LeaderSHIP Profile: Omnidirectional Capability
Because he leads by consensus and allows team members to course-correct on their own, JJ Schickel can devote his time to creating innovative solutions that help customers sleep better.
JJ Schickel remembers the silence that swallowed even high-value shipments in transit in the years before the internet. It was the early 1990s, when Schickel served as chief financial officer at a trucking firm that moved imported vehicles from ports to dealerships.
“A truckload of Porsches could leave the port, and you wouldn’t know where it was until it arrived and somebody dialed the rotary phone to say, ‘It’s here,’” Schickel recalls.
The prospect of using digital technology to more effectively run a business excited Schickel back then, and it continues to excite him now in his role as CEO of Dallas-based Omni Logistics. Schickel filled us in on his work at Omni and how he has developed as a leader.
IL: You started your career in accounting. How did you end up in logistics?
After earning a master’s degree in accounting, I was at Deloitte for a while and then worked my way into the technology department of an investment bank. There, I had the chance to work on IPOs for logistics technology companies.
When I took my job at the trucking company, I knew there was a lot of opportunity for improvement when it came to technology. I worked with the team to build out a logistics IT platform, and I fell in love with the industry. The people are great, and if you work hard, show up, and do what you say you are going to do, there is still a lot of opportunity.
IL: What in your early career helped to shape you as a leader?
I’ve been fortunate to be around many incredible mentors. But top of mind is my experience with Brad Jacobs, currently executive chairman at XPO Logistics. This was through my work at EVE Partners, an investment group I co-founded in 2002.
Brad is a terrific leader and a great person. While all my mentors have influenced my work, observing his experiences at United Waste Systems and United Rentals shows the importance of scale in building great results for customers, which had a foundational influence on what we do at Omni today.
IL: What keeps your customers awake at night, and how does Omni help them sleep better?
This has been a crazy time for all the obvious reasons—COVID, port congestion, and the war in Ukraine, for example. But what really keeps our customers awake is the need for predictability for the C-suite. The CFOs and management teams of many of our large customers have public stakeholders who rely on them for predictability. We spend a lot more time than we used to communicating with the C-suite and trying to create dynamic supply chains that allow them to toggle between certainty, service demands, and price.
IL: Does that mean, for example, using different ports as needed, or switching modes?
Yes. As a non-asset-based provider using technology, we stitch together thousands of vendors to create various solutions for our customers, aggregating their purchasing power to create outcomes they couldn’t achieve on their own.
For example, when there’s a logjam on the ocean, we ask what other modes we can use to create a solution. If you ask that question on the same day you need to move a load, that’s going to be expensive. Staying ahead of a fluid market and creating a dynamic capability has been a huge factor in the marketplace in the past couple of years.
IL: What’s new and interesting at Omni Logistics?
In our senior leadership meetings, we constantly think about innovation. Our main focus is on initiatives that reduce our unit costs and provide a great outcome for our customers. One of those is the use of robotic dispatch to give customers more autonomy over their freight decisions.
Here’s a very simple example based on domestic shipments. The customer indicates how much they’re willing to pay to ship a load, and the software puts the load out to bid to pre-qualified carriers within a certain geographic area. At the end of a set period, the software assigns the load at the specified price—or even at a lower price, depending on the bids.
If the system can’t find a solution at the desired price, it kicks the shipment out to a human. That employee then goes into problem-solving mode, which is much more fulfilling than working in execution mode all day. This is an effective solution with a great outcome for the customer.
IL: How do you give criticism or correction when it’s needed?
I don’t usually have to do that. Our culture is entrepreneurial, and our job is to provide tools that allow people to course-correct on their own. We’re also consensus-driven; we try to make decisions through our senior leadership team. The tough decisions tend to be made by the group. I can’t think of a time when I had to be the tie-breaker.
IL: What’s the hardest part of your job?
Omni is my family, but I also have another family. I’ve been married for 24 years, and I have three grown kids. Those two families are the most important things in my life, and maintaining a balance between them is hard.
IL: What have you read or listened to lately that you’d recommend?
Although it’s not new, Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, is a great leadership book, and he does an excellent job of emphasizing the importance of empathy in the workplace. Also, David Rubenstein, founder of The Carlyle Group, has incredible guests on his podcast.
IL: Outside of work, how do you like to spend your time?
I hit the treadmill regularly, and I spend a lot of time outside. I play guitar and enjoy music. I’m an empty nester, which is a total bummer because I loved the chaos of having a full agenda on the weekends.
But I do a lot of boating and hiking and I try to spend as much time as possible with family and friends.
We Found a Machine…
In 2020, during the first wave of COVID, Omni Logistics, like many other service providers, flew planeloads of personal protective equipment into the United States for its customers. “But there was a time when it was difficult to source masks and gloves,” recalls JJ Schickel.
Then Omni’s leadership team in Hong Kong made an unusual suggestion. They found a machine to make masks, and they found all the materials that are necessary inside a mask. They asked for approval to start making masks and then shipping them.
Omni bought the machine. “It wasn’t cheap,” Schickel says. “We bought all the materials. Our team started cranking out masks so we could get them to our customers and employees. They did an amazing job, and our customers and employees were thrilled.
“I’m proud that our unique culture empowers our team members to come up with innovative solutions that help improve peoples’ lives,” he adds.