John Janson’s career journey in logistics began almost 40 years ago, although he didn’t know it at the time. It was 1983, and he had just graduated from college with a degree in communications. While he was hoping to land a job in his field, it wasn’t in the cards. The job market was the tightest it had been in the post-war era, with unemployment in the high single digits. So when he was offered a job in sales by a local trucking firm, Janson accepted it.
That job started him down a path that included stops at a number of major motor carriers before he crossed the fence to work as a shipper—in this case, managing logistics for an Idaho-based tech startup called Micron PC. From there, he went on to manage logistics operations at companies that included MWI Animal Health/AmerisourceBergen, Bodybuilding.com, and now apparel wholesaler SanMar, where he serves as head of global logistics.
Although somewhat unusual, that career trajectory has provided Janson with a number of benefits. For starters, the fence-hopping has given him the perspective of both a buyer and a seller of logistics services. More importantly, perhaps, it has allowed him to cultivate the strong business generalist skill set that’s so often the hallmark of successful logistics and supply chain professionals.
Janson spoke recently with DC Velocity Group Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald about his long, strange career trip; the “Amazonization” of supply chain; and what the future holds for logistics.
Q: Tell us about SanMar and your role there as head of logistics operations.
A: SanMar is a privately held company based in Seattle, Washington. We are the nation’s largest wholesale distributor of apparel to the “imprinting”—meaning custom printing and embroidering—industry. Essentially, we sell the blank canvas that is then decorated by one of our 75,000 customers in the U.S. and sold as uniforms or “fan wear.” I always tell people that SanMar is probably the largest small company you’ve never heard of and that I can almost guarantee you have some of our products hanging in your closet. If you have something from makers like Port Authority, Sport-Tek, Port & Co., Red House, and so forth, you have something from SanMar.
It’s always interesting to see where our products end up. We recently had that chance when the 49ers pulled on their championship gear after winning the National Football Conference (NFC) Championship Game in January. Those hats and shirts were provided by [the online sportswear retailer] Fanatics, and we provided the blank canvas for Fanatics, meaning that we actually delivered the T-shirts and baseball caps that went to the NFC champions. That’s the more flashy side of the business.
To support the business from the logistics side, we source materials for manufacturing from 22 different countries around the world. We have 10 domestic DCs, so we can basically provide the product to most of our customers within a one-, or at most, two-day transit time. It is a pretty complex operation for a little T-shirt company.
Q: What are your team’s responsibilities?
A: I have a 20-person team. We are responsible for managing all of the global logistics activities at SanMar. We are responsible for getting product from manufacturing sites in 22 countries through our cross-dock operations and all of our distribution points, and then delivering it to our end-of-the-line customers.
Q: Tell us about your career journey. How did you come to hold your current position?
A: Back when I graduated from college, it wasn’t like today—where people are actually going and getting degrees in supply chain and logistics, and targeting this industry for its career opportunities. I graduated from Boise State University in 1983, and the job market was kind of tough at the time. I got hired by a truckload carrier that was based out of Idaho. They offered me a job in sales, even though I distinctly remember telling them that I had never sold a thing in my life and I knew nothing about trucking.
I went from there to Consolidated Freightways and Yellow Freight, and from Yellow Freight, I crossed the fence to go to work for one of my customers. Once I landed on this side of the fence, I really never looked back.
The position was with a startup operation in Boise called Micron PC. We were a direct-to-consumer personal computer company. Over the course of seven years, we went from a startup to a retail company with $3.2 billion in sales. I advanced in that time from a traffic manager to the vice president of supply chain. My time there probably provided me with a better education in logistics than I could ever have gotten in school. It was a fast-growth ride and then an educational ride down. [Micron Technology’s PC division was spun off and acquired by Gores Technology Group in 2001.] Although the ride down was nowhere near as much fun as the ride up, it taught me a tremendous amount that I carried forward into my other positions.
Three years ago, I went to work with SanMar, leading the whole global logistics scene, which is the coolest opportunity I’ve ever had in my life.
Q: So you’ve experienced the logistics game from both sides now, and it seems you’ve developed a very strong generalist business skill set along the way. You really have to understand the business as well as the logistics to support it, right?
A: It is, and it’s funny. People are always asking what my degree was in. I got a degree in communications and that has served me well, because communication is truly what we’re doing. It is about building these strategic relationships. It is about servicing our internal customers and our external customers. And that communication background has been invaluable in leading a global logistics team.
Q: You’ve been in the field long enough to have seen logistics and supply chain management’s star rise, as it went from a back-office function to one that now has a seat in the boardroom. What do you think is driving that trend?
A: I think that is a great question. We just concluded a series of webinars with NASSTRAC on getting your seat at the table, and I do think that companies now get it—that they understand the importance of the logistics arm. I think what more companies have realized is that it really does come down to getting the right product to the right place at the right time and then on to the customer.
Certainly, part of it is what you might call the “Amazonization” of supply chain. What that’s done is to re-set the expectations of the end-user, so that if you’re not focusing on logistics and supply chain, then you’re just not going to survive as a company.
Q: Let’s shift gears and talk about what’s happening in the field from a macro perspective. What are some of the biggest challenges logistics practitioners face in 2020?
A: I think one of them would be customers’ escalating delivery expectations. Today, anything longer than two days is just not fast enough. If they can’t order something in the late afternoon or early evening and have it in two days, they’re not a satisfied customer. So that’s our challenge both now and going forward: How are we going to constantly improve that delivery service to our customer?
I think the other major challenge is the geopolitical turmoil. Businesses operate best in a stable environment, not the kind of volatile times we face right now. Take the tariff disputes with China, for example. As trade tensions have escalated, we’ve moved some of our manufacturing out of China to countries like Myanmar, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Vietnam. While that might solve the short-term problem, it introduces complications in the front end of the process—like the need to find the right logistics service partners in new countries. Everything has gotten a little more difficult.
Q: How important is technology in meeting today’s challenges?
A: I’d say it’s critically important—particularly with respect to visibility. One of the things customers always want to know is when their package will arrive. Likewise, my team here wants to know when an inbound ocean container is going to get here. Technology can provide that kind of crucial information.
Q: We’ve talked a lot about what has changed—emerging technologies, shifting consumer expectations, geopolitical dynamics—over the past 20 years. What hasn’t changed?
A: I think one of the fundamentals that we’ve built our organization on is that strategic relationships matter. If you’re able to develop very strong long-term relationships with your service providers, the strength of those relationships will help you during good times and carry you through bad times.
For example, I think the reason SanMar was relatively unaffected by the 2018 trucking capacity crunch was that we had built long-term relationships with our service providers, and they knew we were in it for the long haul. That’s not to say we didn’t blow up our budget, because we did. However, we did come through it pretty much unscathed, largely because we made a conscious effort to become a shipper of choice.
As for how that went down, we decided early on that this driver shortage was a real deal and would only get worse, so we began working to make sure carriers would see us as a driver-friendly company—one that doesn’t waste drivers’ time when they show up at our facility. They can just drop off a trailer, pick up an empty or pick up a load, and get back out on the road.
Another part of that is letting our carriers know that we’re going to be a good steward of their assets—that we’re not using their trailers for short-term storage and that we’re looking to get those assets back into their hands as quickly as possible so they can continue to do business. I think those kinds of efforts really make us somebody people want to do business with.
Q: It’s time for you to dust off the crystal ball that I know you keep on your desk. What is the next big thing? What is on the horizon that’s going to profoundly change the way we approach logistics?
A: I think one is going to be the continuing escalation of customer expectations and the “I need it now” mentality. I remember sitting on a panel several years ago when the subject of same-day delivery came up. I remember thinking, “Why? Who would ever need something the same day?” And now, we’re talking about two-hour deliveries. I think the immediacy of “I want it now” is going to continue to drive this industry. I think that will certainly be one of the game-changers.
Another is going to be the complications that come with globalization. The planet feels much smaller today than it did 20 years ago—especially for a company like ours that now manufactures in a lot of far-away places. That will put pressure on the logistics side to drive costs out of the supply chain and move merchandise faster.
I think both of those challenges are with us for the long haul—not to mention shorter-term disruptions like the truck capacity shortage or IMO 2020 [the maritime industry’s costly new anti-pollution regulations], which are cropping up with increasing frequency. So you’ve got to be nimble, you’ve got to be flexible, and you’ve got to be ready to adapt to a changing environment. If you can’t adapt, you’re just not going to survive.