On the Road | Introduction: Off the Beaten Path

Tags: Supply Chain Management

On the Road--A Logistics Travelogue--image of pushpins in a map

Cluttering pages with supply chain strategies, logistics lexicon, elusive acronyms, and, periodically, run-on sentences, is habit forming. But it comes with my job.

So does reverie.

In between pulling and parsing source information, then writing, the mind wanders. There's no shortage of distractions. Press releases, phone conversations, e-mails, RSS feeds, and Google have a way of triggering a not-so-recessive Kerouac gene, transporting me to people and places worlds and times apart. I often find myself compelled by an urge to drop down from the "editsphere" and engage the supply chain on the ground, in person.

On the Road: A Supply Chain Travelogue embraces this impulse.

Beginning in February 2009, I took to the road in search of new perspectives. My purpose was manifold: to see firsthand the inner workings of the U.S. supply chain; to visit with transportation and logistics professionals on their terms; to gain a better appreciation for the labor and love that make things and make things move; and finally, to share a "thick description" of my journey and take you along for the ride.

I was equally motivated by previous experiences.

I recall driving eastward along the Trans-Canada Highway, from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, captivated by double-stacked Canadian National container trains flowing alongside the Skeena River. I still marvel at the remoteness of this intermodal corridor hemmed in by forever-green mountains.

I relish memories of bracing myself deck-side on a pilot boat in Norfolk, Va., imagining what it might be like steering Post Panamax containerships to port; of a tour guide's up-close introduction to the AlpTransit Gotthard Tunnel in Switzerland; of speaking with a Mark Twain-mustachioed UPS Air Cargo pilot on the flight deck of a freighter preparing for takeoff at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in Alaska.

I also remember Martin McVicar, president of Combilift Ltd., showing me around his forklift manufacturing facility in Co. Monaghan, Ireland; then inviting me to test-drive a narrow-aisle lift truck—which I did—pallet and white-knuckle nerve in tow.

You may find clues to these sometimes-seen phenomena underneath a paper-strewn pile, hidden in a spam-filtered in-box, dripping from marketing collateral, or simply through word-of-mouth. But you can only really appreciate what you see in the flesh. Welcome to the 2010 Logistics Planner.

Seeing the Supply Chain for What it's Worth

The supply chain is constantly shifting in countless directions, absorbing layers of complexity as globalization stretches commerce and technology squeezes information. When you tear it apart, take away the artifice, what do you discover?

I found myself driving down dusty roads, sidestepping lift trucks, negotiating aisles and rush-hour traffic, slipping into steel-toed boots and out of hair nets. There were slag piles and Purell dispensers, automated retrieval systems and remotely controlled locomotives, plastic pellets, wooden pallets, and a composite of personalities. Up close, the supply chain dissipates. It distills into unique people, places, and perspectives.

You begin to understand this when you drive hundreds of miles through remote desert to Belen, N.M., and the site of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe inspection yard. It becomes apparent as you slalom through traffic in a New York City taxi, bound for Port Elizabeth, N.J., the birthplace of containerization; or fly over North Carolina's heavily wooded Piedmont Triad, where plans for an Aerotropolis have captured the imagination of local businesses.

Sometimes the people are just as memorable as the place. In Nashua, N.H., Bellavance Beverage Company, a fourth-generation, family-owned wholesaler, serves up Anheuser-Busch InBev's global brands to local customers; and in Morris, Ill., A&R Logistics is molding the future for plastics manufacturers—through the visionary leadership of CEO James Bedeker and his operations staff.

When I began this odyssey nearly one year ago, the economy was in code red—which is even more telling. To no small degree, this article confronts recessionary fear. Rather, in small degrees, these stories give a face to people and companies that are working in overdrive to give our economy the green light.

In my mind's eye, all these experiences, past and recent past, stand apart. They should. Each of these stories exposes the day-to-day motions that make containerships shake, DC racks rattle, and truckloads roll. But they are also part of a much larger narrative that tops off this issue, then spills into Inbound Logistics every month of the year.

Welcome to my world. More importantly, thank you for inviting me into yours. Please join me as I hit the road.