Podcast: Last-Mile Logistics Expert – Tim Dreffer
Hosts: Mike Ogle and Rodney Apple
In This Episode:
We talk with Tim Dreffer, an expert in last-mile logistics. Covering knowledge that he obtained through his career journey starting at Frito-Lay, to positions at Ryder, JB Hunt, Cardinal Logistics, his own company myLogistics, and most recently at XPO. Tim talks with us about his early influences and mentors, plus the challenges of 3PLs as they focus more on constantly changing customer experiences. He emphasizes the importance of doing your homework on clients and customers along with follow-up, the value of having hands-on operations experience, engagement of talent and teams, and how building your network is one of the biggest life-changing things you will ever do.
Tim Dreffer’s Bio:
(01:41) 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?
Well, it’s interesting. I went to Ohio State and I was in the business program. In around my sophomore year I started looking into majors and I learned that Ohio State had one of the top logistics programs in the country. I found a couple of guys that were a little older than me that were in the program and I sat down with them, talk to them a little bit about it. Talk to a counselor about what kind of careers and what that looks like, and quite frankly, looked into what the starting salary was coming out of school for logistics majors and started taking some classes.
It was really a mix of operations management at the time, and then started getting into some of the transportation classes and really enjoyed it, and that parlayed into an internship with Frito-Lay. I spent a summer away from school, away from home, on my own, had an internship and dove in with two feet in a union environment. I was a dispatcher. I was given a few projects that were meant to provide some ROI return on investment for the three months I was there and I had some good guidance, and Frito-Lay was a great company and a really that really cemented the fact that I wanted to stay in transportation, logistics, supply chain, and see where that would lead me.
And when I graduated, I was fortunate enough to get a job with Frito-Lay to start my career down in Southern Georgia, Perry, Georgia at a plant that was starting up. So that’s what kicked me off, into this now for 30 plus years.
(03:28) Were there any mentors along the way or somebody that had a strong influence that took you in a particular direction?
Yeah, when I had my internship at Frito-Lay today, when there’s interns, sometimes people have internships just to have internships. When I went to Frito-Lay, they had a really good internship program and the person that brought me in put his arm around me and really made sure that I had all the resources that I needed had the guidance I needed. Put me in within the rest of the workforce, right in the middle of it, I was engaged in team meetings along the way. And he was somebody that wasn’t too much older than I, because he’d only been with Frito-Lay three or four years, but he knew what it was like for him coming in. So, he was very receptive and since retired, but I still call him today, talk to him about certain things.
And he was most certainly for the next three or four years of my career somebody that I leaned on heavily for guidance within Frito-Lay and within supply chain. And he turned me on to some organizations to join and get involved with. So that person, that first mentor coach, was really important for me and something that I then took forward and looked for and asked for as I moved to different organizations, keeping in touch with people along the way. And not
afraid to raise my hand. If I did have some questions as to what the expectations were, what goals we’re trying to be achieved and if I was heading the right path or not, and any of the landmines that might be sitting out there as well, so that was the start for me.
Today, when we have interns or somebody or colleagues that come on board that are new to the organization or new to the division, I make it a point to reach out to them and grab them, knowing that they are kind of lost in what they’re doing, need some direction, needs some introduction to other colleagues in the organization and where to go, what to do and what to say, kind of the language and the nomenclature and the acronyms that go along with it. Not to mention the fact they’re new and they need some guidance as to what their job expectations are, especially the interns. And so I make it a point to reach out to them on a continuous basis to make sure that they’re taken care of if they have any questions and really that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing and being held accountable to some extent, because the company is largely paying them to do some work and get an ROI, but they need the direction. They just can’t be left alone. So, I knew the importance of that, and I try to pay that forward as I go.
Tell us about some of the other industry positions that you’ve held, how different their supply chains were and some of the supply chain career lessons that you learned during the transitions between those positions?
I started off as a dispatcher in a private fleet for a company where my customer was the company. It was sales and commercial people in the company. We were delivering potato chips across the country for salespeople that were selling to stores. We were held accountable by internal folks. And then, part of that private fleet was learning about managing drivers and working with warehouse folks, and what technologies and other operations and KPIs and everything that went along with it. Frito did a great job from a larger organization providing the HR direction, young management trainee programs. But I was thrown into the fire. I had 35 truck drivers that reported to me and I was 23 years old. And many of them were twice, three times my age. So that was an eye-opening experience. And it was three or four years of operations. Working Fourth of July’s and Memorial Days and Labor Days and all the popular potato chip days.
From there, I went to a 3PL, so kinda on the other side of the fence, I was working as a contractor for Toyota. I was with Ryder and my only client was Toyota. So, I was mainly focused on engineering side of things and bringing in raw materials to the automotive industry. I’m on a plant, scheduling them inbound and then scheduling them within the plant to the line side. And that was an awesome experience. I was able to use some of my operational experience prior to put a solution together on the engineering side. The kind of evolution was big, big company to a little bit of a smaller company, but focused on providing services for a company.
From there, I went to another 3PL, JB Hunt. And we were starting up their dedicated fleet operations. It was servicing multiple types of organizations like food, retail, automotive, furniture. My operational experience combined with the engineering experience, put me in a position to design and work with the sales team to put solutions in front of these clients. And it was a lot of the private fleet stuff I was doing before, but it was an augmented fleet. It was a dedicated fleet
going in and replacing their private fleet. So, I had that kind of stepping step stone to guide me as to what worked and what didn’t.
From there I went to another organization, Cardinal Logistics, and I got into business development and sales. So, all the experience from operations, engineering, design, and solution. Now I had to sell it. I was on the forefront right in front of the client having to sell that solution out there, which if you are following along, it was stair-stepping my experience. And really starting to snowball into bigger and bigger roles, because I was learning a little bit different types or pieces of the organization that I could really then at the end of the day, standing in front of a client and sell a solution confidently because I would have been there in the trenches and operations. I’ve been there and designed and engineered a solution.
And then the next step for me was to go on my own. And so, I started my own company. It was a logistics technology company. We were providing solutions, custom solutions, custom technology solutions, mainly in the dedicated and private fleet sectors for routing and scheduling and optimization and mobile solutions and visibility and such. And that was a great experience for me. Scary, because you’re looking at the person in the mirror, that’s going to bring the income in. I also had to wear many hats, build a website and manage the books and the finances and go out and sell and then put together the solution. Help the developers put the requirements and to develop a solution. That was an eye-opening experience. I did that for eight years. It was very rewarding. It allowed me to do some other things outside of just that particular organization. Cause I was free to do some other things.
But then I got back into a small entrepreneurial type corporation that put me into the last mile sector of the supply chain that was forefront with not only are you dealing with our clients that we’re serving furniture manufacturers or retailers or online e-commerce suppliers, but now we’re dealing with the actual consumer themselves, taking it across their threshold and into their home. And you’re dealing with folks that are getting big and bulky items that cost them thousands of dollars. And you’re trying to schedule that into the home. That taught me a ton about consumer experience, customer experience and how important it is to protect the brand that we were working on behalf of. So, the retailer that we are delivering that ping pong table for protecting their brand, the retailer, or the manufacturer that we’re delivering a couch for, or the designer, or delivering a couch for protecting their brand. And it was different expectations of the client, the consumer at the end was a little bit different.
Growing into that role, my former experience in operations engineering sales did prepare me for dealing with consumers and customers in their home. That was another thing you had to learn from, and what you had to do is imagine what it felt like for you as you’re receiving in something that you spent thousands of dollars on that you’re waiting for, that you’re excited about. It’s a new treadmill. Or I need some patio furniture and you’ve got company coming over or family reunion you’ve got to get ready for, or a new refrigerator because yours is busted and You got food sitting out in a cooler. Having that empathy for those consumers, learning what it would feel like on your side, really put things in perspective.
Then as XPO purchased 3PD, I started climbing that big corporate ladder again,
and then it became one of the larger supply chain companies in North America that was all built through acquisitions. And in that sense, learned a lot about bringing a lot of different companies and cultures together into what we refer to as one XPO. And understanding you’re a public entity. And because I had 20 plus years of experience going into a position in an executive team level to understand the importance of a public company and what it means to Wall Street and the decisions you make on cost and service and how that impacts EBITDA and the return to the shareholders. And so sometimes you get a little too close to the sun and you’re like, wow, this is big order, and they were not delivering potato chips anymore. This is you’re delivering value back to shareholders and that’s a different experience in different worlds.
So that’s been my evolution from delivering potato chips to delivering shareholder value. I just didn’t know it at the time when I was delivering potato chips, I was just thinking that it’s just potato chips. Why are you getting so mad? Well, the person I was delivering it for counting on that to deliver it to a client who was a bigger role, who was paying back revenue that was delivering shareholder value at the end of the day. And it was an aha moment for me, this is a career.
(13:49) Tim, you touched on this earlier, especially in the last mile, we know that's a very hot area, growing like crazy, especially with online retail. And when you're dealing with going into people's homes, a lot of things can happen. But when you're seeking out suppliers, clients, partners, what characteristics do you try to identify in terms of preparing you to have a good relationship with that client and to generate success?
Number one is you have to believe in yourself and you have to believe in your product or your service and the company that you work for. And you have to be prepared. There are clients and consumers or customers, suppliers vendors, partners. They can see through it. If you’re not in it, if you don’t believe in what you’re selling, if you don’t believe in yourself, then it’s really just starts off in a weak relationship. And they’ll either chew you up and spit you out, or not really have that confidence in what you’re trying to do and partner with them. You have to do your research with that person, that organization. Is there a compelling event, that reason why you’re engaged with this client, let’s say you’re going in for a sale or it’s an RFP response or whatever. If you do your research ahead of time, and you’re willing to do a little extra work on providing them with free consulting or good advice or talking about your competition in a fair way giving honest opinions. But it goes back to the confidence in yourself, how compelling you are to them to want to bring you into their tent.
I would say the last thing, big thing though, is you gotta follow up, good, bad or indifferent. You have to follow up whether it’s a thank you, whether it’s, Hey, I took these notes. Here’s the meeting notes that we had here are the follow-up items. I’ve got one, two and three. I’ll get back to you at this time with four or five and six, and really providing that link back to the original discussion, because if you have follow up notes, that means you have follow-up opportunities to meet with that person and keep that relationship going. And at the end of the day, if it’s an existing client, the easiest business to get or the easiest sale is the one you
already have. Organic growth. You got to keep selling. You gotta to keep working with that client. And because that’s where the additional revenue is going to come and it’s going to be good for you and it’s gonna be good for them. And that growth means they have confidence, which means leads to other opportunity.
So you’ve got to really believe in yourself and what you’re selling and do your research again on, on who you’re talking to. And it’s easy now with LinkedIn and all the electronic avenues we have for data and information, it’s easy to do some of that research and understand what’s going on.
(16:44) When building teams, what kind of skills do you look for? I would say both hard and soft skills, when recruiting talent into that space
Specifically in the last mile space, when you’re dealing with the consumer, you have to deal with passion, compassion, and really some level of empathy. When Mrs. Jones calls you up and she’s really mad because there’s a dent on the side of her refrigerator, you just can’t say it goes up against the cabinet, nobody’s going to see it anyway. The answer is you take care of the client. You take care of the consumer, you go through the protocols and you make it your best effort to turn that bad experience into a good experience. And that requires compassion, empathy. Probably the number one thing though I look into is this a career or is this a job for that person? I don’t want somebody that’s just looking for a job. I want somebody that’s on my team that is there because it’s either part of their career or it’s an advancing their career. They want to move up and they want to move on. I want somebody that wants to take my job. Because I don’t want any complacency and I don’t want to be punching clocks. And I want people that are going to roll up their sleeves and have that energy to know that there’s something bigger and better out there.
Thirdly, probably operations. Do they have operations experience? Have they been in the trenches, if they roll up their sleeves, do they know what it’s like to get a phone call at two o’clock in the morning or having to work a little extra, maybe even on the weekend to push product through so that the consumer can get their delivery on Monday morning or going the extra mile. You’ve been there, you’ve been on the ground level. You know what it is like to have to do that. Having that operational experience certainly helps provide some background to learn and grow your career.
And of course, teamwork, you gotta be willing to work as a team. It’s the team’s responsibility to move the project forward, move the initiative forward, make the consumer happy. And you understand some people are good at things. Some people are bad at things. You just need to work together to fill those gaps. So as a team, you’re working as one. So those are probably the four things I want.
(18:55) And when you've interviewed people, what do you really look for? Like in those first five or 10 minutes, for instance?
Um, engagement. I want to know how much research they’ve done. I want to know if they know what the job entails, how they’re going to bring value. On why they want to be here. So they want to be here because this is really what they want to do. Or are they just trying to get an internship for the summer or are they
just trying to get a job to start their career? Are they asking questions that they want to show that they want to learn? Are they asking questions that are about me, like, why am I in the industry? And what advice do you have for me? And lastly, the same thing I said earlier, and that’s follow up. I don’t know how many times I’ve done an interview and talk to some people, left them with a few follow up items and they’ve never gotten back to me. Or if they have, it’s been super weak, a weak response, not thoughtful at all, and it was late. And if they’re late to the interview, forget it, on time is late, early is on time.
This is some advice for people, kids that are aspiring or interviewing or putting their name out there, it’s likely that that person has 50 other interviews to do. Don’t forget that person has a real job and a family and some of the things going on, their job isn’t to wake up and respond to you in a timely manner. But at the same time being respectful, you’ve got to reach out to them and say, Hey, what’s happening? Is there anything more I can answer? Is there anything I can do? Don’t sit there and wait for that inbox to light up. You’ve gotta be a little bit of proactive yourself and engaged in what’s happening and follow up. That interviewer may be in that position too. They want somebody that’s going to be proactive and following up. You don’t want to be over the top, but it may be three days and they had forgotten about you already. But if three days later, they get a message from you and saying, Hey, you know, there are a couple of questions you had about me in an interview. Here’s some more follow-up information I forgot to add. What are the next steps? Do you need anything from me? Did you get my resume and all that good stuff? Good. That is actually going to be helpful.
And I think the other thing is for the kids, if you don’t get a job, it’s not the end of the world, it may not be, you may not be qualified. Maybe you’re plenty qualified, but there was just something that wasn’t a fit or they didn’t hire anybody. And you may never find that out. But it’s time to move on and don’t be afraid to reach out, ask why you didn’t make the cut, or if there’s anything you could have done to improve on and ask if it’s all right if I interview again in the future, maybe go through next year’s interview process. And if there’s anything I can work on over the next year to improve. Is there anything on my resume that you didn’t like, or wasn’t clear, and then you take that information, digest it, update your resume, do some more research. Polish some of the skills that you need, that you got feedback on, and be ready for the next interview. Don’t just throw it in the trashcan and be done with it. You got to learn from every experience, every encounter you have, you have to learn from and improve on either your skills or the way you approach or your communication or whatever that may be.
If a college student were to ask me what would be one thing that you wish you knew coming into your career or after 30 years of your career, it would be networking. It’d be connecting with people. It would be not only connecting with people, but finding little tidbits out about that person, whether it’s their job, where they’re from, where they’ve worked. What do they like about their job, how they interact and putting all those mental notes away, or at least more real notes and having a network that you can then count on because in this industry and supply chain, especially in North America, you’re going to run into these people again, I promise you, and they may be in a position to hire you. LinkedIn makes it so much easier. It’s a lot easier to network and you need to do it. You need to build your network. You need to rely on people. You never know when you’re going to
need to call on somebody in a different industry, a different area of the supply chain for some help or questions or what have you. That’s probably one of the top pieces of advice.
(23:41) That kind of leads in, mentorship. It's so important. I think, especially in supply chain. Where the career paths are far and wide and diverse. Have you been serving as a mentor?
Now that I’m a little older, working in and with teams, the kids that are coming in, folks that are my age or whatever. They’re a little bit less experienced coming into a new organization or what have you. I like to point them in the right direction. Tell them where all the landmines might be, offering some support, maybe get them up to speed a little earlier. And in the long run, some of that getting up to speed might help me or help the team get going a little bit more quickly.
From a mentor standpoint, I have probably a dozen that I’ll talk to on a regular basis. And it’s not just business. We’re talking about being a father and having a family, what it’s like to travel when you have to travel on the clock for a company. And how do you manage a family life when you’re traveling to, how do I ask for a raise or am I making enough where I’m doing right now, or what’s it like to work for a retailer? All the questions that I’ve asked in the past, I’ve asked to somebody, or I’ve done my own research. I want to make sure that I’m being that dusty, old book on a shelf. And when you need something that you can pull me down and look me up, I’ll certainly help where I can. I want to share. I want to help. I want to pay it forward.
(25:06) What do you feel we're seeing this final mile space? Even reverse logistics. Where do you see things shaking out here in the coming years?
Well technology of course, going to play a big role and that’s BI and data, is huge. The old saying data becomes information and information becomes knowledge. And then that knowledge becomes wisdom. If you don’t have the data, you never get wise. And that’s kind of the pattern of where you’re going. You have to have clean data, you got to understand what that data can do for you and you got to act on it. Then that’s where artificial intelligence comes in. AI. You’re going to have AI play a huge role in consumer behavior, and routing and scheduling and setting up capacity and dynamic appointments scheduling and last mile, knowing where purchases are going to happen, all that good stuff.
Of course, robotics is a big piece of everything that’s going on, especially in the warehouse and repetitive tasks. You’ve got assisted robotics where instead of them pushing a cart, the cart is going along with them. It’s guiding them to the next pick station and they’re following it along. And that human intervention is still needed. It’s just, now that human can pick a lot more product, they’re not as tasked physically to go and they can help make some of that creative decision making along the way.
We’ve seen over the decades of global versus national, you have these macro-economic type issues that go on and manufacturing could be coming back. You’re going to have some manufacturing coming back closer. Sourced a
little bit closer when you have this effect of the e-com and people want it now having product that is four weeks on the water doesn’t do much good. You want that closer, which is going to impact the supply chain of getting product a little bit closer in lots versus big chunks of a ship full of stuff coming in. And you can’t do that when it’s that far away. So how are you going to react to that? What is that going to look like?
The gig economy is here, from a labor standpoint, we’re already bouncing up against capacity issues with labor and drivers. You got all these companies that are doing part-time, shared schedules. You live in Greensboro, North Carolina, there’s five manufacturers or retailers that are around you, and a couple of these part-time scheduling platforms and you can pick four hours over here and four hours over there and three hours over here and a whole shift here. You can swap shifts with different people. The millennials, they’re driven a little bit differently. There’s not the nine to five job that’s out there anymore. There is, I want to work when I can work. I want to work at night, not Sundays and work in the morning some days. So, having that gig economy, labor schedule is another big thing. And then there’s the actual delivery of the product. And that’s the shared workforce that’s out there, where you’ve got all of these companies like roadie and Deliv and such that are allowing the Uber kind of experience, but for delivery, it’s that transactional type environment and the gig economy and crowdsourcing. I think those are going to be what changes a lot of things in how we think and do today.
From a career standpoint, technical engineers, robotics, automation, mechanical engineering, whatever, there’s a lot of applications that are going to be in the supply chain arena. That’s definitely going to be game changer. Exciting stuff ahead.
(28:49) Tim, can you share some examples of the best supply chain career advice you've received along the way, and do you have a couple of your own that you would like to share with our audience?
I think we shared one or two of those at the beginning where it was act like it’s your money when you’re working for a company and do things you would do if somebody was watching, always do the right thing, tell the truth, be honest.
I think the advice that I tend to give people, especially younger folks that are getting into this, sometimes people get a little anxious, don’t anticipate, participate. There are things you can’t control. Do the job to your best of ability, don’t worry about what’s happening macro economically, or what have you, do what you can do, do what’s right. Don’t anticipate, participate.
Supply chain is constant motion. It never stops. If you come into this area in supply chain, there’s always something going on. There’s always something moving. It’s your job to make sure that it’s moving as efficiently and effectively as possible. There’s always a puzzle. There’s not one way to do things. You just have to make sure you do it in a way that makes sense. That’s not a lot of wasted time. That’s efficient and effective in getting it through.
There’s a lot of opportunity to jump from 3PL to retailer, from ocean to air, from air to truck, to technology supporting the business, to engineers supporting the business, to selling and business development in that business to managing a
team, to managing a warehouse to, there’s just so much opportunity. It’s a great industry to be in at these times at times. Supply chain companies are some of the companies that are most active right now, because during good times and bad times, you either need this high demand stuff or you need to move this low demand stuff. There’s always a need for supply chain experts behind the scenes.
When I first started, supply chain was an afterthought. It was a cost of doing business and largely it just rolled all the way up into the warehouse or the plant expenses. Now you have chief supply chain officers, and there was a reason for that because there’s tremendous ROI and it’s not just cost. That’s the one thing that when you’re in supply chain, people ask, well, how much does it cost to move from here to there? And if you tell them and they react, that’s a lot of money, then you start getting into, well, I just moved all this inventory from here to there and improve my cycle time by two X, which in the end equates to this amount of inventory carrying costs, which in the end then drives this revenue and it all plays together. And if I would’ve just paid that extra 500 bucks on that one truckload move to get this product from A to B, I would have made the company a million bucks and sometimes that happens. But if you focus only on that one little piece, that’s how integrated supply chain is to the industry and the impact that you can have on cost savings and innovation and driving sales and revenue.