Follow the Sun
Arch Thomason basks in a mentor list 33 names long, lean principles, servant leadership, and a talented team to keep Sunland Logistics Solutions shining bright.
Arch Thomason was enrolled in an executive MBA program while working in business development at Sunland Distribution (now Sunland Logistics Solutions). Along the way, he learned of an opportunity to acquire the business. “I remember sitting in class one night thinking, ‘How do I buy Sunland?'” recalls Thomason, who joined the firm as sales manager.
“I had never written a business plan, so as a project, we wrote one for my entrepreneurship class,” Thomason says. “Next question: How do you get funding from a bank?” It took eight tries, but he found a financial institution (one he still does business with today) to back him. He purchased Sunland and became its CEO in 2008.
Thomason recently shared some insights about his leadership at Sunland.
IL: What led you to a career in logistics after graduating from the Citadel?
After college, I wanted to see the world, I so moved to Prague with 10 friends. We taught English and used Euro rail passes to travel around Europe on the weekends. Eventually, I had to come home and get a job. I was interested in international business. I got my first job in Atlanta with Mitsui-Soko, a logistics company.
IL: Did an early career experience help shape you as a leader?
One month after I bought Sunland in 2008, the global economy collapsed. We were already highly leveraged, and the banks were nervous. Senior leadership took pay cuts. But we didn’t lay off anyone and we preserved the pay for all hourly associates. We weathered the storm, and that made us a stronger organization. Focusing on survival at the time gave us a keen sense of what it would take to win for the longer term.
IL: What interesting challenges do Sunland and its customers face?
Since my career began in 1996, everyone has been leaning out their supply chains to serve traditional buying patterns for retail, automotive, and industrial products. Now, e-commerce has changed buying patterns and consumer expectations, forcing everyone to embrace greater speed and complexity, which can be challenging. The pandemic has exacerbated this tough situation. Clients demand resilience in their supply chains versus the lowest-cost option in the market.
IL: How do you help customers adjust to those new conditions?
We focus on lean principles, starting with customer value, quality at the source, standardization, and flow. By adhering to these principles, we believe we can ‘help our customers do what they do better,’ which happens to be our purpose as a company.
IL: What qualities make you an effective CEO?
My background in business development has been helpful. I’ve worked in service businesses since my first job in a restaurant when I was 15. I discovered early that it’s important to learn what customers want, and then how to get people aligned to provide exactly that. Inquiry, problem solving, and building relationships are important tools that can create value for customers.
It’s also important to know how to think on your feet. And when you don’t know how to do something, bring in someone who does, listen to them, and develop a plan. We’ve had that kind of entrepreneurial spirit in the organization since its inception.
IL: How do you give criticism or correction?
Hard-to-have conversations are a must, and I’m having more of them today than ever. Every time this happens, I learn something about myself and how to foster better teamwork.
I strive to meet one-on-one every two weeks with my senior leadership team. I ask two fundamental questions: How are you? And how are we? That opens the door to honest conversations. Servant leadership is one of our organization’s core values, and one of the key components of servant leadership is honesty.
IL: Among your current projects, which is most exciting?
We’re implementing three types of automation and robotics in our network. We’re using drones to take inventory. We have a new Q-gate solution, which scans items as they pass through an outbound dock and transmits the data to our warehouse management system.
IL: What’s one valuable lesson you’ve learned since you became CEO?
Hire smart people and listen to them. Our strategy from 2013 was to hire the best talent in the industry in key roles and to let them run, even when it was a stretch for our smaller company. Our CSO Elijah Ray and COO Hari Sivaprakasam are my partners and are the catalysts to our growth story.
IL: How have you been influenced by a mentor or role model?
At least 33 people have helped me in my career (I actually made a list), including customers, peers, contractors, friends, and professors. But two of them were the main drivers. One was our former CEO and founder Sam Cole, who gave me a shot as a business development professional based on my one year of experience in sales. He also made it possible for me to get my MBA. I learned a lot from him about the entrepreneurial spirit.
My other important mentor was Bill Gates (not that Bill Gates), whom I met at a conference and competed against for years. He had just retired as the CEO of a global logistics firm, and I brought him into our company as chairman of the board, although he liked the title “coach.” He taught me how to build a team, grow the organization effectively, and invest in the right people.
IL: If you could do an entirely different job for one day, what would it be?
I’d be a singer-songwriter, someone like Jason Isbell. I’d get on a bus with a team and put on a rock-and-roll show. The only thing is, I’d like to start work at 7 p.m., because I go to bed by 10.
IL: Outside of work, how do you like to spend your time?
I have 12-year-old twin boys, so my wife and I tend to spend our weekends on various ball fields. We also like to travel frequently. I didn’t travel much as a kid, and there’s so much to learn from seeing different places and experiencing different cultures.
Let’s Get Real
For Arch Thomason, the most enjoyable part of the CEO job at Sunland Logistics Solutions is “going to the Gemba.” A term used in lean management, “Gemba” is Japanese for “the real place.” At Sunland, going to the Gemba means visiting each of the company’s warehouse facilities across the country, each quarter.
Take Thomason’s recent visit to Sunland’s 700,000-square-foot site in McDonough, Georgia. “We spent five hours on the warehouse floor and in a meeting,” he says. “Our COO and I listened to what they had accomplished in the past six months, walked the floor, had lunch with the associates, and helped them make a few key decisions.
“It’s fun getting out in the field where the action is,” Thomason says. In Georgia, that action included some quality time in the break room. “I played ping pong with one of our new engineers. He beat me.”