Mike Bates: Location, Lead Time and a Quick Bulkhead Fix

Location might not be everything, but in Mike Bates’ job it counts for a lot.

As inbound freight logistics manager for Thurston Foods, Bates wages an endless campaign to find carriers to serve his warehouse in Wallingford, Conn. With few outbound loads available in the area, truckers delivering to the regional food service distributor often have to drive two hours to Boston or New York to find backhauls. And many carriers from points south and west would rather avoid the Northeast in general, he says.

“They don’t like the traffic and the bridges coming through New York on the northbound hauls,” Bates says, and some demand a stiff premium for picking up freight from suppliers on Long Island.

Rising Through the Ranks

Thurston Foods delivers food, cleaning supplies, and kitchen equipment to more than 3,000 institutional food services and bakeries. Bates rose through the ranks in the company, arriving as a picker in 1998. When the Unipro Foodservice cooperative persuaded Thurston’s owners to join its logistics program, Bates was tapped to run the in-house operation.

“I guess I was squawking enough about things that were wrong with the place that they knew I paid attention to detail,” he laughs.

Unipro’s program allows members to share carriers and negotiate volume rates. It also provides a transportation management system, which Bates had to load with data on Thurston’s 500-plus suppliers.

Before joining Unipro’s program, Thurston relied on suppliers to arrange all its inbound transportation. The new program saves the company money and provides “more control over freight and arrival times,” creating fewer traffic jams at the receiving dock, Bates says.

But Bates would like even more control over the timing of shipments. Thurston’s buyers “tend to keep to their old buying practices—order late, want it yesterday, and don’t give Mike enough time to move it,” he says.

Last-minute shipments destroy opportunities to cut shipping costs by pooling loads. Buyers delay orders to avoid tying up money in inventory, Bates concedes. “But I’m looking for a little more lead time,” he says.

Along with the tug-of-war of everyday business, sometimes the job tosses Bates a real puzzler. Once, he booked a load through a broker, and the carrier re-brokered the load to another trucking firm. Bates learned of this illegal move only when one of his vendors called, refusing to load his goods on the refrigerated trailer. Already carrying frozen food, the trailer lacked a bulkhead to separate the vendor’s dry goods and keep them at the proper temperature. Also, while Bates had contracted for a two-person team to bring the freight from Florida to Connecticut in 36 hours, this driver was working alone.

But in the end, all went well. “After talking to the owner of the company that had the truck there, I allowed him to continue,” Bates recalls. “But I put him under contract, because my broker didn’t have him under contract, and I paid him directly.”

The driver also went out of his way—literally, to Home Depot—to safeguard the dry load. “He built a temporary bulkhead out of wood and tarp,” shelling out about $100 for materials, Bates explains. “I was sort of surprised by that, but it worked.

“As long as the vendor was happy with what he did, and satisfied that the product would be protected, that was fine by me,” he says.

The Big Questions

What’s in your briefcase right now?

Some personal files on disk and carrier contracts I’m looking over.

Business motto?

Book it now. If I procrastinate and try to find a carrier at a better rate, it sometimes takes a day or so, and I could have had the guy the previous day. Then I call him back and he doesn’t have a truck available anymore. I go with the first, best chance that says ‘OK.’

Advice for people starting in logistics?

Get the education. Also, remember that the logistics department has the ability to make a company sink. The idea is 100-percent available stock. If you can do that in the things you manage, it’s time to expand a little and manage some more freight.

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

My wife and I bought a house a couple of years back, and we’re still converting it to what we want it to be. Most of our free time will probably be spent on this for years to come.