J.B. Hunt Makes Supply Chain Savvy a Focus

by Chris Bahn  on Monday, Aug. 19, 2013 12:00 am  

Perhaps you noticed J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell cracked the Fortune 500 for the first time ever earlier this year. Certainly not as headline grabbing, but still worth noting, is a recent top 10 ranking by Inbound Logistics magazine as a third-party logistics provider.

Pick a measure of success for a company — billions in revenue, return for stockholders, national reputation, respect of peers, critical acclaim, etc. — J.B. Hunt can likely claim it.

Still, that doesn’t mean company leaders think J.B. Hunt has it all figured out. In fact, the company sees plenty of opportunities to learn more and further grow its business, particularly in the supply chain realm.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of supply chain, here’s the simplest possible way to break it down: moving a product from the supplier to the customer and all points in between. Essentially, it’s the four-step process of moving product from where it’s manufactured to a distribution point, to the store/purchase point and then on to the customer.

Amazon, for example, might use J.B. Hunt to provide bulk transit of refrigerators from a manufacturer to a distribution center, and then on to your house for installation. This is a real example, by the way. Go to Amazon.com and search for J.B. Hunt where you can opt to have them deliver and install appliances.

Learning how to best serve customers who are looking for supply chain help is what led the transportation giant to gather 300 employees from across the country at the University of Arkansas for a three-day forum. Top executives at J.B. Hunt led sessions along with faculty from the UA. Razorback Athletic Director Jeff Long provided a session on leadership and, most important to the mission of the forum, major customers were brought in to explain how their needs could be better met in the future.

J.B. Hunt chief marketing officer Shelley Simpson said similar forums are in the works. This most recent gathering was essentially a pilot program. Continuing education is viewed as critical to the company as it seeks to eclipse last year’s $5 billion in revenue.

“Our objective was not to come out [of the forum] thinking we were experts. You can’t be experts in one sitting,” Simpson said. “Every single person, including me, we all have so much to learn, and our objective was really to just, everybody at their own individual pace, learn more and then move forward. … Let’s move forward to understand things from our customers’ perspective so that we will be able to better serve our customers in the end.”

Gathering at the UA made sense for a number of reasons.

Certainly, it helps that the university is just about 20 miles away from corporate headquarters. Proximity was a minor factor, however.

It helps that the UA supply chain program is regarded as one of the country’s best. Meeting with leading researchers in the field provided an opportunity to discuss how to transfer those findings into real world practices. Matt Waller, chair of the supply chain management department at the Walton College, led a session on the “Next Big Things.”

Plus, J.B. Hunt and the UA have a history of success together. There’s no total on how many of the firm’s employees are UA graduates, but it’s a lot. J.B. Hunt has a history of key leaders being Walton College graduates, folks like Simpson, Chairman of the Board and former CEO Kirk Thompson and current CEO John Roberts are prime examples.

Group sessions centered on big-picture ideas were the primary focus of the first day of forum presentations. That’s when sales managers heard from Roberts, Simpson and Long, among others. The focus then shifted to breakout sessions with 15-20 employees in a room working on the nuts and bolts of how to carry out the result of those earlier group sessions.

Shifting the company mindset from selling products to better serving customers with those products was a key takeaway.

“We really need to [continue learning] and have one common platform to talk about supply chain,” Simpson said. “So how do we think about what is supply chain? We think about it from our perspective, but how do customers think about it? … It’s just an evolution in our sales training. We’re really focused a lot on their sales skills and sales knowledge and product knowledge.

“Our customers are demanding more from us. That’s the best part,” Simpson added. “Our customers can ask us for more and we want to be able to solve their problems.”



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