Dennis Hilborn: Know Thyself

“Who are we?” is one of Dennis Hilborn’s favorite questions. In his two and a half years as director of distribution at sports apparel maker Cutter & Buck, asking employees over and over who they are has helped him transform the Seattle-based company’s distribution center (DC).

When Hilborn arrived at Cutter & Buck, “distribution was kind of a whipping boy on the side,” he says, taking a great deal of blame for poor performance. Hilborn came on board as part of a major change in the operation. The company was bringing in more experienced managers, consolidating three DCs into a new facility in Renton, Wash., and implementing a warehouse management system (WMS). Beyond those changes, management “allowed us to create and develop relationships with every department within the company,” he says.

To Hilborn, building relationships means, first, helping his own inbound and outbound logistics staff understand who they are—a strategic asset for the entire company. Next, it means spreading the word to other departments that the DC stands ready to assist them. For example, the DC has created a shipping handbook for sales reps. Also, Hilborn attends sales meetings to explain how distribution staff can help clinch a sale with advice on the best way to ship an order.

Hilborn learned distribution from the ground up. He spent the first 18 years of his career at the Fritz Companies, starting as a worker in its Renton, Wash., distribution center. He advanced to supervisor and eventually managed the 600,000-square-foot facility for the 3PL. At Fritz, he was responsible for many products. At Cutter & Buck, the sole focus on clothing creates a unique challenge.

“The SKU base in the apparel industry is a mile wide and an inch high, because you have different sizes and colors of one garment,” Hilborn explains. Cutter & Buck handles between 30,000 and 35,000 SKUs, and optimizing their placement in the warehouse for maximum efficiency is a knotty puzzle.

“You can’t necessarily break them up to put medium and large sizes—the highest-moving products—out forward to improve your productivity, because stores often want to pick in a size array. You still have to keep your slow moving products next to your high moving, hot products.”

A broader challenge in the drive for productivity is learning to keep an eye on the future. For instance, the team responsible for the WMS anticipates upcoming releases of the software and plans how to use the new features to boost performance. “Then they’ll work closely with the distribution staff on the floor, maintain the standard operating procedures, and look for ways to enhance them,” Hilborn says.

Thinking ahead goes hand in hand with Hilborn’s favorite question. “Now that distribution is in a position of strength, we’ve got to maintain that and keep ahead of the company,” he explains. “That’s where the ‘who are we?’ question always comes up. And it has been very beneficial.”