Executive Spotlight: Les Karel, Executive VP Equipment Solutions, National DCP
SCS: Tell us about your background and how you got to where you are today.
LK: Long before the thought of starting a career in the restaurant industry, I was already in it! While growing up in Florida, I worked various part-time jobs from dishwasher to server. Fast-forwarding to college, a summer job in Orlando with Darden (formerly General Mills Restaurants) helped pave the way to my first full-time position. There were some early lessons learned about the importance of service, responsiveness, and relationships even if I didn’t fully realize it at the time. After receiving a degree in Finance, Darden hired me as a Distribution Specialist / Analyst. Within a year or so, the head of Procurement approached me with an opportunity to move to the Commodities Procurement team including becoming heavily involved with sourcing capital equipment and supplies. Embracing that opportunity and challenge would end up being a major milestone and catalyst for my entire career.
Over time, I found that the strategic sourcing and supply chain function for indirect products and services in the restaurant industry was an untapped opportunity area for growth, differentiation, and providing value. The breadth of items from kitchen equipment, smallwares, furnishings, and building materials to store-level services, maintenance, and energy is expansive. Focusing on CapEx and ROI while supporting areas like Construction, Design, Real Estate, Franchise Management, and Operations was unique.
I’m very grateful to have held team leadership roles with some incredible brands, including Darden, Boston Market, Edward Don, Arby's, ARCOP, Wendy's, and now National DCP. The great cultures, people, and leadership mentors that I’ve leaned into and worked with along the way were a strong influence on who and where I am today. I think that’s an important call-out to make.
Having had responsibility for distribution, logistics, and Canada's supply chain as well, the one constant and primary focus throughout my entire career has included overseeing indirect sourcing.
One of my more challenging but rewarding experiences was helping to create and then lead a new independent sourcing cooperative, combining the volumes of both Wendy's and Arby's for indirect products and services. That co-op's name was Strategic Sourcing Group Co-op. I'm now privileged to lead a really special group of individuals focused on elevating the Equipment Solutions Business Unit for National DCP. National DCP is a global provider of innovative supply chain solutions for the food service industry. They service close to 10,000 Dunkin' restaurants in the US. So, using a service-model design approach, my team engages daily in category management, project management, and purchasing operations activities. Dunkin' has one of the most aggressive new-store and remodel pipelines in the industry. Both exciting and challenging, as you can imagine, given the current supply chain environment.
SCS: We're in a unique situation with the last two years of COVID and now, world conflict with some additional uncertainty. How has that impacted you and your role and how were you affected?
LK: Yes and add to that an aggressive Fed tightening cycle coming to combat elevated inflationary pressures. How that plays out will be key to the overall economy. Of no surprise, there have been continued supply chain challenges from order through delivery, but importantly, there's been significantly extended lead times from our equipment manufacturers. When you're building and remodeling as many restaurants as Dunkin’ with set deadlines, and we're supporting that, it can become a real obstacle.
The level of communication and line of sight visibility we provide to our franchisees and our operators is absolutely critical. Strong communication can resolve most issues in the first place. But when you're dealing with a supply chain crisis as we are now, it's even more critical to be thorough in your communications to your operators and franchisees so they know what is going on at all times and have access to information so that they can, in turn, make good business decisions and be as planful as possible on their end.
Something else that has been crucial to our success has been relationships with our suppliers. Everybody talks about relationships but really forging a deeper partnership and understanding with your suppliers and distributors so that you're working together collaboratively to solve issues is what's going to be the most successful.
SCS: To your point about relationships - how deep do you go with suppliers?
LK: It's critical more so than ever before that you truly have a clear understanding of their business and what the challenges are and what they're facing so that you can work on providing them what they need to be as effective as possible to service your needs and get the products to you. But it also helps keep them in business and helps the entire supply chain to be as efficient as possible when we're all working together. It's not a one-way street. And it's stretching the bounds of collaboration from the standpoint that people have to bend and be flexible and do some things that maybe they never thought they would have to do previously and in a different environment just to ensure continuity of supply, which is the name of the game right now.
SCS: It's not just your problems, it's also your supplier's challenges. They've got labor and supply issues. In some cases, they have the same problems you have.
LK: They have the same problems however, behind that is another layer of unique and nuanced challenges even within each supplier environment. And what is it really that they need as an individual supplier partner that's going to help them navigate and be more efficient for you? It's not a one size fits all answer from supplier to supplier. So, some suppliers may be able to work with a larger, long-term commitment, for instance. Some may prefer a consistent commitment tied to a set monthly demand schedule. And some suppliers may want to be paid upfront to move your business to the front of the line. You have to get creative and innovative in your approaches with suppliers so that you are not only giving them what they need to do their job most effectively but also what’s going to take care of your needs to the extent possible and get the attention and the supply that you need for your operators.
Even thinking about limited substitution and standardization - anything and everything that can make it more efficient for your suppliers. It's really important to listen to your suppliers and understand what their specific needs are and what is really going to move the needle, so to speak.
SCS: You mentioned line of sight. How tech-heavy are you and where do you see technology going in your role?
LK: We continue to evolve our technology and reporting and analytics as it relates to not only having line of sight but providing it to our supplier and our channel partners so that they can do their job more effectively. In the past, some have been more guarded with the information sharing that takes place between the chain or customer and the supplier and channel partner. I think in today's environment this is actually helping, in my opinion, to provide a more open book type relationship with suppliers, to be able to provide the data and information they need, including just helping them forecast as it relates to letting them know what your development plans are and drilling into even more detail. It could be by region, by state, or by period. Giving them that line of sight and visibility so that they can plan accordingly and giving them commitments. A lot of people have shied away from commitments, in the past. But I think being a committed partner is table stakes at this point in time. They need to be able to count on that commitment and the volume so that they can do their job effectively with their demand forecasting. So, as it relates to technology what all comes into play, is getting analytics and information so that you can provide that flow. We have adopted and initiated some new project management software that allows us to automate some of that communication activity and alerts and provide information flow between suppliers and our organization.
SCS: What advice do you have for young career professionals who want to advance in supply chain. How can they stand out? What skills do you look for in talent?
LK: I really have a passion for leading teams and helping develop people and giving guidance. For a young professional to stand out I look for curiosity, and a relentless appetite to learn, and evolve. That's so important. Someone that shows initiative and has the appetite to continuously learn and just become stronger and better. It differentiates you, especially in the early career stage.
I’d say developing a track record of consistent results is an expectation. I try to encourage strong relationship development and management which has bode extremely well for me over the years. How you treat everyone with respect and integrity is critical. Being proactive with developing and owning your supplier relationships and your internal relationships, it's amazing how far that can go. Be a great communicator and stand by your commitments. We're in a service-oriented industry, obviously. So, for younger professionals, I would highly encourage them to build their foundation on highly responsive service and support which I try to embody with all my teams. Those are all very valuable attributes and skills that are important for somebody young in their career.