Podcast: Supply Chain Planning Leader – Jeff Ziegler
Hosts: Mike Ogle and Rodney Apple
In This Episode:
We are joined by Jeff Ziegler, who currently leads a team helping major corporations across North America improve their supply chain planning outcomes. We speak with Jeff about how he got started in the oil supply chain, plus transitions through radiology products, home improvement retail, and consulting services. He encourages people to not be too concerned about making transitions, but to do it for the right reasons. He values people that are proactive self-starters, who can collaborate and be organized. Jeff also emphasizes the value of open sharing to build both trust and long-term mutual growth. As a leader, he highly values the principles of servant leadership, plus developing yourself and others through building of the right kind of mentoring relationships.
Who is Jeff Ziegler?:
Jeff grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and earned his M.B.A. from Bowling Green State University, and has a B.S. in Mathematics and Statistics from Miami University, both in Ohio.
(01:44) So 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?
I got into supply chain quite by accident. Graduated in the eighties and back in the eighties, there really wasn’t a discipline called supply chain. I was a mathematics major at Miami University, and I was looking for internships and went to a career fair, dropped my resume into a bunch of boxes for companies that happened to be looking for marketing people. And I got lucky because the Marathon Oil company, there was a recruiter for supply chain that was helping out the marketing recruiter, and he looked at my resume and said, wow, not a resume for marketing, but, I wonder if the supply chain people might be interested. From that, I got an internship in the operations research department and at the time was doing lots of interesting analytical work, and project management work.
That’s really how it all began. After I graduated from college as a mathematics major, I had seven job offers from insurance companies to be an actuary. I had one job offer from Marathon Oil company to be an operations research analyst full time. I took the offer as an operations research analyst and the learning in the oil industry from a supply chain perspective was terrific because even though they didn’t call it supply chain at the time, think about what the oil industry does. They produce billions and billions of gallons of gasoline and distillate and oil a day. And they ship that through their supply chain. If you can extract a 100th of a penny benefit from each of those billions of gallons in efficiency in your supply chain, you end up making a whole lot of money.
As a result of that, because they had a very limited product offering, you could apply a lot of great technology from a supply chains perspective on safety stock strategy, cycle stock strategy and how much you needed from a seasonal perspective and how much you needed to buy and sell. And you could actually simulate that in a way that you couldn’t do in a normal retailer that has thousands of products and thousands of stores that they needed to deal with. So, the oil industry ended up being an incredibly good proving ground from a supply chain perspective that allowed me to learn things that could be applied. Once technology got to a scalable factor for retailers that I was able to propel later into my career in consulting and other industries.
(04:13) Jeff, that's a fascinating way to start your career. We'd love to learn more about some of the transitions you've made. Tell us about those key transitions, maybe some of the reasonings behind it and the key learnings.
Sure. The common thread amongst everything in my career really has been supply chain despite the industry, and despite the position in the supply chain that I was in. I gained a passion for supply chain pretty early on in my career in the oil industry with Marathon Oil company and really stuck with that.
One of the reasons is that what drives an individual to make a career choice and
make a career more than just a job is a big noble purpose. I grew up in the seventies and the eighties when the economy was going up and down and up and down and had a lot of gyrations that caused people like my father to be out of work, at different points in the recessions.
And I really saw supply chain to be the one entity that can smooth out that financial turmoil. If you get the biggest companies in the world to be looking out two, three years, into the future and to have those companies then, not react to the moment of, oh my gosh, the economy’s hot, I better be making everything that I can. And I’m like, ah, the economy is cold. I need to be shutting everything down. Then you can really smooth out those economic cycles.
Now, to get more directly to your question, I spent 10 years in the oil industry, they did supply chain really, really well, but it was the oil industry. So, I said to myself, what else is out there, what can I do? And what I found was that a fantastic place to learn about that was in the consulting world, where I could do supply chain consulting, and I could take what I learned from the oil industry, and then apply that to other industry while I was learning about other industries.
I spent a number of years then in the supply chain practice of Computer Sciences Corporation, which has now been absorbed by another company. Applied that knowledge in the consumer products industry, in the high-tech industry, and really got a nice broad perspective on supply chain while I was able to look at best practices and business processes and really get the bigger picture around the supply chain.
And then, the key for me after that was well, that was great. So, what’s next. And that propelled me to take on my first executive role, which was in the medical industry. Going from a consultant to an executive, and you say, Jeff, how did that work? Sometimes it’s luck and being in the right place at the right time. For me, I ran into a guy that said, you could probably solve a lot of the problems that I’m thinking about right now. And then, I also had a big problem with my first job in the medical industry, because at the time it was the head of distribution for the company that made photographic film that’s used in radiology labs. What’s happening to photographic film? It’s going away. Everything is going digital. So, I talked to the head of HR at the time said, why would I take this job? Because this is a dying industry. Said to me very matter of factly, Jeff, you’re being given 300 people, 26 distribution centers, a budget of X million dollars a year to manage who else is giving you this opportunity after a few years in the oil industry and consolidating, and I said, Good point, I’ll take it.
That was one of my funnest experiences, because of the amount of transition that occurred there. We did things in that industry that, five years that I was there that I haven’t seen companies do in 15 years, we consolidated distribution centers. We acquired companies, we had a sister company, which was actually doing high-tech technology. And we did GPS routing of trucks, RFID tags, really, really cutting-edge kind of stuff. And because the industry changes, we ended up being acquired by a private equity firm that did what private equity firms do that they decided to move ahead with their own executive team.
And then that led to my opportunity at Lowe’s Home Improvement, which was again, a terrific opportunity because they didn’t have a forecasting group. They didn’t do much planning. They said we would like you to come and build a forecasting capability for us. I ended up building their forecasting team from the
ground up, branched out into vendor management, had the opportunity to branch out into stores and new store openings and even merchandise planning, and had just a terrific experience at Lowe’s and was there for about 10 years and, just like at Marathon it’s what’s next? What else is out there? What else is going on?
And again, consulting was really great. And software is very much like consulting. And so, I had implemented software at Lowe’s as an executive, I’d like to learn what’s going on in the rest of the world. The Blue Yonder environment has been absolutely fantastic to work in. I grow and learn every day and the amount of change that’s occurring, the amount of artificial intelligence, machine learning, that’s being applied to different strategies that are being applied in supply chain, has been a terrific experience for me. So that’s my career in five minutes.
(09:24) We get this question about how do I transition from one area to another? Sometimes, like you said, you have your network, relationships, grit and effort, but, sometimes a little bit, of luck helps. Right?
There’s a balance in there. The balance is that you want to stay fresh in a career, but you also want to be looking out for opportunities. You also don’t want to be a job hopper, recognizing that a company needs to put a certain amount of investment into you and they need to be to get a return for that investment and that’s going to require you to spend some time with that company and get to the point where you’re very productive with that company. That’s what I’ve tried to do throughout my career, but the advice to folks that are out there is that searching for a job can be scary and it’s sometimes as a whole lot easier to stay put with where you are and what you know, than it is to go out into the scary world of a new opportunity.
The advice from somebody who’s made the transition a few times is, it’s not that scary. In fact, the opportunities can be exceedingly rewarding. And you just got to stretch yourself a bit, put on a little bit of a thick skin because you’re going to get a number of rejection notices, and the number of people that aren’t willing to talk to you. But you find out that it’s a pretty small world. We’ve all been to a number of companies and a number of areas. And we’re all pretty collaborative people. We’re willing to help out, somebody who needs a little bit of advice or a little bit of help. Everybody gets busy and I get too busy to help people sometimes. But, most people if you ask them and ask them respectfully and are respectful of their time, we’ll help you with a phone call. And if they like you and they like what you’re all about, they’re going to be willing to help you in your career as well.
(11:12) A lot of people, especially younger folks, jobs are flying at them more rapidly today than probably ever before. And so, I think a lot of folks haphazardly, Ooh, that sounds great. How much does it pay? Awesome. What they find out is, they don't take the time to investigate it properly and they get into a situation, they found out that grass may not be as green as they thought it was on the other side.
I’ve just been recruiting folks myself, and finding exactly what you’re finding. There’s a hot market out there. When I’m talking to some folks that have multiple job offers on the table, several which are offering more money than I’m offering.
My advice is, I want you to look at the experience that you’re going to get. I want you to look at the people that you’re going to work with. And then I want you to look not only the job that you’ve got now, but the opportunity that you’re going to have a year down the road, two years down the road, five years down the road. Those things can be a whole lot more important than money. This is tried and true advice that people leave bosses, they don’t necessarily leave companies and careers. So, the people that you’re working with, and have the opportunity to work with, the types of projects that you have to be involved in that’s going to do a whole up more for your career in the long run than taking a job that’s going to give you a little bit more money. In the short term.
(12:33) What kind of internal team skills, both the hard skills and the soft skills tend to matter to you the most as you work within teams and lead your projects?
The skills that we look for, especially in the consulting world, I don’t think are terribly different than the skills needed in any other supply chain corporation. They’re just more emphasized in time periods where we’re remote, we’re separated by distance. We’re not necessarily all going into the office together. You don’t have a boss looking over your shoulder, telling what you what to do every day. I would say that if you’re the person that needs to have a boss tell you what to do every day, that’s the first thing you probably ought to change, because what we’re looking for is people that are proactive, people that are self-starters. People that can get up in the morning and say, what am I going to do today? What do I need to get done this week? And organize their time to the point where they can get that done. People that are collaborative, and by collaborative, I mean, not only being able to give advice and help people out, but then people who are willing to reach out and get help when they need it and are effective at doing that. By being able to do that now, you’re not only establishing the relationships that you need, the people skills that you need to be able to be effective in your job, and you’re stretching yourself out of your comfort zone and learning things beyond what you already know. So, collaboration is absolutely critical.
Being empathetic, critical. Your boss may have a whole lot of people like you that are vying for his or her time. And may not always have to have time for you. As a manager, I need to understand that the person on the other end of the phone or the other end of the zoom call has a whole lot more going around going on in their lives than the work that I’m giving them. And I need to appreciate that and understand that in order to really be able to work with that individual.
Lastly is being inclusive. I have the opportunity and the absolute privilege to work with people all over the world. Nearly every day. That’s absolutely one of the things that I treasure is getting up and being on calls with people from India to Germany, to California, to Japan on a regular basis. But that also includes dealing with people who have different cultures, different ways of thinking, different ways of participating in a meeting. Different ways of working together and all of whom can be exceedingly smart people, exceedingly great things to say, and to contribute to a team. You have to work within their cultural norms in order to get that part of the team, a team effort to perform well as a team. Being inclusive is absolutely critical. Not just in the obvious ways, but in all of the
cultures that you’re working with.
(16:00) What do you think are the keys to success as far as how to optimize those relationships, get that all important mutual benefit. And is there any advice you would offer around the implementation phase, cause you're working on a lot of projects on the software side these days?
I’ve got experience from seeing it from a number of points of view, first of all, from a vendor retailer, at Lowe’s, I would deal with companies from a collaborative sense of, how can our companies work together for benefit. And then yes, from a software provider, to a customer perspective, both directions, the keys are the same. And they’re both really, really hard because the keys are openness and trust. And when you’re in a transactional relationship, those are very, very hard to do because, if I’m the software vendor and I tell you everything that my software can do, you might go tell my competitor. If I’m a retailer and I tell my vendor all the promotions that I’m going to get to have coming on in the next three months, you might also go tell my competitor what to what those might be, but it still ends up being the best way to operate. You just need to get over the short-term cost in learning something that may be beneficial to them because the long-term benefits of that trustful relationship are tremendously useful.
So, when I’m talking to a vendor, I can tell them what my promotions are. They can tell we realistically what their manufacturing capacity is to do that. By giving them a better picture of what I’m going to buy, that gives them a bigger trust into the fact that, wow, that’s really going to come as an order. They’re not just making this stuff up or trying to hoard it. This is really coming from a system that I can understand and I can trust and I can work with.
And then the same thing when I’m in a software sales cycle, when a company can be really open and honest with me about what their needs are, what they’re going to use the software for, what their current status is, I can be a whole lot more accurate at aligning that software to what their needs are. Those trustful relationships are what creates the strategic relationships, which is what generates the value for both companies for both entities in the long run, which is much, much greater than the short-term benefits that you might get from keeping a standoffish relationship.
(18:30) Jeff, when you look back on your academic days, what do you wish you had known as a student? What would you tell your younger self about how to prepare for a supply chain career today and maybe two different perspectives, one from the undergraduate, and then maybe from the graduate as well.
Looking back at my academic days, that was a really, really long time ago. I went to Miami University, which is a terrific liberal arts college, that has a philosophy, which I agree with, which is learn how to work in the world and learn how to think, because what you’re going to learn in the class may be very useful in the next couple of years, but it’s probably not going to be as useful after that. I studied mathematics and something that got me a job, which was a statistics and operations research. But I was very, very happy that I had studied mathematics as well because the mathematics part taught me how to think and taught me how
to solve problems.
And I think engineering degrees are terrific at doing the same thing. And the stats and OR part, was the skillsets that I could more directly apply. So that would be my advice is get a balance of that. Get a balance of learning how to think with learning how to work in a team, with learning how to solve problems, as well as some direct skillsets that you can apply directly, out of the gate. Because that’s the way the world works as the world wants you to solve problems. And the problems today may not be the problems that you’re going to have coming out in the future. Having said that, I do see a lot of folks that are coming out with supply chain degrees, that don’t have a whole lot of practical knowledge about supply chain. So, there’s two recognitions. One is go out and get yourself an internship and learn about the world and learn about how the world works. The second is just a recognition that supply chain is really, really big, and there’s a planning side. There is a manufacturing, operations side of the supply chain. There’s a procurement side, there’s a transportation, warehousing. It is varied, highly varied and the skillsets and the knowledge base that you learn in how a warehouse works, is different from, but related to what you need to do to negotiate a contract from a vendor from a procurement standpoint, which is different from what this store is going to sell of this item for the next three months. So, there’s a lot of aspects to supply chain and your career going forward as a supply chain specialist is going to start off with one of those that’s going to increase your skillset in that area.
Let me specialize in that area, but keep in mind the bigger picture of how this all works together so that I can understand how my piece to the puzzle fits into the bigger corporate picture and how the world works. And that’s a lot of what I learned in my MBA, after I graduated and gotten a few years experience in the oil industry, I went back for part-time per my MBA at Bowling Green State University, which had a terrific operations management program, which was blended into its MBA. I was able to take accounting courses and marketing courses and economics courses that just gave me an even broader picture of beyond supply chain of how the company needed to operate and therefore how I needed to operate in my position, which raised my visibility, my value to the company, because I can contribute from a bigger picture standpoint.
(22:14) I'd love to hear your perspective on how careers are changing in supply chain. Where do you see things heading in the future? What are two or three of the biggest influence you see that are going to influence and shape careers within supply chain?
First thing that I’ll say, is that supply chain is big. There’s a lot of different areas that you can focus on in supply chain. There’s a lot to keep up with and the things that I use to keep up with are some good blogs, and some good internet sites because it not only tells you, here’s what’s going on with this company, but then they provide a perspective of here’s what it means for here’s what we think it needs. And so, it gives you some perspective on that, which you can agree with or disagree with, but at least you’ve got a little bit more color than what’s happening. And then there’s the particular industry blogs about what to what’s going on.
I’m not just looking at my career and what’s going on at my company. But I’m able to say, wow, look what they’re doing, wonder if that would apply to what I’m doing and what if that would benefit my company, what I’m doing. And there’s also some nice consolidators out there that take all of these articles and put them in one place and be able to help filter that for you as well.
But the biggest piece of advice I would have though, is that, is that keep learning. Whether it’s a blog or a newsletter, which tend to just kind of keep you up with current events, but it’s coursework that you can sign up for with different universities. I wonder in 20 years, whether or not we’ll actually have a college degree or not, or whether or not a college degree will be online. Whether you actually get a degree or not is irrelevant. I took a course on artificial intelligence and machine learning. That was a fantastic class and gave me some of the basics, helped me to understand what the software is doing behind the covers.
(24:02) From a leadership perspective, we know that the finding and retaining talent is a challenge. Would love to hear how you go about evaluating talent, getting the right people in the right seats in the bus. And then what do you do to bring out the very best with your team members?
I’ve had a number of leadership courses throughout my career. Every company that I’ve gone to has the leadership of the day, I think I’ve got about 20 different leadership books that have gone through those classes. And, a few nuggets of them have stuck, one of the biggest ones which we went through, was a servant leadership.
That’s one that has stuck the most, has aligned most with my thinking and my philosophy and is best in terms of getting the best out of talent and really about treating people the way that you want to be treated. Seeing yourself as a manager, as a leader, as the person satisfying the needs of the individual, and really that individual is a lot more important to the organization than you are, because they’re the ones that are interacting with your customers and doing the work. Not that I don’t do the work myself, but my influence as a manager is the leverage that I get from the group that I have.
That’s my biggest philosophy is take care of the folks, realize that they really are the face to the customer and the important people in the organization. I’m here to facilitate, to make their job easier, to get roadblocks out of their way, to get to know them to the point where I understand where they want to go in their career, what they want to do, and I’m providing them with what they need, not only get their job done today, but to live and breathe well with their family from a work-life balance standpoint. And I understand where they want to go so that I can help them with their career. It’s very well known that people leave bosses, they don’t leave positions and that by taking care of people, people will reward you by staying around because they understand that they’ve got their back and that you’re going to do the best for their career.
(26:22) You've given us some great advice today for how one can learn and advance their learning. I know we're big fans of mentorship and we'd love to hear your personal philosophy on mentorship. And what kind of advice would you give to someone, especially a budding supply chain professional, as it relates to finding their first mentorship and getting the most out of it.
I’m a big fan of mentors myself. I’ve been mentored, I’ve been a mentor of several folks. The key for me is that they look for somebody in a very, very high-level position. And then they don’t establish the relationship. They keep them as a, wow, I’ve got this relationship with this high-level person. And I feel like I need to be a perfect person with that mentor so that they will help me in my career. At the end of the day, you need to not be constantly interviewing for a job with your mentor. Your mentor has to be your mentor, your friend. Your advisor. And in order for them to be able to do that, you need to be able to open up to them with what your strengths are, but also what your opportunities are. And then you need to expose your opportunities to them by being yourself, so that they can give you advice as to how to act better in a business situation.
So that’s my biggest advice is find a mentor that you can be open with and be yourself with, and really expose your weaknesses and talk about those opportunities because that’s the only way that you’re going to improve, get help, and really utilize the value of that mentorship