Executive Spotlight: David Cox, President at ARCOP, Inc.

Professional Development

SCS: You are a senior foodservice supply chain executive with more than 25 years in leadership roles for some big brands. Tell us about your journey to ARCOP.

DC: When I came out of college I was in finance, back in the mid-1980s when there weren't supply chain degrees. It seemed like a lot of folks that got tired of finance and accounting moved to what was then called Purchasing. I landed at the KFC Co-op, initially within finance with an understanding of moving into other facets of the business, and ended up becoming a commodity buyer taking futures positions, which tapped into my financial skillset. That's what propelled me into supply chain.

Then I went through a series of moves over to Burger King, the RTM Restaurant Group, Bruegger's - I was head of supply chain at Bruegger's back when bagels had really taken off - then eventually I landed at Darden. Initially as a Director and then I moved into a VP role for Commodities and then a VP role over all of supply chain outside of Seafood. Darden was great. It absolutely gave me the skill set to roll into the job I currently have. I've been at ARCOP now for 16 years as president, so it's been a journey.  My experiences through all those various chains gave me the experiences to grow ARCOP into what we are today.

When I arrived on the scene back in 2005, ARCOP was a team of 13. It was essentially a nuts and bolts purchasing organization. Marketing strategies were changing at the brand -  we were doing a lot more LTO's, and the ARCOP board quickly realized we needed to reinvest in the supply chain. So we grew and we grew a lot. We're up to a team of 32 now over the course of the16 years. It was one of those scenarios where I went to the board and said, I need an increase in the budget and I'll guarantee you that the return on cost savings will be 10 times as much. Do you want to make that investment? So that's a big part of how we were able to grow ARCOP within the organization as well as with investment in technology and other things. It was always reviewed as a return on investment. Things were pretty primitive to start, so the return on investment early on was a fairly easy thing to achieve if you threw some resources against it.

SCS: Can you share any insights on how to grow a career in supply chain?

DC:  From my perspective the first thing is, I never worried about salary or title. I just focused on garnering as much experience as I could along the way. The assumption was the more experience I could get in different categories and different areas of supply chain will make me more valuable down the road.

So many people will ask, “What do I need to do, to get a promotion or get to the next level?” It's really not about that but instead, they should ask, “How can I grab any additional experience, even a lateral move when the opportunity presents itself?” Let's say you're in a department and somebody leaves the organization and you're a manager and she was a manager and it's a whole different category, which can be scary because it's something you haven't done before. But at the same time, it might make total sense for your manager to move you over in a lateral move, which again gives you experience, gives you additional breadth to your resume and your overall experiences. You never know where that next job may come from and the need might be for that particular experience.

I think one of the challenges that people have in their career is making the adjustment from being a manager of a category to more of a leadership role. What makes people successful managing a category, is a very different skill set than it takes to lead and manage a group. People don't really fully understand that. Just like in restaurant operations, sometimes you have a great general manager that just runs the store like no other, and you turn them into a supervisor and they're not very effective.  Whether it's micromanaging skills or figuring out how to motivate and manage people, the skillset of a restaurant supervisor is a completely different skill set than a restaurant manager and it's the same thing in business. You can be managing in a category, doing a great job but when you're thrown into a leadership role, that requires a different skill set. So you really have to take a step back and understand the differences and know how you're going to adjust and learn to be a leader as opposed to a manager.

SCS: What kinds of things do you look for in people to make that leap? Do you have criteria for spotting talent?

DC: It has to be somebody that's good with people and is liked by their peers and the team, and it has to be somebody that's trusted and they also must be able to trust others (their direct reports). That's key.

So if they're managing one person, you can look to see how they're managing that person. Are they giving them latitude? Are they letting them fail if they need to fail and learn from it? At that point, you can't be a micromanager. I got some advice a long time ago when I took a pretty substantial leadership role for the first time, and that was, it's impossible to know everything. You're not going to know every supplier and every contact. You're not going to know every detail about every category. You have to rely on your people. So you have to look for people that you think can manage in that style. They have to understand they can no longer control everything and they have to trust their direct reports and let them loose.

Whether it's managing people or growing into a leadership role, it's definitely on-the-job training. You can read the best books and pay attention to how other people do things but you have to learn on the job and be able to quickly realize what works and doesn't work.

SCS: There seem to be many sharp, supply-chain degreed professionals now coming out of school. What difference do you see in the level of talent these days?

DC:  Well, I think the positive is with their openness, willingness, and understanding of how to adapt technology to solve problems for the supply chain. Technology has really grown and has always been important in our business. Supply chains with great technology are way out ahead of everybody else. Young professionals today look at tech in a completely different way than I did because they grew up with it, they understand it and that's their first thought process. They're thinking, “How can I use technology to solve this problem or how can we use technology to be more efficient?”

SCS: What about soft skills and relationships?

DC:  That's always a concern. Social interaction is limited compared to what it used to be and we are still very much in a relationship business. I can't tell you how many relationships we had to lean on during COVID to get product to the restaurants. Relationships and face-to-face interactions are critically important skillsets. Younger professionals have to be able to lean into that and refine that skill on the job. But it is something that they're not as comfortable with.

SCS:  As we move to another phase of the pandemic, do you see the business going back to more face-to-face contact or will there be a technology hybrid?

DC: I definitely think it's a hybrid. I personally think that things have been forever changed. Company CFO's are now very comfortable with limited travel budgets and it's going to be hard to get those back if you were able to get all your work done without travel in the last two years.

I personally think travel will come back to maybe 60, 70 percent of what it was before the pandemic. I don't think there's going to be nearly as many conferences or as much travel as there used to be.  30 percent is probably gone forever. It used to be if you had a supplier you needed to meet with for a couple of hours well, you're going to jump on a plane, fly across the country, have the meeting, get back on a plane, fly back across the country. So it's a day and a half of time and money for a short meeting. Why do that when, if it's not something that's critically important, you can set up a Zoom call.  Before, that option wasn't really available.

So I think now some of that will still happen and it will diminish some of the face-to-face interactions, but the face-to-face, in my mind, is still critical to the business and to relationships and everything that we do with suppliers and distributors. And it's still going to be key.

SCS: A recent McKinsey report noted that we've been thrown into the future to a certain degree and that buyers now are more comfortable making higher-level purchases remotely. Are you seeing that?

DC:  People are doing things now they wouldn't have been comfortable before COVID.  I can remember years ago when I was at Darden and we were in Europe talking to wine suppliers. Not that it was ever completely transactional here in the States, but in Italy, you would have to go over and have a couple of dinners and spend a good amount of time with suppliers and they would absolutely want to understand what kind of person you are and what your ethics are and all those kinds of things before they would even do business with you.  Different parts of the world are still that way but it's going to move to a certain degree. So now that there's a comfort level with that, you can establish a relationship through video at least in the near term but face-to-face interactions are critically important.

SCS: Any words of wisdom for the mid-career person in terms of skill development in supply chain?

DC: I'm big on mentoring. If you're trying to learn how to manage people better, then find somebody in an organization who you feel manages people well and who people enjoy working for and pick their brain. When you're making that shift you have to rethink your mission of managing a category versus creating a working team. That's a big shift so you have to create a new mission when you get into that role and let your people blossom. Give them room and manage them like you want to be managed, just talk to your people.

You have to identify what individually motivates people because it's not the same for everyone. It can be a wide variety of things that motivate others in their roles. So take them to lunch, get to know them, understand what makes them tick, and then at the end of the day, show them that you care and mentor them if you can.

SCS:  What guides you as a leader?

DC:  I have a list of things that I feel like I’ve been true to throughout my career.  One is,  just live the Golden Rule, every day. Some of these are so simple and basic, but the challenge is people don't consistently apply them. Something I learned early in my career was to seek first to understand before being understood. I feel like I'm a good listener and that's especially important when you're managing people or leading people. Never compromise your integrity. That's an easy one. Always, always take the high road, be approachable, smile, initiate conversations. I'm a little bit of an introvert, and so this one I have to force myself to do because I'm just not naturally that way. Never, ever stop learning. There's a lot of folks that, go to school, maybe get an MBA and they think they're done learning, and the reality is that's when the learning begins. Grab experience first, the money will come later. Be loyal to your organization, to your boss, to your customers, to your suppliers. Have fun along the way, because life is short. If you're not enjoying the work that you're doing, then go find something else because that's not good for you and it's not good for your team. This one I always did, and I see less of it in today's world, but respect experience. Learn from those who have a few decades under their belt because chances are they've seen it all done at all. And maybe it was different 10 years ago and maybe it was a different set of circumstances but at the same time, you can take those experiences and adapt it to the issue at hand. Deliver more than what's expected. Always under-promise and over-deliver. The worst thing you can do is overpromise. And the one thing that took me a long time to realize is that all issues that happen or arise can usually be tied back to communication.  Communication is critical to getting everybody on board with solving challenges. Learn to communicate well, both written and oral and over-communication is the key to making things happen. And then finally change. Change is good. Don't perceive change as being a challenge. You've got to embrace it and drive change. Aim to continually improve with everything that you're doing.

Author: Supply Chain Scene