People: Vicki O’Meara, Ryder

What’s a high-powered environmental attorney doing at the head of a logistics services business? Having the time of her life.

“I can’t think of a better opportunity for someone who likes to lead and grow organizations,” says Vicki O’Meara, president since 2005 of U.S. Supply Chain Solutions (SCS) for Miami-based Ryder.

For a woman who planned from the age of six to be a lawyer, and who started her career defending the Army in environmental lawsuits, the road to her current role as supply chain executive wasn’t as convoluted as one might think. Environmental law and logistics have a lot in common, O’Meara says.

“When you practice environmental law, you work with engineers and scientific reports,” she says, noting that logistics also has engineering roots. “The complexity and intellectual challenges in the environmental field and the logistics field are similar.”

Environmentally Inclined

O’Meara has always enjoyed the outdoors and taken an interest in environmental science. But it was only toward the end of law school that a course in environmental law made her think about concentrating in the field.

She had her first brush with logistics in the early 1980s as a young lawyer and Army captain working in the office of the Secretary of the Army.

Congress had recently passed the Superfund law, which allowed lawsuits to force the cleanup of toxic waste sites. Because it used so many hazardous materials, the Army became a defendant in many of these suits. Logistics played a key role in strategies for handling such materials safely.

“Transportation and logistics concerns are integrated into concerns about changing, re-engineering, and cleaning up a facility,” O’Meara explains.

Because the Army oversaw the nation’s wetlands at the time, O’Meara also became involved with the Reagan administration’s work to reform wetlands regulation. Between that and the Superfund, she found herself in the middle of some of the hottest political debates of the time.

“I had no business being the head lawyer for the Army,” she jokes. “I was only a kid.”

Before long, though, the “kid” developed into a seasoned government lawyer, working in the White House Counsel’s office during the Iran-Contra affair, serving as deputy general counsel at the Environmental Protection Agency, and working as assistant attorney general in charge of the Environmental and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Then, while building the environmental practice at a Chicago law firm, O’Meara jumped into the supply chain world with both feet. She was helping industrial clients avoid environmental lawsuits; much of the work focused on industrial engineering.

“Our clients were dealing with liability on the back end. We explained to them that if they changed processes at the front end, they would never be liable again,” O’Meara recalls.

When a friend and mentor—a fellow member of a panel of advisors for Bridgestone Corp.—recommended her for general counsel at Ryder, O’Meara was able to persuade the search committee that her background made her a suitable corporate attorney for a transportation and logistics firm.

It was a good fit. “I’m a change-agent,” she explains. “I love strategy, vision, and progress. Ryder was very interested in bringing in people who had those aspirations.”

O’Meara’s advancement at Ryder—from general counsel to executive vice president and chief of corporate operations to president of U.S. SCS—was a natural evolution. “I have an operating mentality. I’m drawn to it,” she says.

Ryder also gets credit for encouraging employees to step beyond their literal job descriptions to contribute to the company.

“In my first position, I was first and foremost Ryder’s general counsel. But also, as an executive team member, I was called upon to participate in company strategy and a number of other issues,” she explains.

Since becoming head of U.S. SCS in October 2005, O’Meara has made her top priorities to maintain the business unit’s high level of performance, and to position SCS to better serve shippers in a global economy.

Globalization is the most exciting aspect of supply chain management today, O’Meara says.

“The fact that U.S. companies look to different parts of Asia or Eastern Europe for sourcing or manufacturing the same way they used to look to Ohio, Kansas, or Oklahoma, is remarkable,” she explains.

The Global Impact

Indeed, globalization has pushed the supply chain to the front of American business, she says. Companies source and manufacture abroad because they believe their cost reductions will more than make up for the extra supply chain costs they incur.

“It’s Ryder’s job to prove these shippers right,” she says.

One major effect of globalization, O’Meara says, is that it increases supply chain uncertainty. This in turn has weakened demand for just-in-time delivery.

“Shippers are asking us to carry more inventory for them so they never have stockouts,” she explains.

But as companies implement tools to monitor the progress of their goods, and to collaborate more effectively with trading partners, the pendulum will swing the other way.

“In a few years, shippers will say, ‘Now that we can control transportation, let’s move back to just-in-time shipping,'” she predicts. “We may never achieve a global just-in-time environment, but shippers will want to reduce inventory and warehouse space.”

While delivering services to global shippers is the greatest challenge Ryder faces right now, securing logistics talent in an increasingly competitive market is a close second.

“This is a people business, and we need the very best,” O’Meara says. “We have to continue to be a company where the best people want to come and want to stay.”

Providing New Solutions

If there’s anything O’Meara doesn’t like about her work, it’s the fact that Ryder often must compete for business through truncated, bureaucratic RFP processes. These require service providers to meet strict criteria that aren’t always the best way to measure the benefits they can deliver, she says.

“If shippers break free from the regimented RFP process, they will receive better input and ideas to cut costs,” O’Meara says.

Service providers could propose solutions based on the results they expect to deliver, rather than on their ability to meet specific metrics, for example. Shippers are starting to understand this and change their bidding procedures accordingly, she says.

When she’s not attending to business at Ryder, O’Meara serves on the boards of two organizations: the Zoological Society of South Florida, and Defenders of Property Rights. Her work with Defenders of Property Rights dates back to her days as an attorney.

The group was formed by several of her colleagues who, like O’Meara, were representing people who couldn’t get permits to develop their properties because of environmental concerns.

“These prohibitions are fine; they exist for a good reason. But if people own property and can’t do anything with it because of the prohibition, the Fifth Amendment requires the government to give them fair compensation,” she explains. The group uses donations to provide legal services to property owners in these situations.

O’Meara’s lifelong interest in the outdoors prompted her to take the seat on the Zoological Society’s board that traditionally goes to a Ryder executive. “I wanted to make sure Ryder’s commitment continued through the years,” she says.

While O’Meara applies the principles of logistics to shippers’ supply chain challenges, she also calls upon that knowledge to deal with one of her own major challenges—balancing her career and life with a husband and three teenage sons.

“Work is a marathon, not a sprint, and when you have the blessing of children in the family, it forces balance on you, whether you feel you can afford it or not,” she notes.

Not that she doesn’t enjoy every aspect of her admittedly “over-calendared and over-scheduled” life. In a career path that has taken its share of twists and turns, probably the biggest surprise, O’Meara says, is what a terrific time she’s having.

“It’s remarkable that I get paid for doing work that I find so interesting and fun,” she says.

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