John Henderson: A Man of Parts

Over the past few years, John Henderson has pulled off a double logistics coup. He led an effort that cut $20 million out of Gerber Technology’s service parts inventory, and he did it while boosting next-day customer service delivery from 40 percent into the high 80s.

A division of Gerber Scientific International, Gerber Technology sells production equipment and software to the “flexible goods” industry. Customers in 115 countries use its products to create everything from apparel to inflatable carnival games to swimming pool liners.

As director of customer service for the Americas, Henderson is responsible for 110 employees in the United States, Canada and Mexico, plus agents throughout Latin America. When a customer’s equipment breaks down, the big challenge is delivering a repair part the next day to the service engineer “who can walk in with that part and get the customer up and running again as quickly as possible,” he says.

Gerber used to give each field engineer a personal stock of commonly used parts. While that expedited many repair jobs, it also forced Gerber to own more inventory than the company actually used. “Our objective is to reduce inventory, so we needed to improve the logistics network,” Henderson says.

In his previous job as Gerber Technology’s aftermarket product manager, Henderson and his team redesigned the parts logistics network. They decided to centralize storage as much as possible in regional third-party distribution centers, using express delivery to speed parts to engineers. Gerber would use electronic data interchange (EDI) to transmit an order from its SAP system to its logistics provider, which would pick, pack and ship the part.

Gerber launched the first implementation, covering Europe, Africa and the Middle East, in February 2002. It chose DHL Worldwide Express in Brussels as its 3PL. The company now works with DHL in the Americas too, using its Express Logistics Center in Cincinnati.

Henderson led the team that pulled together the Americas implementation. That system started operating on Feb. 1 this year. “We implemented on time, according to our original schedule. And we shut down business only one day,” he says.

The biggest lesson learned from the experience is to “go through painstaking details and mapping up front,” Henderson says. “You need to have people who are focused on the project,” he notes. “If they are not focused 100 percent, you must have the authority to make them focus and put in the extra time to get it done.”

The rollout in Asia, scheduled for March 2004, will be more complicated than the other two. China poses special obstacles, Henderson says. It’s no problem getting parts to metropolitan areas there in 24 or 48 hours. But in rural regions—which are luring garment manufacturers with lower costs—transportation is not so reliable.

“For example, we have customers in Mongolia,” he says. “To get parts up there is a real logistics challenge that we’re trying to concentrate on more.”

Customers in China don’t necessarily expect next-day service, Henderson observes. But Gerber sells many cutting machines there, and those are the systems that need replacement parts most often.

“If we can get next-day logistics solutions for parts,” he says, “that will be a tremendous competitive advantage.”

The Big Questions

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

I have a family; my kids are three and six years old. Among my hobbies, my passion is skiing. On winter weekends, I’m a professional ski instructor. Also, I’m a fourth-degree black belt in karate.

What’s in your briefcase right now?

I carry a backpack. In it is my laptop, my business cards, and all my wires and telephone connections.

What are you reading?

I read a lot about skiing, including industry magazines and certification manuals. I also keep current on business news.

Advice for people starting in logistics?

Coming from the finance side, I’ve found that logistics has a lot to do with optimizing the balance sheet. It’s maximizing cash and minimizing inventory. For those financial people who may be reading this: don’t be afraid to jump into the logistics field.

Business motto?

Profitable customer service.

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