Ambition, realism and flexibility are just
a few of the qualities of good logistics
managers. Gail Hunt reports
Building a truly responsive supply chain should be the Holy Grail for every company and anyone who works in this area plays a pivotal part in a company’s success, especially in today’s business climate. So says Hugh Williams, md of supply chain specialist Hughenden Consultancy, who believes the supply chain role can change a company at its very core but that it is still misunderstood by many. “Part of the problem of trying to get people to understand the supply chain is that they think it’s all about lorries, whereas logistics is just one element of the chain,” he says. “Many supply chains are like big tankers that take an age to change course but we want firms to be nimble and able to turn on a sixpence if trading conditions change,” he adds. For instance, in a heatwave, a responsive supply chain gets the soft drinks to retail more quickly and before the sunshine goes. And this is achieved without having to tie up lots of cash in stock. Williams says because supply chain positions are relatively new and have only been around for about 20 years, even board level people can misinterpret what they entail. But one thing that he definitely thinks supply chain people need is diplomatic skills as they have to bring together so many different parts of the business.
“We have many foreign students on our MSc in
logistics course because it is recognised that Britain
leads the way in this area”
If you’re open to rethinking supply chain roles, job opportunities abound, as the area is one of the worlds’ best kept secrets, says David Grant, Professor of logistics at the University of Hull. “It has been misrepresented for years as everyone thinks it is just about trucks and sheds and not very sexy,” he says. “The reality is that it can be sexy and dynamic with a different challenge every day. “We have many foreign students on our MSc in logistics course because it is recognised that Britain leads the way in this area,” he says. “But we really would like to attract more people onto our BSc courses and get the message through to undergraduates that exciting opportunities exist in logistics.” However, as with any sphere of expertise, prospective recruits must have certain core abilities. Grant, who is also director of the Logistics Institute housed at the university, thinks those who do well need to be innovative and adept at external communications. “The notion of collaboration, especially in terms of the green agenda, is becoming more important,” he says. “Successful supply chain professionals need to be able to collaborate with suppliers, customers and even competitors.” Rob Wright, national logistics controller at United Biscuits’ (UB’s) centralized distribution centre in Leicestershire, agrees. “Working with other organisations such as the Food and Drink Federation and the IGD [formerly Institute of Grocery Distribution] and even collaborating with competitors is extremely valuable, so you must ensure you network externally. ”His top tip for any logistics professional is to keep in touch with the food industry as a whole and not to underestimate the value of networking. “I’ve learnt this in the last few years, especially as I’ve been working on the environmental/sustainability agenda for transport for UB,” he says. In addition, you can’t go wrong if you have commitment and common sense, even though few graduates have both, he jokes. Being persuasive, driven and astute, reasonable with numbers, an effective team player, a creative thinker and an expert leader at different levels are vital, he says.working with well-known sweet and savoury snack brands – including McVitie’s, Jacob’s, KP and Hula Hoops – Wright says logistics is not an easy ride and requires ambition. “If you are not ambitious, it is not the career for you,” he says, “as nothing stands still in logistics.” While logistics is not always seen as sexy, he argues that it is becoming more and more important, especially in tougher times.
Flexibility is key
Adaptability to circumstances is an important skill for the supply chain professional. Few firms know this better than Dr Oetker, which has created a supply chain role to meet its changing needs. That follows its acquisition of the European frozen pizza business from US-based Schwan Food Company last year and its factory in Leyland in the North West. Rachael Lorman was previously head of supply chain for the frozen and chilled businesses. Although she continues to look after frozen, she took on the role of supply chain development controller in the summer. She believes a supply chain professional needs a realistic or practical head with an eye for detail and a willingness to keep learning as the environment changes daily. Lorman amplifies Williams’s comments about diplomatic talents, believing supply chain specialists have to be self-aware, as how they come across to colleagues and external people is important. “Quite often, you have to work with colleagues across all functions to ensure a solution is developed that works for all parties, not just supply chain,” she says. In fact, Chris Fenton, general manager for the Heinz account at supply chain specialist Wincanton, believes a broad experience of differing functions in manufacturing helps support a successful supply chain career. Fenton oversees the national distribution centre for Heinz in Wigan – the branch that supplies all of the HJ Heinz brands into the UK and Ireland, including HP and Amoy. Managing all activity on the contract, both commercially and operationally to ensure that high service levels are delivered at the right cost, is his responsibility. He also coordinates day-to-day activities, including warehousing, transport and co-packing. And when he talks about sampling a wide variety of disciplines, he doesn’t just mean flicking between functions, he means spending high quality time in different roles. But that’s not the only viewpoint. UK distribution manager for Young’s Seafood, Scott Barker has been in lorries and sheds all his working career, including a spell at Exel Logistics. He relishes the experience and “developed a fine skill set about the way things are done” during his time there. Those wishing to get into logistics would benefit from such a career move, he says. Young’s supplies all the major retailers from a number of factories, which equates to a significant number of movements of raw material and finished goods. “Applying a little bit of common sense helps the logistics cause, as well as working out which bits of the chain need adjusting to make the whole thing run more efficiently,” he says. “You get a real buzz when you ‘fix’ a bit of the system that allows it all to work better.” In terms of skills required in logistics, Barker believes that, fundamentally, you have to be very well organised, able to react to change and able to work under pressure. “Essentially, it’s all about the doing end of the business, which is what makes it exciting,” he says. Being at “the doing end of the business” entails hard graft, says Fenton. “It is also important to know that logistics is not a nine to five job,” he says. “Today’s supply chain operates 24 hours a day and problems often happen after five o’clock, which you have to be prepared to sort out.” In today’s business environment – which demands improved service at reduced costs and reduced inventory – supply chain and logistics roles have become ever more key to a company’s success. It appears that these roles are perfect for anyone who loves to change things and has the ambition to push water uphill successfully. ■,