July 2010 | Case Studies | Reader Profile

Flower Power: John Kuehn

Tags: Retail, Supply Chain Management, Expedited Shipping, Temperature-Sensitive Goods, E-commerce, Transportation Management

John Kuehn

NAME: John Kuehn

TITLE: Senior vice president of supply chain operations, since 2009

COMPANY: Provide Commerce Inc., San Diego, Calif.

PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE: Various operations and supply chain positions, Hewlett Packard; senior director of worldwide logistics, Apple Computer; vice president of planning and logistics, Gateway; senior vice president of planning and logistics, Provide Commerce.

EDUCATION: Iowa State University, BBA in logistics, 1988. Santa Clara University, MBA, 1993.

The flower business isn’t for the faint of heart. You have to keep your inventory moving and cool, and the shelf life is incredibly short. Also, just two holidays — Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day — determine a big share of your sales and profits.

“If you mess up one week, you blow your financials for the whole year, and you lose those customers forever,” says John Kuehn, senior vice president of supply chain operations at San Diego-based Provide Commerce, which operates the e-commerce Web site ProFlowers. In addition to delivering fresh-cut flowers, mixed bouquets, and potted plants direct to consumers, Provide Commerce runs three other Internet businesses: Cherry Moon Farms sells fresh fruit and other edible gifts, Shari’s Berries specializes in hand-dipped berries, and Red Envelope focuses on personalized and unique gifts.

Kuehn is responsible for logistics, transportation, production, fulfillment, planning and inventory management, sourcing and procurement, and product quality. He also oversees one team that controls data accuracy on the e-commerce sites, and another that continually adjusts the supply chain to boost velocity and quality and remove costs.

Provide Commerce works with about 200 supplier-partners that ship product directly to customers. It also receives product in about 20 third-party and company-owned fulfillment centers throughout the United States. In those facilities, workers package gifts and prepare them for shipping.

Of the issues that challenge the company’s fast-paced supply chain, probably the most remarkable is the emotion attached to many of the orders, especially for flowers. “It’s not a high-dollar purchase, but the delivery expectations are high,” Kuehn says. “You don’t send your wife roses the day after Valentine’s Day.”

That makes on-time delivery critical, even in the face of events like the back-to-back blizzards that crippled much of the East Coast in February 2010. Needing to get flowers into snow-stricken markets for Valentine’s Day, ProFlowers tapped its deep relationships with FedEx and UPS.

“We were able to deliver product to areas where the carriers could get planes and product in, and control temperatures — too much cold is as bad for flowers as too much heat,” says Kuehn.

But it took even more to get flowers to doorsteps on time this year. Long before the flakes started falling, Kuehn and his team were wrestling with the fact that Valentine’s Day 2010 fell on a Sunday, when neither FedEx nor UPS runs, sorts, or puts couriers on the street. ProFlowers risked losing a significant amount of business to merchants that use other delivery strategies.

Kuehn and his team saw this crisis coming, so three years ago they started asking their carriers to roll their trucks on Sunday just for ProFlowers.

“They thought we were joking,” Kuehn says. “But we kept talking about it until they realized that we were not going away.”

Finally, FedEx agreed to play Cupid. February 14 , 2010, marked the first time the carrier had ever worked with an individual shipper to deliver on Sunday. “Any truck on the road on Valentine’s Day was only carrying ProFlowers’ product,” Kuehn says.

The stakes were high, but everything came up roses.

The Big Questions

What do you do when you’re not at work?

I’m an avid investor. I’m also into sports such as kayaking, snorkeling, scuba, and surfing.

Ideal dinner companion?

Ronald Reagan. I’m intrigued by his great leadership abilities, communication skills, and sense of humor.

What’s in your briefcase?

My taxes; I had to file for an extension because they were due in the middle of our busy season.

Business motto?

I have two: “Fail to plan, plan to fail” and “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

If you didn’t work in supply chain management, what would be your dream job?

A veterinarian, sports agent, architect, or general contractor.