Executive Spotlight: Matt Riddleberger

Professional Development

Supply Chain Scene:  Looking back on your career in supply chain management, what are some key moments and decisions that you feel shaped your journey?

Matt Riddleberger:  Transitioning from operations roles in various food service segments to the supply chain side, a significant leap was moving from Sysco to Firehouse Subs, offering me the chance to experience both corporate and independent environments.

My foundation was laid early on, starting with my second job in high school, working in a restaurant as a busboy, dishwasher, and doing prep work. This experience sparked my interest in the hospitality industry. I was drawn to the University of Denver's hotel and restaurant management program. The immediate satisfaction from a shift well-done in the hospitality industry really captivated me.

After running operations in restaurants, catering halls, healthcare food service, and business dining, I seized the opportunity to move to Sysco—a side of the business that had long intrigued me. Starting out buying chemicals and disposables, I progressed to director of merchandising and eventually vice president of merchandising and marketing. This role deepened my understanding of vendor management, price negotiation, market trends, and the significance of historical data on pricing and impacts.

Joining Firehouse Subs when they had 228 restaurants marked another pivotal point. I had known the founders, Robin and Chris, since they sought custom printed cups for their two restaurants while working with Sysco. My transition to Firehouse Subs came after they had moved away from Sysco, and I filled the role of the person leading the purchasing team, who left to become a franchisee. This role allowed me to contribute to the brand's growth over 17 years.

Supply Chain Scene:  At Firehouse, how big was your team?

Matt Riddleberger:  My team started small, with just me handling the responsibilities initially. Over time, the team expanded, and by the time I left, we had grown to five people managing an annual spend of a little over $325 million. This growth wasn't just in numbers but also in the specialization of roles to enhance our supply chain efficiency.

One key addition was someone dedicated entirely to inventory management. Their role was crucial, focusing daily on tracking shipments and making sure that our supplies were precisely where they needed to be. This position became invaluable as we navigated the disruptions caused by the pandemic, ensuring continuity in our operations.

Another team member was tasked with handling contracts. This involved not just negotiating terms but also maintaining relationships with suppliers and confirming that contractual obligations were met on both ends. It's a role that requires a keen eye for detail and a firm understanding of both our needs and what suppliers can offer.

Then, there were two individuals who took on the day-to-day operations, which ranged from managing limited-time offers (LTOs) to diving deep into analytics. These roles were about maintaining the operational flow, ensuring that the daily and weekly tasks were completed efficiently, and identifying opportunities for improvement.

My role, focused on longer-term strategic planning, particularly around distribution. This involved looking ahead, anticipating challenges, and identifying opportunities to optimize our supply chain for future growth. It was about making sure that, as a team, we were not just reacting to the present but also preparing for the future, setting up systems and processes that would allow us to scale effectively and maintain the high standards of service that Firehouse Subs is known for.

This team structure allowed us to cover all bases—from the immediate, operational needs to the strategic, long-term planning necessary for sustained successful growth.

Supply Chan Scene:  How have you seen the foodservice supply chain management field evolve over the years? Are there any significant shifts or lessons that stand out to you?

Matt Riddleberger: Two pivotal events have distinctly shaped recent times. The pandemic in 2020 presented unprecedented professional challenges, necessitating collaborative problem-solving for issues once deemed unimaginable—from supply disruptions due to global shutdowns to logistical hurdles like the Suez Canal blockage. Additionally, labor challenges, predating the pandemic, have become increasingly prominent, affecting not just store operations but also critical supply chain roles, such as distribution drivers.

A key lesson from this period has been the realization of how much we had come to expect from service levels and on-time, in-full deliveries. The pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in our monitoring and communication systems, highlighting the need for proactive management and better communication channels to anticipate and mitigate disruptions. The experience taught us the importance of advanced notice and transparency in the supply chain to prevent last-minute surprises and to make sure all stakeholders are informed and prepared for potential setbacks.

Supply Chain Scene:  Looking at the advancements in technology today (AI?), how do you think they're reshaping supply chain management compared to the way things were previously?

Matt Riddleberger: The advancements in technology, especially with artificial intelligence, are fundamentally changing the landscape of supply chain management. The ability of technology to sift through data and identify anomalies or critical pieces of information is revolutionizing how supply chain professionals work. Instead of dedicating substantial time to manually searching for information, they can now leverage AI to quickly highlight areas of concern or opportunity. This shift allows them to focus more on strategic planning and upstream activities to mitigate cost pressures.

More operators have embraced technology in the last four years than ever before. This adoption is reshaping supply chain management by reallocating labor towards more value-added activities. For instance, AI can now identify inventory items nearing expiration, a task that previously required laborious manual checks. This efficiency is not just about speed but also about enhancing the ability to make more accurate and better informed decisions. The key is the accuracy of the data being used to make the decision.

Supply Chain Scene:  How do you see the role of supply chain professionals evolving in the coming years?

Matt Riddleberger:  As operators grapple with the challenge of controlling labor expenses, the onus falls more heavily on supply chain teams to unearth savings or mitigate cost increases. These financial adjustments are crucial, as they allow businesses to reallocate funds towards labor, where expenses are soaring.

The complexity of this task is amplified by the fact that manufacturers and distributors, who are integral parts of the supply chain, face similar pressures regarding costs.

By fostering collaboration, supply chain teams can devise comprehensive strategies that address cost pressures at every link of the chain, from production to delivery.

This also implies that supply chain professionals will need to further develop skills beyond traditional logistics and operations management. The abilities to negotiate, build relationships, think strategically, and understanding the broader economic and labor market trends will become increasingly vital.

Supply Chain Scene:  Beyond practical experience, what skills do you believe are crucial for success in supply chain management? How can young professionals stand out?  Any thoughts on mentorship?

Matt Riddleberger:  Success in supply chain management transcends practical experience, requiring a blend of curiosity, continuous learning, and strategic thinking. A foundational skill is the desire to deeply understand market dynamics, from commodities to freight markets. Each segment has unique drivers influencing its fluctuations. By mastering the elements critical to your business and exploring additional areas of interest, you can develop a well-rounded understanding of the broader economic landscape.

Mentorship is another crucial component of professional development. Once you identify the career path that excites you, seek out a mentor. Throughout my career, I've learned from many leaders, but one mentor, in particular, shared a  wealth of knowledge and insights, profoundly influencing my professional growth.

For young professionals eager to make their mark in supply chain management, these strategies can be incredibly effective. Be curious, commit to lifelong learning, stay informed about global events, and seek mentorship. These practices will not only set you apart as a supply chain professional but also pave the way for a fulfilling career.

Author: Supply Chain Scene