Admiral of the Fleet
In the early 1990s, John Burke worked for Northside Foods. “We offered redistribution services on a very small scale in the restaurant space,” he says. That meant bringing smaller-volume shipments into a consolidation center and then shipping mixed truckloads, with multiple SKUs, to customers’ distribution centers.
That simple solution saved freight dollars and reduced inventory levels. But as the concept of supply chain management took hold, Burke and his colleagues started to explore new strategies that would holistically benefit their customers’ supply chains.
“We had an opportunity to apply more supply chain-level analytics to our small operating company,” he says. “We found that offered great benefits, beyond transactions that are just inside the company.”
Over more than 25 years, and through several corporate evolutions, Burke rose to the top ranks of what eventually became Armada, a Pittsburgh-based firm that provides supply chain engineering, planning, and execution services. He has served as chief executive officer of Armada since 2011. Burke recently sat down with Inbound Logistics to discuss how he reached that position and how he leads.
IL: Tell us about an early experience that helped shape you as a leader.
Early on, I had the opportunity to spend some time in a casual setting with the CEOs of a few Fortune 500 companies. One thing I learned from them is that as a leader, you have to be insightful. You have to be able to distill complex issues down to the things that matter and that people can understand. I realized that sometimes leadership means being simple, straightforward, and transparent.
There’s no cookie cutter approach to being a CEO, but you need the acumen and insight to talk to people in a way that doesn’t lead them down rat holes and can educate them to the business issues at hand. It’s also important to be tenacious.
IL: As you rose in your career, what was one of the hardest lessons you had to learn?
The hardest thing, especially in companies that are focusing on change management, is patience. I hate to admit this, but every six-month plan seems to take one year. A one-year plan seems to take two years, and a five-year plan takes 10 years. You have to stay focused, persistent, and patient, especially when you know you’re doing the right things.
IL: Why do things always take longer than you expect?
A big part of it is that the supply chain involves a lot of people inside a lot of organizations. Whenever you have a change initiative in place, the sheer volume of communication and change management you have to accomplish tends to slow things down. The complexity and scale of what we do in the supply chain makes change seem to move at a snail’s pace. But you have to meet this with perseverance and persistence, and the rewards are always worthwhile.
IL: What’s one important issue that keeps your customers awake at night, and how are you helping them with it?
We’ve seen radical changes in the digital economy and in consumer behavior in the past five years. The first thing we work on with our clients is how to think outside the box about different ways to engage with the end consumer. I constantly think about the fact that the old rules are out and the new rules are in.
But the new rules haven’t been around for long, so not too many people know how to play by them. You have to constantly focus on getting the best people into the organization. You need thought leaders for the new digital world.
IL: What’s your leadership style?
I believe in having a strong vision, relying heavily on strategic planning, and involving lots of people in that planning. The most efficient way to run a business is to align people and then let them go.
To achieve that, you need to be transparent about the direction of the business and make sure people can participate in its success. You don’t micromanage, but you make sure people are delivering the expected results. As long as people are delivering, I believe in giving them the latitude to execute in any way they feel is best.
IL: What kind of corporate culture do you foster?
At Armada, we want people to enjoy coming to work and feel they can make a valuable contribution. One strategy has been to migrate from the old human resources review program to a coaching culture. We focus on getting our leadership to coach people in the right direction. We also try to be as employee-centric as possible in all the decisions we make and engage our people in decisions that involve them.
In addition, we encourage an environment where people respect one another and accomplish things together.
IL: Tell us about a curveball a customer has thrown at you.
Several times customers have hired some of our employees away from us. Each time, the HR people are taken aback. But I look at the big picture and view it as a compliment. It means we have good people who understand business. Perhaps it will give us someone down the road who can help foster our positive relationship with that client.
We’ve reached the point where we actually promote this as a measure of success for our organization: We’re a pool of talent that our clients draw from.
IL: Which technologies do you think will make the biggest changes in the way supply chains are managed?
I heard a wonderful term at a conference: “combinatorial innovation.” As an example, the speaker described a drone flying over a field with an optical reader, feeding data into an artificial intelligence machine and predicting the outcome of given crops. It can be powerful when people merge together all these new technologies.
IL: Which projects make you excited to get up in the morning these days?
We’re in the process of integrating our services into a supply chain orchestration offering. We see a chance there to do bigger, broader things for our clients. I get juiced about the opportunity to problem solve and build new things. That’s absolutely the most fun part about leading an organization.
IL: How do you like to spend your time outside of work?
I’m involved in children’s charities, and I’ve served on for-profit boards. For recreation, golfing and boating are my top two interests.
Try It All
“Get as much exposure to as many different parts of the business as you can.” That’s John Burke’s advice to his own employees, and it’s what he would tell any young person starting a career in supply chain management.
Supply chain touches just about every other function in a business, and a supply chain professional needs to be able to communicate with people in a broad range of roles, Burke says. One good way to achieve that is to rotate through jobs in a variety of functions.
“Learn as much as you can about what the marketing people or the accounting people are trying to do,” he advises. “Business success is always multidimensional. Folks who understand the value to the enterprise of all supply chain functions are people who end up being great leaders.”