Fred Walker: Logistics at the Speed of Life

In his first job after high school, at a Sears Roebuck catalog warehouse, Fred Walker spent his days on roller skates.

“We used to skate into a huge elevator to get to the building’s various floors,” recalls Walker. “We picked items, took them back to our tables, and packed them for shipping.”

The eight-story building in Philadelphia wouldn’t support the weight of lift trucks, he explains.

Walker still moves items through a warehouse, but the goods he keeps rolling these days are human tissue grafts and bone sections. Walker is distribution and inventory manager at LifeNet, a Richmond, Va.-based organization that runs an organ procurement program and the largest full-service, non-profit tissue banking system in the United States.

His job is to shepherd tissues recovered from donors through the company’s manufacturing and storage facility, then on to hospitals, dental offices, and other customer sites across the country and around the world.

“Manufacturing” at LifeNet means processing tissues and bones to make them suitable for surgery. Technicians cut bones into segments, or remove valves from donated hearts, for example. The finished goods are stored in the warehouse—some at room temperature, some in freezers—and product data is entered into the inventory system for access by customer service staff.

Like any other manufacturer, LifeNet officials monitor inventory to make sure they can fill customer orders. But the job they face keeping materials flowing through the pipeline is unusual.

“Our supply problem is educating the public on becoming donors,” Walker says. “If we don’t aggressively look for donors, we could end up with a back-order nightmare in the future.”

Walker and his staff are also responsible for transportation, which is the part of the job that poses the greatest logistics challenge. Orders ship out continually during the day.

“We send orders right up until the last FedEx and UPS pickups—around 7:30 p.m.,” Walker says.

Lacking storage facilities, doctors tend to order tissues for surgery via next-day service, creating the ultimate just-in-time scenario. “If weather holds something up and the shipment does not arrive in time for surgery, the doctors have to reschedule,” Walker explains.

To prevent this as often as possible, Walker stays in close contact with his carriers, who warn him of impending problems. When issues do arise, he informs customers in hope of delaying the surgery, or giving the customer a chance to order from another source.

In 2004, LifeNet donated 100 skin grafts to survivors of a massive supermarket fire in Paraguay. Unfortunately, none of the major air couriers could deliver the grafts in time. So Walker approached Bob Rinaldi, vice president of Sterling Courier Systems, a Herndon, Va.-based specialty courier that handles LifeNet’s cardiovascular products.

“Sterling had guaranteed space contracts with various airlines, so it was able to get the skin grafts on an airline and delivered in time to help burn victims,” Walker says.

And when Rinaldi heard that LifeNet was providing the grafts gratis, he matched that gesture. “He didn’t charge us for shipping,” says Walker.

The Big Questions

What are you reading?

Angels and Demons, by Dan Brown.

Advice to people starting out in logistics?

If logistics is your cup of tea, passion—and a good mentor—will provide a rewarding and challenging career.

What’s in your briefcase?

Job descriptions I need to update, the Shipper’s Export Declaration (SED) filing options guide and new requirements, a few logistics magazines, and the Federal Register on international shipping.

What do you do when you’re not at work?

With twin 16-year-old boys, my wife and I lead a very fast-paced life after work. The boys are involved in sports, and we all dive when we go on family vacations. We also spend time volunteering for LifeNet.

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