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As baby boomer logistics leaders move into retirement, their successors are tasked with directing the company’s distribution operations. Informed business leaders realize that we are in a period of profound changes. Companies such as Amazon and Uber are disrupting current business models. Technology and automation are altering manufacturing processes. Ecommerce and omni-channel distribution are upsetting existing retail processes. As my colleagues and I meet with shippers, we find many companies are exploring their options. Should they try to manage these changes in house or should they enlist the support of outside resources?

In-House or Outsource?

It is important to understand that business leaders do not face a binary choice. The field of Logistics is more complex than it has ever been. Senior logistics professionals must possess a variety of business skills and possess a depth of knowledge in a range of areas such as supply chain design and management, warehouse and inventory control, customer service, transportation and information management. These leaders must then be able to adapt and apply their skills and knowledge to specific companies in the manufacturing, distribution and retail sectors, including bricks and mortar and eCommerce organizations. This leads to a fundamental question for every organization. Does the company have a set of leaders who possess this range of skills and knowledge?

While it is unlikely that one senior executive will possess all of these attributes, the broader question is does the company possess these skills across its logistics management team. If not, what skills and knowledge does it need to import from external sources? This article outlines how to create a leadership plan ( ).

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Over the past few years, I have noticed a disturbing trend as I meet with both our shipper and carrier associates. They have changed their leadership team again. The VP of Transportation or Logistics (in manufacturing and retail organizations) or the President or other senior officer (in transportation organizations) has now been replaced multiple times. In fact, in some companies, they change executives like some people do spring cleaning in their homes. “It is out with old and in with the new.”

What is interesting for me is that in some cases, as an outside consultant, I have had the opportunity to work directly with the business leader and the company. I have been able to observe their performance and that of their superiors and subordinates. I have the following observations to share with you.

In some situations, the terminated business leader was doomed to fail. The expectations for the individual may not have been realistic. He or she may not have received the full support of the business owner or senior executive or the collaboration between them wasn't there. The departed person was charged with implementing the failed or poorly conceived vision of the business leader. The terminated executive “took the fall” for the unsuccessful business plan or weak leadership of his or her boss.

In other cases, the individual did not perform at the required level. He or she may have not had the required skills, did not fit with the company culture and/or did not work well with his or her peers. In some cases, there was an overreliance on specific subordinates who were not performing their jobs at an acceptable level. This overreliance and/or a poor hiring process cost the individual his or her job.

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These are tough times. In a recent issue (February 22, 2016) of the Journal of Commerce, the headline was “Is the US in a Freight Recession?” If a freight recession is defined as two or more consecutive quarters of year/year declines in freight volumes, parts of the US and Canadian transportation economy are certainly there. While we aren’t back into the Great Recession of 2007-2008, there has been a pronounced slowdown in business activity. Trucking industry executives confide that business volumes have tapered off.

This is when leaders are put to the test. Here are some thoughts on how to lead an organization through tough times.

1. Be Visible and Communicative

Don’t hide in your office all day in closed door meetings.  This is sure to unnerve your employees. Be visible and try to maintain a “business as usual” demeanor. Employees pick up on every change in behavior by its leadership team.

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It takes leadership and management skill to become a Best in Class shipper. One question many companies face is where should Transportation fit within the company’s organization structure? Clearly one size does not fit all since manufacturers may have freight budgets ranging from a few hundred thousand dollars to tens of millions of dollars. The Transportation leader in a small enterprise doesn’t need the skill set of an individual who manages a multi-modal, multi-division, multi-million dollar freight budget.

This is not to say that a manufacturer with a small freight spend can be managed by an individual with limited or no freight transportation expertise. In smaller enterprises, we often observe an individual in a small office in the warehouse who has been there for many years, reporting to the controller or operations manager. These people often have a rudimentary understanding of freight and have been doing things the same way for many years.

Even small manufacturers and distributors should ask the question, do their transportation managers have the data (blog 1 in this series, knowledge (blog 2 in this series) and management skill to lead this function effectively. In addition do they have the processes and technology in place to be effective? Supply chain management is rapidly changing. If your freight leaders are lacking in many of the areas outlined in these blogs, it is important for their supervisors to ensure that they are receiving the necessary training. Their lack of expertise may be costing the firm large sums of money (in missed cost saving opportunities). For companies where Transportation is not a core competence, consideration should be given to outsourcing these functions to a logistics services provider that is better equipped to manage transportation.

In larger firms, there are other issues to address. Does the leader of Transportation function have input to the strategies of the business; does the company have a well-conceived supply chain strategy and does this individual have a seat at the decision-making table? Is supply chain management one of the core functions of the company or is Transportation viewed as an end-of-the line execution process? In other words, does the company consider alternate supply chains, alternate modes and transit times, consolidating and deconsolidating freight, where financially attractive and beneficial to its customers? Alternatively, is the transportation department expected to expedite the orders made by Sales or find a way to move partial or full truckload shipments that come off the production line after the truckers have left the building? These are telltale signals that Transportation is not properly valued in the company.

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If your trucking company hasn’t been purchased or doesn’t get purchased by TransForce, will it be in business in five years?  That is the question that came up in a recent discussion with a long time industry colleague.  The response I received was that he didn’t think his company would survive.  I was a bit surprised by the response and asked him for an explanation.  This led to an interesting discussion on what it is going to take to make it in the trucking industry in 2014 and beyond.

We both agreed that while the trucking industry has changed in some ways over the past decade (e.g. more use of technology, better cost controls after the Great Recession, LNG vehicles, greater use of 3PLs as customers), the industry is not that much different from ten years ago.  The slow economic turnaround since 2008 has created a challenging environment and there is little reason to expect a major improvement in the short term.  Rate increases are hard to come by, even with a tight driver situation.  Even more of a concern is the lack of innovation in the industry and the threat that such changes could wreak on so many complacent companies.

The warning signs are there.  As a Canadian, you don’t have to look much further than Nortel and Blackberry to see what can happen to industry leaders that were not able to keep up with changing consumer needs and quality competitors.  At the same time, one can observe what companies such as Amazon and Apple have been able to do to change the paradigm of some long established industries. 

Some of the large trucking industry players are making investments in technology and people.  They are integrating back offices and focusing on achieving economies of scale.  They are thoughtfully expanding their service portfolios and geographic footprints. 

Some of the small players are offering solutions that are very tailored to certain industry verticals and geographic areas.  Companies that are focused on same day delivery, refrigerated intermodal service, pooled LTL service, energy distribution and other emerging capabilities are creating a space for themselves in the industry.

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