Leadership + People: Episode 54 - Brian Bowers - Part 2 of 2

In this episode Brian Bowers, COO of Visible Supply Chain Management, shares stories of mentors who focused on his growth and provided Bowers with opportunities to progress. He discusses his business purpose and how having a written statement has focused his target. Bowers discusses Amazon and the good and bad examples it provides in the world of ecommerce as well as the many changes taking place in that space.

Show Notes

  • How varied experiences have provided cycles of opportunities to learn a new business and effect change [00:48]
  • Viewing people development as a business purpose, not a side effect [03:00]
  • 30 minutes of peer to peer mentoring focused his business purpose and gave added clarity and reminder to every decision and task [07:39]
  • Caution with machine learning and big data and maintaining integrity [13:32]
  • Ask yourself if you replaced your friends and family with your customer do you still feel good about that level of intrusion [15:09]
  • Robots versus human power, focus on their strengths and then optimize them together [19:42]

Show Audio

References:

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Brian Bowers episode 55-02

This episode of Leadership and People was originally released on: October 18th, 2018

Show Transcript

[BEGINS] 00:00

Welcome to Leadership and People. This is a series that pulls back the curtain on leadership by interviewing CEOs, Senior Executives and Entrepreneurs who had large exits. We ask these experts about how they built trusted networks to rapidly grow their companies.  And what advice they wish they knew if they could do it all again.

JL: Today on the show we’ve got Brian Bowers.

BRIAN BOWERS  “Leadership in business means that you’re providing opportunity for other people to grow and develop. And as you’re doing that, as a leader, then you really are creating an opportunity for those individuals but you’re also I think, creating a culture and company that can actually grow.”

00:48 JL: If you missed the first part of the episode really suggest going back and hearing some of the successes he had at Raytheon and Mity Lite and some other work he has done since MIT Sorenson Capital. What I think would be really interesting Brian, for the second part maybe is, thinking about leadership now and you know maybe some of the lessons we talked about in the first episode, how they apply to Jamberry or now to Visible Supply Chain Management. What have you brought with you to leading operations, do you feel like?

A Diverse Portfolio of Experience

BRIAN BOWERS: I feel like what I’m able to bring is a whole bunch of different lessons from different companies. So I do have quite a few different diverse experiences from my background. Starting with working at a missile factory for Raytheon as an engineer. Doing various project, different project work. Even when I was at MIT. One project for a chocolate manufacturer actually. Where we went in and worked on improving the process they were applying in making chocolate. So that’s actually really fun. Two; working on a crazy research project that was happening down at the Lawrence Livermore National Labs. Just exposure to all these different approaches. Some of them very technical. And some of them very, engineering oriented. And some of them being much more just basic nuts and bolts kinds of practices. Inventory practices at Jamberry. You know these different things going on in different companies. And to be able to both learn and effect change at the same time. So I’ve had many cycles of that happen. And especially at Sorenson Capital. The opportunity to work with five or six portfolio companies over the course of a few years. You know, just giving again those cycles of opportunity to learn a business and effect change at the same time. So now at this point it feels like that’s what I generally do as I go into a business.

03:00 JL: So let’s talk about this. Visible Supply Chain Management. A 300 million dollar a year company. One thousand plus staff. What’s something interesting that you’ve observed since coming over there?

Development of People: A Business Purpose

BRIAN BOWERS: So Visible a company that’s grown very fast. It’s a very dynamic culture.  Really a great culture where merit and you know, best ideas win, kind of setting. I’ve seen a lot of companies give lip service to concepts like being… having candor in our discussions. Let’s talk opening but not get offended. Those kinds of things. But really the leadership here, they exemplify those concepts. They take them to heart. They defer judgement while people give their input. And they take seriously the ideas that are presented as a business. So it’s… Again it’s a really high growth environment but at the same time very progressive culture and effective to build a great team and to build something that’s sustainable.  

04:19 JL: Yeah. So when you think about the world of leadership and growing leaders, what’s a story from your own experience? Somebody that’s, maybe they mentored you along the way, a discovery, the role of turning people into leaders. Who’s somebody that you’ve observed that did that well? Any stories comes to mind?

BRIAN BOWERS: Yeah. When I look back over my career, there’s just lots of mentors who have helped me along my way. And so I think I would take an example of… Actually a couple of examples. My very first manager at Raytheon, John Covington. He really wanted me to have opportunities to grow. He really believed in that development of people as part of his business purpose. That’s something I’ve adopted in my business purpose. So he gave me opportunities to be a part of Raytheon’s Lean 6 Sigma Black Belt program when it was just rolling out. And he gave me opportunities to be part of these other programs that were going on. And without those opportunities I would have not had the same time of preparations. If he had been the type of manager that said ‘I’m going to keep you in this job because you’re doing a good job. But I need the people to do a good job in my department. And hold you in here.’ My career would have a taken a very different path. I feel like that again in the mentorship that I received from Randy Hales who was the CEO of Mity Lite when I came over from Sorenson Capital and joined Mity Lite. He convinced me, he said ‘Hey I think you’ll have more fun and you’ll be able to create more change and things from the inside by joining my team. And we’re going to go and do some really fun things. But it will mean having to leave Sorenson Capital.’ Ultimately it was the right decisions because of the type of experience I could have inside of the business that I couldn’t have otherwise had. But again that was him opening a door for me but also mentoring me through that process. The same, you know, I feel the same for John Dudash, who is the current CEO. Who opened doors for me to really take on business development and take on acquisitions for the company. You know, again there’s a common theme there. Leadership in business, means that you’re providing opportunity for other people to grow and develop. And as you’re doing that, as a leader, then you really are creating an opportunity for those individuals, but you’re also creating I think a culture and company that can actually grow and you know develop over time. And that’s just huge. It was huge to me. It’s huge to the people that are your employees. And finding those various opportunities are an important thing that we always have to keep our eyes on.

Peer to Peer Mentorship

07:39 JL: Yeah. I’m interested in maybe taking this a different direction. You know our… Making this show here with Corporate Alliance. You and I’ve seen each other at the C4 lunches. Things like that. What has been the value to you? I know my answer to this. But I’m interested in your answer. Peer to peer mentorship. And maybe this more informal opportunities to associate with people who are kind of in the same position as you. They maybe aren’t your leader but they are folks who have valuable experience to learn from. I’m interested in any of your thoughts on that.

BRIAN BOWERS: Yeah. And I’d love to comment on that. I think you know, at these events there are the opportunities to meet with the other leaders of companies in Utah that are flourishing. They are doing awesome things. So we are able to learn some of the lessons from those individuals. There’s also something about Corporate Alliance itself. You know, their mission to help connect people but also they are committed to the development of each other partners, each of their businesses that are a part of Corporate Alliance network. One of those… I think one of the more significant experiences that I’ve had with Corporate Alliance, came with I actually sat down with Kent White who’s the Chief Experience Officer at Corporate Alliance. We were at a Jump Summit. So this is a development summit that Corporate Alliance offers for employees of their partner companies. And he challenged me to develop a business purpose statement. Which at first I was like, you know what I don’t need to draft some sort of mission statement kind of thing. That’s not what I need. He really helped me see the value of declaring with clarity what my business purpose is. And to help me focus around those things that I want to do. Truly want to do as a leader. And so in, you know, about a half hour session together I was able to rough out some ideas with him. And that’s been a huge help to me. And that’s something that I look at. I have it on my mirror. I look at it everyday. And it helps me to think through, you know, what am I trying to accomplish in this career, and in this, you know, our work life. Our employment is something that we’re involved in for so many years. Do we do it with purpose? Do we do it and create the kinds of experiences we hope we will for ourselves and others? So I think that that’s again one of the greatest benefits for me is the development focus that Corporate Alliance has on all of its partner and partnerships.

10:38 JL: I love it. I feel like it’s me going back to episode one of… It’s funny how often the best answers are the simple answers.  You know we did a few episodes with the guys from Mountain America Credit Union. And it’s crazy how intense they are about that repetition on a daily basis and will all their staff. And they’ve grown from one billion in assets to over 7 billion in assets.

BRIAN BOWERS: Yeah. Well…

11:01 JL: And that consistent, you know, simple but powerful consistently applied [laugh] has produced outsized results for them, right?  

BRIAN BOWERS: Yeah.

The Future of Ecommerce

11:10 JL: You know, shifting gears a little bit, I want to maybe get some wisdom from you. You know we seem to be moving to more of an online world. If that’s even possible to get even more online than we already are. You know, Amazon has become the behemoth it has become. As you look at  kind of insight into the industry that you have, any lessons for the rest of us as you look at what’s happening at Visible that might apply to other industries, other businesses of just; hey here’s what we see coming down the pipe over the next few years. And here’s what business in general may benefit from that?

Customer Side

BRIAN BOWERS: Yeah. Sure. So you know, the question of where all of this ecommerce world will go. And with so much focus on ecommerce and ecommerce marketing, social marketing, social advertising. All these various pieces. So there’s this customer facing side and then there’s the operating side. You know the execution side of all of these systems. And so we will see more and more focus on social advertising and social marketing. I also think we are going to see a backlash at some point. We are seeing a little bit with Facebook right now. We’re seeing it a little bit across all the social platforms and a little bit of backlash against the type of intrusion that we’re seeing on that customer facing side. So even while there’s a really active effort, which we are involved in as well, to approach big data, to use machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques to gaining better and better insight into the customer. We’re really do have to be cautious in those things not to create backlash and not to create something that really is counter to what we want to do in business with integrity. So that’s this view of the customer facing side. On the execution side, there’s also a different path happening.

13:32 JL: Well. I was just going to ask on this side, is your point that those of us that are collecting data on our customers, you know may need to be a little more proactive to what’s the reputational lose if the backlash comes back in a bigger way?  If you were taking the water to the end of the row on that one, you know being cautious here’s what a business may want to be thinking about before they have to. A dig your well before you’re thirsty kind of approach.

BRIAN BOWERS: Yeah. Exactly. I think we just have to do things in a way that. Like if we put ourselves in place, ourselves and our families in place of that customer that we’re trying to prospect. Then I think it’s simple enough actually, to say; hey look, what is really helpful to me as a customer? Because some of these things are actually really helpful. Like when you buy something on Amazon and it says; hey people who boughts that also bought this. And you go; you know what? I actually do need that. I just didn’t know it. Now that’s good for both companies. Or that’s good for both parties right? Because it actually in many cases is something that is helpful and useful to the end customer. And I think there’s lots of opportunities to do that kind… Those kind of approaches that are helpful. There’s also ways that we could intrude and create problems that are way beyond with what we’re ready to deal with. As we saw with Facebook recently.

15:09 JL: I just love the test that if you replaced your friends and family with your customer do you still feel good about that level of intrusion. Okay. So I was interrupting you. I want to hear about operationally, execution wise what the implications are.

Execution Side

BRIAN BOWERS: So on the execution side I think people don’t generally know what happens after they press the submit button on their Amazon order. And that’s the world we live in. You press submit and then somebody at a warehouse is actually going to pick and pack and ship your product. And you’re actually going to get postage and a shipping label for that product label to actually make it your house. And it’s going to be delivered through a supply chain. And you know the question was what do I foresee happening there. What are the opportunities and the things that people need to realize and what are the you know, whatever there. And really there are lots and lots of things happening in that space that are really exciting. And many of them having to do with creating more and more flexible systems. Again, electronic solutions. A lot of cloud solutions. A lot of big data opportunities. A lot of machine learning. Again those same types of applications that create better and better optimization. So really the name in the game in this space is optimization. And again that’s why we see Amazon taking the types of steps that they are. Putting more and more distribution centers and fulfillment centers across the country. Because that puts them closer and closer to customers. It optimizes cost for the customers. And then of course they get the volume that’s related to that from their front end process. And that allows them stronger and stronger negotiating power. And they’re putting in all sorts of solutions. And they’re testing all sorts of things. I think that’s another piece. To be in this space you have to be testing and you have to be piloting and you have to be experimenting. So…

17:27 JL: I was actually going to ask about that. Without sharing company secrets, can you give us an example of something that you guys have tested recently? Or something that you plan on testing without spilling the beans?

Automated Fulfillment and Cost

BRIAN BOWERS: Sure. Yeah. So I think just like most companies in our space there are research and development efforts to try to understand how to do fulfillment better. And when I say better I mean again fewer steps, easier process, more cost effective. So Amazon has chosen one path. And that path is a highly automated robotic approach. So their warehouses are filled with robots running around delivering packages or product to individuals who then package and then ship them out. So that’s one method. And that’s a very expensive method. And largely Amazon because of who they are, if you look at their financials, their shipping and their fulfillment costs are not profitable. And that’s a luxury all the rest of us don’t have. So when we’re in a fulfillment third party logistics world, we have to be profitable in the products we’re shipping out. So part of our research and development is to figure out how do you do ecommerce fulfillment in a very optimized way without making tens and tens, and in the case of Amazon hundreds of billions of investment in capital equipment.

19:11 JL: Yeah. So what’s an example?

BRIAN BOWERS: An example of that type of research?

19:16 JL: Yeah. What’s an example of what that looks like for you guys, or something you’re interested in?

BRIAN BOWERS: So really, you know, how do you do fulfillment in a semiautomated way so that you’re not relying solely on automation but that you’re getting the majority of the benefits of that without being fully automated

19:42 JL: So does that show up as like lower cost robots or what does that look like tangebly?

BRIAN BOWERS: I think that shows up as, I don’t want to give away here but I think how it shows up is really what’s the optimal way that you can put machines and people together. ANd this is what we saw at Mity Lite. We saw if you relied completely on robots you had a very high cost of, you know all this automation. And you actually had a slower output. So that’s the thing most people don’t understand. Robots actually are so much slower than people. Except in specific cases. So I’ll go back to Mity Lite. A robotic welder can weld 3x as fast as a person. But a robot that places a metal parts into a wielder is 4-5x slower than a human. So you optimize around the things that each can do well. And that’s… There’s some magic that you reach there. There’s some R&D around that. And that’s specific to fulfillment. There are lots of, I think there are lots of opportunities to again increase and improve the competitiveness of companies like ours against companies like Amazon.

The Source of Innovation

21:04 JL: So besides just the trial and error approach, are there books, are there conferences, who do you feel liek are the smartest people to learn from in that arena?

BRIAN BOWERS: Well that’s a good question. I think Amazon, you know, they’re at the forefront of all this. They have the money to invest in it. So they are the subject of almost every conference. Which is really funny, because many times they’re not even presenting. It’s other people presenting about Amazon. [laugh] So, there are lots of trade shows in our space. Again many of them are looking to Amazon for leadership. I think that’s why this is a frontier because those people who are investing their own research are going to come up with their own solutions. And that’s our approach. Of course we are trying to learn from the tradeshows and conferences, but also we recognize that not all solutions comes from inside the industry. Lots of them come from other industries. And then also creating a real research and development approach actually creates an insight nobody else is going to come up with.

22:30 JL: I love it. Well, I appreciate all the time you’ve spent with us here today. It’s fun to hear, you know, common themes across diverse companies there.  

BRIAN BOWERS: Yeah. Thanks a lot for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity to spend time with you.

22:45 JL: Thanks again.  

BRIAN BOWERS: Thank you.

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