Finding the right path to success as a supply chain professional sometimes means going back and reconsidering the road not taken. And it sometimes means veering off onto a road that didn't even appear on the map at the journey's outset.When Rick Jackson set out on his career journey in the early 1980s, he didn't see a logistics job in his future. In fact, he really wasn't all that clear on what logistics operations were all about. It simply wasn't on his radar.
Today, as the senior vice president of logistics operations for Limited Brands, Jackson oversees seven distribution centers, encompassing 5 million square feet of space and employing 4,000-plus employees and a management team of some 250 executives. That role, heading up an operation that supports such widely recognized retail stores as Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works, White Barn Candle Co., Express and Limited Stores, is not one that he would have envisioned for himself just a few short years ago. "I grew up on the shop floor, so to speak," Jackson says."I was a manufacturing guy. I spent the first 10 years of my career in the plant with Nabisco."
During that time, he gained exposure not only to all kinds of manufacturing- related processes, but also to the world of logistics, through what he refers to as "a spin as a material manager." At Nabisco, he explains, "We weren't running a plant-to-DC operation. We went directly to the customer. It gave me a chance to [meet] face to face with some of our biggest clients."
Shortly after that, opportunity knocked. As part of a corporate initiative, Jackson and several other leading managers were chosen to participate in a companywide talent assessment program. That exercise, which Jackson describes as a comprehensive and at times exhaustive analysis, led Nabisco's top managers to realize that their company was mired in what the textbooks call a "silo mentality."
"What they found was that they were doing a good job building their internal base of talent," Jackson reports."But on the down side, the talent was being built in silos.No one knew what the other parts of the organization were doing." Nabisco's response to this changed the way the company did business and altered Jackson's career path in a very profound and positive way.
Tearing down the walls
Jolted into action by the findings of that assessment, Nabisco set out to build a more cross-functional and customer- focused organization from the ground up. The corporation identified six key executives, Jackson being one, and sent them off on a corporate version of the Grand Tour, with the expectation that they would develop a more broad-based skill set through a series of hands-on assignments in various operational areas. The executives would, over the course of the process, emerge as internal "champions" of this cross-functional, customer-focused approach.
Motivated at least in part by the prospect of career advancement ("They told me that they saw me as someone with potential to move up to the VP level but said that wouldn't happen if I stayed strictly in manufacturing"), Jackson accepted the assignment and set off for Chicago to work in Nabisco's logistics division, where he spent an eye-opening three years." It was during this time that I came to realize that logistics had the potential to be far more than simply a cost of doing business. If done right, a company's logistics operation could clearly separate it in a very positive way f rom its competition."
From there, it was on to the world of sales."It was a great experience for me," Jackson recalls. "Consumer-products companies are extremely sales and marketing oriented. It gave me a chance to see the operation from a different side."
In retrospect, Nabisco's senior executives deserve high marks for their efforts to tear down their internal operational walls. In the mid-1980s, a customer-focused, horizontal approach to doing business was well ahead of the curve. Although dismantling the functional silos may seem relatively commonplace today, in the mid-1980s it was downright visionary.
But Nabisco's efforts to shift from a functional, vertically focused company to a horizontal, customer-focused organization were sidetracked in the late 1980s when the company became caught up in one of the most publicized corporate mergers of the decade. Faced with the challenge of integrating hundreds of now-merged operations, the corporation shifted its focus. Great emphasis was placed on developing programs that would help the company retain its executive-level talent. Those efforts worked. So much so that the career path of rising young corporate stars like Jackson was suddenly blocked.
"After the merger, they were really scared to death that a lot of people would jump ship," Jackson relates. "But by putting into place some pretty good compensation, they were successful in retaining almost everyone. That was the upside. The downside was that with no one at the upper level moving on, there were very few positions opening up to promote people into."
Catching the 3PL wave
With his career path at Nabisco partially blocked, Jackson soon moved on to new challenges with Exel Logistics, a young but rapidly growing third-party logistics provider. He took with him, though, a wide-ranging skill set for which, to this day, he thanks his mentors at Nabisco. "Nabisco provided me with my first real taste of logistics," he notes. "It was fortunate for me because Nabisco was a company that saw the value in putting all these functions together. They were very much ahead of the curve at that point. It turned out to be a great lesson on how to stay focused on the flow of goods from origin to end user."
By the beginning of the 1990s, third-party logistics services providers (3PLs) had begun to proliferate. From a handful in 1989 to a couple dozen in 1990 to literally hundreds by 1991,3PLs seemed poised to change all the rules of the logistics business. Exel was one that stood out in a crowded field. Based in Columbus, Ohio, Exel was an outgrowth of a European-based 3PL with a long and solid track record of success in overseas markets.
Exel offered Jackson an opportunity he couldn't pass up. "I took a job in their consumer-products sector," he explains. "It primarily included work with customers they already had, including Procter & Gamble, Kellogg, Hershey and Kraft." Responsibility for managing DC and transportation operations also gave Jackson a whole new perspective. "Rather than coming at the task as the buyer, I came at it as the provider. It really broadened my view of the issues providers have to deal with."
After fours years at Exel, Jackson had begun to emerge as a hot property in a logistics market that was beginning to focus more attention on recruiting and retaining top talent. That fact became quite clear in 1991 when his old employer, Nabisco, came knocking on his door.
"I was presented with an opportunity to become their top supply chain executive," Jackson says. "It was a very, very attractive opportunity. I took the job and at that time fully expected I would finish out my career there."
Now on a clear logistics career path, Jackson found that many of the concepts Nabisco had tried to advance in the mid-1980s were firmly in place. "During my second stint there, we really came to see some of the value in logistics and how we could drive initiatives that were directly beneficial for the sales side of our operation," he notes. "We not only got the sales structure to focus squarely on the customer, but we also got the whole logistics operation focused on supporting the sales structure,and by extension,the customer. It was, quite frankly, a great place to be."
Then the phone rang.
The caller was Nick LaHowchic,a man Jackson had come to know during his days at Exel. "Nick had been with Becton-Dickinson, which was one of the clients I worked with at Exel." LaHowchic had since moved to Limited Brands and was in the market for a vice president of operations.
Lured not only by the opportunity, but also by the chance to move his family back to the Columbus area, where they lived while Jackson was at Exel, he agreed to travel to Ohio and meet LaHowchic and his team. "I ended up spending the whole day with him," Jackson recalls. "What I saw was an absolutely great company that was facing some logistics challenges that were not unlike those I had dealt with at Nabisco and Exel. I saw it as a chance to leverage the work I had done previously into something really exciting."
At Limited Brands, Jackson found a highly decentralized organization with enormous potential. What was needed was some re-engineering of the logistics operation. While the company had some very strong logistics operations in place, they were scattered among the various brands that make up the retail chain. "We had DC management teams that were very good at what they did—but they didn't know each other even though they were literally on the same campus," he says."We weren't leveraging our people.We weren't leveraging our enterprise capabilities. I found that at times of seasonal highs, for instance, we were actually competing with ourselves for temporary staffing.
"There were 11 different brands operating essentially at the same place," Jackson adds. "There were 11 different sets of standard practices and 11 different warehouse management systems in place—essentially, 11 different ways of doing business. Everyone was convinced they had to be different because their particular needs were unique."
The Limited Brands position presented Jackson with a chance to leverage not only his past experiences, but also the leadership skills he had honed in previous jobs. "What transcends the issues of a particular company, when it comes to logistics, is the value that the operations can bring," he explains."The challenge is to convince the people that change is needed and that change can bring dramatic improvement."
The right stuff
Though Jackson believed he knew what changes had to be made, his first move was to assess the existing operations, with particular attention to people and tools. "We really wanted to understand where we were focused," he says, "and then compare that to where we should be focused."
Jackson began with the people. A talent assessment program, not unlike the program he had been part of all those years before at Nabisco, identified Limited Brands' strengths and weaknesses where personnel were concerned—that is, the areas where existing staff needed training and instances where job descriptions had to be revised to better reflect expectations. Then, to shore up those areas where staffing deficiencies appeared to be comparatively high, Jackson turned to outside recruitment to attract the best people possible.
Next, Jackson launched a review of the existing and disparate operating systems for each of the 11 brands. "Common sense told us that there was real efficiency to be gained by getting down to one system," he explains.
This analysis has yielded two immediate benefits. While all the DC operations for Limited Brands in Columbus had previously been specific to a particular brand, a migration to a single,unified operating system has added considerable flexibility, which is especially important given the inherent seasonality of the retail business. "With one system in place," Jackson explains, "we now have the ability to run multiple businesses out of the same DC."
That flexibility also extends to improvements in staffing and personnel productivity. "Because we can train all the associates on one system, we now have the ability to send them from DC building to DC building without the need to be re-trained," Jackson says."It's also helped us become less dependent on seasonal, temporary help that isn't properly trained."
Jackson's initiative at Limited Brands is now in its third phase.With the right people and the right tools in place, his goal now is to heighten internal awareness of logistics' value. "We are taking people who were just DC managers and challenging them to be logistics leaders," he says. "We are asking them to think in terms of a more horizontal focus on the full flow of goods. We've taken jobs that were just four-wall DC jobs and expanded them and helped the people understand where the value is in improving service and driving out costs."
Fully executing on this third phase of opera tional improvement may be the most challenging of Jackson's objectives and the one that may draw most heavily on his skills as a supply chain leader. "I'm working hard at trying to be a good communicator," he explains." In terms of being able to lead a team, I may have the experience and the knowledge to tell them what to do. It's not my intent, though, to dictate precisely how to do that. It's really got to be more about setting direction and focus. Essentially, I see a very large part of my job as creating opportunities for the people below me to do great work. Essentially a lot of it has to do with breaking down internal barriers to allow good things to get done."
Jackson stresses that this point should not be underestimated. "When I think about all the things that will drive our success, I constantly come back to the people," he says. "As much success as we've had with systems and processes, it's not going to happen if the people aren't behind us and they're not receptive to the change. I've been fortunate to come into an organization that really values its people."
No more static
His experience in the DC to date has led Jackson to one irrefutable conclusion: Distribution center operations represent the next big opportunity for supply chain improvement.
"Traditionally DCs have been thought of as static," he explains. "They were once set up as warehouses to simply stand there and hold inventory. But as we get into supply chain management and understand the links in the chain, we're realizing that the DC needs to be a very vibrant, active and proactive link. I think we are just starting to discover the value the DC link can add."
At Limited Brands, Jackson believes that value is quickly becoming evident. "We have an opportunity to facilitate the movement of goods to the stores, which we view as our customers," he notes." If we can get product there in a way that allows that store and the personnel to get it on the shelves in the most expeditious way, we've enhanced our whole supply chain. We used to have the store employees doing things to add value and ready the merchandise in the back room. That's not what we want to hire store people to do. Those things are better done in the DC. That's where you can really begin to see all the linkages and key components of the overall supply chain, and the role we can play in our operation that drives value."