January 2017 | Case Studies | LeaderSHIP

Russ Smyth: Geared Up for Growth

Tags: Education & Careers, Logistics, Supply Chain

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One day in 2010, Russ Smyth got a phone call from Ted Perlman. Smyth assumed that the reason for the call was a social occasion. At the time, Smyth was CEO of tax services company H&R Block.

Perlman is one of the founders of HAVI, a global supply chain services company headquartered in Downers Grove, Ill. Before his role at H&R Block, Smyth had spent most of his career at McDonald's, a major customer of HAVI. All the while, Smyth and Perlman were friends, enjoying dinners and social events together with their wives throughout the years.

"I thought the call would be an invitation to dinner or a concert," Smyth says. But Perlman had another invitation to offer: Would Smyth consider joining HAVI as its CEO?

Smyth accepted, and has held the top executive spot at HAVI ever since. He recently talked to Inbound Logistics about the elements of leadership, and how he has been building on the company's legacy success, helping to propel it to its next level of growth.

IL: When Ted Perlman offered you the CEO position, why did you think the job would be a good fit?

Having worked with HAVI for many years, I knew it offered a unique and expansive collection of supply chain services. It was a big, complex, global company, which fit my background and interests. I felt that Ted's personal values and the company culture aligned well with my own values and my sense of how to run a business. I also knew it was an organization full of very talented people. Lastly, Ted wanted someone to reinvigorate the company for further growth. I've always enjoyed growth challenges; I'm not a maintenance type of guy.

IL: What values did you feel you and Perlman had in common?

Number one is transparency—being open and honest with our customers and our people. Second is a long-term approach to business. As a private company, HAVI has the luxury of taking the long view, without pressure to show monthly or quarterly results. Also, the way Ted treats and values people within the organization is consistent with what I believe is the key to any successful relationship and business model. Because of that approach, I knew he had hired, developed, and retained very good talent.

IL: When you joined HAVI, what items did you put at the top of your agenda?

For the first six months or so, I did a whirlwind global tour, holding a series of listening sessions to give me a better understanding of what makes HAVI tick and what our core strengths were. Once I had a good feel for the business, I wanted to get us refocused on key drivers that would help accelerate our growth. We could do that by finding new business opportunities with existing customers, and by building and diversifying our customer base.

IL: What are the hardest supply chain challenges your customers face today, and how does HAVI help with those?

Consumers' needs and expectations are changing rapidly. Consumers want what they want, when and where they want it, and at an affordable price. Historically, supply chains have been very complex, and they're often managed in siloes. Often, they tend not to adapt well to a rapidly changing environment. At HAVI, we take a holistic view; we understand that an action in one part of the supply chain can have implications and unintended consequences elsewhere. Because we take this approach, we can serve as a one-stop shop for end-to-end supply chain management.

IL: Most of your customers are in the food service industry. What's one industry trend that is forcing them to develop new supply chain strategies?

Technology will have a huge impact on how restaurants and food service companies interact with their customers. Innovations such as mobile ordering and mobile payment give you direct access to individual consumer information that, if used properly, will provide tremendous insight into buying patterns and behavior, and on how you can serve your customers in new, unique ways. Companies will be able to customize marketing messages to individual consumers or, for example, run promotional activities on three hours' notice or less. This will create a lot more variability in consumer demand, and supply chains will have to figure out how to meet that increased variability. They'll have to be much more flexible, and we have to move faster than we've ever had to in the past.

IL: How would you describe your leadership style?

I'm very customer focused: I take an inside-out look at our business first and foremost. And I'm a situational leader. In a complex, global business like HAVI, no one style is going to work. I have to be a bit of a chameleon, reading each situation and environment and adapting my leadership style to effectively deal with the challenges or opportunities we face. I think every good leader has to do that in today's working environment.

Also, when I became HAVI's CEO, I immediately recognized the talent that I had experienced as a customer. It is so critical to me to continue to attract, retain, and grow that same caliber of people moving forward, because if nothing else, we are a business of people, intelligence, relationships, and creativity. So I gave myself another role—Chief Talent Officer—and spend nearly half my time focused on people, talent, and ensuring we have the right teams and individuals in place to adapt and lead as our business and industry continue to grow and evolve.

IL: Tell us about an experience early in your career that helped to shape the leader you are today.

I started my career on the finance side. As I made the transition from that role to a line management role at McDonald's, I spent the better part of one year working in restaurants. My work there included sweeping parking lots and cleaning toilets. That critical experience made me appreciate the impact that front-line employees have on customers. Often, decisions made in corporate headquarters don't consider the positive or negative impacts those decisions can have on the front line. I always challenge myself to think about how we're affecting the people who work directly with our customers.

IL: What traits do you most admire in other leaders?

I appreciate people with real passion for and commitment to what they do. I admire and respect people who show courage under fire and stand firm in doing what they think is right, even when it's not the most popular choice and they face a great deal of outside pressure to do something different. I also have a lot of respect for people who are transparent. They open themselves to tough questions and have to respond by painting a picture that's both clear and inspirational.

IL: What advice would you offer to your 20-year-old self?

One, enjoy it more. When you're working hard and running fast on the treadmill, it's tough to remind yourself to take a time-out and celebrate the things you've accomplished, without getting complacent. Two, make tough people-decisions faster. The biggest mistakes I've made in business have been not moving fast enough on people who I knew were not the right leaders for their positions. Three, trust your gut. The world isn't perfect, and you can't wait for all the facts. You have to use the facts combined with your instincts and experience.

Two-Part Harmony for The Right and Left Brain

Russ Smyth doesn't mention this to many people, but while majoring in accounting in college, he also studied music. His instrument is the guitar.

"Part of what I learned growing up was left brain focused, and part of it was right brain focused," Smyth says. "I think that has shaped how I deal with things in business. I have a 'What are the facts?' side—concrete thinking and a focus on business process. But I try to balance that with the creative, entrepreneurial side—the frustrated musician in me."

Smyth says he still plays guitar, "although not as often as I'd like."

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