A No-Fail Mentality and Sheer Force of Will
Many years ago, a few days into a new job as an analyst at Sears, Roebuck and Co., Jeff Cohen was working at his desk when the chief financial officer, Ed Liddy, walked by. “He stopped, introduced himself, and sat down to chat for a few minutes,” Cohen says. “I don’t remember what we talked about. But the fact that he did that for such a low-level person has stuck with me to this day.”
Since then, Cohen himself has risen to the C-suite; he’s chief operating officer at G&D Integrated, an asset-based third-party logistics (3PL) provider based in Morton, Illinois. He has been in that position since July 2018, when G&D promoted him from executive vice president of the Transportation Division. As a leader, Cohen often thinks back to his chat with Liddy. “I take it as a reminder that courtesy and respect for the individual go a long way,” he says.
We recently talked with Cohen about his leadership strategies and his current activities at G&D.
IL: What led you into logistics?
I started working in logistics in 1991, as a consultant with KPMG. I stayed in that role for 17 years. Then I moved to the industry side, becoming chief executive officer at SLD Transport in Atlanta. I didn’t know a lot about logistics when I started at KPMG, but as I got into it, I was endlessly fascinated by the number of puzzles you work through in that area. Each day, you encounter some of the same challenges in different forms, but once you make your deliveries, you have to start all over. You’ve only proven yourself until you get to the next day.
IL: What’s at the top of your agenda as COO of G&D?
We’re trying to get our hands around what kind of company we want to be. For me, that means rationalizing our strategy as a 3PL. Like a lot of companies, we grew up somewhat opportunistically, based on work and prospects that presented themselves. As a result, we provide a broad range of services, everything from transportation to a variety of value-added logistics services, even metal fabrication.
I’m currently occupied with how to meld all those services into a strategy that ties our solutions together for our customers, so we don’t just offer them in pieces, and so we can grow the business more effectively.
On the transportation side, just like everyone else, I’m concerned with how we can find more truck drivers.
IL: Tell us about one particularly tough logistics challenge you’ve faced in your career.
In late 2017, we had the opportunity to start providing truckload services to a major e-commerce furniture and home furnishings company. They were growing rapidly, and their business model relied on delivery speed and reliability. The major national carriers they used at the time were struggling to meet their delivery windows.
We had a chance to show what we could do. We quickly focused our organization around the challenge, and within a few weeks we were getting nearly 100 percent of the company’s volume out of their Chicago-area facility.
This example reflects who we are as an organization. We have solid processes and information systems. But our ability to perform has been a matter of total commitment, with everyone involved, down to our drivers. It’s a product of a no-fail mentality and sheer force of will.
IL: How do you rally people to accomplish something like that?
When you get the right people in place, they rally themselves. My role is to provide some direction, let them know what I view as priorities, but then give them a lot of room to figure out how to pursue the solution. Sometimes I need to work through a thought process with them. I try to nurture discussions where we approach issues analytically and ask tough questions from multiple angles.
Sometimes it’s my place to make the tough calls when we’re dealing with gray-area questions. But I become impatient with people who just come to me for decisions that I feel they’re capable of making themselves. It’s important to create an organization of self-motivated people who get things done on their own.
IL: What’s another facet of your leadership style?
We try to keep things fun and entertaining. It makes people comfortable, and builds team rapport.
IL: What’s the hardest part of your job?
I find my time split into tiny increments, where I jump from subject to subject. It’s hard to do any in-depth thinking in that environment, especially in a realm like logistics, where so many things are happening at once.
I’ve tried to develop ways to sequester myself at times, so I can focus on something for an extended period. This goes against what the management books say about the need for an open-door policy, which we certainly do have. But at times, to be effective, I have to get myself to another office, where I can’t be so easily found.
IL: Is there something you used to believe about business but, based on experience, no longer believe?
I was an economics major in college, and I always thought the principles of supply and demand were important. I still do, but I’ve found that especially in a market like transportation, pure economic principles don’t always play out the way you’d expect. Factors such as emotion and momentum play an important role in the movement of markets.
Part of the reason is that many small carriers in the market impact pricing, and they react quickly and nervously to changes. For example, if someone has excess capacity, and they have a highly expensive asset that’s sitting around, they react somewhat emotionally, and rates drop quickly.
IL: How do you like to spend your time outside of work?
Thanks to my daughter, I’m a rabid Clemson University football fan. I play golf and tennis, and I like to travel internationally. Also, everyone on the G&D executive team is involved in a community organization. I sit on the board of our local CASA branch, which provides court-appointed advocates for abused and neglected children.
Deep Dive Into Data
Among the technologies Jeff Cohen finds incredibly useful at G&D is data analytics. The company has developed teams that specialize in accessing and querying warehoused data, and those efforts provide many valuable new insights into the business. “We’ve seen efficiency improvements,” Cohen says. “Analytics have changed how we look at equipment investments and helped us create special programs for customers.”
In one project, G&D devised an incentive program to encourage driver behavior that promotes fuel economy. This wasn’t easy. G&D’s drivers make all kinds of runs, long and short. They pull a wide range of equipment, and their trucks vary in age. With such diversity, it’s a challenge to develop a fuel efficiency scorecard that works for everyone.
“By diving into the data, we identified groups with common characteristics we could put together, created a scorecard that was fair, and put that incentive program in place,” Cohen says.
The program has made a real difference. “It’s partly the incentive, but also partly the competitive spirit,” he adds. “Nobody wants to be at the bottom.”