People: Fred Towns, New Age Electronics

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Ask Fred Towns what he likes about his job and the words spill out of his mouth, tumbling over each other at a dizzying pace that leaves you somewhere between hanging on each one and hoping you can process it all fast enough to keep up.

Thanks to his varied career, Towns has a lot to say. But the Baltimore native is far from all talk—his actions are what garnered him a job that perfectly marries his logistics and electronics skills with his passion for photography.

In 2005, Towns joined New Age Electronics—a Carson, Calif.-based logistics service provider—as senior vice president in charge of channel management programs for the digital photography and entertainment markets.

Towns is tasked with helping consumer electronics companies develop sales, distribution, supply chain, and remanufacturing strategies that keep up with today's rapidly changing retail landscape.

The company's diverse customer list keeps him on his toes.

"New Age is involved in many channels—IT, retail, superstores, and the food and drug sector," he explains. "Each channel has a unique business model, which brings a different set of challenges."

From all appearances, Towns thrives on those challenges.

After earning a business degree from Towson State University in Maryland, Towns began his career with local electronics chain Stereo Discounters.

A few years later, he was recruited by Panasonic for a job informing Baltimore-area electronics stores about Panasonic's latest video, television, and audio equipment.

Towns worked his way up the ladder at the electronics giant, eventually running retail operations for Canada and the East Coast, before being named senior vice president of its consumer electronics business.

His promotion came at a key time in the electronics industry.

"Products were evolving rapidly," he recalls. "DVD players, for example, cost $1,500 at first. After five or six years, consumers could buy them for $59; now the price is as low as $29."

An Industry in Flux

With prices compressing quickly and new technology emerging constantly, Panasonic struggled to develop cutting-edge products while also generating profits. Refining logistics operations to deliver products to consumers more quickly became a prime consideration.

"Some products have a life cycle of only 90 to 120 days. My job was to find out how to stay competitive and turn these products quickly," Towns explains.

He began searching for partners that could help Panasonic bring the latest electronics to market without breaking the bank.

"Many consumer electronics companies were embracing outsourcing to stay competitive. Like Panasonic, they were seeking partners that knew how to operate on lean margins and understood the importance of turning inventory," he says.

One potential partner on Panasonic's list was New Age. Towns flew to the West Coast to visit with New Age executives, and not long after, was flying back to California to start a new job with the company.

Towns has enjoyed his leap to "the other side of the table." Because of his background in manufacturing and retail, he was a known entity when he began approaching old contacts from his New Age office.

"I interface with many partners and retail customers I know from Panasonic," he says. "I've earned a level of industry credibility over the years, and now I can use my background to develop fresh ideas."

The New Consumer

One of those fresh ideas is helping retailers meet the demands of today's product-savvy shoppers, Towns says.

"We have to be forward-thinking about consumer shopping habits," he explains. "Customers today do their homework before buying—they are up to date on the latest products. New Age has to look at these challenges and help retailers understand how to succeed in this environment."

In addition, customers aren't only browsing web sites or standing in store lines. "Today's customers shop untethered—with web-enabled cell phones, or through a wireless connection at Starbucks," he notes.

"Because of these shifts, we have to devise creative inventory models so our partners can capitalize on new shopping channels," he adds.

The challenges, like the developments, come fast and furious. Today's electronics retailers compete in a radically different environment than when Towns first joined the industry.

"Companies now handle inventory in real time or just in time," he explains. "Supply chains must operate as fine-tuned machines because unplanned disruptions can be very damaging."

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that each sales channel has its own trends. "Retailers try to be prepared, but they are always vulnerable to shifts in their vendors' business. They are never completely in control."

It is, admittedly, a lot of stress. But unwinding, when there's time, unveils Towns' passion: photography.

"Photography transports me to a different world. It's a hobby that, one day, I hope to pursue full-time," he says.

While photography is his first love, logistics runs a close second. "I work in an industry I find very exciting," he says.

Towns has enjoyed watching consumer electronics products morph from luxury toys into everyday necessities. "The environment in this industry is always changing," he says. "There's no way I can get bored."

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