Yolande Burnham: Grains, Trains and Supply Chains

Years ago, Yolande Burnham managed shipments of durham wheat, corn, and other grains. Today, rail lines that haul those commodities depend on Burnham’s employer—Union Switch & Signal (US&S), Pittsburgh,Pa.—for the systems they need to operate efficiently and safely.

Burnham is vice president, global supply chain and manufacturing for US&S, a leading manufacturer of signaling, automation, and control equipment and systems for railroads and mass transit around the world.

Burnham oversees the company’s manufacturing operation in Batesburg, S.C., manages relationships with global suppliers, and works with other executives to coordinate the flow of raw materials and finished goods with customer demand. She is also a leader in the group procurement operation of US&S’s parent companies, Ansaldo Signal and Finmeccanica.

With years of experience managing both agriculture and manufacturing supply chains, Burnham finds a key difference between the two sectors.

In agriculture, she says, supply chain activities don’t need to be integrated as tightly. “But manufacturing absolutely requires synchronization—from sales and order entry all the way through customer delivery and payment,” she says.

Supply chain management at a company such as US&S, which serves major railways and transit systems, poses a special challenge.

“We deal with international customers, who are often directly managed and controlled by their governments,” Burnham says. So US&S must form relationships not only with its customers, but also with the public entities that provide funding and infrastructure.

To synchronize its supply chain more precisely, US&S is looking for ways to link its information systems with those of its suppliers and customers. Burnham would like online access to suppliers’ systems, so she can monitor order status.

And the better the company can connect with customers’ systems, “the more we’ll be able to serve customers when they need us,” she says. “We can be ready for their future needs, not just react.”

Just as she takes a proactive approach to customer fulfillment, Burnham makes a point of staying prepared for emergencies that might arise in the supply line. Once, while working for a previous employer, a supplier in Korea was hit first by a fire, then by a labor strike. The dual crises shut that supplier down for almost three months.

“Fortunately, we had implemented a strategy to make sure we minimized the risk and positioned ourselves strategically in the world,” Burnham says. “My team was well trained and talented,” and they already had alternative suppliers in place to fill the gap.

“The team executed the plan we had in place, and we rode through that obstacle without any major interruptions,” she says.

In many ways, managing a supply chain is like running numerous companies at once, says Burnham, who works closely with suppliers’ chief executive officers to set common goals and create common strategies.

“We influence, and actually direct, the strategy of our supplier base to fit within what we need to serve our customers,” she says. “The suppliers are an extension of our manufacturing.”

The Big Questions

What are you reading?

I recently reread The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck.

Advice to people starting out in logistics?

Work with your company to understand how various departments function. Be passionate about what you do; give it your all. And integrity is absolutely a must.

First web site you go to each morning?

When I wake up, I want global information. So I turn quickly to CNN – either on the web or on TV.

Business motto?

Focus on customers, shareholders, and employees.

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

I never sit still—I do a lot of outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, swimming, and exercising. I love to sing, and I’m going to learn how to play digital piano. I also enjoy reading about and reflecting on human behavior—what drives people, and what makes them the way they are.

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