Rob McKeel is CEO of Fortna, a company that designs, develops, and delivers automation and intelligent software solutions. McKeel, who has been with Fortna for three years, recently oversaw the company’s merger with MHS. Before joining Fortna, he spent 27 years at GE, where he most recently served as president and CEO of GE Automation and Controls.
McKeel holds an MBA from James Madison University, a Master of Computer Science degree from the University of Virginia, and a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from North Carolina State University. He currently volunteers with the United Way of Greater Atlanta and previously served on its board of directors.
Q: How does the current economic situation affect our industry?
A: Obviously, governments around the world are looking to tame inflation and, in doing so, will slow down the world’s economy. It’s unclear yet what the ultimate outcome will be, but we are seeing many customers taking a more cautious approach. One effect will be a shift in investment from building capacity to building capability. What I mean by that is they may not invest for volume, but instead for productivity or velocity.
Our Lifecycle Performance Solutions group focuses on supporting operating facilities to keep them running optimally and provides solutions to increase capability in existing facilities.
Q: What do you feel is the current state of supply chains, and material handling in particular?
A: The situation across the global supply chain continues to accelerate toward increased use of technology to create operating leverage. The adoption of e-commerce continues to accelerate as a percentage of overall retail activity, and successful omnichannel capabilities require advanced automation.
In addition, as companies grow and look to consolidate brands, the complexity of operations geometrically increases with added requirements such as the need to provide greater variety, reduce shipping times, and expand business models, including “buy online/pick up in store” and “buy online/ship from store.” These changes require improved inventory slotting, picking, sorting, and consolidation models that drive lower cost per unit and increase throughput in the fulfillment centers. A third dimension is the need for increased resiliency to manage supply chain disruptions, leading to new network strategies.
Finally, the cost and scarcity of labor makes the case for automation even more attractive. All these challenges feed the need for intelligent software and automation solutions to ensure operational performance can outpace current and future demand.
Q: Fortna recently went through a rebranding that included combining the assets of MHS and Fortna under the Fortna banner. What synergies did this create for the market?
A: The combination of Fortna and MHS was driven by the independent growth trajectories of both companies converging and the belief that we will achieve our goals faster as a single entity than the companies would separately. Through the combination, we have assembled some of the brightest minds to solve the operational challenges of the full logistics value chain covering both parcel and distribution/fulfillment operations.
Fortna creates value at the intersection of operational challenges and solutions leveraging the full technology stack available to solve those operational challenges. Our software integrates with nearly every available industry technology, giving us full flexibility to solve the widest variety of problems in the most effective way for our customers. In addition, Fortna has the global scale and breadth to address any size challenge—from modifications or upgrades to the most complex distribution or parcel facilities. We provide our customers with peace of mind that they have a partner who cares as much about their business outcomes as they do.
A: TH Lee was an early entrant focusing investment in our industry and has expanded that investment potential through a dedicated automation fund across many industries. Each business in the TH Lee portfolio operates independently. Obviously, there are opportunities to meet and interact with the other portfolio entities, and we do so. Where there is business value to the two entities, such as our partnership with AutoStore, we enter into normal business relationships. We have a great partnership with AutoStore to the benefit of our customers.
Q: Many companies face long delays in getting their automation projects scheduled and completed. What are you telling your clients about the current situation?
A: It’s been an unprecedented situation since the world hit pause due to the pandemic. The global supply chain is an incredibly complicated system, and that pause caused enormous disruption. Our industry was not immune to that, and while most of the supply-related issues have been resolved, there are still several lingering effects, some of which have been further impacted by the situation in Ukraine and the energy challenges in Europe.
We are very transparent with our customers regarding where there are limitations, what alternatives exist, and what we can do to help them. Obviously, more time helps, but where there are time constraints, we use the flexibility we have in our supply partnerships to find the best answer.
Q: The need for automation continues to grow. What kinds of solutions are clients looking for, and what problems do they address?
A: We are fascinated by the amazing progress of robotics, advanced data processing, and the use of software to solve the various operating challenges our customers face. Some of these are ready for deployment, and some are in a more experimental phase.These technology-forward solutions are solving challenges to offset a scarcity of labor or less-than-desirable operations in customers’ facilities. The advanced data processing and software solutions solve the complexity of operations and drive improved operating performance and resiliency. There are still so many exciting challenges to solve for our customers.