Life Of The Party

Stun people when you talk shop.

It’s been years since I’ve seen most of these people. What will I talk about?

Do you ask yourself this question when facing a landmark social event? I just survived my 25th class reunion at good old Case Western Reserve University. This is a school famous for graduating top doctors, nurses, lawyers, scholars — every prestigious profession you can name. So when I got the invitation a few months back, I tried to imagine how these people would respond when I told them "I write about material handling."

I imagined crickets chirping.

Well, I didn’t hear crickets that night. I did perceive a slight glaze in the eyes of those to whom I said "material handling." But that quickly melted away when they realized how much our livelihoods had in common. In fact, material handling logistics carried me through an evening of some of the liveliest conversations I’ve had in years.

A nurse and I talked about the supply chain challenges of getting the new temperature-sensitive biopharmaceuticals delivered to hospitals on time and at full strength to save dying patients.

A commercial real estate exec and I talked about the hottest markets for distribution centers, as well as those that are losing business.

A law enforcement official and I talked about security and the great potential for technologies like radio frequency identification to reduce theft in stores and in distribution.

A stock broker and I talked about how supply chain management affects a company’s bottom line.

There was even a consultant in the crowd (how did he get in?) whose firm (Accenture) studied the effects of supply chain performance on stock price. Guess what. Companies identified as "supply chain leaders" have a market capitalization compound average growth rate (CAGR) of up to 26 percentage points above the industry average. Companies with declining supply chain performance saw their relative market cap CAGR fall an average of 25 percentage points.

Lest you think the evening had hit its peak of scintillating repartee at that point, let’s not leave out the classmate who found a lucrative behind-the-scenes career in Hollywood. What on earth could he and I have in common?

Ever hear about product placement? Ever go to the movies and notice how many scenes take place in warehouses or manufacturing settings? Ever notice the make of lift trucks the heroes and villains dodge as they shoot at each other? Ever wonder how much money is involved in distributing films to theaters around the country? Do you know how much of that cost will be eliminated by the use of digital technology?

That’s what we would have talked about if I could have gotten to him. Seems Mr. Hollywood was busy shmoozing with the crowd of star chasers that was gathering around him all night. Well, he was our class president. And as such, at the end of the evening he asked that each of us get up and share what we got out of our college degree. Guess who he asked to go first.

I stood up, cleared my throat and shuffled my feet. (I was an English major who minored in speech.) Then, as I looked at all the people I talked to that night, the lively conversations we had replayed themselves in my head.

"I’d like to thank the University for the broad, liberal arts grounding that has enabled me to communicate with people of diverse backgrounds and apply what I learn from them in my chosen occupation."

I learned my lesson that night. Everybody’s touched by material handling management in one way or another. In fact you, as a practitioner of the art, have a lot to say for yourself. I challenge you to share your knowledge with the world — one party at a time. Don’t worry, the glaze in people’s eyes will clear quickly.

Tom Andel, chief editor [email protected]

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