Sound Strategy, Talented Team
If there’s a secret to Cliff Otto’s leadership, it’s his focus on people. “One of the most important things I’ve learned is to hire the best people you can find, and challenge them with opportunities that make them grow,” he says.
Otto joined Saddle Creek Logistics Services in 2001 and became its president in 2007 and CEO in 2013. In that leadership role, he opted to delegate more authority, giving people the freedom to operate in ways that work best for them. “We’ve had great success over the years because we have cultivated a talented team of individuals who are open to challenges and willing to stretch themselves for the good of the company,” he says.
Otto recently talked to Inbound Logistics and shared some insights on leadership and his own career.
IL: You’ve worked in logistics your entire career. What’s the attraction?
I grew up in the industry, and I always found it interesting. My dad was a traffic manager at a carburetor company in St. Louis. When I was in high school, he helped me get a job at a local public warehouse, doing everything from driving a forklift to loading trucks. I worked there through college and got a lot of experience from the ground up. I went on to get my MBA with an emphasis in logistics. Because not many people had training in the field back then, there were some great career opportunities.
As I became more involved, I found that I enjoyed the field, liked the challenges, and appreciated the opportunity to interact with marketing, sales, purchasing, and other areas.
IL: What are some early experiences that helped shape the kind of leader you are today?
Early in my career, while working for Baxter Healthcare, I had the chance to manage distribution operations in both Canada and Puerto Rico. Those were big assignments for someone at my experience level. I learned a lot very quickly—how to get a team up and running, and how to get things done by developing relationships and building good will.
Later, I was recruited to join a start-up, CHEP, just six months before its first shipment. It was a risky decision but I loved the challenge. It gave me a chance to expand beyond distribution and get involved with sales, marketing, and purchasing.
IL: How would you describe your style as a leader?
I’ve come to believe that leaders are most successful when they do just that—lead. As a leader, you should focus on developing a sound strategy, surround yourself with a talented team, and empower team members to approach the business with creativity and fresh ideas.
Saddle Creek’s brand promise is Whatever it Takes! I value that entrepreneurial philosophy. We all thrive here because we have created a fast-paced environment and are willing to take calculated risks to grow our business and satisfy our customers’ needs.
IL: How do you keep your employees engaged and excited about coming to work every day?
We have a strong corporate culture built on shared core values, which emphasize excellence in service, respect for the individual, performance and accountability, a supportive work environment, and integrity. We discuss those values regularly and challenge ourselves to live them every day.
We focus on creating an environment where associates can perform their best, and then giving them the freedom to do so. Most people—particularly those whom you would want to have in a growth organization—want to have the opportunity to personally contribute. The key is to make sure we’re all working toward the same business goals.
IL: What’s one of the bigger, more interesting challenges you’ve tackled since you’ve been leading Saddle Creek?
When I was promoted to president in 2007, the management team determined that we wanted to grow from a regional third-party logistics provider to a leading nationwide provider.
To grow as fast as we wanted, we recognized that we needed to give everyone the freedom to figure out what’s best and hold them accountable—essentially push decision making and accountability down a level. Decisions traditionally made by the president would be made by the vice presidents, and so on. Empowering employees at all levels created more time for strategy at the higher levels of the company.
One challenge was getting people to understand their new levels of authority and accountability. Of course, that business model didn’t work for everyone, but most employees embraced the enhanced responsibility and entrepreneurial spirit.
To succeed as a company, we had to be much better at two things—expanding geographically to prove that we could be a nationwide provider, and building brand awareness.
IL: What’s at the top of your agenda at the company these days?
We will continue to focus on omni-channel—broadening our capabilities, expanding systems support, and ensuring that our clients get what they need. Maintaining our strong corporate culture is also a priority, because our value system is our principal competitive advantage.
IL: How do you stay in touch with what your customers need?
There’s no substitute for firsthand information. Everyone on our management team is actively involved in solution development. We all take time to sit down with customers to ensure that we understand the big picture and what they’re trying to achieve.
IL: Outside of work, how do you like to spend your time?
I enjoy playing a leadership role in a number of organizations, including the International Warehouse Logistics Association and several local charities. I am fortunate to serve on the board of trustees at Florida Polytechnic University, because I believe that training tomorrow’s potential Saddle Creek associates is critical. Beyond that, I enjoy time with my family. I’m also an avid golfer and a quasi-gourmet cook on the weekends, and I enjoy a good Grisham or Baldacci novel.
Advice for the Next Generation
Are you a recent college graduate looking to climb the ladder in logistics? Be aware of the people you work with and for, Cliff Otto advises: “Try to understand what they’re doing and why, and how it relates to what you’re doing.” And don’t forget to shine a light inward. “Self awareness is very important for success,” he adds. “Understand what you can and can’t change and how to turn impediments into assets.”
New logistics professionals also need to master a skill that’s rarely taught in college—how to collaborate with associates who work on the front lines, in warehouses, in trucks, and on the yard, to accomplish objectives. “If you can learn how to keep everyone engaged, and how to manage and motivate your whole team, then you’ve got something that a lot of people in our field don’t have,” Otto says. “You can carry that with you for the rest of your career.”