For the past four years, Joseph Estrella has worked full time as a lecturer at the University of Rhode Island (URI), where he teaches operations, global supply chain management, international transportation, and other courses to both undergraduate and graduate students.
He brings to those classes more than 35 years of experience as a logistics and transportation professional. He held management positions for Roadway Express, Staples, and CVS. Before joining URI full time, he taught there part time while serving as director of the transportation and logistics network for CVS.
Estrella recently spoke with Editorial Director Peter Bradley about his industry experience and the supply chain program at URI.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your experience in private industry.
A: I have had a terrific career. I worked for what were arguably the three best companies in their respective industries at the time. I worked for Roadway Express for 15 years in roles ranging from dock supervisor and sales representative to posts in operations management and terminal management. For my last six years there, I was the labor relations manager for New England. Roadway was a great place to learn about transportation and logistics, but more importantly, I think, Roadway had a terrific way of teaching you how to deal with people. During my time at Roadway, I certainly learned about honesty, integrity, and ethics.
The next stop in my career was working at Staples, which was a rather young company at the time. I am very proud to say that I was a big part of setting up the distribution process for the catalog division, which at the time was called Staples Direct. That part of the business grew very quickly. In fact, in two years, we went from $28 million in sales to $310 million. I certainly learned a lot about the retail industry working at Staples. I then moved to CVS and worked there for a long time. When I joined CVS, the company had no stores west of the Mississippi, and now, through tremendous acquisition and growth, it is a national and international company.
I was fortunate. I got to work in three really good areas with three really good companies, which serves me well now that I am at the University of Rhode Island.
Q: What made you take the leap from supply chain professional to educator?
A: While I was at CVS, we were contacted by URI to work on a distribution project. That was my first interaction with URI. URI then asked me to serve on its Supply Chain Advisory Committee, which is made up of URI faculty and business people in the community. Later, URI asked me to be an adjunct, so I started teaching one course a semester, which I really enjoyed. About four years ago, URI asked if I wanted to teach full time. I think the timing was right for me to retire from private industry and become a part of URI's faculty.
URI is a great institution. The supply chain management (SCM) program started around 2007, and we have already been recognized as having one of the top 25 supply chain programs in the country. The SCM major is actually the fastest-growing major within URI's college of business.
Q: How does your experience in private industry influence what you teach and how you teach?
A: At URI, we teach all the different theories and formulas that SCM students need to know and understand, but the fact of the matter is, in the real world of business, it still boils down to people executing their jobs properly. I try to relate real-life experiences to the students with real-world examples. A perfect example is economic order quantity (EOQ). For EOQ to work properly, you want to minimize your holding and ordering costs. You teach students the EOQ formula, you give them a few problems, and they now understand how to determine EOQ. But then I ask them a simple question: If you're working for a large corporation, you may have 40,000 or 50,000 stock-keeping units (SKUs). Do you really think you're going to sit down and go through this formula for 40,000 SKUs every single week? No, you just don't have the time to do it, and that's where software comes into play. That kind of example resonates with students. The idea is that students have to understand the concept, but how you actually use that concept is sometimes vastly different from what is taught.
Q: How do you get students interested in logistics and supply chain management? I don't imagine most kids come out of high school saying "I want to be a logistician."
A: Supply chain is not something that's at the top of anyone's list just yet, certainly not when students come out of high school. What we try to do, and we have been pretty successful at it, is explain to students that supply chain is the only discipline that interacts with every other discipline in a corporation. I tell students that when you get into supply chain, you're going to be dealing with procurement, inventory, marketing, advertising, legal, real estate, finance, accounting, logistics, transportation, and distribution as well as with other companies. Then, if students take a course or two, it is not unusual for some of them to change their majors to supply chain.
Q: Do you send your students out into the field at any point in their undergraduate career?
A: Yes. We emphasize internships to all our students. In fact, many of our students will do two or three internships at the undergraduate level, and that serves a couple of purposes. One, it obviously exposes students to private industry, and two—and this happens more often than not—students do such a great job at their internships that they receive job offers from those same companies. In fact, many of our students who are graduating in May have already accepted positions with various corporations.
Q: What are the business professionals you talk to looking for in graduates?
A: They are looking for, first of all, students with some type of SCM certification. This is an area where URI does an outstanding job, as many of our students will graduate with a CTL [Certified in Transportation and Logistics] certificate from the AST&L [American Society of Transportation and Logistics]. In addition, we have a Lean Six Sigma program, through which many of our students will earn a yellow or even a green belt.
Obviously, technology plays a big role in supply chain management. Business professionals want students who are proficient in programs such as Excel, Access, and simulation software. Our students have done extremely well in the workplace in part because of their knowledge as it relates to technology.
Q: As your students go out the door, what is your advice to them about what they're going to face and what they need to do?
A: We teach the same things I'm sure most universities do as it relates to what students will face when they enter the work force—things like the importance of collaboration, knocking down silos, trade-offs, etc. But I also tell students that unfortunately, all of those things don't happen. Many companies will tell you that they collaborate with suppliers, that they are knocking down silos, etc., when in reality, they just don't do it.
I also tell students they need to trust the people they work with. Trust is something that I think is extremely important in business. For instance, if you have suppliers that are cost competitive, that perform well, and that you trust (and that trust you), you now have a terrific business relationship that will benefit all parties. Unfortunately, I think many companies are so cost driven in the short term that they actually spend more dollars in the long run by constantly changing suppliers who don't perform as expected. In addition, by constantly changing suppliers, customer service is impacted in a negative way.
I tell students that if they want to be successful, they really need to understand the business they are in. Listen, really listen; look, really look; and ask some questions.
I also tell them that if they want to be successful, they are going to work more than eight hours a day. Hard work has always served people well. If you do those things and you treat people right, you will be successful.
The one final thing I always preach is to be honest and have integrity. I tell students there is nothing more important than being honest and having integrity.