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Close-Up: Joel Sutherland

Keeping an eye on the supply

During a three-decade career in logistics, Joel Sutherland learned to track weather patterns to figure what cuts of meat to ship across the country.

He learned how to save money by having truck drivers switch their tires from new to old at the Mexican border. And he became an early proponent of lean management while handling logistics for one of Japan’s largest auto suppliers.

Throughout his career, he says, “the whole idea has been to identify where there was waste and then eliminate it.”

These days, he’s spreading that philosophy as managing director of the University of San Diego’s Supply Chain Management Institute, which he views as a platform for getting academia and private industry to collaborate on improving business strategies.

His goal: to give students “an end-to-end understanding of supply chain management” and to help businesses benefit from that expertise.

Sutherland started his career in the industrial engineering department at Textron Inc. (NYSE: TXT), an aerospace and defense conglomerate.

Assigned to such tasks as improving factory layout and process flows, Sutherland soon decided he did not want to be an engineer.

“Instead, I was attracted to logistics because it involves the entire breadth and depth of a company, not only engineering, but production, procurement, warehousing, distribution, technology, transportation and other areas.”

So Sutherland left Textron to study logistics, gaining a Bachelor of Science at the University of Southern California in 1974 and an M.B.A. from Pepperdine University in 1976.

He soon landed a job handling logistics for the U.S. operations of Japanese auto-parts supplier Denso Corp., but only after spending three years working in other areas of the company, including manufacturing, procurement and distribution.

Joel Sutherland is managing director of the University of San Diego’s Supply Chain Management Institute. Staff photo: Sarah Strong

“That’s the Japanese way of developing talent,” he said. "It really helped me develop a full understanding of all the positions.”

By 1985, Sutherland was overseeing all of Denso’s operations and logistics in the United States. As he worked his way up, he noticed a sharp contrast between U.S. and Japanese management styles.

“Americans tend to make decisions and act quickly, because they feel that shows leadership,” he said. “The Japanese spend a lot more time on consensus building and buy-in. That means spending a lot more time up front, but with less argument and more buy-in afterwards, unlike some companies where people are always fighting each other to score points. Americans often think of the Japanese process as being very slow, but the Japanese think of it as being more efficient.”

After leaving Denso in 1988, Sutherland moved from one logistics job to another.

He handled third-party logistics for the Sea-Land Service Inc. cargo firm: created a trucking logistics firm now known as Transplace; headed the U.S.-Mexican trucking firm Air Road Express; and oversaw logistics at Formica Corp. and divisions of the ConAgra food conglomerate and International Paper.

Each position had its own challenges.

When Formica hired him to take charge of logistics, for instance, it was in bad financial shape. Sutherland found that it was losing customers because its emphasis on speedy production and shipping had led to high rates of damaged or defective products.

Sutherland shifted the focus away from speed and instead rewarded customer satisfaction and improvements in market share. He says the result was a 70 percent drop in damage claims as well as improvements in market share and financial performance.

At Montfort Corp., a wholesale meat subsidiary of ConAgra (NYSE: CAG), Sutherland noticed that supermarkets often became so overstocked with meat that they turned shipments away. The meat then had to be flash-frozen and stored until a buyer could be found, causing large losses.

Using weather patterns, economic data and a list of holidays, Sutherland developed a nationwide forecasting model, broken down by ZIP codes, to pinpoint where and when particular cuts of meat should be sold.

“Preferences for cuts of meat vary from season to season and from region to region,” he said. “When the weather is cold in Boston, for instance, people tend to make roast. But if it’s sunny, everyone wants steak, since they want to go outside and use their barbecues while they can.”

Sutherland’s said the forecasting model helped Montfort cut its waste by about 60 percent.

At Air Road Express, Sutherland’s trucks ferried auto components between U.S. and Mexican factories. A U.S. driver would take a truckload of supplies to the border, which would be transferred to a Mexican driver on the other side.

But Sutherland noticed that trucks that went south of the border with new tires tended to come back with old ones, since the newer tires were being swapped out for resale. So Sutherland told his U.S. drivers to change their new tires for old before the trucks crossed the border and to put the new tires back on again once the trucks returned.

“Trucks represent the biggest logistics expense in this country, but they’re poorly monitored for such things as security, burglaries and thefts,” Sutherland said.

Sutherland left the corporate world for academia in 2006, teaching for five years at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University in before coming to USD in 2011.

By setting up internships, industry tours and consulting experiences for his students, he hopes to give them real-world experiences that will aid their careers. And through professional certification programs, workshops and semi-annual conferences where executives can share their best practices, he hopes to help corporate executives hone their skills, as well.

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