“Every single component within a company needs to have knowledge within Supply Chain. Period.” — Steve Whatman
Welcome to the latest instalment of Argentus’ executive interviews series, where we highlight some of Canada’s most impactful Supply Chain leaders. Today, we’re thrilled to bring you our interview with Steve Whatman.
Steve is a Senior Operations Executive with major transformation experience within food service, manufacturing, consumer goods and other industries. He’s one of Supply Chain’s true continuous improvement gurus, with significant experience building and leading Supply Chain teams, as well as managing major budget accountability.
Steve is someone who has truly worked his way from a front-line Supply Chain role to become a true leader in the field. His depth and breadth of Supply Chain knowledge is prodigious, as is his ability to communicate and lead everywhere from the shop floor to the C-suite. In his capacity as VP of Operations for a number of major companies, Steve has transformed logistics, distribution and warehousing functions to help drive serious growth. Beyond that, his infectious passion for all things Supply Chain makes him an excellent advocate for the field.
Steve has been a big part of Argentus’ orbit for many years, both as a client and as a candidate, so this interview is a long time coming. We were thrilled for the chance to make it happen.
We spoke to Steve about:
- His career in Supply Chain, and his advice for how Supply Chain professionals can build and advance their skills to move into leadership roles,
- His major considerations when building Supply Chain teams, and what some companies are missing,
- The key components to Supply Chain leadership
- and more.
We hope you enjoy the interview!
Thanks for agreeing to do an interview, Steve! Could you start by talking about your background in Supply Chain – and in particular, how you’ve worked your way into major leadership roles?
The best way to start off is that I stumbled on a job out of college. A friend of mine worked for a food service company, and he said, “Steve, why don’t you come out with me on one of my runs?” It was a family-owned business. I tagged along with him, and the owner noticed it, and said, “you’re here every day, you might as well work for me.” For the first while I was driving a truck for them, helping service their 500-600 customers. I expanded throughout the business and joined their management team, managing a fairly large scope for them.
That’s when my whole career changed. I went to school for film and technology, so I was blown away that I got addicted to this food service and distribution style business. I learned a lot about management. I’ve redefined myself as a leader throughout the years, learning how to deal with people, personalities and growth. I think people have grown parallel to the Supply Chain, and I think I’ve picked up a lot of my leadership skills through that.
After that, the owner of a company called FireCo asked me to come in and give him a high-level view of the business from an operational standpoint. That’s where I got the continuous improvement bug. I wasn’t going in to maintain anything, I was going in to figure out why the business isn’t running as efficiently as it should be, and give some recommendations, which was tremendously exciting to me. Sure enough, I came back with some recommendations that helped turn the business around – including new processes and alignment to take their fulfilment from a day and a half behind back to a same-day service. Following that, I went on to two other progressive roles at Dawn Foods and Polar Pack, where I delivered on a number of major efficiency and operational improvements.
In every career advancement I’ve had, I’ve made it a priority to learn more about the holistic Supply Chain: distribution, logistics, manufacturing, procurement, you name it. I’m a strong believer that you need to get educated. The Supply Chain is running at 150 miles an hour. It’s changing every single day. At Dawn Foods I started to go to night school for economics, took my Plog and CITT, and really tried to learn the Supply Chain from end-to-end.
My best experience was moving into Pet Valu. They were a newly purchased company, going through a rebranding, and I was hired as a General Manager, to transition to being a VP in two years. Meeting with the executive team, I felt that we were a year behind the capacity of the sales and marketing team. I created a strategy for a transformation to the distribution model, presented it to the board, and it was accepted. Sure enough, I was the new VP within a week. We were able to build a landscape of distribution across Canada and the U.S., including building distribution centres from the ground up, and develop the logistics around it. We were able to take the business from $200M to $1B in 5 years, and I consider my contribution there a huge success.
Since then, I’ve gotten lucky with people asking me to support them on projects around transformation. I went in and helped redefine a cannabis company, helping to develop pick and pack operations for them. Right now, I’m working with Spin Master to redefine their distribution models within Canada, and a major relocation within the California distribution model.
It’s been quite a journey, and my whole career has been so exciting. I truly love Supply Chain and everything it’s given me.
You have significant experience scaling up new teams and hiring in the field. What’s your philosophy when building a Supply Chain team?
At PetValu, when I began our transformation, I didn’t have a team, so as I was moving through the strategic plan, I slowly started to bring more staff on. What I found is that I didn’t need as many people as I thought I did. It makes more sense to slowly bring talented people on who have as much bandwidth as possible, and then avoid pigeonholing them. Rather than hiring someone and siloing them in, say, a narrow purchasing role, I would rather hire a Supply Chain Analyst with more understanding of the overall program, and more exposure to various aspects of Supply Chain. They’ll be able to give you more, and you can go quicker.
Beyond that, communication and transparency are key in team building. Nobody is ever in a silo with me. Communication is crucial to get buy-in on the strategy from everyone in the organization. No one is going to get a different story from a purchaser, or a receiving manager. When you can align people in every aspect of the business, people are more motivated in wanting to be a part of the team, rather than being siloed.
As a Supply Chain leader, my best advice to secure the success of any supply Chain initiative is transparency. I’m really transparent, almost to a fault. You don’t take a company from $200M to $1B without that combination of communication and transparency. For a leader, it’s key to have that mix of tactical and strategic, and develop rapport with all levels of management. I rate myself as strong forward thinker who provides guidance and structure. That’s where my success has come.
Do you have anything else to add vis a vis talent and hiring?
I would say unequivocally that a high-end boutique recruitment firm like Argentus is the way to go. With hiring, it often comes down to gut feel. Argentus’ deep understanding of the field allows them to tap into things more than I would, or have time to do. You’re able to quickly present qualified people who hit 90% of the points, which is tremendously valuable to me as a Supply Chain leader who’s doing things at 150 miles an hour. I think that’s why a lot of people are starting to go the recruiter route.
With in-house recruiting, putting these strategic Supply Chain roles in the hands of an HR coordinator is not the way to go. They’re looking at it from an HR perspective, whereas you should be looking at it from a Supply Chain perspective. Every single component in the company needs to have knowledge within Supply Chain. Period.
You mentioned you’ve been really focused on continuous learning throughout your career. Is there any other advice you would give to Supply Chain leaders, or aspiring Supply Chain leaders, based on what you’ve learned along the way?
First of all, I would give a message to anyone thinking of getting into the field: even if you’ve taken a different path in your career as far as school and university, it doesn’t mean you can’t get involved in one of the top industries today. Supply Chain is where the economy is going. I went to college for something completely different, and I don’t regret anything, not one second of it.
Don’t let an MBA or bachelor degree define who you are, as far as wanting to get into the industry. It’s not always the deciding factor. The deciding factor is experience, knowledge, and passion.
I’m so passionate about Supply Chain it’s sickening. I’m proud of myself and where I am today. So if you’re thinking about taking the plunge, do it. You won’t regret it.
As far as other advice, it would be three major things:
- Process improvement and continuous improvement are key. Period. If you learn that, you’re going to get the full gamut. I would be teaching more of that.
- Keep learning at every opportunity, and communicate that passion for knowledge to your staff, and you’ll go far. I want my staff to know everything, and I’m not worried about anyone stepping on my toes. Either you’re teaching your staff, or you’re not leading.
- As a leader, you have to be able to manage at all levels. It’s competitive when you get into a C-suite. You need to be able to communicate across the organization, from the front line to the board room. Be unafraid of learning to speak the language of every level. Get in the business, roll up your sleeves, and sacrifice. Be willing to get tenure, get at it, and not expect to get it tomorrow. You’ve got to understand the business totally.
That would be my advice for future Supply Chain leaders.
A big thanks to Steve Whatman for taking the time to do this interview! Stay tuned in the coming weeks as we highlight other Supply Chain luminaries on the blog.