October 2015 | Case Studies | Reader Profile

Tim Thoma Brings It In

Tags: Ocean, Supply Chain Management, Global Logistics, Panama Canal, Freight Forwarders, Transportation, Careers, Retail Logistics, Supply Chain

Tim Thoma is international logistics and compliance manager at Northern Tool and Equipment, a multi-channel retailer based in Burnsville, Minn. He has held that position since 2008.

Responsibilities: Moving freight from overseas to the company's three distribution centers. This includes managing relationships with freight forwarders and carriers, and overseeing customs compliance.

Experience: A series of jobs at freight forwarding companies, leading to a position as manager of the Minneapolis branch of UTi Worldwide; freight services manager, Norman G. Jensen.

Education: BA, international business/German, University of St. Thomas, 1988.


I majored in German and international business in college. I enjoyed that so much that when I graduated, I took a job with an international freight forwarder. Eventually, I worked my way up to become manager of the Minneapolis branch of UTi Worldwide. In that role, I was responsible for imports, exports, air and ocean transportation, customs brokerage, and sales. It was a good way to learn about international logistics, because I was serving the individual needs of many customers.

Today, at Northern Tool and Equipment, I'm responsible for moving product that we purchase from overseas, mainly from China and Taiwan. We purchase goods under Free on Board origin port Incoterms (International Commerce Terms).

We move this freight to our three distribution centers, in Fort Mill, S.C., Arlington, Texas, and Savage, Minn. I manage the work of our freight forwarders and make sure our ocean carriers provide space as agreed. In addition, I manage all aspects of customs compliance. That responsibility starts when we assign the correct Harmonized Tariff Schedule number to a product before one of our buyers purchases it, and it runs until the freight clears customs in the United States.

Over the past year, one of my biggest challenges has been getting space with ocean carriers. The shipping lines seem to have reached a better balance between supply and demand, but for a while we faced difficulties with every piece of freight. In 2014, companies were all shipping early, in anticipation of labor action on the West Coast. That filled up ships everywhere. Once the labor action was over, it took another six months to clear the backlog. It was a tough peak season and a tough Chinese New Year.

To keep product moving while capacity was tight, we prioritized shipments, pushing back purchase orders we didn't need urgently. We also evaluated our options outside our carrier contracts, using non-vessel-operating common carriers to pick up some product we needed to move urgently—at a premium.

In the near future, Northern Tool will implement a new enterprise resource planning system, which I'm sure will impact my activities. Also, we're a growing company and always adding new products. This will likely increase the volume of freight I manage. Our customs broker provides a good purchase order management tool; that will help handle the extra volume.

We've also committed to more space with our carriers, based on projections for the coming year, and we've broadened our carrier base. If you commit all your freight to one or two carriers, and they get full, it's difficult to manage any surges in your supply chain. But if you use six or eight carriers—some primary and secondary—then one or two of them should be able to help you. Maybe they've added a new string that they need to fill, or they have a Suez route in addition to the Panama Canal. We diversify our transportation to get those options into our supply chain.

The Big Questions

How do you like to spend your time when you're not working?

I'm a Scottish Highland games athlete. It's the original extreme sport, developed more than 1,000 years ago. I've also been a home brewer for 25 years.

If you could get a do-over on one decision, what would that be?

I wish I'd taken more economics classes in college, and some world history.

What piece of advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

Don't study German; study Chinese.

What's one career accomplishment you're particularly proud of?

We recently went through a successful focused assessment audit with U.S. Customs. Having them dig deep into our operations and find that we're doing everything correctly was very rewarding.