Bill Harlow: Power Play
While racing stock cars at the Hales Corners Speedway in Wisconsin, Bill Harlow took a job at the local Briggs Stratton factory. “Racing was a very expensive hobby,” he says. To support it, he needed a day job.
Harlow still works at Briggs Stratton, but in the 31 years since he joined the firm, he has transformed his just-for-the-money job into an engaging career. As plant manager at the company’s Menomonee Falls, Wisc., distribution center, Harlow is responsible for receiving, storing, and shipping service parts for the lawn mowers, snow blowers, power washers, and other equipment that makes up Briggs Stratton’s outdoor power products line.
“This is the most exciting, challenging, and rewarding job I have had,” says Harlow. And that’s saying a lot. Not only has he enjoyed the thrills of auto racing, but he turned down a chance to work in a second field he once aspired to, law enforcement, because he so enjoyed his job at Briggs Stratton.
In his current role, Harlow oversees 500,000 square feet in two buildings. His team receives roughly 120,000 components made by Briggs Stratton and third-party vendors, kits them, and packages them into about 80,000 sellable parts. Harlow’s organization also fills orders from central distributors, dealers, retail stores, original equipment manufacturers, and consumers in the United States and around the globe.
One of the biggest challenges Harlow, who reports to the vice president of distribution operations, has tackled occurred when Briggs Stratton acquired power equipment maker Simplicity Manufacturing in 2004. At the time, Briggs Stratton did little direct store fulfillment. It shipped to 2,400 Home Depot locations, but the DC had plenty of time to fill those orders. Simplicity’s dealers, however, required faster turnaround.
“The dealer orders came in hourly, and we had to ship the same day,” Harlow says. To streamline the process, Briggs Stratton spent several months interfacing its SAP warehouse management system with UPS’s ConnectShip software.
Another tough transition came when the Menomonee Falls DC moved into a new building, a process that stretched from October 2005 to June 2006. “We moved 300,000 square feet of product, $46 million worth of inventory, and the packaging department—all without a single service failure,” Harlow says.
As if that weren’t challenge enough, during the move Briggs Stratton acquired most of the assets of lawn-mower manufacturer Murray, and Harlow and his team had to integrate that service parts operation as well. They made both transitions without any hiccups.
One key to a trouble-free move was assigning small chunks of responsibility to numerous people. Daily recaps and weekly status meetings also proved important. “Keeping that line of communication open so everybody knew what everyone else was doing really helped,” Harlow says.
Harlow loves steering a big project to the finish line, just as he once loved steering a fast car around a dirt track. “I enjoy project planning, implementation, and the successful result,” he says.
He also relishes seeing his organization pull together toward a common goal. “We do whatever it takes to make our business a success,” says Harlow.
The Big Questions
What do you do when you’re not at work?
I enjoy running and riding my bike, and last year I began competing in duathlons and bicycle races. I travel with my wife and like reading a good mystery. I also enjoy spending time with my grandchildren, watching the Green Bay Packers, managing my fish pond, and landscaping.
Ideal dinner companion?
Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He accepted his disability and led America through the Great Depression with great leadership and wisdom. I would enjoy hearing about his personal triumphs, his approach to leadership, his wisdom, and how he dealt with opposition.
What’s in your briefcase?
Very basic things: a notepad and pen, business cards, a jump drive, and two energy bars. I keep everything else on my laptop.
First Web site you look at in the morning?
The national weather service. Our business grows with the grass and when the snow is deep.
If you didn’t work in supply chain management, what would be your dream job?
General contractor for commercial and residential construction projects.