Reading the Room


Annette Danek-Akey is executive vice president of supply chain at multinational publishing company Penguin Random House.

Responsibilities: Manage distribution, transportation, customer service, fulfillment, reverse logistics, and remainder sales. Oversee 1,700 employees in three distribution centers that ship 1.5 million books per day.

Experience: EVP and SVP, supply chain, Penguin Random House; SVP and VP, fulfillment, and other roles with Random House; industrial engineering manager and project analyst, Bantam Doubleday; industrial engineer, Sears Logistics.

Education: M.S., industrial engineering, Purdue University, 1993; B.S., industrial engineering, Bradley University, 1992.

Whenever you’re up against a constraint you tend to be more creative, and that’s what happened to us during the pandemic. We were deemed essential and stayed open, so we had to be quick to figure out how to operate and keep people safe.

Our original intent was to use our facility in Reno, Nevada, which we took over in January 2020, to ship to independent bookstores within the region. Because of the sudden variability in demand, we made the facility a picking and shipping point, whether the order is staying on the West Coast or not.

We also had the location set up to only do parcel shipments, and then we added less-than-truckload and truckload shipments.

Thankfully, we have great people, and we built all these capabilities on the fly with help from our other facilities, using WebEx calls and the like. We live-tested our processes and adjusted as we went along.

Now, I also have to think not just about getting the job done, but how an employee will feel if, for instance, someone new comes in from a different part of the country to help out at that facility. Even though it might be OK, I need to go the extra step and ask.

As the leader, I set an example. I was the first to wear a mask, and then I walked around so people saw me wearing it. I said, "If I don’t see you with a mask on, I’m going to call you out. You can call me out, too, if I’m not wearing mine." Normally, my style is participative, but I needed to lead by example in this situation.

Every single day for probably six weeks, I said, "Safety has always been our top concern, but I am telling you now, safety really is number one. Productivity is secondary."

We had to temporarily change attendance policies and allow people to take time off, choosing with or without pay. We reinvented punching in and out to maintain social distancing. Those who can work from home, are.

We’re stocking masks, cleaning supplies, and hand sanitizer, and bought tons of plexiglass. I put a vice president in charge of our inventory because it’s critical that we track and trace it. We’re opening dock doors to cross-ventilate. Social distancing has become a standard operating procedure.

Even during the pandemic, the other work doesn’t stop. For instance, we need to connect the Reno systems to our warehouse and transportation management systems and our enterprise resource planning system. Not having this has limited our flexibility. Communication and teamwork have helped us get around this.

I started as an industrial engineer specializing in workflow, efficiency, and automation. I love process improvement and anything that can help make a warehouse operate more safely, more productively, and with higher quality.

As a kid, I was always in the library. I love to read, and one perk of my job is getting to meet authors and read books before they go on sale. That’s cool.

Annette Danek-Akey Answers the Big Questions

1. If you had $1 million to start a new venture—whether a business or a philanthropic endeavor—what might you do?

I would start an escape room. It would be for profit, with a nonprofit component so school kids could use it. Escape rooms are great team-building exercises. They put you in an intense situation where you’re forced to work with each other. I really have a passion for escape rooms; I’ve visited nearly 100 of them.

2. What are the first metrics you check in the morning?

Work in process, billings, and financials from the previous day. I also check attendance, which is not usual these days.

3. What book made an impression on you?

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss is a great metaphor for my job. I set a vision for our supply chain and work to get us there. Challenges come up, but you keep learning and moving forward.

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