The first thing a new client is likely to notice about consultant Christopher D. Norek is that he asks a lot of questions: What's happening with your transportation costs? How do you know your facilities are in the right place? Are you actively working to expand globally? While some consultants seem to dispense wisdom from on high, Norek prefers the Socratic method, helping clients figure out how best to manage their supply chain operations through a series of well-chosen questions.
As he elaborates on the finer points of his approach for an interviewer, Norek seems every bit the teacher—which is exactly what he was before starting his own consulting firm in 2001. Norek, who has a Ph.D. in logistics and transportation from Ohio State University, has taught at both Auburn University in Alabama and the University of Tennessee. Today, he is a frequent speaker at university executive development programs at institutions like the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Tennessee, the University of North Florida, and the University of Louisville.
But his primary focus now is on his work as a senior partner of Chain Connectors Inc., an Atlanta-based supply chain consulting firm he founded seven years ago. Many of his clients are small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) that come to Norek for help identifying supply chain strategies that will improve their operations and give them a competitive edge in the marketplace.
Despite his detour into academia earlier in his career, Norek's consulting roots run deep. Prior to founding Chain Connectors, he worked for firms such as Cleveland Consulting Associates and Andersen Consulting (now Accenture). Over the years, he has consulted with a number of high-profile clients, including Lowe's, SAP, Office Depot, amazon.com, and The Sports Authority. In addition, he has remained active in industry associations—notably the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) and the National Shippers Strategic Transportation Council (NASSTRAC), where he is currently education chair.
Norek recently visited with DC VELOCITY Group Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald to talk about his career, his summer internship at Apple Computer (yes, all that stuff you heard about Friday afternoon happy hours is true), and why he finds his work with SMBs so gratifying.
Q: What led you to a career in the logistics and supply chain field?
A: Back in college, I started out as an accounting major. But then my brother, who had also studied accounting and found he didn't like working for a big CPA firm, suggested I pursue something else. I had taken an intro course in logistics and liked it, but my concern at the time was always having to explain to people what logistics is all about. It was much tougher to say, "I'm majoring in logistics," than to simply say, "I'm majoring in accounting."
Q: I feel your pain. To this day, it's amazing how few people—even business people—really, truly understand what logistics is all about.
A: You're right. Here I am 20 years later, and I still have to explain it. Anyway, I majored in logistics at Penn State and really enjoyed that. When I finished, I had a whole bunch of very good job offers, including one from Apple Computer. I was trying to decide whether to take a job or go to grad school. It was a difficult decision, but my adviser, Dr. John Coyle, told me to interview as well as apply to schools and then, once I had concrete options, I could make a decision. I remember distinctly his words, "Don't spin your wheels with maybes," which was great advice.
Bob Novack, then a new member of the Penn State logistics faculty whose opinion I really respected, suggested I consider the University of Tennessee in addition to Michigan State and Ohio State. I was very fortunate in that Tennessee offered me what was essentially a full ride to get my M.B.A., which made the work vs. grad school decision very easy! So I went to Tennessee for my M.B.A. and concentrated in logistics and transportation. That's where I met John Langley, who was teaching there at the time (he has since moved to Georgia Tech) and had a tremendous influence on me.
It was also during that time that I interned with Apple Computer because, as I said, they had offered me a job as an undergrad. What a blast! All the stuff you've heard about Apple, how much fun it is, the Friday afternoon happy hours they sponsored, and all that kind of stuff, was everything it was cracked up to be.
Q: Did you work at the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California?
A: Yes. I was in Cupertino and worked a summer there. Then I went back and finished my M.B.A. By the time I finished, Apple had implemented a hiring freeze, so I didn't have any options there. Fortunately, I had interviewed with several other companies and gotten some very good job offers. I ended up choosing between two solid offers, one from Cleveland Consulting Associates, and another from Exxon Mobil—which was known as Exxon at the time—to work in its purchasing department. I really felt that consulting was a better fit for me, and CCA was considered the top logistics strategy firm at the time, so that's the offer I accepted.
Q: How long were you with CCA?
A: I started there in 1989 and spent two great years with them. From there, I went back to the classroom and got my Ph.D. at Ohio State. During that period, I also did some work helping out some of my former CCA colleagues (who had since gone on to start Andersen Consulting's supply chain strategy practice) with a retail research project. I lost probably about a semester working on this project, but it allowed me to get my dissertation topic and data. The topic was how giant retailers like Wal-Mart, K-Mart, and Target were using their enormous marketplace power to make their suppliers upstream responsible for what had previously been internal logistics tasks. Obviously, that approach has only gone deeper, and today, for many, it's pretty much common practice.
Q: Sounds like great fodder for a Ph.D. dissertation. You finished your doctoral work in 1994. Where did you go from there?
A: The job market was very tight then. I was fortunate in that I had met the CEO of Office Depot during a doctoral course. I started asking questions of him that had to do with logistics and he liked what I had to say. That afternoon, I got a call from his HR person, who said, "Hey, our CEO likes you and wants to hire you. What do you want to do?" I said I would be interested in some consulting work. So I ended up doing six months' worth of consulting for Office Depot, going down to Florida and helping them. I put together a forecasting and inventory control department for their new business services group.
As that consulting assignment was winding up, they offered me the position of director of supply management, heading up the department I created. However, I was still looking for teaching jobs. The market was still tight so I thought it better to take a job with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) at their Logistics 2020 exhibit (a logistics "think tank"). During my two years there, I helped start the firm's academic alliance program, which was designed to establish ties between the consulting company and some of the leading academic thinkers. I brought in key academics in logistics, most of which were my mentors and advisers, including Dr. Coyle, Dr. Langley, Dr. Bud LaLonde of Ohio State University, and Dr. Ed Frazelle of Georgia Tech.
After Andersen, I got a teaching job at Auburn and spent a year there. During my year at Auburn, a position opened at the University of Tennessee, which was regarded as one of the top programs in the country. I applied and was fortunate enough to be asked to join the faculty at Tennessee. Over the next two years, however, a lot of changes started taking place in the department. I had three unsolicited offers to leave teaching and take a job in the e-commerce field. I decided to accept one, figuring that I could learn more about technology by being immersed in it. After roughly a year doing some consulting with a firm in Atlanta, I started Chain Connectors in the fall of 2001.
Q: It seems that in about a 12-year period, you managed to hit pretty much all of the hot spots for leading logistics and supply chain practice and thought in the United States.
A: I was advised, probably by Dr. Coyle, not to go to the same schools for all your degrees because you get different schools of thought at each. I had a great time at all of them. I applied the same philosophy to my work experience in consulting and so forth.
It has served me well as I have tried to build my own consulting practice over the past seven years. It's still a challenge to raise awareness about the company and build a client base, but the people I met, the places I worked and studied, and the experiences I had leading up to the company's launch have proven invaluable. I had a chance to learn about logistics from an academic perspective, from a private business perspective, and from a consulting perspective.
Q: The field of logistics consulting is pretty crowded. How do you manage to differentiate yourself and your practice?
A: Well, first, there is the issue of costs. There are a lot of companies out there that, even if they recognize they could use the services of a consultant, shy away because of the cost. They don't always see a need to have a big consulting practice come in with a huge team. So I focused my consulting work on advisory consulting and training because the academic side of me says, "I want to teach these guys." My goal is really to build a long-term kind of relationship with folks. Sometimes they just call to discuss the issues they are dealing with and use me as a sounding board. Sometimes it makes sense for me to do some work for them, sometimes not. I just want them to be comfortable with me as a resource.
Q: How does that translate into revenue for your business?
A: It often comes from taking informal relationships to the next level. People call me and say, "Hey, I know we talked about six months or a year ago. Would you be interested in helping us with this project?"
I enjoy working with small to medium-sized businesses. They often look at things differently than giant corporations do. They have different perspectives on the marketplace, and suppliers' views of them are very different. I help them understand and identify those differences and then look at ways in which they can really benefit from supply chain improvement. There are many such opportunities for small to medium-sized companies.
Q: What is your elevator pitch? How do you convince a leader of a small business in 60 seconds that his or her company should be paying more attention to supply chain issues and that a few changes in supply chain strategy can create a competitive edge in the market?
A: A lot of it has to do with questions. Basic questions. What can a certain change in process do to benefit their strategy? Do they have issues with transportation costs? Are their facilities in the right places? They are basic questions, but they are critically important for these smalland medium-sized guys.
It's just common sense that as you grow your company, you need to change the way you distribute goods. You need to change the system that supports that. I try to make sure that as they develop their growth strategy, they're also considering what their supply chain organization should look like now and in the future. I put together a supply chain organizational chart with all the tasks that are required in the supply chain and who should be doing them. It gives them some guidelines for making sure their supply chain is not only able to keep up with their growth, but also to facilitate their growth
A simple example might be looking at where they are now and then where they want to be and saying, "OK, you don't need a director of distribution right now. Your manager can handle it until you guys get this big and then, once you get to a certain level, you hire." It is a matter of timing for all these types of folks. Another example might be showing them how they can better negotiate with their suppliers as they grow. Let's say they've been expanding a little, and as they have added new facilities, they buy packaging and everything else from local vendors because it is easy, but they are paying a lot more for it. They need guidance on how they can leverage their growth with better prices through things like national contracts.
What I have also helped them do lately is use a lot of the technology options. With one client, we instituted a new transportation program strategy, and we selected and implemented a transportation management system, or TMS, which is delivered on a software as a service (SaaS) basis and they are incredibly happy. The solution provider was extremely flexible in the negotiation process, and as a result, gained a lot of loyalty from our client.
Q: The leaps and bounds with which the enabling technologies have grown in the past decade or so are just phenomenal. They really are.
A: They are huge. And they are now at a price point where they can really make a lot of sense for small to mediumsized companies and offer larger companies a different delivery and pricing model.
Q: Back to the elevator pitch, it sounds almost like you're taking a Socratic approach. You enlighten these folks by asking some very basic questions that help them gain a big-picture perspective on what's going on in their supply chain.
A: Right. We ask them questions and that helps them understand the cost and service trade-offs. Some will say their freight costs are high. Well, you know what? That may not be a bad thing, if you are able to keep your inventory levels down—you need to ensure the supply chain trade-offs are considered. However, if your transportation costs are high and you have a lot of extra inventory, you've got a problem.
So, yes, you are right. It is the Socratic method—a favorite of my Ph.D. adviser, Bud LaLonde. Are you guys actively working to expand globally? Are your customers saying they want you to ship around the world or are you seeing issues with transportation costs and manufacturing costs? How do you go about fixing that? How do you decide what region of the world to target as you grow? Or maybe you don't need to do it right now. Maybe all your manufacturing is domestic, but you need to keep an eye out and see what is out there.
Q: I'd guess that some of the solutions you propose require your clients to make a lot of changes in their operations. How do you help them deal with that?
A: A lot of training. In some cases, we start with the very basics. We come in and spend a couple of days educating them about what the supply chain is, how it works, and how it can be optimized to better meet their overall objectives. I try to get as many people involved in that type of initial training as possible. Obviously, there's usually one person in charge of supply chain at the client company, but what they are trying to do is build consensus and, as they grow, to make sure that everybody is on board, including those in other corporate areas like marketing, sales, and finance. That is another challenge, too, with these guys.
Q: Let's shift gears. You've been active in several professional and industry associations. Could you talk a little about your involvement?
A: I've been involved to one extent or another in several organizations. Right now, most of my efforts are in my role as the education chair and a member of the Executive Committee for NASSTRAC (the National Shippers Strategic Transportation Council) and my continuing involvement with CSCMP. It's not necessarily related to the work I'm doing with small to medium-sized businesses, but with NASSTRAC, I have gotten much more involved in global trade, what the trends are, and how it is impacting our transportation infrastructure. NASSTRAC is an advocacy and education- based organization working on things like government affairs and lobbying. We actually will go out on behalf of shippers and shipping companies and their carriers and work to make sure that the laws that are passed are fair and that they take into consideration the implications for the logistics community.
As far as CSCMP, I've written a "CSCMP Explores" white paper with Monica Isbell on global trade and its impact on U.S. infrastructure. In addition, I have been very involved for over 20 years, participating as a student and a doctoral symposium attendee, and later, as Atlanta roundtable president, national conference program chair, track chair, and frequent session speaker.