Gail Rutkowski got her start in transportation and logistics just on the cusp of major shifts in the way carriers and shippers worked together, a shift largely brought on by deregulation in the 1980s. Today, 30 years later, she serves as executive director of the National Shippers Strategic Transportation Council (NASSTRAC), one of the organizations that worked long and hard to effect legislative and regulatory change.
Rutkowski brings a wealth of experience from both the shipper and carrier sides of transportation management to the position, which she accepted earlier this year. She started out at Quaker Oats and went on to roles in management at Belden Wire and Cable, sales for C.H. Robinson, and transportation management with Thomas & Betts and Medline Industries. She started and ran the logistics services division of AIMS Logistics, before leaving it to launch Wabash Worldwide Logistics.
Rutkowski has long been active in NASSTRAC, serving a term as president and several years on the group's executive committee, and was selected member of the year in 2003, 2005, and 2012. A member of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce Infrastructure Council and the Chicago Traffic Club, she is a frequent speaker at industry conferences. Rutkowski recently spoke to DC Velocity Editorial Director Peter Bradley from her office in Chicago.
Q: What brought you to logistics in the first place?
A: I was very lucky. Early in my career, I was working for Sam Flint at Quaker Oats. Sam was a real mover and shaker in the industry—he helped write the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act back in the '70s. I was working as secretary and had a bird's eye view of how shippers can make a difference and how he stepped up and helped the congressmen and senators he was working with. This was the first piece of transportation deregulation legislation. It was exciting to work for him and an exciting time to be in transportation, to be at the forefront of watching this unfold.
Quaker was the second or third company to get authority to be a private carrier, and Sam spearheaded that effort. I progressed in my career at Quaker Oats, ending up as fleet manager. I got to work with the truckers and learned the industry from the bottom up. I got to see both sides of the business. From the fleet level, I learned how to work with drivers, to spec trucks and crawl around trailers, and learn from drivers what they saw on the road. I couldn't have asked for a better introduction to transportation and logistics. It was perfect.
Q: So you had experience in management and right on the docks?
A: Boots on the ground and mud up to my knees, sweeping coffee grounds out of trailers.
Q: You mentioned Sam Flint. Were there other mentors who were important to you?
A: Yes, I was very fortunate. I couldn't have asked for better mentors. After Sam, I worked for Cliff Lynch [then vice president of logistics at Quaker Oats]. Cliff was the one who really helped me when I worked in the fleet office and gave me so many opportunities to learn about the industry. He was a wonderful mentor and is still a good friend to this day.
Another was Lou Marino, whom I worked for at Belden Wire and Cable. He was such a visionary. We were doing things back in the '80s that showed up as new things in 2000, things like pool distribution and intermodal transportation. We started the intermodal movement at Quaker Oats using our fleet as our drayage company. Belden took it to the next level, where they were actually guaranteeing service to clients via intermodal. If you placed an order as late as Thursday afternoon in Richmond, Ind., it would be at your dock in L.A. on Monday morning using intermodal. They were real visionaries in what logistics could do and how it could be an important part of your overall supply chain strategy.
Q: You were active in NASSTRAC for a long time before taking on your current role. Why such devotion to the organization?
A: You know, I think NASSTRAC was the first organization that embraced transportation education. When it came to what I needed to know to do my job, I learned more from NASSTRAC [than from other organizations]. The people there were welcoming and embraced me, and you just learn to love the folks. It really is about the people, and it really is a great association. To be able to pick up the phone and reach out to Target or Famous Footwear or Best Buy and ask a question and get an answer, it has always been beneficial to me.
Q: What brought you to your current role?
A: I've always been interested in the organization not only overall but also in how we do what we do. When I got more involved in advocacy, it became apparent that we needed more focus and really needed to change the way we're perceived. Doug [Easley, NASSTRAC president and director of supply chain solutions for Pathmark Transportation] called and asked if I'd be interested in the opportunity. I was flattered but had to stop and think about whether I really wanted to make this huge career shift. I took a lot of time to think it over. I am thrilled to be here. Every day is a challenge. To be able to shape NASSTRAC, which has been growing over the last few years, is just gratifying.
Q: What do you see as the major challenges for the organization?
A: The challenge for every association is to acquire and retain members. You have to have enough touch points into your membership that they know you are there for them and know they can rely on you as their source for transportation education and networking and advocacy. Being able to maintain that level of communication with your members is a challenge for anybody. Companies are not spending a lot of discretionary dollars on association activities or conferences. You need to make sure that what you're offering is worthwhile and that they get enough value for their money or you are not going to succeed as an association. That is a constant battle. What do we do that is different and how do we make our conference of value to our members? That's something we talk about all the time and work on all the time.
Q: What kinds of things are you working on?
A: Right now, we've issued for the first time ever our 2014 National Policy Agenda, drafted by Ben Gann, our director of legislative affairs, with the help of [General Counsel] John Cutler and [Advocacy Chair] Mike Reagan and the advocacy committee. It lists all the issues NASSTRAC is interested in and NASSTRAC's stance on the issues, and that will be our agenda for the whole year.
Q: Along with advocacy, education has always been a major focus for NASSTRAC. What's going on there?
A: Our education program is one of the best things about NASSTRAC. We're very fortunate to have Dr. [John] Langley [professor of supply chain management at Penn State] as our education adviser. This year, Dr. Brian Gibson [professor of supply chain management at Auburn University] has joined John as a second education adviser. We're looking at making some changes to our program. We want to shake things up a little. Although what we've been doing has been successful, you have to keep it fresh and you have to change things up and make sure people stay engaged.