2020 Supply Chain Technology Year in Review

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2020 Supply Chain Technology Year in Review

Featuring Gerard Darby, EVP, CIO 

How has IT’s role shifted this past year in the supply chain industry?

Based on these unprecedented times that we’re all living in with the pandemic, our customers are coming to us looking for more creative solutions with much quicker turnarounds. The RFPs we typically respond to have changed where we need to respond quicker with a shorter duration. What shippers are really looking for is more creative solutions, more customization than they would typically ask for because they’re trying to get creative to solve the inefficiencies and problems they’re having within their own supply chains. Along with that, our customers are asking for more real-time visibility to their products, what’s going on within their supply chain including that piece that we drive for them, in a more real-time fashion.

How has your team been able to provide that real-time visibility that customers are requesting?

Luckily for us, we’ve been working on these types of solutions for a couple of years now. We’ve seen the trend in the market, especially because of omnichannel, where our customers need to tie their inventory positions together much more tightly with much more real-time information. We’ve had a lot of these tools in our toolkit to provide to our customers. So for a lot of these requests help them understand how we can deliver what they’re asking for, some of that is NFI getting creative and stitching together a solution, but a lot of that is our customers configuring their systems a little differently. All in all, it’s worked out pretty well.

What was the most challenging part of this past year for shippers?

The shippers’ inability to stick to their roadmaps based on this massive disruption in supply chains; some of it because of a pandemic, some of it because of the political climate, and some from sanctions between the different countries, tariffs, etc. Global supply chains have seen a lot of spikes this year that were really unprecedented. As a result, our customers are coming to us with needs that are different than they had predicted six months ago, three months ago, or a year ago. We’ve had to flex up and down. We’ve had to move customers between buildings, and move fleets around. Luckily because of our real estate position and the size of our fleets, NFI was well-positioned to help those customers and the way we’ve put our technology in place, we’re able to flex those things up and down pretty easily. That’s probably the biggest challenge we’re seeing out in the marketplace, and we were well-positioned to react to it.

How has your team been able to react to changing processes quickly to adapt this past year?

For several years now, we’ve claimed and deemed ourselves as a 7×24 IT shop. Our customers have really dictated that they’re 7×24 and because of that, we have resources in California, we have resources in the East coast, so that’s really helped us a lot. When someone asks for something quickly, we really have people working around the clock that can get after those types of requests so that’s helped us significantly. From a process perspective, we’ve been putting change management and change control processes in place here for going on four years now, which allows us to put a lot of change through the system in a controllable fashion and de-risk putting too much change in the system at once. We didn’t put all those things in place because of the pandemic or because of COVID, but we were well positioned to react to them.

How did this past year shape the industry for years to come?

I think the biggest thing is this whole concept of everyone needing to work remotely. We’re probably five or seven years ahead of where we would have been without all the struggles we’ve had in 2020. We’ve quickly adapted to decoupling processes from where our people sit, decoupling where the system sits, and we’ve really learned as a company how to get everything done 7×24, regardless of where anyone is located. So that’s been a huge learning for us. Looking back a year ago, we have some processes coupled from some people sitting in headquarters or some people sitting in a specific operation, so we’ve got all the technology in place now that anyone can work anywhere from a back office function or a managerial function. That’s probably been the biggest change in how technology works within the last year.

How has NFI helped customers navigate the past year?

This concept of having real-time visibility and having real good control of where the customer’s product is, from not only a real-time perspective of where their boxes or trucks are right now, but also forward-looking visibility from a forecasting perspective for the whole piece of supply chain that NFI is in charge of or controls. We’re very well positioned to do that. We’ve also proven that we can react and serve the customers in ways a lot of our competitors can’t because of the way we built our systems and how we have more real estate than most of our competitors, as well as our asset and non-asset based transportation. We’re well-suited to be able to jump in and solve problems for our customers quickly. And that’s really a merge of our operational capabilities, our asset capabilities, and our technology capabilities.

What do you attribute to NFI’s success in implementing new technology and executing start-ups this past year?

I think it’s been our nimbleness and our speed to market. We’ve had to start up operations a lot quicker than maybe historically we would have done. Based on the technology that we’ve put in place over the last several years, we’re well-positioned to take on a lot more volume quickly. We don’t have any high water marks that we’re worried about. We’re not going to break from a storage perspective, from a compute perspective, from a system license perspective, we’ve really positioned ourselves to handle this growth. Now we chewed into a lot of it in 2020 with our growth, which was great that we were prepared for it. Our processes allow us to really understand from a capacity perspective where our people are and where our system resources are so we have a really good forward-looking view of where we’re at. We have been able to almost always say yes to the customer and get those things in place for them. 

In parallel, operations getting ramped up and on the few occasions where we haven’t been able to, we were transparent and honest about that upfront, which builds all kinds of credibility with our customers. Some of our biggest customers ask for a lot, and they really appreciate when we’re transparent up front about what we can or can’t do as a company, a segment of that being what we can or cannot do from a technology perspective.

How has the change in shippers’ inventory impacted IT infrastructures?

You know, we’ve had to do some quick reconfiguration of some operations from a systemic perspective to handle additional volume. We’ve had some customers ask us to take on a product line that we weren’t handling for them before, so we’ve had to go in and reconfigure to handle a different product line that the system wasn’t originally set up for. We have some examples where they’ve asked us to expand into a second, third, and fourth building and we’ve had to be nimble with operations to react to some requests like that. There hasn’t been anything that caused us to totally change the direction or the strategy we were going in, nothing to cause us to go out and buy brand new systems or expand into a new data center. Honestly, we were really positioned well to take on all these challenges, and sure we were nimble and made some changes along the way, but we didn’t have to reinvent ourselves or drastically do anything different to take it on.

How was your team set up for success this past year?

First of all, everyone quickly adapted to a work from home culture. We have a handful of people coming in and out of the office here and there, but all in all IT has been working from home and that’s worked pretty well. It took us a day or two to get everyone set up and make sure that we had all the technology set up correctly, but we reacted to that very quickly. We’ve been building our talent throughout the year where we’ve brought in some new talent. We’ve also retooled some of our people for the appropriate skills. I think from an IT perspective, this year has not been as disruptive as it was for some departments, some operations; our guys are technologists and they’re sitting in front of a machine all day, regardless if it’s in the office or at home.

With some of the collaboration software that we’re all heavily using now, in some ways collaboration is actually better with people working remote. As an example, in the past, my teams in California and my teams in New Jersey would email a lot or pick up the phone and talk to each other. Now they’re on video with each other all day. In a weird way, they’re collaborating more in a more real fashion via video than we would have been doing, had the pandemic not happened.

I’m incredibly proud of NFI and everyone at NFI, especially the frontline workers that have kept us humming throughout the year. A lot of us back office people are working remote and doing some of the same job, but I’m really proud of the fact that NFI has continued our growth trajectory, continued living our values through this year, and kudos to our frontline workers who have done so much to make us successful this year.

Gerard Darby, Chief Information Officer, leads NFI’s information technology strategy, leading various teams that enhance systems and processes to improve the experience for our supply chain customers as well as our employees.