Podcast: Executive Director for the American Logistics Aid Network – Kathy Fulton

By Published On: April 20, 2021

Hosts: Mike Ogle and Rodney Apple

In This Episode:

we have a conversation with Kathy Fulton, Executive Director for the American Logistics Aid Network, an organization that delivers logistics information, services, and equipment to ensure communities have continuity of nourishment, hydration, and medical care during a crisis. Kathy shares her own supply chain journey, from mathematics, to information systems, to becoming a loaned executive, then permanent executive director for the ALAN organization. Kathy tells us how the collection of nonprofits works together to provide logistics services during disasters and crises, plus she shares ideas about mentoring, continuously learning, career trends, and the best advice that guides her own career in supply chain.

Kathy Fulton Bio:

Kathy Fulton is Executive Director for American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN). She leads the organization in delivering logistics information, services, and equipment to ensure communities have continuity of nourishment, hydration, and medical care during crises. The focus is on the critical role logistics and supply chain professionals play in disaster relief. Fulton was previously Sr. Manager of Information Technology Services at Saddle Creek Logistics Services where she led IT infrastructure implementation and support, corporate systems, and business continuity planning. She has a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Northwestern State University of Louisiana and a Master’s degrees in Business Administration (concentration in Supply Chain Management) and Management Information Systems from the University of South Florida.


Sure. What’s really funny is I don’t consider myself, even now after working here for 20 plus years, a supply chain professional. As an industry, we need to consider how we define what is this supply chain career. I actually started out working for a third-party logistics company doing information technology. I wasn’t someone who was working in the warehouse, so it wasn’t someone who was managing operations. So, I never really considered myself part of the supply chain. And then, about 10 years ago, well, really about 12 years ago now I had the opportunity to volunteer with American Logistics Aid Network. That volunteer opportunity turned into what has now become my career. Because of that, it’s really opened my eyes to say, look every component of the supply chain is critical, whether it’s information technology, whether it’s the people on the dock, whether it was the truck driver, everything is part of making sure that goods move from point of origin to point of destination to the consumer. And the lens that I came at it with is supply chains in crisis. 

All of those components are even more important. So, when you look at and who’s influenced me, the things that have driven my career, it’s actually, more events I would say than necessarily people and people have been very, very important. I’ve had some terrific mentors and we can talk about those, but, really, it’s looking at how supply chains are responding to particular events in time that I think has been a big influence for me.

I was working in IT and my boss wasn’t going to retire anytime soon. I needed a little bit of a career challenge, so, I had just finished grad school and it was kind of that moment in my career where I had some decisions to make. I’d been volunteering with ALAN for a couple of years and the CEO of Saddle Creek at the time came to me and said, you really seem to enjoy what you’re doing with American Logistics Aid Network. Would you be interested in serving as a loaned executive to that organization for a year? It was something completely out of the blue. I was not expecting it. After a lot of soul searching, and so I called the recruiter I was most familiar with and I said, what is this going to do to my career? When I come back, he said, you’re going to gain skills. They’ve told you, your position is secure when you come back. So why would you not do this? It’s an opportunity to do something different, learn something different. 

 So that’s what I did. That year turned into two and a half years as truly a loaned executive. And then I became a full-time staff member for the organization. My lesson from that is that I was just willing to say yes. I approached it with caution as I think we have to look at everything in our careers is how, what is this going to mean? But it was a safe bet, I guess. And it’s really been a wonderful journey for me.  

American Logistics Aid Network or ALAN was actually formed by the industry. We were formed by, I think about 13 industry associations. I think, Mike Ogle, you were probably one of the folks who was there at our inception 15 years ago.  It is the industry’s response to crisis. What had happened in hurricane Katrina with all of the logistics challenges was really eye-opening. Industry professionals said, look, we literally move goods around the world every single day. Why is it so difficult to move things into an area that’s been affected by crisis? And that really kicked off what we do. We’re here to serve the non-profit community, that the folks who are actually on the ground doing the work, the people who are cooking and sheltering and cleaning up after the crisis. But, all of those organizations need some form of logistics support. They have to move their cleanup supplies there. They have to get refrigerated trailers so that they can stage the food that they’re going to cook.  It’s this complex puzzle of putting together all the pieces in a different location, because disasters rarely do they hit the same location twice. 

 Different location, different requirements, your population is never consistent. All of those things that as logisticians and supply chain professionals, we’re really well equipped to understand how to support those needs. We’re accustomed to dealing with variability. I love to tell my emergency management friends that, emergency managers may or may not understand logistics and supply chain, but supply chain managers always understand emergencies because they are dealing with them all day every day from the smallest disruption of a truck and being late or off schedule to the big disruptions that affect our ability to serve our markets.  

 Everything that we do is actually done by our corporate partners. And I probably should have said that we don’t build our own networks. We don’t have trucks, we don’t have warehouses. We rely on the generosity of organizations. You mentioned Saddle Creek. Groups who have these assets, they have these resources, they have people with knowledge and expertise who want to help. We just help them engage in a fashion that is organized, not scattershot, if we can unify all of that corporate goodwill, communities are gonna be healed much faster and that’s not to say that those same businesses aren’t themselves affected by crisis. We do things to make sure that they have the information and knowledge that they need to keep their businesses running.  

 Most of the businesses we work with, the small and medium-sized businesses that make up so much of the logistics and supply chain infrastructure, we can support them through things like our supply chain intelligence center, which is a real-time map, showing everything that’s out there. Anything that we can do to keep supply chains moving we want to do that. Our nonprofit partners, we love them. We love the resources they bring. We love the resources that governments can bring, but the best way to serve a community after a crisis is through those preexisting supply chains, is through the stores that are already in the communities. The food banks are already in the communities because those supply chains have been built to serve that population. Replacement supply chains are great, but the previous, pre-existing ones are what we’re aiming to get restarted and going again.

Our team, our staff is fairly small. I serve as the executive director, which is kind of the CEO position. We have someone just recently who’s joined the team part-time to help us with our operations. We have some admin support and then we have an incredible network of volunteers. We couldn’t do what we do without volunteers, and they come from the big-name logistics and supply chain organizations. Some of them just come from elsewhere. We have a writer on the team who has some background with healthcare. She came to us because she’s like, you know, I I’ve heard about this logistic stuff and just let me know how I can help. She’s doing data, like metrics gathering for us and writing about it because it’s a skill that she has. A small team, but as I said, the work is being done by our partners. We’re just helping to coordinate that.

Absolutely. Our website, alanaid.org, A L A N A I D .org. It just says, click here to volunteer or something like that. We have a wonderful volunteer coordinator who spent decades in industry and developing people and as a professor and now he helps us to match those talents to the jobs that we need done. It’s been fascinating to get just these great, really talented people. We had the opportunity to work with some students this year, from Arizona State as interns and all of them are now in the point where they’re getting their terrific jobs, their first jobs out of school. And these are really high, high caliber students. Right. All honor students. But, a couple of them have specifically said, the company I interviewed with was really interested in this nonprofit work because we’re dealing with supply chain, we’re dealing with crisis. We see it as an opportunity to help people build those crisis management and emergency response skills. I know that means that those businesses are going to be in a better position to respond the next time a disaster occurs.

I believe that you have to seek out your mentors, they don’t magically appear. Right. I’ve had the opportunity to work for some great bosses who were mentors. And I’ve had the opportunity to just have friends completely outside of the industry who continue to mentor me even to this day. But there has to be the ability to have that open and honest conversation with them to say, look, I am really struggling with this. Have you ever dealt with this situation and I don’t need you to give me the answers, but I just need you to help me talk it through. One of my great mentors, who sadly no longer with us was Jock Menzies, who served as the founding president of American Logistics Aid Network. And Jock was the type of person that everyone loved because he was such a good listener. That’s one of the things that I strive for. And as you can tell, because I talk too much, I’m not always successful at, but I think finding that mentor who is willing to listen to you. Willing to tell you you’re just being stupid. Because sometimes I need my mentors to tell me that. Just willing to have that conversation, someone you can talk with openly.  

I tell students all the time, find someone within your organization because they can talk to you about specifics within your organization, within your industry, but look for somebody external as well. Maybe somebody who has a position that you aspire to one day. 

That’s a great point. I think that organizations, the associations, they’re the heart of ALAN, but they’re also a really important to me personally, on my journey. I think of all of the great content that these associations are able to provide, whether it is anything from operations management, if I’m looking for general supply chain stuff. This broad network of associations that exist to support supply chain professionals, really soup to nuts can answer any question and it’s not just the education. That’s so critical to me and the content that I get. But the relationships in the people, also those friendships, because even if someone is not really truly a formal mentor, I still have gained so many relationships because of those associations.

Yeah, there’s no typical disaster. I wish there were, because then I could just create an SOP and go through the checklist every time. Our work actually starts well in advance of any crisis occurring. Let’s just take a weather event, for example, hurricanes, we’ve just come through a really active hurricane season. And, we know the types of things that are going to be needed every time. We know that in order for our partners to serve the communities that have been affected, they’re going to need a warehouse space. They’re going to need transportation to bring supplies into the area. All of the things that have to be replaced temporarily are needed. So, we’re building relationships. I would say that everything starts with building relationships, understanding who are the transportation companies for the trucking companies in a particular area who are the warehousing organizations and who are the ones who are proximate to a particular area.  

Now we can’t do that for the entire United States, which is where our efforts focus, but we can look along those high-risk regions, right? So, the Gulf coast, the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern States. We know those areas are going to be more prone to particular types of disasters. And then we also were participating in a number of crisis exercises even throughout the last eight months of the pandemic. We still participated in exercises even as busy as our ongoing response operations have been, we have to do that. We need to understand, what would happen if there were a major earthquake along the Wasatch fault in Salt Lake City this year, I didn’t even know Salt Lake City had a fault line. So, understanding those things, participating in those things, building our knowledge base, building those relationships. Then as you get into the crisis, obviously you’re working with the nonprofit partners and saying, okay, what is it that you really need right now, how can we help support that? We take those needs in, then we go out to industry and ask who can support them. We’ve built these relationships, and ALAN is always about opportunity, not obligation. We recognize that, even if the business has committed to us ahead of time, that they’re willing to support something when it gets to the time of the event, things have changed. 

Everyone’s operations have been upended this year. In some ways that’s provided more opportunity for us to work with businesses who may be a little slower. But, as fall of 2020 showed us, who knows what’s going to happen with transportation markets. It’s just all over the place. We get requests for support, for everything from five or six pallets of tarping material to cover roofs to, Hey, I’ve got 30 truckloads of food that I need to move. It’s really all over the place, but I think that’s kind of the fun for our volunteers is to say, look, this is something I’ve never dealt with before, but we can find a solution because of who we are, in who we know really. 

Yeah, absolutely. I’ll direct people back to our website, again, the ALANaid.org. Everything that we do is provided for free for the nonprofits we support.  We provide information briefs out to our business partners. I’ve already mentioned the supply chain intelligence center. All of that is being provided for free because we have generous sponsors. If they see people who have been in crisis, how their lives have been affected, they want to help. And they know that logistics and supply chain, it’s literally 80% of any crisis response. So, anything that we can do that we can provide for free means that that community has to spend less those individual survivors have to spend less, and it means that nourishment, hydration and medical care is getting there faster.

Oh, absolutely. Government emergency management is who everyone thinks of when they think of a response to a disaster, right. They think we’re FEMA. But even FEMA is working with those local businesses to help get them restarted. So yes, we’re absolutely partnering with all of those organizations. We do it a couple of different ways. We’ve worked with the voluntary agency liaisons within those emergency management groups, but we’re also working with what are called private sector coordinators. And I encourage any business who’s listening right now to look at whether your city or state has an business emergency operation center, because it’s a way that you can get plugged in. 

FEMA has a business emergency operation center that’s open to any business in the country. It’s free. You fill out an application that says you’re not gonna talk to the media about the information that you’re receiving. So we participate in that and then we’re also helping to inform the emergency management organizations about what’s happening in business. We’re seeing what’s going on in commercial supply chains. That information is important for governments to understand how they should respond. If supply chains are moving, everything’s flowing well then there’s really not a need for government to come in and give away free food and water. I mean, yes, there are going to be gaps, but again, it goes back to this preexisting supply chains. In that case, you know, a government action could be more disruptive and we want to help prevent those types of disruptive actions. 

It’s a long way to look back, at this point. But, I think at the beginning, I wish that I had known that it’s okay to have a lot of different interests. I did. My undergrad is in math. I had no idea what I was going to do with that whenever I graduated, but I also participated in a lot of extracurricular activities. I did band, I did student government. I danced for a little while. I think in your undergraduate program, it’s really important to have that variety, not just so you know what you want, but also because you meet and interact with so many different people. That’s going to help shape your perspective on your career. When I was graduating, I wish I had known not to try and find just that perfect job that was gonna last me forever. I think that that was probably a particular mindset at the time when I graduated decades ago. I think that people have less of that mindset now. Just being willing to take a job that maybe I was going to enjoy and I was going to learn and grow from, but it didn’t have to be that career long job.

If you look at big trends, automation is certainly going to be one and, the ability to understand how to leverage automation. I don’t think it’s something to be feared, but something to be taken advantage of. Data, big data, AI, whatever flavor of analytics. I think that that also is really interesting and I also recognize not everybody wants to do those types of careers. I look at the things that are still going to require a physical kind of hands on. We’re still gonna need people who can drive our trucks. Autonomous vehicles and all of that are certainly an influence, but we’re still gonna need people who can do those things. And in addition to needing people who can do those things. We need people who can supervise the people who are doing those things. We need people with good management skills. We need people with good people skills.  

I will say, one thing that I think is particular to these times we’re living in during the pandemic is the home deliveries and the omni-channel and people who understand network analysis. I talked to a lot of folks and one of the things that they say is, we can’t hire enough engineers. They’re just not out there. The challenge was there pre-pandemic, and they admit to that. But right now, as they’re trying to figure out how to completely reconfigure distribution channels and redesign warehouses for more individual orders rather than shipping big truckloads, those skills, that expertise is really in demand. It’s so critical right now in getting supplies to people from a disaster perspective, we tend to lag whatever industry does. So, I’m looking at these things, not one to three years from now, but four or five years from now, how are we going to be able to take advantage of that? 

Yeah. And we’re not as technology savvy, as you would think for a former IT person. But a lot of the collaborative ability is really our biggest change over the past six to eight months. The ability to, to do more collaborative conversations, taking things out of email, getting things in front of people in a way that they are accustomed to seeing them. I think those types of how we communicate are probably going to be a big driver for how our supply chains operate in the future as well.

Yeah. And we’re actually literally just yesterday had a conversation on this very topic. But it’s so important for us to be able to show our partners the impact that they’re having. So, I can’t just say, we’ve dealt with 300 cases this year and we’ve solved, 220 of them or whatever that may be. We have to say, look, those cases that we saw resulted in 10,000 donated transportation miles, and actually the number’s much higher than that, but just don’t know it right now. Or, 5 million meals being delivered or, 250,000 face masks, whatever that metric is means that the non-profit didn’t have to spend the money, but also meant that that individual survivor got what they needed faster. Those metrics that our industry like logistics and supply chain is so focused on metrics, and we have to get there as well.

I think two of my favorite pieces of career advice that I’ve ever received were don’t be afraid to fail. But fail fast. And learn from your mistakes. I think that that’s really, really critical. The embracing failure, it’s the only way innovation happens is through a lot of trial and error. The other piece that was given to me as I was completing grad school and having concerns about, do I really know what I think I know is, former CEO of a fortune 500 said to me, look, you just fake it till you make it. And I hate, I hate the way that sounds. But we’re all, every single one of us is just trying to find our place where we are right now. No one knows as much as they want you to think they know. And so, we all should be confident, don’t be cocky.  

And that brings me to the piece of advice that I love to give to people, which is own your awesome. So, don’t be afraid to represent what you know, and be that expert. But back it up by getting stuff done.  

Great question. I spend a good portion of my day reading, whether it is industry press, listening to podcast or, watching videos from our industry association partners, and others, like supply chain careers podcast. I think we’re at this unique place right now where mainstream media has started to understand who logistics and supply chain professionals are. The pandemic showed the importance of the essential supply chains. I think that’s really important to me, to follow those trends, to read, to listen, to pay attention to what others are saying. Then really kind of reflect on that and say, what does that mean for American Logistics Aid Network? What does it mean for our partners? How can we help drive more conversation around the important pieces of that vaccine supply chain is the thing that’s on everybody’s mind. And the only way to do that was to read and listen and reflect. I love to read and I love to read stuff that that’s geeky. So, a lot of those kind of standards in either crisis management or operations management or whatever, I pick them up because I’m always going to pick up something new every time I read it. 

Yeah, thank you. We always love people who can volunteer. We love people who can offer in kind services. And, we are a nonprofit to rely on those individual and corporate sponsorships. All of the information about all of those is available on our website, ALANaid.org, A L A N a i d.org.