Joe Steffney: One for the Books

Examine Joe Steffney’s early career and a theme starts to emerge. He paid his way through college loading trailers for UPS. His first post-graduation job saw him supervising warehouse staff for Kmart. Then the story takes him to a series of distribution centers—Macmillan Publishing, Koen Books, Harcourt Brace, Houghton Mifflin, and Ingram Book Group. The company names speak volumes: Steffney has spent most of his career distributing books.

The volumes he distributes today are published by Cengage Learning, a Stamford, Conn., firm that produces textbooks and other educational materials, both in print and in digital formats. As senior vice president, global distribution, Steffney oversees operations at the DC in Independence, Ky., and at facilities in Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. His responsibilities include inbound and outbound transportation, warehouse management, customer service, human resources, and financial operations. A separate organization runs DCs in Singapore, Australia, and other locations overseas.

Cengage serves university book stores, book distributors, and other customers in the global academic, professional, and library markets. Contract manufacturers produce its titles in the United States and abroad.

“Production is split evenly between international and domestic,” Steffney says. The manufacturers ship the books, software packages, DVDs, and other materials to the DCs, with distribution patterns keyed to demand.

The DCs ship most customer orders via motor freight—usually UPS or a truckload carrier—but Cengage also uses ocean and air and sometimes direct-ships to customers.

“The mode we use depends on customer requirements, seasonal demand, and our capabilities within certain time constraints,” Steffney says.

The Independence DC is busiest in July, August, and December, when demand for textbooks soars. “We add 150 to 200 staff members to get through those three months,” Steffney says.

Considering the current unemployment rate, he found it surprisingly hard to fill those temporary jobs in 2008. Blame the location—Kentucky has become a popular place to locate a DC.

That labor problem is easing, though, now that Cengage has deployed a voice-directed picking system in Independence. The system speaks instructions to workers, who speak back to report what they have picked. It’s fast and mistake-proof, and just about anyone can use it. “It can speak any language, any dialect,” Steffney says, which has made it feasible to employ more of the area’s Spanish-speaking workers.

Voice-directed warehouse management is one of many innovations Steffney and his team have brought to the 775,000-foot Independence facility. Cengage built the DC just after Steffney arrived, and the first big challenge he faced was merging the operations of four existing buildings into one.

“We expected to open the new facility, store the inventory, install the technology, and start running immediately,” Steffney says. Of course, nothing is ever that simple. “It took many long nights, but we got through that first summer, and by the next December, we were operating smoothly,” he says. “We worked out most of the bugs.”

The learning curve for employees was steep, but Cengage has continued to improve operations, experimenting with new technologies, then bringing them to other facilities.

“We’ve almost reached a point where I don’t know how else we can improve our operations,” Steffney says. “It’s so efficient, it’s amazing.”

The Big Questions

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

My wife and I have 11-year-old twins, so we spend a lot of time at their sports activities. And I love football, so I try to take in games whenever I can.

Ideal dinner companion?

Captain D. Michael Abrashoff, author of It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy.

What’s in your briefcase?

My passport, a certificate of vaccination, my iPod, and pens. I keep most of my business information in my Blackberry.

If you didn’t work in supply chain management, what would be your dream job?

I’d like to be a sportscaster.

Business motto?


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