Podcast: Principal at ECG – Chris Gaffney

By Published On: May 12, 2021

Hosts: Mike Ogle and Rodney Apple

In This Episode:

Chris Gaffney, shares his career story about starting with a paper route at age 8 to his early career lessons in transportation at Frito-Lay, to 25 years in supply chain with Coca-Cola, then retiring to serve as Principal at ECG to provide advice and consulting services. Chris talks about how to put pennies into and take them out of your relationship jar, his advice to students and early professionals, including mentorships, why you need to be far more comfortable with analytics and automation, plus how to balance aspiration, self-awareness, and humility to be truly successful.

Chris Gaffney Bio:

Chris Gaffney was most recently VP of Global Strategic Supply Chain at The Coca-Cola Company. After retiring from Coca-Cola in 2020, Chris now serves as a Principal at ECG, providing advice and consulting in the Supply Chain space. In his last role at Coca-Cola, he led Global Supply Chain Strategy and provided franchise leadership in the area of strategic supply chain planning. During his 25-year tenure with Coca-Cola, Chris held multiple leadership roles including President-Coca-Cola Supply, Refreshments Business Integration Strategy Lead, SVP Product Supply System Strategy, and VP of System Transformation for North America. Chris was previously the President of the National Product Supply Group, a governing body responsible for 95% of volume produced in North America. Chris is an alumnus of Georgia Tech and a board member of the Rally Foundation for Childhood Cancer.


Believe it or not. I started my supply chain career at about age eight. I grew up in Washington DC and starting the summer when I was eight years old, I was the relief for my next-door neighbor who delivered the newspaper. And I started delivering that Washington Post and delivered from age eight till grad school in the summers, and started with 50 papers around my own block and ended up with a 500 paper route my last year, before I went into industry. And I honestly say, that got me started as a supply chain professional because there was a process, there was a job to be done. And each day the goal was to get it done right. Which is get all the papers delivered, where they needed to be and get them done with as little effort as possible. And it literally was a problem to be solved every day. And I think that created kind of the mentality that led me down my path.  

In terms of greatest influences, I actually will highlight one. I had a teacher who ultimately was my AP biology teacher, my senior year in high school. And at the end of my junior year, he caught me actually at the graduation for the prior year seniors. And he said, you didn’t sign up for my class for next year. And I said, well, I don’t think I can hack your class. I think it’s too tough for me. And he said, I think you can do it. And I would challenge you to take my class. And I did. And halfway through my senior year, I had just below an A in that class. And he said, if you give me everything you’ve got second semester, I will give you an A for the year. And what he really did was he showed me my potential and what I was really capable of doing when I pushed myself. And that really set me up to go to a challenging university and really gave me the right mentality to deal with challenges along the way.

Yep. I’ll highlight three roles. The first one is when I was with Frito-Lay and was actually the second or third job I had at Frito-Lay and I’ve managed an inbound raw material transportation network for about two thirds of the United States for Frito-Lay at age 25. And I had a group of drivers about 30, 35 over the road truck drivers who reported to me. I work with the suppliers and the plants and built the network that those drivers ran each week. And it’s still to this day, one of the most enjoyable, and I think influential jobs that I ever had. And I got feedback every week. If I’d won or I’d lost, I understood how the financials of that network played out. How did I do compared to what the budget was? And I got very clear feedback from the drivers based on the routes that I set up, what worked and what didn’t work. And sometimes that was tough feedback. So for me, foundationally. I’ve always said, how do you set someone up where work can be a winnable game? And that job was the one of the most winnable games that I ever had. And we tremendous amount accountability at a young age. So that was very formative for me.  

The other two jobs that I’ll speak to were at Coca-Cola and about my second or third year at Coca-Cola, I took over the leadership of the group that managed our food service distributor relationships. It was really the first large team, both financial accountability and relationship accountability, the food service distributors 2000 DCs and, probably 500 companies that we managed. And so that was the first time I managed many people who were more experienced than me and who were older than me. I was fortunate to have followed a good leader in that space. And so, I had a good role model. I reflected on some prior roles and having been well led, poorly led, I said, let’s try to do this in a way where the team feels well engaged. But for me, what was most exciting about it was the number of the people who work for me on that team have gone on to very large responsibilities and very successful careers in supply chain. So, for that role, what I understand is you’re always the caretaker of talent and you don’t know where young talent may end up. So, I always now think you could have a CEO or chief supply chain officer on your team and you have to take care of that talent.  

What I try to tell people is build a strong foundation. And in many cases, staying one more year in a role, even when you’re someone with high aspirations, that extra year can really seal the foundation for you. It can build longer-term relationships and it can really set you up for longer term success. So those two jobs really form that for me, I would think the really the key position for me and the capstone for me was managing the national product supply group at Coca-Cola. And that was something that I created. It was a very complex role reporting to a board of the supply chain officers of the large bottlers and the Coke system in the U.S. It was both a startup and a transformation. And that job really called on all of the experiences I developed over my career in terms of the technical supply chain analytics, where are the real opportunities to optimize a network across multiple companies, but also the soft skills in terms of collaboration, managing stakeholders, and really making business personal. And in that role, what I learned was, breaking bread is important. Ironically, I would say the success of that role was that group spent a lot of time eating dinner together and breaking bread. And it really was the key to my success in that role.

No. I would say the comment that I heard from someone this year is if you did it right, you had put pennies in that relationship jar over the years. And fortunate enough to have done that. Both with teams that you worked with, external parties, customers, suppliers, you did pull those pennies out of the jar starting last year. And that jar may be getting empty. Empty or close to empty this year. We hope that we’ll get back to something a bit more normal. We should all be conscious that we’re gonna begin to need to fill that jar back up again. And we will go back to traditional ways of doing it. In addition to some of the things we’ve learned in the last year.

I grew up in the field, when I came out of school, we didn’t call it supply chain. And I hear some people now saying we need to evolve to supply network, but the premise of the idea behind the supply chain, whether it’s a product or services that you’re dealing with multiple entities, and it may be multiple functions within a large company, but it’s always also going to be customers and suppliers, customers, upstream suppliers downstream, or vice versa, depending on how you look at it. So, in a world where we’re not yet fully automated and won’t realistically be anytime soon, the stakeholder and relationship management, I think is foundational to getting things done. And that’s been formative for me. Folks who really know how to invest in managing healthy win-win relationships, whether they be internal or across commercial lines, I think is a foundational capability. I think beyond that, accountability is important for me. And that’s in the spirit of being a process centered person is you got to do what you say you’ll do, and I need to be accountable to get it done, but I also should have reasonable expectations that you do the same. So, I think those stand out to me.  

I think when you get to harder skills, what I enjoy, the creativity and puzzles of my work, go back to problem solving, as well, analytics and I’m always looking for folks who understand how to solve a problem, and that can be improving something that’s running well, or really dealing with something that is either new or a significant challenge. So those are the two that stand out to me. And I think analytics are something that’s evolved. I’ll date myself and say, I recall when we first started working with Excel. Now the smart organizations are trying to find a way that their folks are not using Excel and using more sophisticated, more structured analytics. And I’m very excited about that.

I’ll give you an experience that’s always stuck out to me. There was a point in time in my career where we had a big line of business with Walmart. I think we were selling them orange juice or something like that. And things were not going well. We were not hitting our in-stock goals with them. And our sales folks were just getting pummeled. They said, you’ve got to come with us to Bentonville and you’ve got to help take accountability for this and talk to the folks at Walmart about what we’re going to do to fix that. And when I got face up to the folks in Bentonville who were supply chain folks, I realized they were supply chain folks just like me. As soon as I could articulate where we had been, where we were and where we intended to go, I could start to create some confidence in their eyes, made commitments to them. I said, I will come back and see you whether we do well or not. And we did that. So back to that accountability, I mentioned. We had things in common as supply chain people, but I also knew that they were in a bind. They weren’t giving us a hard time if it wasn’t a problem for them. And the reality was they were representing our product on the shelf. Those folks were under pressure. The thing that’s a key to me is making sure that you can put yourselves in the shoes of the other. And I could paint that picture and say, what is this person who is accountable for the orange juice category at Walmart dealing with, and how can I make sure that I’m empathetic to them and I help them solve that problem. So, I think that’s one kind of key to success in managing those relationships.  

I think the other thing is something that’s kind of a change management axiom. And it’s something that you’ve heard before, but what’s in it for me. If I’m asking someone who is a stakeholder internal, external to go somewhere with me, make a change, help me with something I’ve got to reflect their self-interest, what’s in it for you. How can I make your job easier? How can I make you more successful if I say and believe that supply chain should be about win-win and there should be something in it for them. And it shouldn’t be about my win. It should be about theirs. So, I try to frame it that way. 

I think the last thing that I would say is I am a process person. So every process has a supplier or a customer in it and understand that at some point you may be the customer and at another point you may be the supplier and you should always be able to kind of put a mirror to yourself and take that alternate perspective. And as if you were the supplier, you understand what it means to serve a customer. And if you are a customer, you understand what it means to set up your suppliers to successfully serve you. So much of it to me is just about perspective and that’s been proven true over the course of my years. If you have that proper perspective, you can really make those relationships work well over time.

Well, at the beginning, it’s easy. What I would say in the world of academia, it goes by really fast and relatively speaking, if you go from high school to undergrad, you’re excited about this period of living on your own, living in a different place with different people. It just goes by in a flash. And then you get into the work world and you’re like, wow, I wish I had made the most of it. So, I think you’ve really got to be present in your academic career and really make the most of it. 

In terms of graduating, I do think tactically, one of the things I realized for myself is the understanding of the financials of a business. Something I wish I had spent more time on in school. Helping people make investment decisions for capital equipment, helping people build budgets and business plans. I was thin on that and I actually had to take on some mentors in my career to build those skills. So, for me as a supply chain professional, you’re always about spending somebody’s money, whether it’s operating money or capital money or cash for inventory. So, a better understanding of how the P and L and the balance sheet works, I think is important.  

I think beyond that, you are capable of more than you realize. And I think as an individual, that’s important as a manager or hiring manager, being more confident. If you can set up people for success, even relatively early in a career, they’re capable of doing unbelievable things.

Yep. I would give you a bit of perspective on that. I think I’d mentioned as an industrial engineer and I graduated from Georgia tech, the guy who was the head of the industrial engineering school, when I went to Georgia tech, his name was Nelson Rogers. I got a handwritten note in a box in those days and it said, come see Nelson Rogers. And I was like, what have I done? You know, now I just got here. He actually said, I’m going to ask you to come see me for a few minutes at each term. And I want to make sure you’re set up for success. And, at a big school, it was shocking to me that somebody would be willing to do that. And he kept his word and helped make sure I had a straight path and he helped clear the path for me. So, my whole mentality around mentors is, A, I have significantly benefited from mentors over my career. It’s a no brainer investment. It’s one of the reasons why I’m passionate about mentoring others. 

It’s always a pay it forward. There is a role for mentors throughout your career, whether you’re in school, whether you’re early in career or late in career, I use my mentors as of today. So, they’ve been invaluable for me. My mentor in industry at Frito-Lay, a guy named Hill Lathan. He provided perspective. I’d come out of school as a hard charger and my first boss really put me in my place. Probably well-deserved, but did not have good perspective. And he was a relatively senior person. I’ll never forget it. One day walking out of the office, hanging like a dog. And he just looked at me and patted me on the back. And he said, this too, shall pass. He said, just take a deep breath and don’t worry about it. And that meant so much to me at the time. So, I would say there’s value in both formal and informal mentors. My advice. Be thoughtful on what you need from a mentor, different from your manager. There’s a role for your direct manager and helping you with your performance and development, but a mentor can play a different role and may be providing a different perspective so that you can either own something that your manager is telling you that you may say my manager doesn’t get me, but if you hear it from an objective mentor, you may realize, Hey, I really need to work on that.  

I think you should do the leg work on the right fit. Someone who has the right time, who cares, who’s willing to invest, but has a perspective that will both support and challenge you. And I think the last thing is, as a mentee, you need to understand that you need to carry the ball in that relationship. You need to do the scheduling. You need to offer up where you need guidance. You need to manage the follow-up. And then my last point is you need to be ready to give back. You will be quickly eligible to mentor someone else. As soon as you get into industry, or if you’re a senior in college, you could mentor a freshmen or sophomore. So, I think it should be a virtuous circle. So that’s my thinking on mentorship.

I’m very fortunate to be involved as a advisory member of the IE board at Georgia Tech and that group is taking on, I think there’s probably 15 people taking on three or four mentees each. We just kicked off the first of the year. And honestly, the perspective of the folks on the advisory board, many of those are folks who did not have an easy path in college. So, school wasn’t necessarily their thing. They’ve all been extremely successful and they see value in giving back.

Yep. I’ll give you three. And I mentioned one of them already. I think the reality of analytics is a fundamental shift in the world of supply chain and it’s degrees, but I think we hit this slope, where because of computing power and frankly, increasingly sophisticated algorithms, the things that we contemplated theoretically years ago are now commercial realities, and it really requires any supply chain professional to be an adult learner. Unless you took a master’s in analytics a year ago, you’re dated and you need to be on that journey. And that’s for both leaders as well as frontline analysts. You’ve got to be current and you’ve got to figure out what your learning journey is there. I got a learning coach, actually, a guy who used to work for me, who really went deep in this space. I asked him to mentor me. And so, for a number of years, I’ve worked with him. To make sure I can be credible in that space. And it’s actually kind of healthy.  

I think automation is the same thing. And I talked to someone who was heavily involved in distribution automation and it was fascinating to listen to him. And he said, we went through six generations of automation technology in six or seven years. So, understanding the role of automation and in many cases, as automation, technology gets more capable, gets more scaled, the applications become broader. So, staying close to that space is huge. And so those two are not like big ideas.  

That the third one I think, is something people really need to watch. We’re moving to the world of orchestrated supply chains because so many people want to be asset light and they either do it for financial reasons or agility or flexibility reasons. So, we’re really moving ourselves into a world where there are folks who want to orchestrate networks of partners who enable their supply chain. And you’re either going to be on one side of that or the other, if you’re going to be an asset owner or operator, you may increasingly be doing business with lots of different folks, and that has implications on how you operate a set of hard assets that need to be highly utilized and have a clear path for what capabilities they’re going to need to bring to the table. 

On the flip side, if you’re going to manage those networks, all the skills we’ve talked about, come into play. So those are three that I think have a massive influence on careers, whether you’re coming into the field or whether you’re mid or late career.

I think the biggest thing for me is being externally focused. I mean, I talked about being a continuous learner, so, let’s say I’ve stipulated that, but for me it’s how do constantly build my external network in a way that is again, synergistic. People will be part of your network on an ongoing basis if it’s a give and a get. So, if I need to learn from others to stay current and to build my own skills and capabilities, I’ve got to have some currency that makes it worth them investing in time for me. So, I am always working on that. And obviously it’s give and receive. I try to help people build their network and there may be folks I know who may be relevant for them. So, we’re always working on that external network. And I think you have to be really disciplined about. Ingesting new information. 

And for me, it’s gotta be multimedia. Various online formats on the screen are important. I’m a huge consumer of podcasts and there’s this fabulous supply chain podcasts, including this one. I’m very selfish about reading. I’m asking others what’s really good. In many cases I’m looking for folks who aggregate but aggregate really well. And then I think the last thing, and it has been difficult in the last year, but it needs to be part of your continuous improvement is kind of the gemba. That go see, ask why, show respect. I want to get into other people’s operations. So as soon as the coast is clear, I think getting back in and seeing physical things, there’s no substitute for that. 

I had a wise leader tell me one time. His name was Eric Joiner. And something he said has always stuck with me is look for someone who’s had a continued track record of success. Whatever they were given to do, they did it exceptionally well. And if they had a record of continued success, any record of increasing responsibility, to me, that’s the best indication that somebody is likely to come in and really try to pitch in and be a high performing member of your team.  

In terms of developing and retaining, I always want to look for people who, A, have some aspiration, but also have self-awareness and humility, because those are the people who understand that there’s always something that they can work on and improve. And those are the folks who ultimately take a thoughtful view about their own development plan. And in that way, they can breathe life into their aspirations. And then you, as a manager can be part of that. And in terms of what do you do to bring out the best in your employees? That there are a couple of things that come to mind and kind of the best leader that I’ve ever worked for, his name is Ron Lewis, he now leads I think the U S business for Ball Container. A wonderful person, a brilliant supply chain person, but what he taught me, something that he calls tough-minded people leadership. And that means if you’re doing well, you know it, and if you’ve got something you need to improve, you know it as well, and you get guidance on how to go about doing that, but then you hold somebody accountable for it. I think most employees really value that.  

The thing that I would add that I’ve learned from a number of exceptional leaders is making sure you keep work in the right perspective. I like to treat my team members as human beings and I try to always remind them that work is a part of your life, but I never really wanted anybody on my team who had work any higher than number three on their priority list that they should be taking care of themselves, their family, something in their community. If they had those priorities, right, and work was number three on their priority list. I actually believe that they understood that I cared about them. And when they came to work they were ready to give their best. And that’s proven, over many teams in many years. 

Well, we’ve got probably a number of your listeners who’ve been in the transportation space and most folks understand, particularly for US truckload over the last eight or 10 years. And last year was one of them. It’s a tough space to win in because of supply and demand dynamics, depending on the year, it may be driver issues, maybe regulations. Early in my career, probably the second or third, large job I had, I managed the transportation budget for Coke in North America. Actually, did that twice. I did that once for the company supply chain, once for the combined company and bottler supply chain. And in one of those years, I had a really bad year. The plan did not play out very well. And so, both on the service side and on the financial side. It was tough sledding and it was, as my dad used to say, was job serious tough, and that’s a hard place to be young and mid-career, multiple hundreds of millions of dollars on a budget that’s not in a good place. And I tell you what I learned from that. You had to find a way to put the emotion aside and understand what actions could be taken. And in many cases, if it’s stopping the bleeding in the near term, that needed to be the priority and just a little bit of time seeking how are we going to structurally change what we do over the longer term? But what I never forgot from that was feedback I got from my boss and ultimately the president of the business unit and from the president of the business unit was in public, in front of the large group. And what shocked me was they separated the kind of the person from the process and they had my back and I brought them a lot of bad news. What I constantly heard was you have our support. What else do we need to do to try to turn this in the right direction? And it was formative for me and very humbling. I think that in terms of a difficult situation, I actually learned how to lead others through a difficult situation.

I think the first thing is getting clear on the strategic alignment and making sure folks understand why are we going through this? And in all of those cases, the transformations have required tremendous effort. In many cases, necessary upheaval. But that is hard, literally and figuratively on people directly involved and around the change. People who are well grounded in why we need to do this, either what’s the risk to the business or what’s the opportunity at stake and how that translates into potential opportunities, not only for the enterprise, but for the people involved. You’re never going to get there if you don’t have that alignment out of the gate. So, I think that’s first things first.  

Then you’ve got to organize and be disciplined. In most cases, when you’re running a transformation, you’ve also got to run the business. So, you’ve got to have the right resource allocation, the right routines and the right incentives so that you’ve got appropriate focus on running the business while you’re changing the business. One of the large transformations that I was involved in involved divestiture. And divestiture for a business that was going to be an ongoing operation where the seller still had interest in the success of the business after they sold it. And so those are businesses that had to run well on a Friday and run well on a Monday, but also go through an ownership change and a process and tool change in real time. And, the way that worked well was having fanatical discipline around project management and change and communication.  

But, I’ve told many people, I’ve never seen a large transformation that did succeed without those elements. And in the case of three or four large transformations I’ve been involved in, they were all reasonably successful.  Folks need confidence in where they’re headed, they need understanding, they need that reinforcement and those things lead to their engagement and confidence that their self-interest is part of what they’re involved in.

I’ll give you a recent memory and a historical memory. If you haven’t watched Disney’s movie Soul, I think it’s a good watch. Believe it or not. It’s animated, but it’s a good perspective to one of the points that I will make, and one of the most informative lessons I have from a career standpoint came to me from a fraternity brother and it was in his senior speech. And ironically, I saw him about eight or 10 years ago and I told him how impactful his words were to my career. And he just laughed at me. He said, I have no recollection of saying that. What I recall him saying and what impacted me was do great things wherever you are. People are always looking for what’s my future. What’s my pinnacle of my career going to be. But the reality is to reach whatever pinnacle you have to be exceptional where you stand today. You can only live the day that you have today. You can only make the most of this day, this week, this month, this job. So even if you are uncertain of where you are headed in the future and what your greater good is, if you do great things where you are, you will typically be well-served over time. So, I think that’s number one.  

And I think that the second thing that I would say is so many people struggle with, where am I headed? You know, what’s next for me? And there are those rare few people who know exactly where they’re headed. And I envy those folks. I never was one of those folks, but over time as I’ve coached others who say to me, I’m not sure what I want to do, what I have found with them is, they can’t tell me what they want to do, but they can tell me a lot about what they don’t want to do. And so, I said, let’s be methodical about the things you don’t want to do. Cause then we can kind of do one minus, see what’s left, and then you can take action to explore the areas that remain and then likely find something that makes sense for you. So those are just a few simple tips.  

I think the only other thing that I would say when you look for teams and companies is try to work with really cool people, really good people, people who care, people who engage you, in people, challenge you. I mean, you are working with people. You’re going to spend a heck of a lot of time with them. So, try to work with people who you enjoy spending time.

It’s interesting. And so, I’ll make a couple connections. I can remember the first time I went in to a very senior audience, and I was actually working on distribution strategy. And it was my first real strategic effort and I didn’t have great confidence in my own strategic thinking abilities at that time. The feedback I got was very simple. It wasn’t even, we don’t agree with the strategic direction or whatever it was like, that’s not even a strategy. So, it was extremely deflating. In retrospect, I could have taken almost any other feedback and it would have been helpful to me in terms of go back to the drawing board. But, I’ve always been scared to go see the big person the first time or whatever. I think it’s never life or death, no matter what you think, If you’re that person going in, you can kind of take a breath, but if you’re the senior leader, I try to take great care when those folks are coming in, because it is formative for them. And I’d much rather have them get the Ron Lewis treatment, which is, we’re so excited to have you on the team. We’re looking forward to hearing your perspective on this idea, and be aware that that’s not an everyday setting for them. But I would say for the nervous person going in, I will give you Phil Mickelson advice to his caddy. And that last major that Phil won, when he teed off on the first hole and he teed off second, his caddy just grabbed the clubs and just started rushing off the tee box and down into the fairway. And Phil was like two steps behind him and he just grabbed him by the shoulder. And he said to his caddy, he said, just relax. We’ve got this today. And the perspective was in golf. And in many cases in business, you’ve got to find a way to take a breath and relax because that’s how you play your best game. Those are some thoughts I have on that one.