways we've traded information for inventory. But it's still logistics; it's just being carried out at a faster pace like most anything else in our society today.
Q: How much faster can we go? We see this escalation in the speed with which tasks can be executed. Once we learn we can do something faster, doesn't that raise expectations that we can make it faster still?
A: You're absolutely right and it is an issue. Eventually, though, there has to be some physical limitation that will cap our velocity. There so much stuff moving on a same-day or next-day transit schedule today that we may well be reaching the physical limits of transportation.
Q: What are your goals and objectives for WERC moving forward?
A: What we're going to do is continue to improve the way we deliver knowledge to our members. Our role is to provide practical training for our members and let them know what's happening out there because they're going to have to respond to all these changes.
Q: What advice would you give to someone just entering the field?
A: Enjoy what you're doing every day. Find something you like and wade into it. That's the most important thing in life, I think. It may take you a while to find it, but when you find it, stick with it. You'll be more successful and you'll be happier. Logistics is good because there's such a variety of jobs, from analytical positions to front-line operating positions that are very action-oriented. It is a wonderful field.
Q: When you look into your crystal ball, what does the future of logistics look like?
A: I see the glass supply chain.
Q: The what?
A: When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon 35 years ago, everyone was impressed by that achievement. But what has really stayed with me was a comment made at the time by the head of NASA, who pointed out that for hundreds of years people predicted man would one day walk on the moon, but no one predicted that we'd be able to talk to the guy who was doing it and watch him on TV. Why? People had seriously underestimated the need of human beings to know what's going on and to communicate. By the same token, in business, people need to know where everything is all the time. That's why we will continue to move toward what I call the glass supply chain … a supply chain that is see-through. A supply chain that you can look into at any time from any angle and see exactly what's moving through it.