Podcast: Vice President at Fortna – Dr. Russ Meller

By Published On: April 28, 2021

Hosts: Mike Ogle and Rodney Apple

In This Episode:

Dr. Russ Meller, Vice President of both the Solution Design group and the Research and Development group at Fortna, shares his career journey from two decades of award-winning teaching and research as a professor, to his current role focused on leading the design of distribution solutions. Russ speaks with us about the kinds of hard and soft skills his team needs, including the value of being a great persuasive storyteller, the value of delivering on promises, and how clients and solution providers best work together.

Russ Meller Bio:

Dr. Russ Meller is Vice President of two groups at Fortna. He heads Solution Design and Research & Development. Solution Design develops optimal designs of distribution centers that meet Fortna’s clients’ business and operational needs. R&D is responsible for all software modeling aspects used for designing and implementing complex distribution centers. Dr. Meller joined Fortna after 20 years in academics as an educator, researcher, and part-time consultant, and has taught at Auburn University, Virginia Tech, and the University of Arkansas. He has won several awards for teaching and research, and is a Fellow of IISE. He is the recipient of an NSF Career Award, and was named as one of the three founding Physical Internet Pioneers and also a Rainmaker by DCVelocity. Recently, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the highest honor for an Engineer in the United States.


My first supply chain influence was, I worked for a small consulting company in Atlanta, Georgia called SysteCon. A long time ago.  That was actually before I got my PhD. I worked as a consultant in the field through some connections at the University of Michigan and SysteCon. After working there for awhile, which I enjoyed immensely, working for a consulting company, at some point I decided, I’d really like to know the right answer to some of these questions. Not just THE answer we could come up with in a day’s worth of time so that really intrigued me. There were a lot of interesting questions out there in the supply chain material handling field, and that people really just didn’t know the answer to. And I thought. Wow. 

After spending a year, trying to solve those under very intense time pressure. I thought it’d be interesting to have some time to reflect back and try to solve them, so that’s when I went back to get my PhD. As you know, Mike, I spent a lot of time working with MHI, through one of their organizations, it’s called CICMHE, which is not a call to action, but an acronym for the College Industry Council on Material Handling Education. That really opened my eyes to where the industry was and how academics could work effectively with industry partners. And so, I really enjoyed that experience, which led into me being the director of an industry-university cooperative research center, where companies would actually engage in research that could bring them immediate results. And so. All those things. I think you can see a progression of someone who’s interested in solving the problems, but are interested in solving real problems. And that’s really my background on how I got into the field. 

Our solution design team are the folks that are responsible once we’ve gathered the requirements from a client, they’re the team is responsible to make sure we come to the right solution, which really means the correct application of technology that meets or exceeds the requirements and is the right trade off in terms of capital and OPEX, ROI and things like that. So that group is people that have a lot of experience in the field and are good at navigating the solution space for clients because every client requirements are a little bit different. On the R & D side, we have a lot of roles, but the main role is we’re trying to provide, mathematical modeling, simulation modeling, data analysis, algorithm development, to make us better. A better company at designing so that, we can put tools and algorithms in the hands of the solution design folks so that they make sure that we get to the right answer every time. 

I think all of the folks on either of my teams are in either industrial or mechanical engineers by training. They may pick up another degree along the way in graduate school, but they’re all engineers. They all have sort of that background of analyzing systems. On the industrial side, really thinking about data a little bit more, we’re definitely looking for someone with a systems thinker approach to things, right? Not thinking about things in isolation, but thinking about the whole system, they all have to be extremely strong in collaboration, on the solution design side, these are folks that are working with the consulting team, that gathers requirements, and then directly with the client to, explain to them what solution we arrived at and why we arrived there. 

So, collaboration is very important. And the way that we think as a company is we think about things from a design first principles perspective, meaning that I should be able to explain to you why I maybe started with a simple solution and how a requirement led me to some other solution and then other, but didn’t meet all the requirements so I had to pivot to another solution and how I can navigate sort of the solution space. It is really important to us as a company. And so, people they can think of about things, instead of saying the answer to every question is, well, it depends, that they can then ask a question that actually has a sort of definitive answer because it’s a little bit lower level down question. We call those a first principle question and use those first principles to sort of build up a solution from that. So, it’s a methodology that we’ve developed at Fortna that we train our people on. While we’re interviewing people, of course, we’re trying to elicit, can abstract one level up and communicate in that level? Or are they always in the details? Because if they’re always in the details, they’re not going to be able to move at the speed we need to move them to design appropriately. 

The things I really like to hear back from clients after we’ve been in an engagement is they say something like, wow, Fortna really helped me think about how to think through challenging questions that I didn’t really have an answer for. And if they really said something along the lines of man, they just broke down everything so I understood it so clearly that I could go tell the story to my leadership. Again, that’s a home run for us. And if they mentioned the term educational along the way, like they educated us on technology in a way that we had never thought about before. I would rather at the end of the day that the client or whoever we’re working with, they come away from the experience knowing more than what they did feeling comfortable about what they learned. And best case they’re put in a position where they can go even spread the story or the solution even further. So that’s what we’re trying to achieve. And so those are the comments that I’d like to hear back from clients.

Kind of related, right. In the sense we try to get a sense that we’ve educated people along the way, or we’ve just given people answers. So, this is something that hearkens back to my experience as a professor. When a student comes into office hours, you’re trying to have a conversation. Mike knows as well, right. Having a conversation with them. So that you lead them to the right answer without telling them the right answer. Why, because then they’ll be able to get back someday to the right answer. And so, the same thing, by asking their teammates, I can get a sense, did that solution architect just come and say, this is the answer, and this is why we’re doing it. And the team went away not to understanding it and not having learned anything in the process. Or did they work collaboratively with those team members? So, at the end of it, the rest of the team really understood where they got, why, and can bring that experience to their next project.  

We talk about a lot of ways, but do they work through others? If they’re in that leadership position, are they working through others or are they just telling the answers? And obviously we’d like the former, not the latter. And then I guess that’s sort of on the process side maybe. And if I think about the results side, I really want to understand if we enable better decision making and reduce our risk as a company. So, our company is founded on the value that we do this every day, our clients don’t. And so, we should be better at it. We should take some of the risks out of the process. So, as they’re designing, are they being conscious of the risk trade off and making decisions so that we get to a solution that for us does not seem risky, even though it may seem risky to our clients.

So I will say as a rule, folks that are coming to us without a lot of experience, are poor storytellers. And I don’t mean that like we’re spinning yarns. But being able to from a formal perspective in a school, in a university setting, we call argumentative writing or argumentative thought processes.  Are they able to structure a conversation so that at the end of it, someone has followed along and got to the right answer, versus just going from A, to B, to C, to Z and there’s no rhyme or reason why they’re jumping around.  People want to understand, and if someone’s buying a $60 million distribution system that we’re supplying, they really need to understand it before they buy it. I think that’s the one skill, folks that join us, either coming directly from school or have fewer years of experience tend to not do as well, and be able to tell stories in a compelling way to clients so that they understand. That’s the constant that I see across our newer, less experienced folks. And then on the flip side, more experienced folks that we hire, we have the opposite problem. They have that skillset, but they come in and they already have a design methodology that they’ve been trained on and used over the years. And we want them to use our design methodology. So, I always say it’s much easier to train someone than untrain someone. And so, it takes a lot longer to untrain someone. That’s why we put a great focus in our company about promoting from within and trying as much as we can to hire younger folks that have less experience and investing in them to get them into our way of thinking. We think that’s a better long-term, more scalable strategy. but it’s not always possible to do that. And there are times when it’s advantageous to bring folks in from the outside. 

Yeah, I love that language. We don’t use that so much on the design side, we use things like service level agreements instead of bold promises.  We’re often working with clients that have essentially a weekly shipment to their retail stores. They get the orders days in advance and they service those stores with cases that have that happen stuff that could go anywhere in their store. That’s where they are. And they’re like, this isn’t working. We need to go to replenishing our stores every day, instead of every week. And our stores are not interested in 12 cartons with stuff in it. They can go anywhere in our store. They want 12 cartons that are segregated by the planigram in the store, the different categorization of the way they store things in the stores, what we call store ready. And so that’s the kind of promise that we’re talking about is like, how do you make that transformation from once a week, you’ll take what you get to a, I’m going to put this in the best possible way to make your store operations as efficient as possible. That sounds easy from the store side. They’ll go great. From the distribution side, of course it provides a number of challenges to make that transformation. Same thing on the eCommerce side, going from three or four day lead time to we’ll ship it out the next day to we’ll ship it on same day to we’ll ship it out in the next few hours. All of those are bold promises. We have a client we worked with that their promise was, if you didn’t get your order, by the next day, we would send you a check for $50. And, of course they didn’t want to send checks for $50. So, they worked with us because they were sending too many of those, to redesign their distribution operations so that they could reduce the number of checks that they had to send out. That’s the kind of promise we’re referring to.   

We have a sort of a brand that started in HR and it went across the company to be our internal cultural brand, which is passion, promise, people.  We try to hire people that will essentially take on the problems of our clients and make them their own. We provide 24-7 support for clients year-round so when our client support team gets a phone call about a problem at a distribution center, they immediately understand the magnitude of this. There could be hundreds of people standing around with nothing to do in the case of a really bad failure. So, we try to hire people that have the passion to really take on that they can deliver on our promise, which is we will be their partner going forward and will not let them down. So those are the promises we’re making the clients. To do these things we have to invest continuously in our people. Our client’s interests come first. So, we’re always trying to figure out ways to live up to that. Passion promise people is another embodiment of that idea.

We do have an internship program. I would say it’s not formal in the sense of some larger companies. It’s openly known within the company that if you would like to hire an intern, that’s a pretty easy thing to get approved. And so, some departments take advantage, some don’t. We have taken advantage of it in the R and D department. We hired someone for a summer, had them come in an area that none of us have really spent much time.  We put the intern in that area to put them in a position to learn a bit and then try to teach us how can we bring this knowledge to the company? And so, I would say that was a pretty positive experience overall. I know that software has hired interns. Our HR staff has hired interns. I don’t know that our consulting teams have, because there’s such a heavy travel requirement. Engineering has had some interns, so there’s quite a few groups in our company that have taken advantage of it and I think with our new leadership, we’re likely to formalize that a bit more going forward.

As you might imagine, I’ve had to tell the story a few times. Because like you said, no one does this, it’s very rare anyway, and I’ve been successful in hiring a couple of people out of academia, so I know how hard it is to get people to leave academia. 

I’ll try and give the short version of this. I moved around a little bit in my, academic career from different universities, but one of the drawbacks was I always happen to move right before I was going to go on sabbatical and sabbaticals of course are really cool opportunity. When I landed at the University of Arkansas, I made it known far and wide that I was going to stay long enough to get that sabbatical, and personally, because I really wanted the experience of living overseas, for me and my family. This is important to me, and so being on sabbatical, you have a chance to reflect on what you like about what you’re doing, what you don’t like. And I realized I really liked my job as a professor. I will then go back to Arkansas and I’ll be, I’m very happy. I think I’m pretty good at this. I think this would be a good for my next 20 years of my career. But in the middle that sabbatical, I got to got a phone call. I set up an appointment with John White, who was then the CEO and president of Fortna. And he started talking to me about how they were starting an R and D group. They liked my work.  And, he said, we’d like to hire one of your students. And so, we talked about it for about an hour. I said, you should just hire me. And he said, you’ll never leave academia. Cause his father is a professor. Former Chancellor at the University of Arkansas. You have tenure, you have an endowed chair position. You’re the director of a research center. You’ll never leave academia. I said, I dunno, it just seems like a great way to keep using my skillsets, but in a slightly different way, I’m very interested in it. So, we talked over about the next year. Before we decided that I wanted to make the transition. So, it was about a year process, and one that was filled with a lot of investigation on both sides, but in the end, I thrilled that I made the decision.

It was amazing. I went to Austria and to a town called Graz. I had a part time position at Schaefer, and enjoyed that interaction greatly. And then I had a part time gig at the university working on my research, and co-writing a book with a couple of colleagues on the concept called the physical internet.  It changed our lives, it changed our outlook on how we want to live. 

Yeah, hard skills. Do as much math and tools and the engineering, science, math courses, as you can, to feel really comfortable, thinking about things, analytically. That’s the strongest thing you’re going to take as an engineer or as a business student. And apply it in the real world, and get as many as those skills that you can apply immediately, because that’s certainly what we’re hiring for. Or we want you to come in with the best skill set you have and come in and do something immediately. And then we’re going to develop you further by taking advantage of the way you think because the skills will evolve over time.  Figure out a course you can take that will get you to the point where you will not only learn to write, but you will learn how to formulate arguments.  Persuasive writing. I want someone to be able to write in a way that is structured enough to change a point of view of somebody or reinforce it. So, anyway, I think that’s a skill that all engineers and business students should have is that ability to persuasively communicate. 

On the soft skills, get really comfortable talking to people, get really comfortable presenting information, get very comfortable working in teams, I would say, except that all students today are forced to work excessively in groups. So, they all learn how to work in a team or at least, they get experience working in team. This idea of just being able to speak comfortably with lots of different types of people at lots of the different levels. Communication is the number one attribute that you’ll develop your whole career, I think. 

I know I’ve been harping on this a lot. I wish I would’ve understood the power of persuasion, the ability to relate to people. Something people don’t know about me is I sold Fuller brush products, door to door as a high school student, selling stuff door to door putting yourself out there and getting rejected over and over again is invaluable to learning how to relate to people and get across your points and move something forward. You don’t have to end up in sales, but everyone should be in sales at some point, I think in some minor way, at least. To sell means you have to be able to relate. From the other person’s point of view.  That’s a skill that’s valuable, no matter what you do.

I thought someone would train me a little more than they did. So, the first thing I did, they just like plop me down and said, okay, there’s your computer. It’s got the simulation program loaded on it. You’re going to simulate that line out there. And we’ll take you out there and introduce you to some folks, and then you start doing it. I’d had a course in simulation, but the professor had given you exactly, essentially what you need to simulate and why, what are the questions you’re trying to answer? And then these senior consultants and slowly observe them. Oh, they don’t really understand what we should be simulating. The client’s going to tell us what to simulate and what questions they want answered and how we gather this. I learned only by observing, like there was nothing formal at all.  You go from a university setting where you’re constantly being educated in a very pretty structured way, for some desirable outcome and then you go to work and they want the outcome, but they don’t really do the things to train you, but they do let you observe people that are good at it. And so, you have to learn by observation. Maybe that’s obvious that’s the way it would work, but I didn’t know that when I got my first job. 

That one I can remember more just because I’ve reflected on it a lot more over the years.  It took me a long time to realize what was important. I knew publishing papers was important and to get any money. And I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the higher level, what was important, like the impact I could make on people’s lives, students mainly. It took me a long time to figure out that I was an independent entrepreneur. That’s the way all faculty should think of themselves. They’re an independent entrepreneur. They’re running their own sort of enterprise where the university pays them a salary to do one part. And they expect them to do all these other things, but how they do those other things is really up to the faculty member. And you can quickly figure out how you’re trying to maximize your utility reward from the university. That’s the first layer. The second layer is what is important? What really is going to make the impact? I spent a lot of time thinking about that. Spent a lot of time, working with, first generation college students, because I was one of those trying to give them that little bit of something, that could impact on their career or their life. So, I spent a lot of time picking out the students to invest a little bit more in, because I saw something they needed for one reason or another. And, that in the end was what I thought was truly important in that role. It took me a long time to figure that out.

Well, you just described exactly what’s keeping us in business. So, I’ll say we don’t mind that these things are happening, but it is challenging. It’s likely to remain challenging. All the things you mentioned, I don’t see those reversing except fortunately, hopefully COVID. We have clients today where we just finished a design effort that we started in December of last year, but we took a pause during COVID and when we reengaged after the critical period of COVID, they had new requirements on how they want us to design the distribution center. Because COVID is likely to be resolved, but there may be something down the road. And they don’t want to be caught as flatfooted as they were this time. So, it’s, it’s already having an impact on design. It’s already having an impact when clients say, I’m thinking about automation in a new way now because of COVID-19. Labor availability, on the one hand and the increasing pace of technological development on the other hand I’m sure that’s likely to continue.  

    Here’s the hardest part when clients come in and they talk about automation, how they would really like automation because of some labor issue. When you get into the nuts bolts of it and they’re faced with a financial decision, what almost always kills automation is what we would refer to as the peak to average ratio, meaning the peak amount that they have to fulfill in a day versus the average amount they have to fulfill on a day. If that’s low, like in some industries like grocery, it’s a lot easier to justify automation. Why? Because automation is justified on the average day not at the peak day, the peak, it might only happen for 10 days on a year.  You can’t take the labor savings for that day and somehow justify the automation. It’s almost always the average day. So as the peak gets bigger and bigger, versus the average, it’s harder and harder to justify that automation because of course you need the automation for that. It drives me crazy when almost everybody’s peak is related to the Christmas holiday season. If all these retailers could figure out a way to slice off the top of that peak and move it into other days and not upset their customers I think understanding that dynamic would be a huge advance in the field and allow a lot more technology to be adopted.  I think people are understanding that if you’re going to do automation, you have to think about where the automation is and what your needs are. And find that good compromise and not let perfect be the enemy of good.

We do have an advantage because we’re charged with doing this. This is part of my job and solution design is to make sure that we have a point of view on all the technologies out there. Of course, we utilize R and D to help us fit together everything in the landscape to know how everything relates to one another so we can successfully apply technology. That essentially pushes to me weekly, write a summary of what they saw that they thought was interesting over the last week. So. similar to probably emails that you receive from organizations like MHI or something like that, they’re curating content that is very appropriate to folks in our company.  

In terms of advice, the second part of your question, I would say find a reliable source of getting a weekly digest. There’s a lot of groups out there that will push you a weekly sort of summary of stuff that they came in contact with. Or some way that you can figure out how to, how to do that appropriately for yourself. Cause I think it’s something you have to maintain. It’s just something that you have to view it as being part of your job is to constantly be looking at that. And you’ll have to do that often. You’ll have to constantly be updating how they fit together to get a really reliable map of what that looks like, cause it’s so dynamic, and then of course find ways to validate that over time. Go to trade shows or some other way, have conversations with peers in your field, where you expose part of your mental map and let them challenge it or think about it. That’s the way I think about it. I’m maybe completely different than anyone else is, but that’s the way I think about it.

So a really good client for us is someone who is educated, right. That understands the trade-offs. Maybe doesn’t understand them the same way we do or it’s the level we do or all the different technology, but they’re used to making trade-offs because the hardest thing to work with is someone who doesn’t understand that. You can’t have everything, right? Everything has a consequence. You want a little bit more of this. You’re likely to get a little bit less than that, unless you’re willing to pay more for this. Right? So, this is the trade-off. We have cycle time, productivity and investment, right. And you can’t have all three in any one given decision. So, if someone understands that and is used to making trade-offs, they’re a great client to work with. If they don’t understand that, it’s challenging to be able to get them to that point. So, I would say that’s probably the most important part is just understanding a systems perspective, how there are lots of trade-offs that have to be made, because we certainly make tons of trade-offs as we’re doing the design to try to get so a point where we, meet or exceed all their business and operational requirements. 

And I guess the other thing I would add is if they really understand that technology is just a lever is just a part of the solution, how to operationalize the technology is extremely critical to its success. Technology by itself is probably not the answer, it’s thinking about how you incorporate that into an operation. That’s going to really provide value for them.  

Yeah, as I may have mentioned, we’re a  people company, we’re a professional services company, so we’re always learning new things and figuring out how to relate it to old things, so that is really second nature to us. And I do sort of feel for the person who’s like the director of engineering that works for one of our clients. That they’ve got a day to day job that is very focused on the four walls of the distribution center. And yet they have to constantly think of ways to improve themselves and the company through what they learn. And there’s a lot of different places to do it. In some ways it’d be better if there were fewer. Because then you could invest. Be obvious what the choice was and you could invest a lot of energy in that, but you can do it a lot of ways. There’s a lot of places you could go. I know it’s probably not a one size fits all.  It’s a challenge to figure out what’s the direction to go. 

I’m always impressed when one of my team members is asked to accompany someone else in the company and give that presentation about a success story or something we’re working on how much growth they get. But, that just feeds into my whole philosophy on education as you learn by doing. So, they learn a lot about subject by being forced to present it and try to teach someone else about it. To have those experiences, to learn by doing, I would love every company out there to learn by doing, by implementing new technology all the time. But, you know, that has a cost, a price tag associated that, so it’s not always possible.

Yeah, we do. So, when we’re designing a distribution center, that’s an 8 to 12 week project with a client. Whereas we say, boy, if we can get that to six to eight weeks, think of how much money we can make.  We really can’t because we have to work with our clients. They have to come along with us. It’s not going to be any good for us to get to the finish line at six weeks and they’re left behind. It’s going to take longer.  It is part of the change management process. It is them taking ownership because again, we’re a consulting company where we’re leading them through the process. but in the end, it’s their solution. and they have to own it at the end of it. And so, the whole way, right, as this sort of transformation from things that are in my guys’ heads into tools, into deliverables.  We’re slowly moving the responsibility onto their side, and everyone understands that, but I don’t think it’s talked about very frequently.  

Thanks for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.  I’m very interested in how to move people’s careers forward. I guess one thing I wish I would have said was you cannot judge someone’s future success by the four years they spend as an undergrad.  You’ll see students mature and change and develop over those four years. And you’ll see some students that don’t mature and change over those four years, but then they go out and they come back and they’re super inspired and they’re doing really cool things and you’re like, wow, I never would have guessed it. Which just goes to show you, these are young people and they’re still forming. Never discourage anyone, never say someone can’t do anything because you’ve been proven wrong.   My experience shows me that some people will go on to just be great engineers or great in their career. It’s like, you can’t tell.  We shouldn’t be in the business as educators of standing in people’s way, being gatekeepers. But as far as their development, as a human being, you should be their cheerleader. That’s your job. Give them as many skills as you can and hope they do great work. Cause most of them will.