How does someone who started out in the radio business end up as the head of a consulting firm specializing in marketing, operations, and the supply chain? In Susan Rider's case, it was simply a series of fortunate events. That early job in radio led to a marketing job in banking, which eventually led her to Unarco Material Handling, where she first became acquainted with the supply chain world. From there, she went on to become a specialist in order picking technology at Real Time Solutions before moving over to the software side, serving as an executive for both Manhattan Associates and RedPrairie.
Today, she runs her own consulting firm, Upton, Ky.-based Rider & Associates, where she's able to draw upon her varied background in material handling systems, the enabling software, customer service, training, and marketing. As she puts it, "I can come into a facility and see which pieces and parts are broken and which pieces and parts need to be developed more. I see my role as a valued, trusted adviser—someone who helps the client put together the right pieces and parts to become more effective."
Rider, who has over two decades' experience in the logistics and supply chain fields, has long been active in industry associations. She is a past chairman of the Material Handling Industry of America's Logistics Execution Systems Association product council (now known as the Supply Chain Execution Systems & Technologies Group) and a past president of the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC), where she also served on the board of directors for eight years. She currently has a seat on the board of directors of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP).
She met last month with DC VELOCITY Group Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald for a wide-ranging discussion that touched on her unorthodox career path, the secrets to managing a workforce of millennials, and her uncanny resemblance to Bette Midler.
Q: Your career path is more than a little unique. So I guess the question is, how did a nice person like you end up in a business like this?
A: I have asked myself that many times. My professional career has done kind of an about face over time. I started in radio, and I really loved it. Then I went into banking as a marketing director, and I loved banking. I left the banking world and started my own advertising/ marketing agency. I was in Springfield, Tenn., at the time, and a material handling company opened its new corporate marketing offices there. The president of the bank I had worked at told me about the company and suggested I send them a résumé. The company was Unarco Material Handling. I went to work there in 1989, and that's how I entered this wonderful world of supply chain and logistics—in the rack and shelving business under Unarco.
Q: So the industry found you rather than your seeking it out?
A: Exactly. And when I got into the industry, it seemed like it was about 99.9 percent men! It was quite interesting. I ended up taking over training for Unarco, so I traveled the country training distributors on storage racks and the applications of storage racks and how to make your warehouse design more efficient and more effective. I remember walking into these meetings where there were 150 men sitting there. I'm talking to them about buckling and structural rack capacities. Somebody would raise his or her hand and say, "Has anybody ever told you that you look like Bette Midler?" I would be like, "OK, what does that have to do with structural rack?"
Q: Not much. You do look a lot like Bette Midler, though.
A: I know, and I still get that a lot.
Q: Now, back to business. How did you like your work training distributors?
A: I loved the training part, but always talking about racks got kind of boring over time. When I spent time in distribution centers for clients, I could see that the real pain point for the operations folks was order picking. I became really intrigued with pick-to-light technology. So then I became the pick-to-light lady. I went across the country educating people on pick-tolight technology and how automation would help them. I was at Real Time Solutions in that role for many years. In 2000, they were bought out. I left and went to Manhattan Associates. That's when I realized that, OK; material handling products can only be as good as the technology running them. I later left Manhattan and went to RedPrairie. After two whirlwind years at RedPrairie, I opened up my own consulting company.
Q: Your unique background must serve you well in that capacity. You not only understand the minutiae of rack specifications and so on and so forth, but you also have the capability to step back and see how all the parts interconnect. Would you agree?
A: Absolutely. I think that's one of the things that make me unique among consultants and actually, unique in the industry. There are not very many people who have the total material handling background coupled with an enabling software background and then the customer service/marketing aspect of it. I can come into a facility and see which pieces and parts are broken and which pieces and parts need to be developed more. I see my role in what I'm doing now as a valued, trusted adviser— someone who helps the client put together the right pieces and parts to become more effective. That is what I love doing.
Q: Tell us more about Rider & Associates and the services you bring to the market.
A: Our clients range from the very small to the very big. On the big side, Dollar General is a good example. They have been one of our clients for years. On the other end of the spectrum, I am working right now with a very small company that had a 30,000-square-foot facility and no idea what a supply chain was supposed to look like.
We do everything from handling, selection, and supplier connection (because sometimes clients don't realize what they need) to software selection and software program management. One thing that I really enjoy is doing operational audits—going into a facility and walking around, spending a day or two on all three shifts. I love the night shift because you find out all kinds of things on the night shift. Most consultants don't even come to the night shift. But for me, spending some time on the night shift is a priority. I go in looking at how simple things, little golden nuggets, in your facility can increase productivity and efficiency 10 to 30 percent.
We are also focused a lot on training. I get so frustrated at facilities when they don't focus at all on training. Usually when they want to cut the budget, they cut it in training. Then they wonder why they have massive employee turnover and why they aren't very efficient. It's because they haven't focused on the elements that they need to focus on in order to become successful. Training is huge.
Q: Isn't that also a big part of the problem when a company is disappointed with the ROI on, say, a major technological investment?
A: You are absolutely right.
Q: They spent a gazillion dollars on a system. The system was properly specified. It serves their needs perfectly. It was installed correctly. But they never showed the line workers how to use it.
A: That's sadly very typical. They may focus on—and provide funding for—training at the beginning of the process, but unfortunately in today's distribution centers, your turnover rate is anywhere from 40 to 80 percent a year. So you have to have a training budget every single year. I suggest that companies go through a training process—and a validation of the value of the training being provided—every six months. That is where the rubber hits the road. Everybody learns a different way. I am into "feel, touch, see training," then validating that the training stuck. If it didn't, then we go in and do some individual coaching to make sure that they have the tools to do their jobs properly.
But to your specific question, you are absolutely right. People spend millions and millions of dollars on software and don't invest in training year after year. Three to six years later, when they go back and do an audit of that system, they often realize that they're only using maybe 30 to 40 percent of the functionality that they paid all those millions of dollars for.
Q: I know another of your company's specialties is helping clients with recruitment and retention. What are some of the key issues there?
A: The first part of the problem is that many companies still don't realize they are going to have to get creative to attract people. The new generation workforce, some call them the "millennials," are a different breed of people. Companies need to realize that, and they need to understand that if they don't take steps to make their workplace attractive to millennials, they face extinction. They just need to be more creative. How do I attract these people? How do I need to change the way we do things?
There is a Fortune 50 company where they still wear shirts and ties to work at the manager level in a distribution center, in manufacturing. They are an old company that has not evolved with the millennials. I don't see very many millennials saying, "Woo-hoo, I want to go to work for that company and wear a shirt and tie every day." Most of those kids never, ever want to wear a tie. The times aren't just changing, they have already changed.
Q: So what do these companies need to do?
A: Recognize that things have changed and be willing to change the way their positions are structured to accommodate that. For instance, consider the employee who wants to shift to being a full-time mother, or what we would traditionally call a housewife. There is a big trend among women executives who are burning out. They want to shift their focus to be a bit more about being a mother and a bit less about being a business professional. They are in their early 30s and they're saying, "I don't want to do this anymore. I want to take Johnny and Sally to school every day and then maybe do something in between."Well, what's wrong with that?
A smart company will hire them to come in for three or four hours a day while little Johnny is at school. Companies need to be willing to make those kinds of accommodations if they want to keep the best and brightest folks working for them.
On the other end of the spectrum, I think one of the things that's going to be a huge trend for the future is the development and acceptance of jobs that attract folks who are nearing traditional retirement age but don't want to retire fully. As they approach retirement, the Baby Boomers want to stay active. They still want to be involved, but they don't necessarily want to go to work every single day. They don't want to go to work at 8 o'clock every morning, but they still want to work three to four hours a day. That is going to be a huge labor pool, and companies will need to adjust their policies and their structure if they want to take advantage of it. There's a lot of talent and expertise that "retires" from the workforce every year. Smart companies will come up with unique and innovative ways to keep those people involved.
Q: What are your thoughts on the future of the logistics profession?
A: I think the future is bright for this field. I think there is an abundance of opportunities, and the way you discover those opportunities is by staying involved. One thing that has served me well is that I am a sponge. I am open to almost everything. I do about 10 to 20 different trade shows or conferences a year. I talk to people about how they're doing things and what they're doing and what are some of the new concepts. I just soak up what is going on because it is moving so quickly today. Yesterday's solutions are not going to solve today's problems. We have to be open. Things are moving so quickly we have to make sure we stay relevant and remain curious about the new solutions, the new concepts, or the new procedures and stay totally open to what's going on.