When Gail Rutkowski first entered the business, the transportation world was a different place. At the time, everything from routes to rates was heavily regulated by the ICC, the FRA, or the states. Business was conducted via letters and phone calls. And transportation departments—and the professionals who staffed them—were viewed as a cost center and, essentially, a necessary evil.
Today, that’s all changed. The regulatory shackles have been loosened, technology has transformed the way we operate, and the logistics and supply chain profession is finally being accorded the respect it deserves.
Against that backdrop, Rutkowski has forged a unique career path that has included transportation management roles on both the shipper and carrier sides of the fence. Among other positions, she has worked in fleet management for Quaker Oats and Belden Wire and Cable, truckload 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. For the past eight years, she has served as executive director of the National Shippers Strategic Transportation Council (NASSTRAC), an education and advocacy group for freight transportation professionals.
Before taking the top job at NASSTRAC, Rutkowski had long been active in the organization, serving a term as president and several years on the group’s executive committee. She was selected member of the year in 2003, 2005, and 2012. She has also served as a member of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce Infrastructure Council and the Chicago Traffic Club, and has been a frequent speaker at industry conferences.
Prior to her retirement this month, she met with her old friend Mitch Mac Donald, DC Velocity’s group editorial director emeritus, to share her thoughts, reflections, and observations as a leading voice for the industry and the profession—one who has experienced logistics from nearly every perspective.
Q: How did you end up working in transportation and logistics?
A: At 17, I started working in the credit department of the gum manufacturer Wrigley Co. The transport department was right across the hall. And with all of the wisdom that 17-year-olds possess, I decided the transport folks were having a lot more fun. So when an opportunity arose to join Quaker Oats in the transportation department, I jumped at the chance, thinking I would have more fun, and I did.
Q: That’s a company that was known for its transportation and logistics prowess back in the day. Two names that come to mind are the logistics legends Cliff Lynch and Sam Flint.
A: Well, I was very lucky. Both were my bosses at Quaker, but not at the same time. Sam was my first boss at Quaker Oats. He hired Cliff, who became my boss later and was a wonderful mentor for me.
Sam also wrote the 1976 Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act. I was the secretary and had a front-row seat to the action, which culminated in the measure’s being signed into law. Sam was also way ahead of the curve in calling for the sunsetting of the Interstate Commerce Commission, which oversaw motor freight pricing before and after the industry was deregulated. He was talking about the need to eliminate the ICC way back in the late 1970s. Of course, it took until 1995 for that to happen, but that gives you an idea of how much of a visionary he was.
Q: As you look back over the past four decades or so, how closely does the career you had match up with whatever career you envisioned as a kid?
A: I had a smile on my face as you asked that question. Given that my initial career plans involved becoming a nun or a U.S. senator, my career was not quite what I originally imagined. However, once I found my place in transportation, I became passionate about the industry and people. Recently, in my position at NASSTRAC, I have been marrying my two passions—transportation and politics. So although I didn’t become a U.S. senator, at least I got to meet a few of them.
Q: What are some of the more positive changes you’ve seen in the freight sector during your career?
A: One would be the way we now view the profession. Logistics was once looked upon as a necessary evil, but that’s no longer the case. Today, we not only see what we now call “supply chain” as an integral part of business, but we also see that integration in action, with the development of holistic approaches to supply chain management. It has all given rise to tremendous improvements in how we serve our customers.
Another would be the digital revolution. The advances in technology cannot be ignored. Technology has really played a lead role in paving the way for those improvements.
Q: What about the other side of the coin. Can you point to any industry developments that have had a not-so-positive effect on the freight sector?
A: Well, as I mentioned, technology is such an important component and certainly a positive. But, on the flip side, I also feel that folks have forgotten that you can’t build a team by going out and securing high-value assets like human beings the same way you buy staplers.
Transportation is a relationship business. You need to establish relationships and then work to sustain them. Today’s technology sometimes seems to overlook that important piece. Those who will prosper are the ones who will develop and maintain those trusted relationships with their transportation provider. You can’t do it via text message.
Q: Are there any basic principles of logistics excellence that have remained the same amid all the changes?
A: I think there’s one principle that’s really the same in any vocation. It is passionate dedication. Without that, the work you do will never be fulfilling, and if it is not fulfilling, what’s the point?
Q: What parts of your personal skill set have served you best throughout your career?
A: I think it is really simple for me. It’s just the pure enjoyment I get from being able to meet the people in our industry. If you enjoy your work, that will come through and color everything you do.
Q: You’ve been heavily involved in a number of industry associations. Why has that been important to you?
A: Once I discovered NASSTRAC as a shipper, I found a resource that I couldn’t find anywhere else. I found shippers who were generous with their knowledge as well as open to talking about problems and sharing solutions.
Today, there is so much information coming at us. How much of it is reliable? How much of it is relevant? NASSTRAC provided that reliable information for me.
Then there’s the professional development side of it. You can only do so much sitting in an office—whether that office is in an industrial park or at home. Unless you look outside for new solutions and new ways of doing things, you are never going to get better. NASSTRAC gave me that opportunity.
Q: You have long championed the cause of gender equity with respect to pay—a battle that continues to this day. What can be done to move this forward that hasn’t already been tried?
A: That is a great question. You know, this is one of those issues that is so easily overlooked by folks when you are not directly impacted by it. For a long time, I thought the issue was being resolved and things were getting better. But it’s clear we’re not there yet. While things are changing, they are changing slowly.
I look around at the many amazing women in our industry today, and most of them are not making the same money their male counterparts do. It is just the way it is. I think it’s the way women are brought up and raised, where we don’t know how to fight for ourselves and blow our own horn. You don’t know how to stand up and be counted.
I think younger women are better at that than we more mature women. It is difficult, and of course you need to do that without coming across as arrogant, overbearing, or emotional. When a woman stands up and is forceful, she is accused of being all kinds of things, whereas with a man, they’re like, ‘Wow, he is a real go-getter.’ That hasn’t gone away. As much as we like to pretend otherwise, it’s still there.
Fortunately, I think the younger women coming up behind me were raised with a different mindset—and that goes for younger men too. Today, men are used to having women as bosses. This younger generation is much more accepting of the idea of gender equality in the workplace. That certainly is going to help, but it is going to take time.
Q: As you noted earlier, logistics was once widely viewed as a necessary cost of doing business. Today, we’ve come to understand that supply chain excellence can be a competitive weapon. What has prompted this change in view?
A: In my mind, logistics has really been the last frontier. Early on in my career, the concentration was always on improving manufacturing. Then there was a focus on marketing, and a big deal was made about that. Then, with the arrival of ERP systems like SAP, the focus shifted to technology and its potential to enhance business operations. Logistics was at the bottom of the list until it became obvious that logistics, to your earlier point, should be viewed not as a cost center, but rather, as a profit center. Improvements in logistics translated immediately to the bottom line.
You can have the best operation on the planet within your four walls, but if you lose control of your supply chain, it doesn’t matter how good you might be.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: Two. I have had the rare privilege of watching this industry evolve from a behind-the-curtain operation to one that’s now front and center of any company’s strategy. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and interact with some amazing people who make up today’s supply chain, and that will always give me great comfort as I step away.
At the same time, my hope is that after this tumultuous year, we learn to treat each other more kindly, work on developing relationships and increasing the level of trust between parties, and enter into partnerships with a true win-win attitude. We can’t solve today’s problems without working together. If we can achieve that, in my mind, this—not technology—would be the next big thing, and it would be our best hope for moving the industry in a forward direction.
Rutkowski will retire from her post as executive director of NASSTRAC (the National Shippers Strategic Transportation Council) at the end of this year. She has headed up the organization, which is part of CSCMP, since 2014.
Shown here on stage following the surprise announcement are: (L-R) outgoing CSCMP Board Chair Brian Gibson, CSCMP Board Member Todd Bulmash, Gail Rutkowski, and interim CSCMP CEO Mark Baxa.