Voice of Supply Chain – Sept. 2023
Featuring: Brent Perekoppi
Hello from Texas! It is almost back into triple digits today. Brent was noticing my hair was a little crazy. The weather does make it tough to manage here on a day-to-day basis. Welcome to the Voice of Supply Chain. This is a show brought to you by ISM New Jersey and Source Day, and the purpose of our show is to tell stories of people working in supply chain doing extraordinary things. I am your host, Sarah Scudder. I oversee marketing at Source Day, and we’re a supply chain software that automates price, quantity, and delivery date changes for manufacturers.
So, I was actually just at a manufacturing conference yesterday. Lots of really interesting things happening in the manufacturing space. If you want more intel on what’s happening in supply chain, specifically in the manufacturing world, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.
Today, our guest is Brent. Him and I have known each other—Brent, I want to say it’s been at least three years.
It’s about that.
Him and I actually had the pleasure of meeting him in person finally at a SIG conference. I think it was last year, so we are now in-person friends as well.
Yeah, you know it was during Covid. It was actually my first conference back during Covid. So, I don’t know, last year, two years ago. It’s been a while.
I think it was my first conference back as well, which I feel always were a little socially awkward when we haven’t been around humans for two years. So, I can relate.
For those of you that are joining us live, drop a note in the comments and tell us where in the world you are joining us from. Also, share with us something fun that you did over the summer. So, if you did a fun activity or went on vacation somewhere cool or interesting, drop that in the chat as well.
We have Eric. Hello, Eric! I spent time with him at the ISM conference in Dallas in May. Thanks for tuning in, Eric.
So, Brent, format of the show—I have an hour here. We’re going to dive into your career and journey and talk through how you got to where you are today. You have some stories and wisdom to share with the audience as well, things that you’ve learned along the way that you maybe want to share with the group. And I always have all the guests share some fun or interesting facts about themselves. Yours I have to say are some of the most interesting. So, I want to start with one of the facts that you shared. You said that your first job was in supply chain as a kid. So, let’s start there and tell us how you got your start in supply chain at such a young age.
Yeah, so I got my real first job when I was 13 years old, which seems really young when I think about it now. It comes down to—I’d already gotten the traveling bug, and I needed to figure out how to pay for it. So, I got a job at the local grocery store, and I call it a supply chain job because I was the guy—you know, during the winter, I worked part-time because I was obviously still at school full-time. I tended to work in the produce area, bringing produce out to the floor, putting it out, stacking it. And then I would, over the summers, I actually did that job five or six years. And over the summers, I’d work there full-time, unloading trucks, filling up the small local warehouse, going with the guy that owned the grocery store down to Toronto. Small grocery stores buy all of their groceries at a central facility, all their produce at a central facility. So, I would go down with him at like six o’clock in the morning; he’d be buying stuff, I’d be loading the truck. So, yeah, I started in supply chain at 13. So, probably don’t quite have the record, but I’m definitely working on getting there. You definitely have me beat.
Wow, we’ve got people calling in from all over. We have Matthew from Dayton, New Jersey. We even have someone joining us from Kenya today. She might have us all beat. Kathy is joining us from the road today as well. Also, have people tuning in from Chicago. Eric followed instructions; his company celebrated their 120th anniversary over the weekend—Harley-Davidson. So, big shout-out to him and the team there.
So, Brent, you mentioned Canada, and I was going to ask where the accent was from. So, born and raised in Canada, I assume?
Is it fair to say born and raised in Canada, worked the first, I guess, two-thirds of my career there? I’ve been in the US now just about 11 years, I guess, just looking at the calendar. I spent 5 and a half years down close to where you are now in Houston. I’m currently in Los Angeles, and I’ve been here about 5 and a half years as well. So actually kind of fun of you and me, you’re Texas in California; I’m Texas and California.
So, Brent, you decided to pick a college that I had not heard of, so I had to do a little bit of research. You attended King’s College and majored in history and minored in political science, which kind of don’t have a lot to do with supply chain. So why did you choose to go to school there, and why that major and minor?
It’s called the choice of not making a choice. Look, I grew up—I was the first guy, the first person in my family to graduate from school, blue-collar family. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had some not-so-great teachers through high school, and so I was actually a really—and kind of continue to be, probably, a pretty smart math person, a natural in math. And I had a calculus teacher in grade 12 that convinced me that just the way he taught, that I was never going to take another math class again in my life. And so, in going to school and going to college, the decision was I’m never going to take another math class ever again in my life, which meant I couldn’t take any science class. And I’ve always kind of liked history and going on about what kind of goes on in the past. And so I ended up majoring in history more by default. Not actually the greatest writer, and languages are not my thing either, so it was kind of by elimination. Ended up at King’s. Again, I knew I wanted to go away for school. I kind of wanted to have that freedom, and King’s was a small school in Halifax, so it was—I know, 1,500-2,000 miles away, good distance away. It meant I was only ever going back and forth by plane, and they had a specialized program in true liberal arts. Your first year of school, you start with reading the Epic of Gilgamesh, you read Plato, you read Aristotle, you read the Bible, you read really the foundational texts of Western thought. So, a true kind of liberal arts education. To me, it was interesting, so I went to school not with, “What’s my job going to be?” but “I need to get a degree, and I’ll figure it out as I go,” which has kind of been the history of my career.
Most important thing you learned in college? If I think back and reflect on it, the degree actually served me really well as eventually what I became, which was a supply chain person. And even today, as I continue, I actually like hiring people with Arts backgrounds.
There’s no such thing as the truth. So I can remember walking into fourth-year history class, and the Prof—you know, the first words out of the professor’s mouth were, “You know, true or false, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovered America in 1492.” And of course, it’s all—it’s the truth, right? Like that’s the history, the foundation of us. And he was—there’s not a single true statement in that entire thing. Never a guy by the name of Christopher Columbus; that’s an anglicization of an Italian name. The year 1492 didn’t exist in Spain at the time; they hadn’t gone to the Christian calendar. Of course, no such thing as the concept of an ocean; they were Seas, they’re not blue, they’re green or gray. Didn’t discover America; there’s a whole political thing about that, but guess what? America didn’t sail for 100 years later. So just, and it’s a great reflection on things in supply chain: there’s no right answer, there’s no wrong answer, it’s Shades of Gray, and understanding by looking at things from different perspectives, you see different things. And I think in reflection, that’s probably what I learned the most through school: there’s no right answer, there’s just different ways of looking at things around us.
Yeah, two plus two equals four. So, you were a history major. A lot of people that I know that major in history go into education. What did you think that you were going to do after college? I didn’t have a plan. In fact, I can remember kind of a bit of an interesting story. I, through college, I worked my summers. I actually did a lot of work as an electrician. And I can remember we were doing this work in this office building. It was late at night, and I was wandering the floor because, of course, it’s empty. We were doing maintenance work at night, and going, there’s like hundreds of desks around here. How do all these people get this sort of job? I just conceptually couldn’t understand it. I knew I wanted a white-collar type job, but I really didn’t know what the future had. So, I—you know, I did definitely apply to law school. It’s a little harder to get into in Canada than in the US, so I wasn’t successful. I thought about teachers’ college, but it wasn’t going to be me. I thought about being a professor. I was coached by a professor at the time that, judging by my characteristics, it probably wasn’t going to be a great career with kind of where politics were at that point in time. And so I got lucky in my last year of school. I walked into the career center, well, early in the last year of school. I was like, you know what? I really like what the professor had told me. I didn’t want to write. I was in the middle of writing a 40-page paper. I didn’t want to spend my entire life writing 40 or 100-page papers. And this wasn’t going to be my career path. And so I walked into a career center and ultimately kind of, I’ll call it, found my first job through a somewhat circuitous route through the career center, and that’s supply chain. So, we’ll dive into that for sure.
But I also want to mention that you got a certificate in marketing as well, which I love to hear being a marketer myself. So, tell me about why you got a certificate in marketing.
So, you know, people talk about supply chain, they talk about sourcing, they talk about, you know, direct and indirect. So, my first job, I worked for Sears in Canada. Absolutely, it was a procurement supply chain job, but it’s the third pillar of sourcing, it’s retail sourcing. I was sourcing goods. Well, my first job, I was—I was my job was merchandise flow analyst. So, my first job was, you know, writing purchase orders, managing purchase orders, keeping stores in stock. But I was working in merchandising, in that third pillar of sourcing and procurement. And in that world, absolutely, you’re doing kind of what you think about traditional procurement work—choosing product, moving product, worrying about product, negotiating with suppliers. But the P&L also belongs there. So, you’re also thinking about how product sells, why product sells, how to position product. Frankly, that was the part of my job I actually really loved.
And so, since my degree was in history and I, by then, recognized that people put value on business degrees or science degrees and less value on an arts degree, I agreed I should get some formal education around this business world that I’m going to operate in. So, a bit of a love, a bit of what I was already doing, a bit of, I guess, fiscal reality. I would argue that everyone can benefit from marketing and sales skills, whether it’s your personal and or professional life. So, a huge, huge proponent of people getting some experience, whether it’s formal or not, but getting exposure into that world. Look, the day—understand your customer, that’s what marketing is all about, and it doesn’t matter if it’s your internal customer or your external customer. I’m a much better sourcing person, and I hate to say this, I’m not a check-your-box sourcing person like sourcing people tend to get the reputation, but it’s because ultimately I understand the customer, I think about the customer, and I try to understand and position things about the customer because it’s what drives the revenue, it’s why companies are in business.
So, the other thing that stands out about your education is that you decided to go back to school and get an MBA. So, this is a topic I like to ask guests if they do have extended education, and it’s a highly debated topic: does the time and money pay off? Is it worth it to go back? So, would love to hear maybe your why—why did you do it—and your feedback for people that may be listening that are contemplating going back to school.
Best decision I ever made in my life, hands down. And so, why I did it—I made management really fast. I had a team reporting to me, I don’t know, by the time I was 27 or 28, I was running a $100 million P&L at that point in time. Well, probably by 30, I was running a $100 million P&L. And so, for me, it was kind of what’s next in my career. And so I went back to school when I was maybe 38 and did an exec MBA program, which is a whole other kind of conversation or debate. And within a year of graduating, I finally made it up to director level from a management level. So, I spent, I don’t know, 12 or 13 years—I’m going to call it somewhat wandering aimlessly, trying to figure out how to grow, how to develop, how to get to that next level.
So, it was part of that frustration around my career path is why I went back to school. I didn’t learn about accounting or marketing or statistics in the MBA program I did, but that’s not what came from the value. I learned about myself, I learned about how I interact with people, I learned about how organizations are built, how decisions get made, how to influence the organization. And so, for me, those are the tools that are priceless, and those are the tools of why I am where I am today. And I’ll say, there’s probably not a day that goes by that I don’t use a tool that I learned initially in school.
What I will say is if I had done the MBA when I was 22 or 23 and just graduated undergraduate, wouldn’t have had nearly the value. I can remember sitting in a course around how corporate culture and the culture of your organization is linked to the organization design and how you have to mix those two together; otherwise, you end up with a real kind of culture clash in the organization. And I can remember sitting there going, I would never have understood this at 25. At 37 or 38, I’d worked in enough organizations, seen enough environments; I’m like I can actually see this and understand this, and now I can get the AC MC theory that goes along with it, bring them two together, and figure out how to use it. So, I’m a huge proponent. I’m actually a huge proponent of going back after you’ve got a good 10 plus years of experience, and you really can put it in context.
One thing I will say: if you’re going to go back for an MBA, spend more on it than you think you can afford. My tuition was the same as what I made in a year, so a lot of—I spent a lot of money on it. I’ve hired a lot of folks or interviewed a lot of folks in the last 10 years that kind of had MBAs. You can tell the difference as you’re interviewing them, kind of in what schools they came from. And so, I know not everyone can kind of afford Harvard, and by the way, I didn’t go to Harvard, couldn’t have afforded Harvard. But you can tell the difference, and it’s value, and it’s not just the friends you make. It’s the context, it’s what you learn, it’s what you recover and can speak to and use in your career afterwards, and it’s not just about three letters after your name. It really is how do you use the tools you got.
For people who are running the numbers in their head, thinking this is a very expensive investment, have you, and you mentioned all the intangible things, right, that you learned from it, have you been able to actually see an ROI from a salary or promotion perspective that you can directly tie back to your MBA?
Hell yeah. I made the money back within two years through promotions, and none of those promotions were because I had the new title or the new three letters after my name. It was how I used those tools differently, how I thought about the business environment, how I thought about influencing, how I could speak the language of Finance, how I could talk to the accountants. All of those things made me qualified for more senior levels. Might have gotten to director without it; maybe would I have gotten to vice president without it? No way, not at that point in time in my career. Not saying you can’t make it to VP without it, but where I was in my career, it wasn’t going to happen without it.
So, there’s also certificates. There’s a few organizations that you study really hard, and you take a test, and then you get some letters after your name, and you do your credits every year. What are your thoughts on certificate programs versus something like an MBA?
So, you know, it’s interesting. I did the math at the time. So again, I was in Canada still at that point in time. In Canada, there’s a certificate program that is globally recognized, and maybe it’s a little bit more expensive in Canada. But the main supply chain certificate I was looking at at the time cost about 25% of what an MBA was going to cost, plus, to your point, you were going to have to maintain it and certify it every year. And I looked at it, and I was like, one is much more widely recognized and usable within supply chain and outside of supply chain. The other one is only usable in supply chain. So, it was a risk. Again, I don’t think I would have gotten the personal skills, the influencing skills out of that certificate course, and at that point in time in my career, it was much more valuable. If I was 25 and knew I wanted to be in supply chain at 25, and I wasn’t convinced, remember I took a marketing certificate, I might have considered it. But it probably was way too expensive for me at 25 to actually have gotten the certification. Good debate for a full show sometime.
I’d love to moderate a discussion with a few people who do and don’t have extended degrees because it’s a question I get asked a lot. People are looking for advice; they’re in their 20s, often late 20s, and they want to start a family, they want to buy a house. Should I make this significant financial investment? Will it pay off? Is what I get asked.
Yeah, no, absolutely. It was a major decision. You know, my wife and I kind of sat down, and we talked it through. Did we want to take that risk? It paid off for me. Others, you know, it might have been different. And you know what? I questioned it the entire time I was going through school, so it’s not like it was, “I’m committed, I’m there.” I questioned the exact verses going full-time or part-time as well, the entire time that I was in school. But that’s another 10-minute conversation. No, Brent’s questioning something, you know me, Sarah, I kind of look at everything a little differently than other people do.
So, let’s dive into your career a little bit now. So, your career counselor helped you randomly, I’ll say, find a job in supply chain. You worked at Sears; you started as a buyer, and then you progressed. I think when you left, you were an analyst, if I recall correctly.
No, so I started as a buyer. So, the title was—I started with the title—I, well, I started as a management trainee, and their program was a very short management training program. So, I think I started in May, and in September, they made me what I would call a buyer in non-retail language. And at Sears, they called it a merchandise flow analyst, so that was the analyst role. And literally, that’s what I was responsible for: planning, ordering, managing POS, managing the supply base. Did that for about three years, moved over to a marketing role, and then moved over first to what in retail they call an assistant buyer, and then finally into a buyer. But in retail, the better equivalent to a buyer in most supply chain languages is a category manager. You own the P&L, you make the decisions, you decide on your supplier, so you’re forbidden from actually writing purchase orders as a buyer, which is an interesting concept, or at least at any of the retailers I was at. You’re forbidden from actually writing purchase orders as a buyer. So yeah, I did that. So, I was there for nine years, probably five of them, which is a long time to stay at a company. So why did you stay so long?
So, Sears was, at the time, was still one of those old-guard companies. It was big, it was solid, it was the largest retailer in Canada. It was the fastest-growing retailer in Canada by revenue. I mean, funny enough, they had good systems; the pay was pretty good. They had a good benefit pension. Everyone around me, I was young by their standards. Most of the folks that were my peers were 20 years older than me and had worked there that entire time. They were what I call lifers. Life, yeah, exactly right.
So, I stayed because I thought I could make a career out of it there. As I said, I progressed very rapidly, very well through the organization, and then, you know, finally hit the wall where this isn’t the right organization for me anymore. And so, yeah, made the decision to leave.
So, next up, you were at Sears, and I would say again, nine years is a long time, and you moved up relatively quickly in a large organization. What did you do next?
So, I stayed in retail. Well, and I went looking for work and had a couple choices. I was actually looking at some marketing roles, but ended up staying in retail, went to a company called Hudson Bay Company, another large retailer at the time in the US. They owned Lord & Taylor; they’re still around today. They own Saks now in the US. In Canada, they owned The Bay, a competitor to Walmart called Zellers, and the housewares chain as well. Old company, actually, at the time, the longest publicly traded company in the world. They were founded back in the 1600s, so just a really interesting heritage.
And you said based in Canada as well?
Based in Canada as well, and a horrible company to work for. Probably shouldn’t say that out loud, but it was actually one of those companies even then, you went in and you negotiated your severance package as part of your hiring, and you knew you were going to leave. I was there two and a half years; the category management team I was in had an 85% turnover in the two and a half years I was there. So, you were a long-tenured employee at two and a half years.
Scar enough, yeah, yeah, it was an interesting work environment, but yeah, eventually, you knew you were gonna either quit or get let go, one or the other was going to happen, and it was going to happen sooner rather than later. But look, I needed to change, and it was a good break. I’d been at Sears for nine years; I knew the Sears world. It was time to start understanding the other world. And it’s always easier for anyone to change jobs in the same industry. And I say that as someone who’s done a pretty good job of switching industries over the years, but yeah, it’s a lot easier to find a new job in the same industry.
So, you worked; you learned what not to do in this, what I call a not-to-do role. What, when you were there, in this tough environment, probably you had some not so good bosses, some not-so-good leadership, what would you say was your biggest takeaway from that experience that you were able to implement, and maybe it’s something that you still think about today?
Yeah, look, I’ve had lots of good bosses through my career. I’ve probably had more bad bosses throughout my career.
To me, as a leader, it’s set a direction and let your team deliver. Back to what I said at the beginning, there’s no right or wrong answer in supply chain, and I believe that strongly. For me, though, the question you need to get to is, did you ask enough questions to get to the decision? So the opposite to that, the bad boss, is the person that delegates the decision-making and then wants to make the decision-making after they’ve delegated the decision-making, that’s probably the ultimate, or second-guessing it or whatever. So kind of the positive is delegate, ask questions, but ultimately trust. The bad is, I guess, delegate but don’t trust. It’s good advice for those that are listening that are maybe new to leadership or advancing into much more senior roles that leverage your team, they are smart, you hired them and/or inherited a smart group of people, and I think it’s something that people miss the mark on a lot. Look, you’re not individually scalable. It doesn’t matter if you’re the smartest person in the room. As a leader, your job is to make your team the smartest people in the room and enable their success.
As I’ve progressed through roles and I’ve kind of come to learn it and describe it, you start as an analyst. Analysts do they follow a process. It’s what’s the next step? Managers are about helping the process along, changing the process, designing a new process, but you’re still focused on your scope of work. Directors are about enabling their team’s success by changing the organization around them. It’s not about supervising the people. It’s not about designing a new process. It’s about creating an environment for success for those individuals.
VP level gets to be a slightly different conversation, and frankly, in supply chain, I think the reality is a lot of career paths at a lot of companies end at director level. So I don’t know, just leave that kind of way of thinking of progression and having to lean on your team as what I just described.
So, you had a rough two and a half years, you stuck it out, you decided to leave and move into a new industry, which I think is fun and exciting to learn something completely new. Before we dive into that, we have some questions coming in from the audience that I want to make sure we address in case some of these listeners have to sign off at any point. This person says, “Brent, once you got your MBA and got a little bit of experience in the field, have you ever thought to start your own company versus advancing your career working for others? Was this vision ever on the table?”
Absolutely. So I tried buying a company. I tried partnering with private equity and taking a leadership role, doing a roll-up, so buying a bunch of smaller companies and combining them into a larger company, basically flip it. And the third thing I tried putting together a startup and financing a startup. I also, both in Toronto and when I lived in Houston, did mentoring work at a technology incubator, different technology incubators, but working with entrepreneurs and helping them understand their vision and position their vision for the future. And then, I guess, prior to this job, I spent a little bit of time actually at a startup, working for a startup.
Startups are really, really risky. The probability of success is really, really low, and there’s a stat I learned somewhere along the way that there’s really only two times in your life that you become an entrepreneur: either when you’re in your early 20s, you’ve just gotten out of school, and you have absolutely nothing to lose, or in your early 40s, you have strong networks, you have people you can lean on, you have knowledge that you can utilize, and you still have 20 years in your career to realize the curve on that business and get a return. The best example I have there was a guy I was mentoring in Houston. He had a patent on a high-temperature superconductive ball bearing. He had interest from NASA; it had applications in windmills and in high-speed rail. He was an assistant or associate professor at a university, so good income. And when you looked at it, what he had might have been a billion-dollar idea, but you weren’t going to realize that billion dollars for 20 years. He was going to have to raise tens of millions of dollars to recognize that outcome, and he was probably going to have to drop from that really nice salary that he was making to a really not-so-nice salary that your investors are effectively paying you, and they’re, of course, holding on to every cent because they also view that they’ve got a 20-year time horizon and can also cut you out of your own business at any time depending on how your ownership state works. Absolutely, yeah. So as I said, I’ve looked at it and played with it. I’ve not managed to successfully make a go at it in any one of those four scenarios that I’ve played out: invest, entrepreneur. Highly successful entrepreneurs are incredibly rare. I know we look at the Elon Musks and Bezos of the world, but there’s only four or five of those out of the five billion people that live on this planet or six billion or seven billion. And out of the tens of thousands of entrepreneurs every year, it’s, to me, I’m probably more risk-averse. But you, so yeah, it’s a viable path, but it’s a very risky path, and you’ve got to have a lot of faith, and hopefully, you’re not alone, and you can lean on someone through that process too. I’ll also throw in the mix, Brent, that I know people at your age and experience, at some point, usually consider consulting, which technically is still entrepreneurship because you’re going out and starting your own company. I have many, many friends in the industry or consultants, also a very, very difficult route to be able to do the sales and marketing while you are also producing work, and I think it’s underestimated how hard it is to actually get business and maintain business ongoing at the same time. So maybe I’m a multitasker, so I left the company I was at; I was in Houston at the time. I’d been there also nine years; they gave me a package. They kept me on retainer as a consultant to them for a year after I left them. I was playing with this entrepreneurial game in parallel and also trying to build a consulting business as well, found a mentor in my space in Houston that had his own consulting business. I knocked on a lot of doors; I took a lot of meetings; I did actually get some work. But I think the kicker for me, and to your point, it’s the learning. So I had two companies that I was pretty sure were going to become clients; I had spent six or eight weeks on each one of them and probably 30, 40, 50 hours of selling, building proposals, going out for coffees, going out for lunches, doing preliminary work, and I was for sure going to get both of them. In fact, my worry was that two of them were falling at the same time; they were both going to be $90,000 gigs, which was going to be good money. And I was struggling with how am I going to do both of these at the same time as each other? One of them turns into nothing, and the other thing turned into a $5,000 piece of work. And so I sat there after that, and I was like, “How can I earn a living investing that much into really solid potentials?” And understand I was selling at the top level; I was working with the Chief Revenue Officer of a major utility, and I was working with the general manager of a high-tech company. So selling at the right level of the company. And it’s still neither of them turned into anything. And I think that was the kicker, that was, “Brent, you can keep knocking on this door for another year or two, or you can go get yourself a regular paycheck.” And I kept, as I looked for a regular paycheck, I kept working on the consulting thing and doing consulting. But it’s really hard if you’ve got a… if you’ve been in one industry for a long time, you have a really strong broad network that you can turn to and lean on, it’s viable. Where I was at, I hadn’t had a full-time job in a year and a half. I looked at it, and I was like, “This might work, but it’s not going to work for another year or two. A year or two from now, though, my road back to a full-time job was going to be that much harder.” And so yeah, I made the decision after a year and a half of trying to make it work to cut bait and go back to a full-time job. So yeah, I’ve tried it all. And by the way, the best year and a half of my life. I loved it. Trying to build a business, buying companies, mentoring, it was… I had a ton of fun, learned so much, and well worth doing, but it wasn’t a cash flow positive year and a half. My… and that’s again, remember, with a package and a retainer.
So I feel like this is a good segue into—you did a stint in energy. You got some experience at Herbal Life on the direct side. Then you went to a startup, Y. And I think, if you were a show of one or there was kind of no supply chain function in place, you were trying to build that out. I think it would be interesting for this audience to talk a little bit about that experience. We may have people on the call that have thought about or are thinking about going to a smaller company or going the startup route, and I think it would be useful for you to share your experience.
Yeah, so absolutely fun opportunity. So I joined a startup. When I joined it, they had, I think I joined, I was like employee 70 or 71, and it was a bit of a weird space. It was in the e-commerce space. They had revenue of about $30 million, and their business model was about buying companies, pulling them together, so buying companies that already had revenue, pulling them together, and basically scaling the operation. Driving cost down through efficiency gains, driving revenue up by selling the same product more broadly across more e-commerce platforms and in more countries. I was hired to build and scale the procurement-sourcing function, so I was the first hire in that space, and the vision was within 18 months, we were going to be a $200 million company, which sounds crazy, but it actually was a realistic growth path, and we went from 30 million to, I think, 105 million within four or five months of me joining the company. We went from 70 people to about 120 people, and that was in what, 2021, which is when all the funding kind of dried up for startups. So our funding dried up, and it became clear we weren’t going to have the funding to grow to 200 million, and like all startups, that’s when everyone starts leaving the organization. It’s a really interesting space because you’re starting from nothing, and it’s a bit of a culture clash because you’ve been hired to bring in scale and procurement people, sourcing people. You’re asking questions around the long term. You’re asking questions about the future. You’re asking questions about how do you build systems and process, and you’re in an entrepreneurial environment where they’re making decisions today that they’re going to change tomorrow and probably change again a month from now. Yeah, it’s like, “What’s a process?” Right? You’re living it right now, Sarah. You guys have been around a little bit longer than that.
So, yeah, that’s the story of a startup running out of money, as is everyone going out the door rather quickly. Learned a lot. I will say startups are my jam. I’ve always worked at startups. I love the fast-paced environment and the uncertainty, and I feel like you can learn a lot.
Yeah, absolutely right. It forces you to think differently, and remember back to just kind of one of my very early comments about different perspectives on the same problem. Everything in the world is great, and moving quickly is very important, and thinking thoroughly is very important, and then where do you kind of find that balancing act for the scenario you’re in? You’re never going to run—shouldn’t say never, but you’re probably never going to run an RFP when you work at a startup. In fact, so we were shipping thousands of containers, and I, one of the things I did, I spent three months begging shipping companies to even give me a price, which kind of gets your head wrapped around. But they didn’t even want to give me a price, let alone sign a contract with me to buy containers. It was actually a sales guy calling the sales guy saying, “Hey, I need a price, please tell me.” I feel like that’s calmed down a bit, thank goodness. That part of the world has calmed down.
But so you found yourself back in the job market, back in the job market, pondering, am I gonna do some consulting or am I going to take more of a corporate gig? And the company that you’re at now is where you landed, so talk a little bit about what you’re doing at your company. And you got a promotion, which is a big deal. So shout out to you for getting that VP title and taking on a lot of extra responsibility. Maybe talk through how you were able to get promoted so quickly because I feel like that’s a struggle for a lot of people, right? They come into an organization, and five years later, they’re at the same level and the same title, and it’s like, how do you make that leap?
Yeah, so, yeah, starting point. So, you know, I was hired, so I guess over the last 10 years or so, what I’ve really become is a sourcing and procurement build and transformation guy. I’m industry agnostic. I’ve jumped, you know, you said it a little bit. I’ve jumped from retail to energy to food manufacturing to an e-commerce startup, and I’m now at a company that sells data, so I’ve jumped industries a lot, but what I’ve really become is a procurement build and transform guy, and that’s what I was hired to do. The company I’m working for now is H, it’s an old, young company. It was spun off of a large company six or seven years ago. They’ve acquired a number of different companies since then, and so I was hired with three mandates: one, integrate procurement or integrate sourcing globally; two, implement an STP technology platform; and three, figure out CSR or ESG plan. So I lead a global team now. I’ve got folks in India, Israel, Serbia, the UK, the Jersey Islands, and the US that came from really four or five different organizations. So I spent a lot of time kind of building a vision for what the team was going to look like, restructured their roles, brought them together, started to build kind of universal interface, how the business is going to deal with us, how they’re going to deal with each other, set up a kind of a vision for the team and the future and how we’re going to grow. Technology platform, same thing, made a technology platform decision relatively quickly, built alignment, hired the SI, and I’m probably halfway through the implementation of that. Very radical shift, and it’s not just about procurement. It’s also, ultimately, we need to merge our ERPs, and you’ve got to think about how procurement platforms de-risk ERP integrations because that’s actually a lot of how we sold this and plotted it out.
So that’s kind of the road and role I’m at. The answer is you’re never—shouldn’t say never—it is really hard to get promoted if you’re really good at your current job. You really need to be performing the job you want, which is easier said than done because you probably have a boss that really doesn’t want you performing his or her job. But you really got to be demonstrating to your boss’s peers that you’re capable to perform at that level and an expectation that you are performing at that level and you’re thinking and influencing and behaving that way.
So that’s the number one thing to get to be getting promoted is to understand what the next role does and show everyone that you know how to do it, and not like in an arrogant way but literally just be performing that function, thinking that way, acting that way, and bringing up the whole organization around you that way. That’s step one. That’s what you can do to make it happen. Step two is you got to be a little lucky. The right—you got to be reporting to the right person with the right changes about to happen. Generally, in my career, I’ve been unlucky. I’ve had people say, “Hey Brent, we want to promote you, but we’ve told your boss he’s absolutely promotable, but he’s not going to keep reporting to you if we promote him,” and therefore the boss doesn’t want that to happen.
So always understanding who your boss is, and then, yeah, it’s a little bit about luck and circumstance. I don’t kind of want to fully get into what happened at Clarate, but look, I joined the organization, I report to the CIO, which is a bit of an unusual place to report as a procurement guy. I sit on his leadership team. Most of my peers, when I joined, were director-level—sorry, were Vice President-level people. I sat at the table. I belonged at the table, and not just outside of his team. As I worked with finance, as I worked with internal audit, as I worked with the business, I acted and performed that way, and I didn’t think about what my title was. It’s what my title is isn’t important. It’s what’s the role that needs to be done, how do I need to perform that way? My boss recognized it. He was supportive of it. As I said, there’s always some things going on in the organization, and stars lined up for me. So you’ve got to be ready, and then you’ve got to get lucky.
We’re going to move into my random Spitfire round where I’m gonna ask you a question, and you’re gonna say the first word or phrase that comes to mind, okay?
Accomplishment you are most proud of: Big ERP change
Change the world: Save 50% of our cost structure
Quality you admire most in yourself: My ability to change
What are you binging: Star Wars movies
Dream: Living every day
Boss that’s a micromanager
Favorite thing to do in your downtime: Spending time with my eight-year-old daughter, hiking, coaching her soccer team
Join us next month in October for our monthly interview. If you are not connected with Brent, I encourage you to shoot him a note on LinkedIn, connect, follow him, and have a great afternoon.