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Executive Q&A Mary Long, University of San Diego

Chicago, Dallas, Oakland, Florida, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, New Jersey. Mary Long’s career with major food manufacturers has taken her all over the map. She spent that time overseeing transportation, logistics and supply chain issues for big businesses such as Campbell’s Soup Co., General Mills and Pepsico. She recently left a vice president’s job with Domino’s Pizza Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich. and made a detour — into academia.

The University of San Diego announced in January that Long is the new managing director of its Supply Chain Management Institute. For now, Long is meeting up with local business leaders and building her advisory board; she plans to start teaching later.

The executive recently sat down with a San Diego Business Journal reporter in her new office on the college campus in Linda Vista. Already her bookshelves have keepsakes: scale-model tractor-trailer rigs, one marked for Domino’s and another marked for Campbell’s Soup.

Long touched on a variety of topics, including the difference between classroom theory and the real world, the elusive goal of getting full visibility into a company’s supply chain and how people can take up the slack.

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She also talked about the night she camped in her office at Campbell’s while her team finished an upgrade to enterprise resource management software from SAP SE. (It turned out the transition was so seamless that a major regional grocer called up two weeks after the change and asked, “So when are y’all going live?”)

Long is a self-described “supply chain fan” who says her husband has to give her the high sign at parties if she is getting too enthusiastic about some “really geeky” aspect of supply chain, such as shipping pallets. She is quick with a laugh. Long is part of the advisory board for AWESOME, a group of senior women leaders in supply chain. (The initials stand for Achieving Women’s Excellence in Supply Chain Operations, Management and Education.)

Here is part of the interview, which has been edited for clarity:

Q: Take me back to a typical day at Domino’s or Campbell’s.

A: It’s always hard to answer “typical day” questions in supply chain. Actually, what drew me to the field is that it’s not a typical day. Some days you go in and it’s a crisis, and you are firefighting. And the next day you go in and you’re thinking five years out, and planning.

So really strong supply chain people learn quickly that their highs can’t be too high and the lows can’t be too low. They’re very even keel. Because the next phone call you get could be, “This truck isn’t here and it had this many millions of dollars on it and this is a really big deal.” And F-bombs could be flying. The call after that could be, “Thank you so much. You guys did an awesome job on this.” And you can’t let your head get really big about the compliment and you can’t kind of jump off the cliff over something going wrong. It’s all about fixing it if something goes wrong. It’s your responsiveness.

Q: So were these largely transportation questions that you were dealing with?

A: That’s where I started: finance, and then transportation and then logistics, warehousing and transportation, customer operations.

I worked on the sales team at Campbell’s and reported to the president of sales. And that was like an out-of-body experience (laughs) just because, personalitywise, they were so different from me. My role was really just to keep them from overpromising and underdelivering. I was on the sales leadership team meeting every week and they would talk about, “We could do this! And we could do this!” And then they’d look at me and I’d say, “We can. We can do anything. It’s time and cost.” So basically it would end up in a discussion of what can we do to meet a customer expectation or exceed it, and how quickly can we really do that? So that they wouldn’t be promising to Wal-Mart or Costco or someone something that wasn’t legit.

Q: So you were kind of reining the sales folks in.

A: Sometimes. And sometimes it was like pure adrenaline-rush enabling. That they had an awesome idea, and you had to rally the troops in supply chain to embrace it.

Q: What comes to mind when you say that?

A: I would say new product launches. Things that were complicated and required a lot of flexibility on supply chain’s part. New customer requests that were very different than what we had traditionally done that required rethinking how you would actually flow product through your system. So it required many changing pieces and parts. Sometimes sales could be the instigator of that, and sometimes it came from the customer directly to supply chain.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your career?

A: My philosophy is, interesting careers have many challenges. We had a pencil holder in our kitchen that was kind of a take on the Cicero quote. I really do feel that the greater the challenge, the greater the sense of accomplishment. And that wasn’t just for me personally. I saw it demonstrated over and over again for my teams. If we together were trying something and it was hard and messy and difficult, when we got to the end of it, we all collectively felt way better. And I saw that expand too in companies, like Domino’s, when they would try something hard and really go for it, that sense of energy that came from it made everybody feel like we could take the next hill.

Q: Say you were taking your students into the field. What would you take your students to see?

A: I do believe that you learn a ton from actually seeing a process and walking the [factory] floor. So my experience has been that students benefit the most when they go to a facility where a product is made, because it helps them wrap their head around the interconnected flows that are required to make and move that.

I think it also gives them insight. They’re kind of seeing behind the curtains. And when they do that, inevitably they see things that make them say, “huh!”

And the two questions I’ve seen people struggle with, and to me this is what supply chain is all about: supply chain is all about doing the right things, and doing things right.

So doing the right things: Supply chains, effective ones, have to operate as the growth enablers and they have to drive efficiencies. So those things are what you’re focused on, trying to help within the company or the organization.

And then doing things right are the harder things but you see them when you walk a floor and process. And that is how team members are treated. It’s safety. It’s quality. And it’s sustainability. Do you see a lot of waste? Does the person giving the tour know people’s names? Do they have safe practices? Do they care about visitor safety? It tells a lot about the company when you walk it.

Q: It sounds as if there are lessons everywhere.

A: Everywhere.

Q: What sort of lessons can students get from observing Amazon.com? They seem to be in the news a lot.

A: I’d be a student of innovation, whatever form it’s taking. And certainly Amazon — they are just an incredibly adept and fascinating disruptor. Every day they’re in the news with something new. They’ve just redefined the expectations on delivery across the globe. It’s incredible. I think that has all of us (supply chain managers) rethinking change. Before you would say, “Well, that could be difficult.” And Amazon’s delivering it to someone in an hour? It kind of blows up some of your logic (laughs). That is very cool. They have definitely brought a lot of innovation to it. And I think innovation and disruption like that keeps us all sharp. So that I really like.

Today’s students are the lesson teachers and disruptors of tomorrow. Yeah, they grew up with Amazon. To them it’ll be nothing. And then they’re already thinking up ways, like “Oh, we could do this different.” So you never know. You know it’s really going to be a really interesting time.

Q: A good time to be a teacher.

A: Right. Yeah. I feel like I won the lottery (laughs).

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