Podcast: Navigating Complex Supply Chain Transformations – with Chris Brown, Sr. VP of Supply Chain & Operations

By Published On: May 24, 2023

Hosts: Rodney Apple and Chris Gaffney

In This Episode:

Join us for an engaging conversation with Chris Brown, the Senior VP of Supply Chain & Operations at Rise Baking Company. With an impressive portfolio overseeing 16 manufacturing centers and over 40 distribution facilities, Chris takes us on a captivating journey through his 25+ years in the industry. Discover how his career aspirations evolved from the prospect of becoming a journeyman electrician to finding his true passion in warehousing and the art of bringing order to chaos. Get ready to absorb his invaluable wisdom on navigating rapid and intricate transformations, mastering the art of decision-making at critical junctures, and fearlessly tackling the toughest challenges head-on. Chris shares invaluable advice on cultivating a teachable mindset, considering the legacy we leave behind during periods of transition, and the importance of continual learning and agility.

Who is Chris Brown?

Chris Brown is the Senior Vice President of Supply Chain & Operations for Rise Baking Company. Rise Baking Co. specializes in the production of premium bakery products for in-store bakery, food service and convenience channels in North America. Chris and his teams are responsible for Network Design and Optimization, Demand Planning, Supply Planning, Transportation, Engineering, Food Quality & Safety, Inventory Policies, and detailed Production Scheduling of Rise’s 16 Manufacturing Centers and deployment of inventory to 40+ distribution facilities. In a career spanning over 25 years in Supply Chain he has worked in 3PL, Manufacturing & Supply Chain Operations, Warehousing , IT & Transportation. Chris earned a B.S. in Business Management from Limestone University in Gaffney, South Carolina.

[00:01:54] Rodney Apple: Chris, thank you so much for joining the Supply Chain Careers Podcast. Welcome. 

[00:01:59] Chris Brown: Thank you. 

[00:02:02] Rodney Apple: So we would love to get an understanding of how you started your career in supply chain. 

[00:02:07] Chris Brown: Yeah, for sure. So first of all, thanks. Very humbled, that anybody could pick up any goodness, out of my journey. It’s been a team effort for me, getting to the position that I’m in and the responsibility that I’m in didn’t do it by yourself ever. You get to a point, in all our careers where you don’t know what you don’t know, and, others who are smarter and further down the line, they can help us, see what you don’t see.

So, I cut my teeth in public warehousing and freight, way back. It helped me learn the P&L. You had to make money. So where did storage and handling costs hit the P&L? How did that translate to a rate, the basics of materials movement? How do you create value for a customer and have that conversation and really get that partnership? Because if you’re just gonna come in to price, you’re gonna get lost on price. So, that’s how I got started. 

[00:02:52] Chris Gaffney: Happy to reunite on the podcast. I remember some glory days back at Coca-Cola when you and I first met each other, you were doing some pretty cool stuff there. One of the things we really like to flesh out in these episodes is the fact that there is no cookie cutter path for a supply chain professional. And if you can shed a light on how you navigated your path, maybe a few critical forks in the road, it really is insightful for others. So, will you help us a little bit with that kind of unique journey? Kind of hit on some of those highlights that, you know, are unique to your path that might provide a guidepost to, to others younger in their career.

[00:03:36] Chris Brown: Sure. So, I graduated high school early, which meant in my mind back then I had a year to spare. Right. I got a year to burn. Let’s just go have a little fun. I was good in school. I didn’t like school. It was too much structure. Looking at what I do today, that was a bit surprising. My dad, he was a mason. He was a beer truck driver, so talk about physical distribution, all that fit right in line with it. But my uncle had an electrical company. Growing up, we did Mason work every summer, from seven, eight years old up. You don’t wanna learn how to pick up eight-inch block as a seven or eight year old. It’s just not fun. You learn what you don’t want to do, right? So, until then, I had assumed, I’m gonna work with my hands for a career, and that was just gonna be for me. So, I went down the path of being a journeyman electrician, with intentions to be a master electrician. All my days were spent outside, soaked it up. It was fun. I enjoyed it, inspections, with your local guys coming in to do their work. It was fun. 

The fork here was, my mom, she had been an HR professional for most of her career. She worked in professional development and she took a departure from that career and started working in warehousing. And she moved into a leadership position, started doing some travel, and she needed some help. I just thought for temporary amount of time I was gonna go over and help her out. It lasted 14 years. At the end of that, she was ultimately working for me on my team, and I was working for the president of the business.

So, went to college at night, got my bachelor’s degree, business management. Learned a lot about how to be a professional, interact with customers. I love the structure of warehousing. Everything has a place that sort of mentality. Process driven. That value of removing variability outta processes, all that was attractive to me. Had a little bit of hand in some sales, some IT, we stood up a few new locations, relocated others. It just really got me into the ins and outs of how we do what we do and clearly how to make money doing it. Bringing organization to what was an otherwise chaotic process. That was really what was driving me at that point.

Again, 14 years there, kind of ran outta runway, so left. Went to Coke, food and Bev, first instance there. Everything else prior had been mostly industrial type customers and that sort, this was a good fit. Big difference in structure, culture. You don’t get ahead of the process with a big brand, big business, huge brand, big reach along with all that exposure, to process and other ways of thinking. The investment a company that size would put into you personally, was just in awe. Met a ton of people, learned a boat load. 

And then, ultimately left Coke, came here to the bakery, stepped into some SAP recovery. A lot of process definition and improvements. Warehouse and distribution was probably the original focus here. And then, turned into all the supply chains operations and so, it’s been a extremely fun and challenging ride. But, didn’t get here overnight either. 

[00:06:25] Rodney Apple: Chris, could you tell us, how you have led others through rapid and complex changes, whether it be transformations or if you’ve had any acquisitions that have folded into the mix. Would love to hear how, what your philosophy is on that.

[00:06:40] Chris Brown: Yeah, I think there’s not a silver bullet, right? It’s all based on the specific situation that you sit. I think you gotta be clear with what the end state is. So as that visionary, when you look out whether it’s two months or two years or longer, what does that end state look like? And being honest with whether or not the business is ready to get there. What’s that maturity level look like? Little phrase we like to coin, of course is, it’s an evolution, not a revolution. In some cases. Good now is better than perfect, never. It’s a very good point. I’ve heard it said a little different along the way, but I think that one is probably the quickest one so we can boil the ocean and really never get to the point of perfection that we’re looking for, or we could be good enough to get us in that same direction right now. I think the last piece of that too is just the qualified team. What’s the plan and do you have a qualified team, looking to head towards that same direction? 

[00:07:30] Chris Gaffney: Yeah. Chris, I’m actually gonna build on that one and it may connect with, some things that may be career milestones. You talked about coming in during a big technology transformation, transition, however you wanna describe that. And for many people in the world of supply chain, that’s part of their story, whether it would be coming in and leading that. Having to retool that, having to rescope that get out over the other end and then bring the business forward from that.

And it’s ironic, right? We spent the whole of our careers hoping technology would help us. Sometimes it doesn’t always. I think that was a pretty challenging experience. Tell us what you learned about that in particular, in terms of how that might also be insightful. Cause it’s a common initiative that in some form or another supply chain people have to work with over time? 

[00:08:18] Chris Brown: The thing that comes to mind mostly is many times we attempt to make the process match the technology versus the technology match the process. And many times it’s because there’s been an investment made, right? And we’ve already bought it. So, we need to make sure this is wedged in there and provides value. In many cases it might not, and maybe paper is not the wrong way to get a simple process done. Maybe a kanban is an opportunity to get something done that doesn’t necessarily, have to have some, dramatic ERP that’s very complex and lots of support required.

So, I think, again, back to the honesty of the maturity of the organization. Like, is the process mature enough? Because what most have probably seen, at least for me, is in many cases, the process is not mature enough for a complex ERP to be laid on top immediately. All that’s gonna do is just make your problems, more evident. And now you’ve got automatic problems, whereas before, they might not have been quite so automatic.

[00:09:14] Chris Gaffney: So, Chris, we all have these forks in the road, what has your process been, How do you successfully navigate those and maybe as you’ve coached others through those big forks in the road, how do you think about making the left or right decision when you face those. 

[00:09:30] Chris Brown: I think it can be a little simplistic, back to the pro and con list. What’s the good and bad, versus these decisions and, many of the teams that are around me, they’ll hear me ask, let’s get that on a single slide, right? Let’s get that on a one page so that we can all kind of wrap our head around the various simplistic points of view, that we can make a decision against. And I do it the same in my personal life. If there’s a, decision to be made, what are those pros and cons? 

I’ll take an example. OPEX Manager, in a plant that I worked, he held me accountable way back and said, what do you wanna do? Are you gonna go breadth or depth? And this was before I got into a bit more production management and plant management before moving outta warehouse. And until that point I was super good in the things I knew about warehouse, production and all the others were a little bit unknown, bit more complicated in my view back then.

But, making that change to move, call it a lateral, in the manufacturing, operations and understand that reliance and dependence on quality maintenance and all these other support teams. That was very helpful. So it was, a bit of a side step. Maybe it would slow down some progression, but overall it gave me that, exposure to be able to go a bit wider than I would have otherwise.

[00:10:46] Chris Gaffney: I like that. We’ve talked to a lot of people, and ask variations of that question. I think the simple act of writing it down, forces a little bit of rigor, and reflection. You also talked about getting it on a page so others could react to it, so it’s not in a vacuum. And I think the other thing we’ve heard a lot of people say is, back to this unique career path. Sometimes that investment in that other role that may be viewed as a lateral whatever can be a huge accelerator. So, I think those are great insights. Thank you for that.  


[BREAK at 11:20]

[00:11:58] Rodney Apple: And Chris, you touched on this earlier, the early chapter of your career, the influence that sort of pulled you into that logistics and warehousing space, with your mother moving into HR and so forth. as you look further down that career path, are there any other big influencers that maybe had you rethink your career or different types of paths or, different things you want to go after in terms of goals and objectives? 

[00:12:23] Chris Brown: Yep, for sure. And you gotta be honest with yourself. Like what’s the motivation, to pick, door one or door two? The president of the first company I mentioned earlier in the public warehousing, Greg, kinda gave me those foundations of, saying yes and then finding out what the problem is. So that was useful, particularly, as you get into a much larger organization, if you run towards the fire, you’re probably gonna stand out amongst the crowd because not everybody’s gonna do that. You mentioned again, my mom, the professional aptitude that she sort of grounded me with and getting into business that way. Again, very helpful. And I mentioned it earlier, Chuck Hollingsworth, he helped me learn I guess the basics around sharpening your saw, he would call it that personal development. And then really to assume that others had positive intent. And then that would generally send you in a different direction in how you might react or, frame up your, I don’t wanna say argument, but your side of the equation. So, all those very helpful, at least for me.

[00:13:20] Chris Gaffney: I would say we could title this podcast, Run to the Fire. I think that’s a great one. I think to your point, that’s always gonna be visible in a work setting. And I think it’s a great piece of advice for anybody who’s out there. It does create opportunities. You do get to do the hard work that way, but I think you win nine out of 10 times in that space.

[00:13:40] Chris Brown: So, to the exposure is unparalleled that way. Right? Because it’s problems that others, generally have either put off or tried to solve for years and then they don’t get there. And so, if nothing else, you’re gonna learn something about it. 

[00:13:52] Chris Gaffney: Chris, you and I know each other, but I’ve learned a lot today. And you definitely have a non-traditional path, a road less traveled, leading to a pretty significant role. I’ve met people over my time who have very planned career paths, and I know lots of others, including myself, who did not do a lot of planning. What is your thought on what and how it makes sense to plan what and how it makes sense to be organic. It’s not for everybody, but how do you think about that given your experience to date? 

[00:14:24] Chris Brown: So there’s the other saying, right? You either plan to fail or fail to plan. But I can’t go back in time and say, here’s where I put the plan together to be in supply chain. It never existed. The curriculum in college wasn’t even there, when I went through it. However, productions and operations management was one, and I’ve still got the book. Not that I’ve had to refer to it quite often, but I remember going through the class and thinking, this has got a lot of application, to the things that I enjoy doing. Again, putting things in their boxes and organization and taking chaos and causing a bit of organization around it. That all, was useful for me and attractive. But, I think you gotta do what you like to do, and it sounds simple, but if you’re doing what you enjoy, you’re gonna continue to do more of it. And again, sounds very simple, but many times I think we, we have this plan that we think we must execute because we said we would. But that might not make the most sense. 

[00:15:18] Chris Gaffney: I like that a lot. I think, most of us live in the reality of that we do need to work. Right. So, then it’s a function of, as you said, how do the skills and abilities you bring to that work translate to value, and what settings do you get excited about and get curious about and get fired up to come back to the next day? I think if you could find those then you’re probably at least in the right place for the current horizon. 

[00:15:44] Rodney Apple: Yeah. And on that note, we’ve been asking questions now that we’re coming out of, a peak of disruptions of who knows what’s next, right? But, just kind of key lessons you’ve learned, Chris, in the last, call it two or three years with disruptions. Everybody I’ve spoken with has had something new or challenging they’ve had to face. So, any key lessons learned from the last few years? 

[00:16:06] Chris Brown: Yep, for sure. There’s never one single way to do it, but the most valuable lesson I would say is your people are capable of more than you may have thought. There’s a lot more that our teams have had to do over the past two, three years and continue to do. If you look at the transportation market, look at the commodities market. At one point or another, they were all broken and at some point they were all broken at the same time and our teams pulled together and pulled out of it. And that was probably the most looking back, to really put some energy around is, thanking them. They did a fantastic job and it’s, it’s amazing where we landed and where not everybody landed, right? Things could have been, much worse, but I think just knowing that your teams are capable of more and not sorta limiting them in your own mind before you set challenges out, probably the number one. 

[00:16:52] Chris Gaffney: So, Chris, you’ve given us a couple threads from people who’ve been influential, but if you think about career advice and these things may be one and the same best advice you’ve received, but now that you’re in a position where you both lead and mentor folks, what’s the advice you share? What are the couple things that you say are most meaningful things and most helpful things that have guided and can guide others from a career standpoint. 

[00:17:19] Chris Brown: It’s, interestingly, one would be to be teachable. There are many who as you run through your career, you can pick ’em out that, were teachable along the way, and many that were not. And I think those that can open themself up, to learn new things and not have all the right answers and be the one to ask the questions of the group, even though it might put you in a different light, so to speak. I think that’s extremely important, to be honest with the group of people you’re working with so that they know where you sit, what your skill level is. If you need assistance, ask for it. We don’t all have the right answers. Similarly, I think you’ve always gotta be considering that you’re always interviewing, nurture your network all the time. When you decide you wanna make that change, keep your head in the game. Don’t get out of it too quick uh, when you’re ready to change gears. If you’ve signed up for a role, you’re signed up for a gig, keep going. Finish it out. And then when you change gears, just be very mindful of sort of what you’re leaving behind and how you leave it behind. 

[00:18:17] Rodney Apple: If you were to go back to, the younger version of yourself, is there anything you wish you would’ve done, differently? What would that look like from an advice perspective? 

[00:18:25] Chris Brown: Well, don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t let your pride get in the way. That’s probably some missteps, I’ve made in the past. And then, enjoy the journey. At one point you’re gonna look back and they’ll be 25 years behind you or more. And, you’ll wish you had not taken yourself too seriously.

[00:18:41] Rodney Apple: So, Chris, when it comes to just learning and staying on top of all things supply chain, the advancements in technology, what do you do to just stay on top of, advancements and how can you apply some of those into your own work or into your organization? 

[00:18:57] Chris Brown: A few things that come to mind. Trade shows clearly. That’s one way to get out and, be able to immerse yourself, into and be exposed to lots of different things at once. That’s a very efficient way to do it. I think other than that, at least in my past, as others have tapped me on the shoulder and asked, you know, could you take on this project? Well, is it in my lane, so to speak, in air quotes? And if it wasn’t, I’d still go ahead and do it. Right? It gives you that exposure and what you can learn and you’re gonna pick up something from that, and you’ll make contacts and that sort.

Recently, we had to stand up a new IT organization, and, had I done it before? No. Was I great at it? No, but we got it done, right? I mean, it was all about, we’re sort of starting somewhat from scratch and we need to get this done. Uh, who can get it done? Yeah. More than happy. And I’m sure as things progress, there’ll be more challenges like that that’ll come around, that there’ll be the first time that you’ve touched ’em. But if you don’t do it, you’ll never know if you can do it or not. 

[00:19:50] Chris Gaffney: Chris, I’ve got one more for you. I get a lot of questions from folks around agility and the question is, if someone has started their career and spent time in either one industry or one portion of the supply chain, what is the likelihood and what has to be true for them to be successful elsewhere. So, when we worked at Coke, you were in the beverage side. Now you’re in the food side. You were a deep logistics and distribution person. Now you’re truly an end-to-end supply chain leader. How do you think about agility in terms of what you’ve seen and how you look at talent and say, do I think this person can translate what they’ve done into a different setting?

[00:20:33] Chris Brown: So, I think for me personally, where I would start is my network. Who do you know in your network that can help you fill in the blanks on what you don’t know, let you have a bit of a test drive, so to speak, in some areas that would give you some exposure. What are their top challenges that they could point you in the direction of how you might, address those? But I the network for me would be the first place I would start. Given the vast set of challenges that are always changing, someone who has shown that they can change gears, is gonna be helpful, but it’s not for everybody.

Yeah. Many of the same customers are on food and bev. But there’s also some similarity in route to market, for the same reason. So, that jump from beverage to food was not as much as from, call it industrial based type customers, over to food. That was probably the one thing, early in career, that I had to get my head wrapped around was, shelf life. I mean, we turned the plant every three days. It was a three-day order to ship cycle. So, you moved, 7,000 pallets, that fast. It was a lot. So if you made a misstep, you paid for it, forever. It didn’t take long to get wound up. It took a long time to wind that back out once the mistake was made. So, shelf life, order to cash, all of that process, the window was a lot smaller with food than it was, and it’s called an industrial base type business, just because shelf life wasn’t all that much of a consideration.

[00:21:56] Rodney Apple: Chris, we really do appreciate you coming on the Supply Chain Careers podcast. Thank you so much for sharing your unique career journey and, of the nuggets and of advice, on today’s episode. So again, thank you.

[00:22:08] Chris Brown: Thank you guys, appreciate it and again, humble to be a part of it.