The stars seem aligned for Terry L. Esper. Only 40, he has already completed the career trifecta of industry, government, and academia. As such, he understands the value each brings to the profession as unique entities, and as one powerful force.
Esper holds the prestigious Oren Harris Chair in Logistics at the University of Arkansas' Sam M. Walton College of Business. Commanding, articulate, and extremely passionate about the field, Esper is poised to become one of the most visible members of an increasingly visible profession.
Senior Editor Mark B. Solomon interviewed Esper about his career, the interplay of the three disciplines, his outlook for the business and the people who will help it succeed, and his drive to empower more African-Americans to join the industry.
Q: You have a background in all three major fields of endeavor. How do the attitudes toward logistics differ amongst academia, industry, and government?
A: I would say they're alike in many ways. All three sectors converge on a desire to support logistics activity in the global economy. In doing so, however, each maintains a commitment to its respective performance outcomes. Government has a strong focus on infrastructure, safety, and policy. Industry operates through a lens of logistics cost efficiency. Academia emphasizes research and knowledge dissemination.
These areas are often viewed as competing perspectives. Safety regulations and associated costs are often interpreted by industry as inefficient. Government and industry accuse academia of being too "theoretical" and "ivory tower." Industry is viewed as being so focused on cost reduction that such savings are achieved at the expense of others in the logistics community.
In the end, each sector has the same goal - more and better logistics activity. It's good we have different interpretations of what that means. It keeps each sector accountable. For example, I can't get too theoretical ... industry will ensure that. Industry can't get too cost focused ... government will ensure that. The different perspectives are good and can benefit us all.
Q: What has been the biggest change you've seen in the way all three areas perceive the field and its value?
A: We have entered an era where we are all aware of the value that the business creates. This is particularly true within the academic and industry sectors. Deans and CEOs are paying attention. I worked in industry during the years when logisticians had to lobby for attention from CEOs. That's not the case anymore. When I entered academia, many logistics professors had to "lobby" for support and respect from academic colleagues. That's not the case anymore. I've watched C-level logistics and supply chain executives emerge in most large corporations. I've taught logistics concepts to budding entrepreneurs who are becoming more sensitive to the importance of logistics. I've seen academic programs grow tremendously.
At Arkansas, our student enrollment has more than doubled in the last four years. Most business schools are now getting into the game of teaching logistics concepts in their core curriculum. Overall, this maturity has been the biggest change that I've seen. We are a much more respected and valued field, and each sector has contributed to it.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge in attracting and retaining qualified talent to the industry overall?
A: Most of us stumbled into logistics. When I entered academia, I would ask my students how many of them came to school to major in logistics. I would get virtually no hands. Most of them had to be roped in. Top students are not as apt to gravitate toward logistics as they are toward finance, accounting, or marketing. We are rolling out an "Intro to SCM" course at Arkansas that all business students must take. This will give us earlier access to the general student population, where we can make students aware of logistics at the front end of their experience.
I think the retention issue is a byproduct of this. Top talent has so many opportunities because of the "maturation" of the field. The growth over the last decade has exceeded the output of top talent. It's a supply and demand issue. Retention becomes much more difficult because there are so many wonderful opportunities available without adequate supply.
Q: Do you see yourself returning to either industry or government, or is academia the last stop?
A: Academia is the last stop. I stay connected to industry and government, but have no desire to return. Being in academia is very rewarding, which is great. But for me, it's deeper. I not only work in academia, but I am an academic. This sector is much more about who I am versus what I do. I do research and I teach. But I am a researcher and educator. I feel my prior industry and government experiences were training ground for my true career.
Q: African-Americans are not well represented in the industry. How can the industry be more effective in attracting more African-Americans to the field?
A: The relative obscurity of logistics has made diversity issues more difficult to address. Beyond this, I think it's a "face" issue. Studies have shown that one of the more effective ways to diversify a field is by diversifying those who train and mentor within the field. They will attract others.
This has proven to be true for me. One of my first mentors in the field was Rodney Slater, a former secretary of transportation and an African-American. When I worked for Hallmark, I was mentored by someone who is now their head supply chain guy, Pete Burney, an African-American. My Ph.D. adviser was Dr. Lisa Williams, an African-American. I've just advised my first African-American doctoral student, Dr. LaDonna Thornton. I consider it my duty to contribute to the diversity of the field by both mentoring and advising those who can also mentor. In the end, one of the most powerful ways of attracting and maintaining a diverse logistics community, be it ethnic, gender, etc., is through mentorship and the support of mentorship.
Q: What attracted you to the logistics industry? Was this what you always wanted to do?
A: I, too, stumbled into the field. I always wanted to be an academic. I majored in mathematics in college, primarily because it seemed to be the most abstract and academic major. I wasn't sure what I would do with a degree in mathematical science. It's not like a degree in education, or social work, or business. But I fell into an opportunity to apply my math skills to transportation research. That's where I learned about logistics. I entered the field and eventually stumbled into logistics research and academics. I've always wanted to be an academic and researcher. But I had no clue going in that it would be in logistics.
Logistics was the most fascinating thing I'd heard of. When I was first introduced to the planned and precise movement of so many parts in order to support the needs and demands of the general consumer, I couldn't believe it. I was in awe of how there was so much planning and strategy behind the basic "product on shelf" concept. It was as if I had slipped into another reality and been exposed to a secret world. I still get excited when I think about it. It's a world that the average consumer has no clue about, and that's the joy in it for me.
Q: Looking at those currently matriculating into the field, what do you see as their primary strengths and weaknesses?
A: It's a Catch-22. The strength is the sophistication of those new to the field. They are much more equipped with technological savvy and quantitative analysis techniques. They are much more strategic in mindset and understand the big picture when it comes to the role logistics plays in society. But this sophistication comes at the expense of many new entrants not being able to identify with the operational level of logistics.
I started my career on rural highways surveying truck drivers and studying the logistics infrastructure. Many of my contemporaries started on third-shift operations in warehouses. These experiences gave us an awareness of the great things going on in the trenches. New entrants are not too excited about these types of entry-level opportunities. In an attempt to attract top talent, many companies are no longer requiring such foundational experience. So, many new entrants cannot identify with the true operations of logistics and the effort that goes into making it all work, which is a major weakness.