February 2006 | Case Studies | Reader Profile

John Depew: High-Flying Logistics

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As manager of distribution for a magazine publisher, John Depew faces an odd concern: his display racks won't stand still. That's because the "racks" are seatback pockets on commercial aircraft.

Working for American Airlines Publishing, Depew's job is to move newly published in-flight magazines from the printer in Jonesboro, Ark., to some 200 airports, making sure they arrive in time for overnight cleaning crews to insert them in the seatbacks.

AA Publishing puts out three magazines. Its flagship, American Way, appears twice a month. Celebrated Living, for business-class and first-class passengers, is published quarterly, and Nexos, for passengers traveling to and from Latin America, comes out six times a year. The company also publishes Southwest Airlines Spirit for Southwest Airlines, which handles its own distribution.

When a new issue rolls off the press, copies must reach each airport on time, or planes take off for all points of the compass without them. If that happens, "we've got empty seatbacks all over the country," Depew says. "Then we have to find out where those aircraft are headed for the next two days, and shift the inventory to the right airport."

Depew used to move nearly all his freight in airplane bellies. That changed 10 years ago, when he suddenly learned "rates were going up higher than our budget could manage," he says. "We had four to six weeks to completely overhaul the distribution system."

AA Publishing shifted 75 percent of its freight to surface transportation, reserving air shipments mainly for overseas airports. Working closely with the Jonesboro printer's logistics arm, the company developed a consortium of small, regional carriers based in strategic locations around the country.

"We would truck full trailerloads to those five or six locations, and they fanned out from there as hub-and-spoke operations over the ground to our small airport facilities," Depew says.

The process has grown increasingly efficient with time. "Our routes are tighter, and we now know the people receiving the freight, as well as the security procedures," he says. "Distribution has become a lot easier."

Transportation would run even more smoothly if the carriers that haul the magazines made better use of electronic systems to report on shipment status and provide electronic proofs of delivery, Depew says.

"When the CEO of a company that advertises in the magazine gets on a plane and doesn't see the current issue in the seatback, we certainly hear about it right away," he says. Better, faster reporting would reduce the chance of that happening.

For Depew, a great day at work is what he calls a "domino day"—when all the pieces fall into place and important work is accomplished.

He also enjoys hanging out with co-workers at "the office food cube, a cubicle totally devoted to food," he says, or working as a member of the office "people committee" to plan picnics, trips to the ballpark, and other excursions.

"I get a lot of joy out of working with people, and learning about their lives and their families," Depew says. "That is satisfying to me."

The Big Questions

Business motto?

Effective transportation solutions.

If you could do something over in your career, what would you do differently?

I would have taken more calculated risks with little-known and unproven methods and technologies, because I realize that some great gains are possible.

What's in your briefcase?

More scraps of paper than I care to admit. I write notes to myself, toss them in there, then forget to read them. I'm PDA-challenged.

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

I love doing anything outdoors, especially if it involves water, such as swimming and sailing. I recently completed a boxing class, for exercise and fun. I also love to hike, bike, and travel. Music is another passion of mine. I volunteer with a ministry, where we sing and worship in area nursing homes. I'm also learning to play piano.

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

Something that comforts people, such as serving in the medical field. I've thought about combining that with my love of music, and taking a guitar to the hospital to entertain patients. And I've always wanted to conduct a symphony orchestra.

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