Michael Trotter: Striking a Balance

Loading pallets with electrical supplies bound for factories and construction sites, “you learn quickly that you can’t set light bulbs on the bottom and put wire on the top,” laughs Michael Trotter, director of logistics at Van Meter Industrial in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But for a distributor with 29,000 SKUs of all sizes and shapes—from light bulbs and pipes to bulky industrial gear—there’s not much else you can take for granted about how to pack a shipment.

Balancing priorities in logistics is a bit like piecing together a pallet load of diverse goods, and achieving equilibrium has been a major theme in Trotter’s career. Sometimes, for example, the need to help sales reps make good on their promises conflicts with the imperative to reduce costs.

“You may need to get a shipment there by 6 a.m., but you don’t have some of the resources to do that,” Trotter says.

Trotter has been working to strike a healthy balance since his first post-college job as a dispatcher for a truckload carrier. Getting customers’ freight through while also keeping drivers happy—routing them home for the weekend, for instance—gave him great satisfaction.

“Come Monday, the driver would say, ‘Hey, thanks for that,'” he recalls. “I got the load delivered, but I also got the driver home.”

Trotter joined Van Meter three years ago. The electrical wholesaler serves Iowa and nearby states through direct delivery and 15 storefronts. In the past, each storefront did its own purchasing and managed its own inventory. But as it started a transition to a single distribution center in Cedar Rapids, the company sought a logistics professional to bring greater efficiency to its warehousing and transportation processes.

The change to centralized inventory was not simple. “We had parts flying here and there, and I think people were a lot more nervous than they let on,” Trotter recalls. “Some people called it magic when we were able to get the product in, locate it, put it in a spot, and still be able to function and ship orders.”

More than magic, the team relied on good communications and strove to learn from its mistakes. At first, for example, “we probably crammed too much, space-wise, into certain areas,” he says.

For Trotter, communication is the key to meeting many business challenges—whether that means asking the people who actually load pallets what techniques make sense, or talking with customers about how they want their goods delivered.

The ideal logistics job, he says, would allow him to work in a virtual or mobile office “where you can be anywhere you want and get the information you need,” and spend as much time as possible talking face-to-face with employees, sales reps, and customers.

Meetings like that can produce the results Trotter values most. “My success, at least internally, is when I can hear a customer, or even a salesperson, say, “I don’t know how you pulled that out of your hat and made it happen, but you sure saved that order or that account, or you just gained me some business.'”

At the end of a day’s work, Trotter says, “that’s what it’s all about.”

The Big Questions

What are you reading?

Finding Simplicity: the New Competitive Advantage in a World of More, Better, Faster by Bill Jensen.

What’s in your briefcase right now?

A writing journal and quick reads such as magazines and information on vendors.

What technology could you not live without?

Bar-code scanners linked to RF network.

Mission statement?

The company talks about right place, right time, right product. We also talk about trying to be our customers’ competitive advantage.

Advice for people starting in logistics?

Go up and down the supply chain and learn as much as you can about the different aspects of each function.