Logistics professionals have proved remarkably adept at parlaying their work experience into consulting careers. But it's not often that you see someone do it the other way around, going from consultant to practitioner. Bob Silverman has done just that. After spending 23 years as a logistics consultant, he migrated over to the practitioner side, becoming vice president of IT business systems for designer apparel company Tommy Hilfiger.
Silverman started his logistics career in 1983 at the consulting firm Gross & Associates and eventually worked his way up to president. While there, he had wide-ranging general management responsibilities, including oversight of strategic direction, marketing, sales, training/continuing education, and personnel. Silverman also managed over a hundred productivity improvement, operations design, and logistics optimization projects around the world for the firm's customers, which included BMW, Turtle Wax, Becton Dickinson, Borden Foods, Sterling Electronics, and Verizon.
But in 2006, he received an intriguing offer from one of his clients, Tommy Hilfiger. The apparel company was looking for someone to oversee the U.S. implementation of its SAP enterprise resource planning application and wondered if Silverman would be interested. Silverman decided the project was too interesting to pass up and accepted the offer. Today, he manages a staff of 15 IT professionals, supporting the company's warehouse management, transportation management, product design, merchandising, and allocation systems. He also oversees new application development.
Silverman holds a B.A. in mathematics and physics from the Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J. He has served as president of the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC) and recently became chair-elect of the board of directors for the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP).
Q: You have an extensive background as a consultant helping folks with their logistics network strategies and so forth. Yet now you are in, by title, an IT role. What's up with that?
A: Well, you're right. I spent 20 years in consulting, designing and implementing distribution centers and generally managing logistics-related projects for our clients at Gross & Associates. Two years ago, I joined Tommy Hilfiger in the role of vice president of IT systems, overseeing our systems development and support staff, and co-projectmanaging the company's SAP implementation. I'm now in a cross-functional role, managing IT projects, helping start up a distribution center for a new product line, and working with the retail team to assist in bringing online the company's new flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
Q: What prompted the move from a job that focused primarily on traditional logistics activities to an IT role that supports logistics as well as a lot of other functions?
A: There were actually several dynamics that all came together to make that happen. Number one is I had been in consulting for over 20 years and I was interested in trying something else. Tommy Hilfiger was a client of ours. They were already using SAP in their European operations, but they wanted to roll it out worldwide. They were looking for somebody to project-manage the U.S. side of this initiative. I had some experience with implementing WMS systems in DCs, so the concept of implementing technology wasn't foreign to me, although I had never been in charge of the programming team. But still, what Tommy was looking for was someone to head up that group who had more understanding from the business side as to what the requirements were, as opposed to someone with strong technical skills. I was not the person with the strong IT technical skills.
We agreed that I would come on board and take on that role. I report to our CIO and until very recently was heading up the Applications Development and Support Group here, working on the SAP project until we went live with Phase 1 of the project. Since then, the more technical people have picked it up and are running with the subsequent rollouts.
Q: Were there other factors that drew you to the job?
A: The opportunity was also intriguing to me in that it involved working with Tommy Hilfiger, which is something of an iconic brand in the United States. They were doing some very exciting things at the time, really trying to make some major changes to the company. I saw it as a potential to have a good upside. It was a bit of a risk, but I felt I could go back to consulting if I needed to.
Q: You were able to migrate directly from a logistics job to a broader IT job, albeit one related to logistics. Do you think that speaks to the kind of general business education logistics professionals are bound to get simply by working in the field for a number of years?
A: The ability to have your feet in multiple areas simultaneously certainly helps, whether it's looking at things strategically and tactically at the same time or seeing things from both the end user's and the supplier's perspective. I think that is one of the things that I am able to do, and I think that was certainly helpful in this transition as well.
Q: Which of the skills in your personal skill set have served you best throughout your career?
A: First, I think, is a willingness to be flexible and adaptable. I guess a part of that, as well, is the willingness to learn something new every day. There's always a lot to learn. You need to listen, not assume you know how to handle an issue because you dealt with a similar one some time back. That background can provide a good context and starting point, but you need to pay attention to the nuances of the current project. You always want to bring what you learned on previous projects to the table, but you also have to be willing and able to recognize what is different for each given project and adjust your approach accordingly. I think trying to avoid any stubbornness or arrogance about what you already know is immensely helpful.
Q: So you would advise others to try to avoid coming in with a "been there; done that" attitude?
A: There's no question about it. You have to be willing to listen and avoid that tone of being the expert. I think a lot of time as a consultant, there is a feeling that you need to come in and demonstrate that you are the expert in the area to justify the fact that you were hired. You can't come in acting ignorant about the situation, but at the same time, you also have to be willing to listen and not necessarily jump in and try to be the smart guy in the room. That will backfire on you.
Q: Your job now at Tommy goes well beyond a traditional logistics role. What does the core team responsible for logistics operations seek from you? What do you need to do for them?
A: My job is to bring them the technology and the information they need to address the company's logistics challenges, whether it is information about the goods being manufactured or availability of items or customer sales information. It is really a support role on that side.
Q: What other "internal customers" do you serve at Tommy?
A: It varies, but, as an example, take one of the projects I'm managing right now, which involves the opening of a new distribution center for our footwear business. In that role, I am certainly supporting the logistics team, but I'm also interfacing closely with the finance and production teams as well as, in particular instances, the marketing and visual creative teams.
Q: It's clear that there's a growing awareness among top management that the logistics function is more than just a cost center—it can actually be a source of competitive advantage. What's causing that shift in attitude?
A: I view logistics as the delivery mechanism for an organization's supply chain—the piece that brings it to life. Efficient supply chains have become a key differentiator in a number of industries, a competitive edge, and logistics excellence has been the tool to create that competitive edge—whether by reducing the cost or increasing the speed of bringing goods from the point of design through where they're ultimately acquired by the end user.
This challenge has been exacerbated in the last few years by the run-up in energy costs and the issue of logistics constraints— that the pipeline simply isn't wide enough in certain areas at particular times to handle the flow of goods through the supply chain. In the United States, we've seen this manifested in port congestion, the shortage of truck drivers, and a scarcity of rail capacity. Maybe we'll see it again during the pending Panama Canal expansion project.
Q: What do you see as the "next big thing" in the supply chain profession?
A: I think we could see a quantum leap in intercompany supply chain integration, which will allow companies to gain many of the advantages of being vertically integrated without having to venture far from their core competency area. Before this can happen, however, we need to come up with better methods of sharing data. I see two challenges here: the easier one to solve will be to develop a set of standards for the data and communication protocols; the more difficult one will be scrubbing the data. In many companies, this will require a Herculean effort— in some instances akin to Y2K. But the payoff could be tremendous, and if enough companies participate, it may develop into a situation where companies have no choice but to join in if they want to remain viable.
I know that to some degree, that sounds like it was a previous big thing and we have already moved on to other big things, but I really think we're going to come back to collaboration. A lot was done around the year 2000—between, let's say, 1998 and 2001 or so—but I think there is still a whole untapped area there that really could provide some quantum leaps in terms of bringing product to market faster and, perhaps, more cost effectively. What it would require is far better collaboration and information sharing between companies.
Q: I know you've been involved with WERC and the Material Handling Industry of America (MHIA). Last month, you became chair-elect of CSCMP's board of directors. Can you talk a little bit about the value of getting involved in industry and professional associations?
A: Number one is clearly the ability through networking to see what other people are doing, to get out and listen to conference speakers or go out touring other operations and getting ideas from them. You can learn a lot that way.
Second is if you get involved with the organization in a leadership role, you can benefit greatly just from being around people who are dynamic leaders— people like Elijah Ray, Rick Blasgen, or Tom Speh—and learning from them, just seeing how they run meetings and observing their leadership ability and skills. In a nutshell, I guess, it's the opportunity to be hanging out with the best of the best. If even just a little bit of that rubs off on you, it can be a tremendous asset.