Podcast: Supply Chain Leader – Brad Taylor
Hosts: Mike Ogle and Rodney Apple
In This Episode:
We talk with Brad Taylor, leader of Workplace Services at Radial, who shares his supply chain journey, starting with an industrial engineering degree and making his way from consulting to 20 years of retail supply chain experience with Nike, Chicos, and Belk before starting his current position leading 3PL real estate at Radial. Brad talked with us about the value of having on the floor operations experience and getting to know the processes and issues of the people closest to those processes as you lead the people and manage the flow. He shared his views of treating vendors as partners, the need for better team and leader education, plus the great value of mentors and your network as a source of growth.
Brad Taylor’s Bio:
(01:43) How did you get started on your supply chain career journey? What were some of your greatest influences that got you started and helped you along the way?
A lot of luck, and some very fortunate relationships along the way. I’ve been in this industry really my entire career. When I came out of college, went to Georgia Tech, got an engineering degree and graduated in 1999 in the heat of the .com bubble. And so at that point in time, retailers are trying to figure out how to ship things directly to people. And there was tons of money being sloshed around to try to invest in that capability. So I went to work for a small consulting firm called Kurt Salmon Associates in Atlanta, not so small anymore, in their logistics practice and was very fortunate to get attached to two or three full cycle design build fulfillment centers, all the way from site selection, network strategy, through MHE selection and WMS implementation, go live, support, all that. And I got to see the entire breadth of that process multiple times in the beginning of my career, and I loved it. It was a really lucky thing that I just happened to be coming out at that point in time and allow me to get exposed to that type of huge effort early on.
I was fortunate to go to work for a firm that was small enough to where I was doing real work, and they allowed us to get our sleeves rolled up and get out on the floor and be a part of the process. That was expected of us to become experts from the lowest level of the process all the way up to the top. It may sound weird for a lot of people that, hey, you went to be a consultant, right out of college, like how do people pay you to tell them what to do? It really wasn’t about that. In the beginning, we weren’t expected to be those experts. We were expected to be curious, intelligent people, and they allowed us to do that and go out and learn, and learn quickly to add value. They just did a fantastic job at cultivating new young consultants.
And so from there, really done similar work for most of my career. I actually worked for myself for a little while, through my own network that I built with clients and other consultants at Kurt Salmon. And then, as a married man with young children, needed some stability in my life and then went into industry and went to work at Chico’s, which is a women’s apparel retailer, and really kind of started my career in industry there, a variety of different roles with that organization.
I’ve just enjoyed supply chain and it kind of clicked with the things that I like to do as an engineer and work with machines and have tangible results like buildings and robots and things like that, but also the people side in terms of being an operational leader, gravitated to that later on in my career is something that I really enjoy doing. We can talk about that later, but that’s a big part of my decision-making process.
(04:23) And I'm sure consulting, sometimes it can wear on you when you're living out of the suitcase, so to speak. But how was that transition? People oftentimes hit a place where they do have family and they want to get into industry. But how did you find that transition? What were some of the lessons you learned and were able to take with you as you moved into Chico's?
There were many. I was a consultant for 13 years and the client side, I got a chance to really live in the bed that I had made. We started a omni-channel fulfillment center, where we were servicing e-commerce orders and then store replenishment out of the same building. It was a huge eight figure investment. I was part of the design team and implementation team. And then I stayed on to lead engineering. As a consultant, you don’t really get to live through kind of multiple peaks and really see the maturation of that type of project. After engineering, I actually moved into be responsible for operations for a portion of that campus. And I would give this advice to anyone. If you have a chance to, even as a short-term opportunity, to sit in an operator’s chair, even if that’s not what you want to do long-term, you should do it because I was a different person after that.
I think you tend as an engineer and as a consultant to be a little bit pie in the sky and utopian with how you expect processes to work, and how people are going to react to those processes and behave. And it doesn’t always pan out. And once you sit in that operator’s chair and you get to know those people and you have to really work with them on a daily basis, I think it changes your perspective into what is possible. And you start to really appreciate minimal flow. Not to get too technical, but for me, it was a huge wake-up call that if I get the chance to do this again in another life, I will have a different perspective and be a lot more respectful of the folks that are running and working in these buildings every day and what their input is on that process.
(06:12) You've worked with a variety of teams with different kinds of objectives and measures. What kind of hard and soft skills have been common across those teams and what skills have been different?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve been fortunate to work for a lot of different companies, but also just exposed to a lot of different business models through consulting and just working now for a 3PL. I think the biggest theme for people that are successful is just being curious and you get into the problem-solving mentality, right? This industry, it’s a cliche to say that it changes every day, but it truly does. And I think the things that I look for in my team that I’ve found to be successful, besides just from a leadership perspective and treating people with respect and as you want to be treated and having that sort of servant leadership mentality, that’s important, but from a hard skills perspective, just being willing to investigate, and open to solving problems that maybe aren’t directly within your purview, to try to make the company and the entire process better.
Supply chain has become part of the leading strategy for a lot of companies, whereas 10 years ago, that wasn’t as true. I mean, did we even have chief supply chain officers 10 years ago? Maybe a few, but not like today. So, I think you really got to be able to think strategically in a way that we’ve never really had to ask people to do. I think it’s important that people try to build those skillsets. It’s
hard to just be an engineer and be in the four walls of a fulfillment center, a distribution center, and only think about those things anymore. It’s too intertwined and the tentacles are too long.
What I tell my team are the things that they’re looking for is that breadth of experience beyond one focus, that they can bring that experience in and help us solve bigger problems.
(07:54) Brad, we talked about some of the success factors and traits on the internal side. And as we know, supply chain connects a lot of things externally as well. When you look out across different types of partners, what are the success factors you look for when it comes to those external key partners, whether it be suppliers, obviously your all-important customers, and other partners.
Yeah, this is a big deal. And it’s actually a little bit of a pet peeve of mine. As you know, kind of grew up working with vendor relationships and when you start up buildings, the whole thing is often vendor relationships, your MHE vendors, your software vendors, your labor, if you have third-party contractor in the building, you’ve got to build those relationships in order to be successful. I don’t understand why people beat up their vendors, don’t respect them, like they would respect a coworker or their clients, and look at them as as someone to be squeezed and beat up on price. And we’re going to blame you for all of our mistakes. I don’t know if I learned this or somebody told me this, or just the way maybe I’m wired, but I really truly try to build a partnership and a relationship with these vendor partners. If you can build trust with your partners, you’re going to be so much more effective, so much more efficient and probably cheaper in the long run than fighting with each other every time something goes wrong.
I’ve just really tried to reach across the aisle, and really get to know my vendor partners, and understand how they do business and what they expect of me because when I need something, I want to be able to ask for it and I want them to do whatever they can to make it happen. And I want them to be able to do the same. You’ve got to have healthy relationships there and you have to be on equal ground and understand that we’re all trying to make money here. We’ve all got goals, internal and external that we’re trying to accomplish. And if you can help me get to mine and I can help you get to yours and we’re all gonna win, but I am not above you because you are my vendor, or vice versa because you’re selling me something doesn’t mean that you can do anything you want to me. I’m really passionate about that. I try to really instill that in my team that it’s about people and relationships with your external partners.
(10:06) Looking back at your academic days, what would you tell the younger Brad, both as you were starting college and as you were graduating?
This is always a fun one. I actually went to Georgia Tech to become a chemical engineer because I looked at the list of engineering degrees and that was the one that had the highest starting average salary. So, it was like, well, I’ll start there. I’ll do that. Well, that is not the way I would recommend people choose
their career path. And although I thought I was going to be good at it and I enjoyed certain aspects of it, it wasn’t what I was wired to be. And I realized about two thirds of the way through my college career and switched to industrial engineering.
Once I had gotten there and got into that curriculum, it was a little bit of an aha moment. Like I’d found my people in this particular field. So, I was able to course correct, but, the thing that I have been the most interested in learning along the way that I didn’t pick up as a younger person was the softer skills of being a leader. And you know how to manage a team and manage people. I think universities, Georgia Tech, does a great job of giving you the technical tools and all the right equations. In that field of study, you’re going to do space planning, you’re going to do operations research. You’re gonna do accounting for engineers, all of that great stuff. But I think where the system fails us is if you’re going to expect an industrial engineer to go out into the world and ultimately be responsible for designing processes that involve people interacting with machines, we do a great job on the machine part. We don’t do a great job of teaching people on the people part. And so you have to do that on your own, and if you’re not wired as that type of person who naturally gravitates towards leadership or enjoys managing people, you’re going to really struggle with that. I fortunately enjoy it. I love the team aspect. I love being in charge of a team. I love looking out for people’s careers and trying to do things to make their careers better, and use my authority to help remove roadblocks from their daily lives. But that’s not taught in a lot of places.
Some companies are very good about teaching that. I would tell myself as a younger person, seek those opportunities out, read those books that older people tell you to read that when you’re in college, adults try to tell you stuff all the time. And you’re like, ah, they don’t know what they’re talking about, but they really do. In this particular case. And so, I would just challenge anyone who is in college or trying to figure out how to get into the workforce is, don’t forget about that aspect because if you want to be successful and you’re gonna bet on yourself, especially in supply chain, you’re gonna have to manage people. There are very few individual contributor roles out there in supply chain. I think that’s a place where I think the earlier you can start in your career to try to build that muscle memory and that experience, the better off you’re going to be later on when it really matters and you have dozens or hundreds of people potentially reporting to you.
You don’t have to be in charge of people to learn how to lead people. I think in your co-op job or your internship, getting out on the floor, if you’re in an operation, get out on the floor, interact with people who are moving the boxes and moving the product and doing the jobs every day and understand their perspective and what makes them tick and things that can make their jobs easier and just immerse yourself in that environment. It’s gonna pay dividends. You don’t have to be in charge of people to learn what they want out of a leader. I think it’s important for people to remember that.
(13:55) What are your thoughts on mentorship? I always stress as I'm doing career coaching, get a mentor early on and start building out your network. But I would love to hear your perspective on that
Certainly the network part. That’s another one that adults tell you that you should do. And that’s a word that is kind of a funny word. They throw it at you in college. We’re going to have a networking event, right? You don’t really know what that means or what the value of that is until later on in your career. As I was preparing for this and looking back on my career and all the jobs that I’ve had, I think besides my first job at Kurt Salmon, and every other position that I’ve ever had, I got connected through that company, through somebody that I knew either that was directly responsible for hiring that position or was in the company and an influential role that could vouch for me or got me connected. I think it takes a little bit of an aha for people to realize how important that is, to build that network and today the tools are amazing to do that. When I started in the nineties, I didn’t have LinkedIn. We didn’t have those kinds of things. It’s so easy now to keep up with people. And just stay connected and you could probably do a whole podcast on that.
Mentoring is a very adjacent subject to that. There’s certainly been people that I seek out advice from and I try to keep those relationships alive. When I do have questions or look for a change in career or some other life decision, you want to go out and be able to tap into that knowledge, it’s incredibly important.
I think from the flip side of that, being a mentor, I really enjoy doing that. It’s not every organization that has that kind of set up formally, at least within their particular function, but there’s lots of ways to check that box. I think you can even do it for people on your team. As a leader and as a manager of people, play that role and have those conversations and open yourself up for that type of subject and be willing to help people out. I think co-ops and interns as another opportunity where you can check that box for yourself.
Besides just professionally, when you think of a mentor, you think of somebody helping you with these major life questions. Right. But I think where I actually use network more, is just in my daily course of business. You can go on LinkedIn now and ping somebody that you knew at another company or wherever and say, Hey, do you remember we did this? Who did we talk to about that? Or have you ever run into this problem or whatever. I don’t think your boss really cares who you have to ask to solve the problem. They just care you solve the problem. Right. If you’re using an external network, get the information you need to, then that’s a great tool to have.
(16:23) When you look at the future of supply chain, especially as it relates to careers, we know supply chain is advancing at an extremely rapid pace. It's very challenging just to keep up, but, what are two or three things you see shaping supply chain careers here in the next few years?
There’s a couple of things that instantly come to mind. I have an inside joke with one of our site leaders at Radial that when things get really tough, you have to break things back down to basics. And it’s two things, it’s lead the people,
manage the flow. I think that in terms of a supply chain transformation type of perspective, the manage the flow piece is becoming incredibly difficult. Especially when you look at e-commerce and the rise of that recently, and the just enormous acceleration through COVID, having the ability to run an operation, that’s got incredible of automation, machinery, software in it and make that work and understand it and know the nuances of it is incredibly critical. And frankly, I think in the industry, there’s a shortage of people who can do that. If you can lead the people and you can figure out how to manage the flow in this new world, you’re going to be incredibly successful. I think a hot commodity out there in the workforce for sure.
I think the other thing that comes to mind in terms of just supply chain becoming more about the total company strategy. You can’t have a corporate strategy without having supply chain be front and center and right there in the middle anymore. You have to be able to think about that in a corporate strategic way. You can’t just be stuck in the four walls of the building. And especially if you’re coming up in your career, the better that you can get, on explaining big concepts and presenting them and being able to talk to C level or high-level executive people to sell a concept, helped understand how your piece of the puzzle fits into that greater strategy. I think now more than ever is becoming incredibly important. If you’re just getting out of school as an engineer or other field that is feeding into supply chain, you gotta be conscious of that. That you’re probably gonna get exposed pretty early to some pretty high-level people if you’re in this industry. I think those are some skills that really need to be working on building. I think it’s going to be challenging for people to be able to develop that. You can’t hide anymore in supply chain. You can’t just go into the DC every day and think that nobody’s going to bother you. It’s a different world now, for sure. Make that an advantage for yourself in terms of planning out your career.
It’s amazing. I mean, look at me, I run real estate now for 3PL. You told me 20 years ago that I’d be running real estate for 3PL, I would have laughed, there’s no way. But through my progression of engineering and some other roles that I had, it was a natural adjacency that I was able to move into that role. And thankfully I had a leadership team that allowed me the opportunity to do so and try to stretch a little bit. It’s just one of those examples of where, Hey, look, just because you’re going into a supply chain, you’re gonna work in distribution. Doesn’t mean you always have to be in distribution. You can apply those skills, whether it be leadership and problem solving or whatever to other parts of the business really easily. I think people are starting to realize.
(19:25) Brad, you've worked in many different roles focused on operations, both from running the operations and making them better. What are some of the things you look at when you got to squeeze more capacity into existing assets. How do you go about that?
It’s a continuous project, to make sure that we’re utilizing space in the most efficient way that we can. Some of that is just how you build the building, whether you’re using all your vertical space, others is just, is there a way for me to store
like product together and it is a constant, continuous improvement effort, right? I don’t think there’s a silver bullet to how you solve that. It’s going to be unique for your particular business. As the real estate person, I’d love to go out and get a new building and go through that process, the reality is we’re most profitable when we don’t have to do that. When we can use the existing asset to its utmost ability, and capacity before we tip to that new building. And so, our engineering team which is quite large over the last few years, that’s one of their major concerns and battles on a daily basis is to try to squeeze as much as we can out. There’s a math piece to it. There’s a people piece to it. Depending on where you are, what limits your capacity and ability, it could be mechanical, it could be labor-based, could be space-based. So, you have to work all of those angles together to get the most out of it.
We have a separate continuous improvement team that really goes beyond just the engineering piece. It’s really looking holistically, and in our operations, and even across business units on how individual business units can work together to make our clients more successful. So certainly, all of that is a part of it. What clients we put together in a building can also affect the ultimate capacity in a particular building. I don’t have to tell you guys, man, for 3PLs and a third-party fulfillment is an extremely complex business, more complex than I’ve ever seen in my career. And so, it’s super fun, but that is certainly one of the top problems that we deal with every day is just capacity and maximizing it, it hits us right in the bottom line.
(21:27) We're seeing a bigger trend towards when you look at the talent to come in and run these buildings, more candidates, more focused on having manufacturing or production, call it light manufacturing background where they're used to putting those work cells together and really have the mindset of seeing the end to end and moving a little bit further away from considering folks that may come out of retail store replenishment. Are you seeing a trend in that direction as well?
Yeah, a little, I think a lot of that is just because there’s not enough people that have been organically grown in supply chain to be able to source the demand. So, you’re having to go to like industries and try to pull people in that you think can apply their skills and translate to what we do. There’s probably some people are going to get mad at me for saying this, but I think most people can run an operation. I don’t think operations is hard. I had a leader, a really great leader in a past life who he used to say this all the time. And he’s like, look, I can teach somebody how a building works, but what I can’t teach them is how to manage and lead people. At the end of the day, these buildings have dozens and hundreds and sometimes thousands of people given the time of year it is. If you can’t master that piece, it doesn’t matter how much you know about the WMS, about the equipment in the building. So, if you’ve got that skill coming in, maybe from a distant, different industry, you’re going to quickly pick up the operation side. And so, I think people are realizing that at the end of the day, you’re not the quarterback of the team leading the DC. You’re really the general manager. And
some people do use that title. It’s so much more than just, what’s coming in today and what do I have to send out? It’s just so much more complex than that now.
(23:06) So a completely different kind of continuous improvement from what we were talking about. As opposed to continuously improving operations, it's the individual, trying to continuously improve and make their skills, whether it's hard or soft skills better. How do you keep up with the changes yourself and how do you advise others to keep improving?
It’s not easy, especially when you can’t travel as much as you used to be able to. It’s something that I’ve found I have to be proactive about, I have to push myself to do it. Doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s too easy to get distracted on the normal business of the day and what projects I’ve got going on and people on my team and everything. So you really have to make it a priority. With your leader, carve that time out to give yourself some space, to go find out what else is there other people are doing. If you go back to what we talked about earlier with networking, if you’re building that part of it, that is an easy place to tap in. The more people that you can call and talk about what they’re doing and have those kind of open and honest conversations, you know, Hey, how are other people looking at this problem?
Everybody says industry conferences, but the thing about conferences is, is there some great content in these conferences? No question. I think supply chain has done a better job than most at making these really productive uses of people time. But the thing that I get the most out of those is the complete refresh and rejuvenation of my network. Seeing people that I haven’t seen in a while, being able to walk up to people or vendors that I’ve heard about, or being curious about and ask them questions about what do you guys do, and to get that real time information and walk away being completely up-to-date. I just love being able to do that thing. Fortunately, I’ve had leaders that allowed me to do that and participate in those types of events as well. I would encourage other people who were in the earlier parts of their career to really push to be able to do that. That’s typically how I do it.
I’ve tried to build, with my new role here in real estate, I’ve just reached out to people and said, Hey, who do you guys use for these particular services? Calling people up and just trying to establish relationships and through our owner network of people that own our buildings, try to open that up and just be curious. You’re going to find out a lot of really, really cool information. And so I don’t have a silver bullet to that. There’s no formula for everybody. I think it just goes back to try to make sure that you’re leaving time and planning out those things so you can invest in yourself.
(25:31) When you think back on your career, what's some of the best advice you were given, that you were able to apply to make a big impact on your career and do you have a couple of things you picked up on your own that you'd like to share with our audience, especially those that are starting out and embarking on their career in supply chain?
A lot of them, I think we already touched on, your network, obviously, keeping yourself relevant in the industry. One thing my dad told me when I was in college, when I started looking at logistics, he said, Hey, look, if you’re getting into logistics, that’s a good thing. They’re not always going to make everything in the United States, but they were gonna have to get it here. That gave me the nudge to feel like I was going into a field that was going to give me some stability and security, but, wow, has that really come to life in the last year, 20 years, the supply chain has continued to become more important. For people who are trying to figure out what they want to do, I don’t think you can go wrong right now. There’s no stopping this train at least for the remainder of my career, at least, and probably a lot longer.
Another thing that I was lucky for people to tell me early on was just, and I’ve said this word a few times, is this curiosity, right? In a past life, I actually had a nickname. They called me Mikey. You guys remember that commercial? They were going to give it to Mikey. That kid is like, he’ll try anything. So I got this nickname called Mikey because I just, I guess from my consulting background or whatever, I always got the stuff that nobody else wanted to do or that it was too sticky or didn’t have time to do whatever, and I was like, well, I’ll pick it up. I mean, I’ll go figure it out, see what happens. And that has actually paid dividends. Maybe I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think now it’s sort of ingrained. Particularly if it’s going to help your position in terms of your daily life and your process that you’re responsible for. But, don’t be afraid to volunteer for something or get into something that’s maybe not into your purview, right? You don’t have to step on people’s toes, but I think it’s important to broaden out and in supply chain, we have incredible opportunity to do that.
So, I’ve tried to keep that in mind and sometimes that means a lateral move, right? Sometimes it doesn’t always mean a promotion, right? Sometimes it means changing companies. Sometimes it means having that weird conversation with your leader that says, Hey, I think I want to try this and get that strange look, but you have to be vocal about that. I think, especially in supply chain now is more of a Swiss army knife that you can be. And the more exposure you can get to different business units and different models of doing things, the more effective you’re going to be. And when you get into that kind of executive level, and you’re responsible for an entire business unit, the more exposure you could have to the supporting teams that support that function, the better off that you’re gonna be. You’re gonna be a much more effective leader and a much more successful person. I’m kind of in the middle of my career right now, trying to just pick up things and add to my collection of tools. And maybe someday as I continue to progress, that’ll pay off more and more I think that’s just that kind of curiosity and willingness to kinda pick up the things that nobody else wants to is, I think it’s pretty important.
(28:23) When looking at the generation behind us, looking 15, 20 years, maybe some of the people that are coming out recently, how are you seeing some of those characteristics? Like the curiosity side and the way that they approach?
Yeah, a great question. My personal experience, I’ve seen, especially in millennial kind of generation, this kind of gamification of life where maybe it’s not video games, maybe that’s a bad analogy, but just everything is like a level up. And you have a very defined set of goals that once you achieve that goal, you get to go to the next thing, right. That is not the way corporate America works. And so, as a young person, who has been wired that way, this is the way that you’ve come up through society, I think people have to be very careful about trying to get promoted and title seek and get to the next level before they’re ready to do so. And I think, conversely, I think companies need to do a better job of helping them understand that, Hey, yeah, you did check those three skills off and you’re able to solve those particular problems, but you know, you’re kind of a jerk to your people. Or you don’t really know how to motivate your team. And that’s not something that you just go to a class and get done and say, all right, I have my motivation of people badge. What’s next, right? How do I get to be a senior consultant or a senior manager now? So, I think there’s some education on both sides to help people with that in their career. But I think young people, especially a lot of them have that challenge and trouble understanding that sometimes seat time is not a bad thing.
I made that mistake in my career before where I title seeked and it was too early. So, I would caution people against that. You gotta have an honest conversation with yourself, if you’re paid fairly for the expertise and the experience you’re bringing to the table, and if you feel like you’re being challenged and you’re growing, then what’s the problem. So, when you get to the point where you feel like you’ve outgrown that, you should be having those conversations with your leader.