Leadership: Fashion Leader

Leadership: Fashion Leader

How does a retail supply chain resemble the infrastructure of a nuclear submarine? We don’t know, but Brent Beabout sure does. He spent 13 years as an active-duty U.S. naval officer, a career that culminated in the role of engineering officer on one of those powerful undersea vessels. Then he moved on to some major power centers in the business world.


Models of Leadership

Beabout’s civilian career took him to engineering and supply chain roles at Amazon, DHL Express, Office Depot, and Walmart/Sam’s Club before landing him in 2017 in his current position. He is now executive vice president of supply chain at Nordstrom, the Seattle-based fashion retailer.

Beabout spoke with Inbound Logistics recently about his development as a supply chain leader.

IL: What are your responsibilities at Nordstrom?

In my primary role, I support all aspects of Nordstrom’s supply chain, which places inventory in Nordstrom and Nordstrom Rack retail stores and fulfills e-commerce orders, which go directly to our customers’ doorsteps. I’m in charge of distribution and fulfillment center operations, transportation, inventory management, engineering, supply chain technology, and vendor management groups in North America.

In my other role, I’m responsible for store operations, supporting loss prevention, and building services for all Nordstrom facilities, including all stores. This role also encompasses store logistics employees who operate in the back rooms—unloading trucks, shipping e-commerce orders, and performing related duties.

IL: You’ve worked at Walmart and Amazon—two companies that set the standard for supply chain operations. What are the most important lessons you brought to Nordstrom from those companies?

Both Amazon and Walmart realized fairly early that their supply chains could provide a competitive advantage in the retail sector. Other retailers are now taking notice, beginning to realize that supply chain can be wielded as a key differentiator, especially when combined with a strong product offering to provide a compelling, seamless, and frictionless shopping experience.

No two supply chains are alike. They vary due to many factors, such as company history, people, strategy, and design. While the science of what to do is fairly straightforward, the art to leading and improving any given supply chain is to recognize where you’re starting, what the company needs from its supply chain to be competitive, and how fast you can implement change to reach that end goal. Change needs to be ‘feathered in’ at the correct rate to ensure you’re bringing everyone else along for the ride.

IL: How did your experience on nuclear submarines influence the kind of leader you are today?

I had the privilege of serving as an officer on nuclear submarines for several tours of duty. My early years were spent learning, qualifying, and operating the nuclear power plant and then tactically employing the submarine to accomplish its mission. My last role during my active-duty career was as the engineer officer on the submarine, responsible for everything nuclear, electrical, mechanical, and hydraulic on the ship. This scope comprised about 75 percent of the submarine’s crew, equipment, and space.

One of the great things about a military background is that you get thrown into a leadership position on day one. By your late 20s, you’ve pretty much seen it all. I chuckle when I see how current leadership challenges I face are often just repackaged situations that I encountered years ago while serving on a submarine.

IL: What other experiences early in your career helped to shape your leadership?

I’ve had the great fortune of working in many different positions throughout my career. I take on supply chain leadership positions that involve reimagining the role in the organization and/or starting from scratch.

This movement has allowed me to have dozens of bosses over the years. I have seen both good and bad leadership traits, and I have been conscientious about taking a best-of-breed approach to develop my own leadership style.

IL: How do you think the people who report to you describe your leadership style?

I believe my team would say I’m highly collaborative but firmly decisive, and that the best decisions get informed by the collective wisdom, experiences, and knowledge of the group. However, the decision maker needs to be clear about the final decision, so the organization can move with speed and efficiency.

IL: Why do you think you’ve been successful as an executive?

Three innate factors are fundamental to success at the executive level. First comes intellectual curiosity—a constant striving to learn what is beyond the status quo, which naturally leads to lifelong learning. Second is a strong work ethic. Going the extra mile makes up for almost any other shortcoming you can imagine. Third is courage. You have to be willing to step outside your comfort zone to take things on, even when you don’t know all the answers. When looking for high-potential employees, I often look for these three traits.

One additional skill that has been a hallmark of my career is the ability to perceive and combine two seemingly unrelated fields in a new and unique way.

IL: What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen in the supply chain world over the course of your career?

The sheer scale and complexity of global networks, combined with the realization that supply chains are now a source of competitive advantage, have directly led to the professionalization of the supply chain field. While supply chain was historically regarded as an unsophisticated back-room function, it’s now common for the chief supply chain officer to have a seat at the table and an office in the C-suite. This movement to put supply chain at the center of the enterprise has created a demand for supply chain executives who embody a wide range of capabilities. These include skills in large-scale people leadership, math-intensive network optimization, big data analytics, negotiation, financial management, and communication.

IL: What initiatives are at the top of your agenda these days?

Nordstrom’s supply chain is undergoing significant change as we quickly move toward an organization that fully supports our goal of being a leading fashion retailer in a digitally connected world. This transformation requires new skills, new facilities, and new tech capabilities. It’s exciting to be involved in this effort and I feel lucky to be part of the team.

Models of Leadership

Brent Beabout spent most of his formative years in the Navy, so it’s no surprise that he looked to senior military leaders as role models. “They taught me the true value of servant leadership and maintaining ‘a quiet hand on the tiller’ when things didn’t go according to plan,” he says. “These are leadership skills I try to emulate every day.”

In the business world, Beabout points to Larry Bossidy, former CEO of Allied Signal, as an important influence. “I have had the pleasure of meeting and learning from him on several occasions,” Beabout says. “His personal insights and his seminal book on the value of execution really hit home with me. Plenty of people regularly generate good—or even great—ideas, but relatively few can rally the organization and deliver the results, especially at scale. I strive to be one of those relative few.”

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