Battlefields and Boardrooms: The Military-Private Sector Connection

Tags: Education & Careers, Military Logistics

Military skills are put to good use in the private sector. The traits of an exceptional soldier—leadership, persistence, teamwork, order—are also the traits of exceptional logistics professionals.

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The Marine Corps is world-renowned as the U.S. military's first responders. They storm the beaches. They kick in doors. They also helped pave the way for expedited freight to arrive at its destination, quickly and on time.

So says Frederick Smith, founder, president, and CEO of FedEx. He joined the Marine Corps in 1966 after graduating from Yale, and served two tours in Vietnam—experiences that played a great role in shaping the largest overnight delivery company in the United States.

"I do not believe I could have built FedEx without the skills I learned from the Marine Corps," Smith told Fortune 500 magazine recently. "My four years in the Marine Corps left me with an indelible understanding of the value of leadership skills. It boils down to looking after your people and ensuring that, from top to bottom, everyone feels part of the team. Like in the Marine Corps, FedEx is a team effort, and it takes all 300,000 of us working every day to satisfy our customers."

Give and Take

Napoleon Bonaparte may have said it best: "An army marches on its stomach." For as long as there have been military forces, there has been a need for logisticians to keep them organized and ready to fight. That military sense of teamwork, leadership, and order has been applied to the private sector as well.

Like companies in the private sector, the military is increasingly seeking to boost efficiency, says Bobbi Wells, managing director of air operations planning and analysis for FedEx. "We have ongoing discussions with military organizations about what we can learn from them and what they can learn from us," she notes. "We both benefit."

As a former Army logistician, Wells has a unique view into the symbiotic relationship between the military and FedEx. She began her career more than 20 years ago, transitioning from her college's ROTC program to Army active duty. She began earning her pay as a truck platoon leader in Ft. Sill, Okla. From there, she was sent to Germany for four years, where she joined the 3rd Armored Division.

"In Germany, I expanded my logistics experience by adding maintenance skills to my portfolio," she says. "The 3rd Armored Division's tracked and wheeled vehicles required heavy maintenance and constant resupply of fuel and bullets."

The job was rarely static. "Resupplying vehicles in garrison was predictable and stable," Wells says. "But when the vehicles were deployed or on maneuvers, it became more of a logistics challenge. We had to have all the supplies available at the closest possible point to each vehicle's location, and we had to be responsive to every unit."

The post gave Wells a hands-on lesson in solving problems by using available resources. She also got a lesson in the ingenuity of soldiers. One example is how they improved the vehicle refueling strategy.

The refueling strategy in Germany at the time was to establish fuel farms with large bladders (inflatable rubber containers used to store fuel in strategic locations). "When the Division was on the move, soldiers would run the track vehicles directly over the Autobahn rather than load them on railcars to move them to maneuver areas," Wells recalls. "So the soldiers would pull vehicles over en masse to the established depot areas to refuel."

Soldiers under her command engineered a better solution. "Using the equipment that was issued to them, such as piping and spigots, my soldiers designed a refueling system called Refuel on the Move, which was set up like a gas station on the roadway," Wells says. "It was not only flexible and quick to implement, but it also provided a more efficient and effective way to refuel vehicles. Soldiers could pull up along the road and refuel several vehicles at the same time, which made the vehicles less vulnerable because they weren't congregating in a large location."

Experiences like that left a lasting impression on Wells. "The biggest lesson I learned was that if you encourage and support the people on the front lines—whether they are soliders or private sector workers—they can solve any problem put before them," she says.

Training with Industry

Wells' military career took a pivotal turn in 1990 when she became the second army officer to participate in FedEx's Training-With-Industry program, which was designed to allow officers to study in the civilian world for one year.

"The Army wanted to learn as much as possible from the business world," Wells says. "The missions, goals, and approach could be different, but many daily tasks and functions offered tremendous opportunity to learn from one another.

"The Army wanted to learn as much as possible from the business world. The missions, goals, and approach could be different, but many daily tasks and functions offered tremendous opportunity to learn from one another." —Bobbi Wells, FedEx

"The benefit of the program to the civilian company was having someone on staff who could provide a different perspective and approach that might be refreshing to the organization," she adds.

The benefits, she found, became apparent for both parties in ways big and small. As one small example, FedEx didn't have a way of denoting altered or new material in its manuals, so the company adopted a military strategy—it used a heavy font bar to the left of the new text.

FedEx operations also left a lasting mark on the military when an officer in the training program implemented the hub-and-spoke concept of logistics management while at his next duty station in Europe. "A hub-and-spoke system seems elementary now, but 20 years ago the military wasn't doing it," Wells says. "The military draws tremendous efficiencies from it."

The military is also evaluating ways to reduce its footprint by narrowing the number of supply facilities, improving their reaction time, and developing a more efficient model for executing the logistics support mission, Wells says.

Another pressing issue for the military is item visibility in the resupply chain. "If supply sergeants for a forward-deployed unit can't see the item they ordered and don't have information about its delivery time, they might react—because they can't afford to wait—by ordering several more," she says.

The military's influence is also seen in FedEx's command and control over global operations. The global operations department has responsibility for managing line-haul operations, including the fleet, aircraft connectivity, and FedEx trucks. Managers in that department are delegated greater responsibility for making decisions.

"They may decide to re-route planes to recover some overflow volume, with the focus on 100-percent service flow every day," Wells explains. "That command and control responsibility and organization is taken directly from the military."

FedEx continues to inject military thinking into its operations through another strategy—its talent. In the past two years, the company has hired more than 3,000 veterans through its "Hiring Our Heroes" program.

The Big Picture

Connected Logistics, a Huntsville, Ala.-based information management and logistics automation provider, also brings military knowledge into its operations, and has had the military ask for its help on logistics issues.

"I have seen commanders seek the expertise of industry to resolve complex logistics problems," says Billy Pratt, director of operations for Connected Logistics. Before joining the company, Pratt was the senior logistician for the Chief Information Officer for U.S. Forces in Europe. There he managed materiel readiness and logistics support for strategic architecture and systems.

"I have been a logistician all my adult life, including 27 years in the U.S. Army," Pratt says. "I have always seen a connection between industry trying to improve the way the military conducts business, and industry learning from the complex environment in which the military operates to improve its efficiency as well."

Connected Logistics was founded on that link to the military. The company was established in 2007 by Forest Bourke, who worked for Pratt in 2002 when he was the G-4 officer of the 3rd U.S. Army—the Coalition Forces Land Component Command for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

"During that time, we needed real-time visibility on the battlefield to determine where our assets were to sustain U.S. forces in theater, how those assets were moving from location to location, and the demands on that inventory to support the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines," Pratt says. "We had no information technology (IT) architecture that could deliver that real-time information when we were sitting in Kuwait's command operations center."

To remedy that situation, Pratt asked then-Lt.Col. Bourke to develop a solution that would allow command to see its resources, then flex and move supplies to where they were required on the battlefield. Bourke worked with industry partners and developed what would become the "Logistics Common Operating Picture."

"Bourke linked an IT system with appropriate radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to a small aperture terminal satellite system with a laptop," Pratt explains. "That enabled logisticians to communicate their requirements within the existing IT system.

"The Logistics Common Operating Picture allowed us logistics visibility across the theater of operations, primarily Kuwait and Iraq," he adds. "We could then communicate those requirements back to the United States so we could get the required materials where they were needed on the battlefield to support the soldiers."

This system became what is today the Battle Command and Control's Service Support System (BCS3), a satellite-connected real-time account of materiel movements.

Because the system allowed the Army to see where their trucks were moving, they had real-time visibility when things went wrong. "During one combat incident, we saw trucks move in directions where there were no soldiers," Pratt recalls. "We knew that convoy of fuel had been hijacked. And, because of the RFID technology, we knew the trucks' exact location, and were able to get them back."

Even though both men are now retired from the service, Pratt and Bourke continue the initiative. "Connected Logistics primarily operates at the intersection of information technology and logistics services," Pratt explains. "We are agnostic in regard to IT systems and hardware. We look at how information technology can best facilitate decision-making for our clients." In fact, all the leaders at Connected Logistics are logisticians who are focused on providing an IT solution to facilitate rapid decision-making.

The company has an established contract with the U.S. Army "to manage the world's largest supply chain—sustaining Army soldiers," Pratt says. The Army's Enterprise Information Systems integration program is responsible for the Enterprise Resource Planning solution and architecture for the Global Combat Service Support Army. The architecture governs the management of the Army's supply chain financials.

Connected Logistics' military association has also led to its participation in an assessment of how defense logistics agencies' strategic depots are positioned to best support Army requirements worldwide. The assessment also involves business process engineering to see how shipments can get where they need to go, faster and more efficiently.

"There is a strong synergy between the U.S. military and industry in applying innovation to solve complex logistics challenges," Pratt says.