Retailers, Suppliers, and the Ties that Bind
From leading new data technology efforts to recruiting and cultivating top talent, Kevin Williamson’s days are filled. When he does find spare time, he spends it focusing on innovations that will improve his company even more.
Since the start of the pandemic, RJW Logistics Group and its customers have struggled to balance soaring consumer demand with constrained product supply. “About 10% of deliveries were canceled due to lack of inventory during the pandemic,” says Kevin Williamson, CEO at RJW in Woodridge, Illinois, whose customers supply products sold in major retail chains.
Besides consolidating customers’ shipments and transporting them to retailers’ distribution centers, RJW often serves as a liaison between companies that make food and beverages, consumer packaged goods (CPG), and other products and retailers such as Walmart, Kroger, and Amazon. In the worst of the pandemic crunch, for instance, RJW encouraged some suppliers to devote their production lines to best-selling products, while persuading retailers not to impose fines when suppliers can’t deliver every item listed on their purchase orders.
Williamson recently discussed how he’s leading RJW through the pandemic and other challenges, and gave us a look at what the company has in store for the near future.
IL: Until recently, RJW Logistics Group was a family business, founded by your parents. How did you get involved and why did you stay?
I joined the company in 1994, without really knowing what I wanted to do. I had a mentor who trained me on the asset side of the business. Between his work ethic and my father’s, I was inspired to jump into things.
Once I had a taste of trucking, I loved it. Back then, we ran less-than-truckload (LTL) loads to the Southeast. I enjoyed the challenge of developing relationships with people in the Chicago market, trying to get them to give me their freight and then delivering it on time. The Chicago market at that time provided limitless opportunities to grow the business.
IL: What’s at the top of your agenda these days?
One of our latest initiatives is new technology we’ve developed that draws data from our various systems for warehouse management, transportation management, enterprise resource planning, imaging, tracking, and everything else. We bring this data into a dashboard to give both suppliers and retailers insights into their sales and costs.
For example, a supplier might see that one of its products is trending on Amazon and at CVS and Walgreens, but hasn’t been introduced to Walmart. We also do inventory forecasting, looking at what we ship out of our DCs when, and how much safety stock they should hold, based on x weeks of sales plus historical data. We can show suppliers what it costs them for us to service different items.
We also put a lot of effort into showing retailers how consolidation can drive down costs, improve efficiencies, and reduce carbon footprints by putting several orders on one truck, rather than sending multiple trucks with LTL shipments.
IL: What advice do you offer customers on how to deal with shortages of raw materials and tight transportation capacity?
Building safety stock going into the third and fourth quarters of 2021 will be key. Continue to watch your bottom line and have a good supply chain, so you can take advantage of the market right now, which is on fire from a CPG perspective. If you have strong demand forecasting and the inventory to fulfill orders, you’ll gain market share coming out of the pandemic.
IL: What qualities make you an effective CEO?
Recruiting great talent, cultivating talent within the organization, and putting that talent in positions that will make the company successful make me an effective CEO. It’s also getting everybody aligned with the same strategy for the company—showing them that vision, and then giving them the freedom to pursue that strategy and reach those goals.
IL: Tell us about your best day since you became CEO at RJW.
The day in 2019 when we became partners with investment firm Mason Wells was a great day for me because of the education I’ve gained from the partnership since then. It’s always lonely at the top, although I do get a chance to bounce ideas off others through my participation in Vistage, a group for CEOs.
But partnering with the right firm showed me how much more there is to learn. How do we continue to grow the company to get where we want to go? I’ve learned a ton in the past two years, and I continue to learn. It has matured me as a CEO and also given more opportunities to the people who work with me.
IL: What technology is gaining prominence in your operations?
One is the labor management system our IT team built to help us find cost savings within our warehouses. Labor costs have gone up. The more productive you can make your operations, the less likely that you’ll have to increase prices.
We’ve also done some things internally with financial planning and analysis software and the way we look at our customers, making sure they’re profitable for us and identifying some of the shortfalls.
IL: What’s the hardest aspect of your job?
Decompressing. This job is 24/7. In the back of my mind, I’m always thinking about what I can do to improve the company. How can we differentiate ourselves? What innovations will put us ahead of everyone else? It’s a full-time job, thinking ahead and trying to understand what suppliers and retailers might need that they might not know they need.
IL: So how do you decompress?
Spending time at home with my wife and two daughters is my decompression. They keep me grounded. We also ski and go boating, and I golf.
IL: What advice would you offer your 18-year-old self?
Life flies by, so enjoy it. Recognize and take all the opportunities you can. And if I could go back to the past while seeing the future, I’d tell my 18-year-old self to buy more Facebook stock.
The Whole Truth
Four months into his first job at RJW Logistics Group, working on the logistics side of the business, Kevin Williamson got a call from a customer asking the status of a shipment bound for Atlanta. Unfortunately, the freight was still sitting on the dock in Chicago, having missed the linehaul truck.
“I lied to them,” recalls Williamson. “And then I got caught in the lie.”
Williamson went to the company’s CEO—his father—for advice on what to do next. “My father said, ‘Tell the truth. Then you never have to worry about having to keep up with the lie forever. If they can’t deal with the fact that the shipment will not be there on time, move on. But at least you have self respect.'”
The customer never worked with RJW again. “But it felt good to tell the truth,” Williamson says.
The lesson of that incident has guided him throughout his career: “Don’t mislead, be transparent and a straight shooter, and share everything with those you work with and those you work for.”