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Chief Supply Chain Officer Imperative: Anticipate and Plan for Disruption

Whether you call the role Chief Supply Chain Officer (CSCO), Chief Operations Officer (COO), or some variation, someone needs to be responsible for leading all extended supply chain processes for any enterprise producing physical goods. Moreover, this person must be a full strategic partner with the CEO, CFO, and other members of the C-suite. They are responsible for the lion’s share of enterprise cost and capital spending. Historically, many organizations failed to recognize the need for a “strategic-minded” CSCO.

For the last several decades, manufacturing businesses and their supply chain leaders focused relentlessly on driving cost out of the system. This led to a massive shift in manufacturing and sourcing to lower cost regions, particularly China, in pursuit of lower production cost. It also led to consolidating vendor bases, including increased sole sourcing, in return for lower prices from suppliers and just-in-time production which drove down inventory investment requirements.

This drive for lower cost worked well when conditions were relatively stable. Customers received lower prices, shareholders owned a more profitable business with higher returns for their investment, and employees worked in a growing business with more career opportunities. What was not well recognized was the added risk the enterprise assumed. Sourcing and manufacturing in Asia lengthened supply chains and made them more vulnerable to transportation disruptions. Consolidating vendors increased exposure to supplier outages. Reliance on China increased political risk. Just-in-time manufacturing eliminated inventory which could serve as a buffer to absorb mismatches between supply and demand. Occasional disruptions in one or another of these dimensions occurred and companies scrambled to address them. Few had risk mitigation plans in place ready to deploy, and most were treated as one-off events. Then the covid pandemic hit, which clearly exposed the inherent risks companies had assumed in adopting the low-cost supply chain strategies of the last 40 years. While the drive to low cost was a “strategy” many pursued, companies did not think strategically about the potential unintended consequences.

Companies should not think of the pandemic as a once-in-a-century event and revert to business as usual. Disruptions have been, and will continue to be, a fact of life for manufacturers. The McKinsey Global Institute has studied the history of supply chain disruptions and their effect on business results. They estimate companies lose 45% of one year’s EBITDA to supply chain disruptions over the course of a decade. Historically, corporate responses to supply chain disruptions have been reactive. Recent disruptions have clearly illuminated the imperative for creating and maintaining operational resilience. What does this mean for the next generation of CSCOs?

Apart from the leadership and strategic skills required of any C-suite executive, perhaps the most important skill required of today’s CSCO is that of an underwriter. Underwriters, be they insurance, investment banking, commercial banking, or other, evaluate the risk involved in a particular activity, asset, or person and set a “price” appropriate to the risk. As we saw during the pandemic and its aftermath, most CSCOs failed as underwriters. They did not appreciate the risks they were bearing and had not taken necessary steps to “insure” against those risks. As a result, supply chains broke for extended periods—inventory did not arrive when needed, factories closed, customers did not receive their orders, and consumers saw bare shelves and empty lots.

As we have seen over the last three or four years, most companies were unprepared for pandemic risk, geopolitical risk, weather risk, et cetera, much less having the compounding effects of these risk occurring simultaneously. Insurance underwriters tend to think of risk along two dimensions: frequency (how often a loss is likely to occur) and severity (how expensive a loss is likely to be). Low frequency, high severity risks are the most difficult to predict and insure. To protect against these catastrophic events, insurers often purchase catastrophe coverage to protect themselves from existential losses. Manufacturers had not understood the extent of their exposure to “catastrophes.” Consequently, they did not have risk mitigation measures (insurance) in place and suffered greatly for it as suppliers in global markets shut down and transportation infrastructure became clogged.

To mitigate these very real but previously poorly perceived risks, many are now rethinking their global supply chain strategies with an emphasis on creating supply chain resilience. This has included reshoring and near shoring critical manufacturing infrastructure; deploying digital supply chain solutions to speed information flow and decision making; diversifying sourcing partnerships; and investing in critical inventory. Manufacturers are now actively assessing the broad range of integrated supply chain risks they face, quantifying the exposure they have to disruption, and making the necessary investments and other actions to mitigate these risks. This requires new skills on the part of the CSCO and full partnership in strategic decision making with the rest of the C-suite.

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Don McMurchy is a senior member of the Industrial Technology practice, driving execution across a broad range of senior leadership roles for clients ranging from start-ups to Fortune 50 enterprises. Based in Cleveland, his engagements are typically continental in scope with additional experience in Asia and Europe.

RSR Partners is a boutique professional services firm headquartered in Greenwich, CT, that specializes in helping Boards and CEOs with their most critical recruiting, selection, and succession needs. The firm was founded in 1994 by industry icon, Russell S. Reynolds, Jr. The firm has conducted thousands of projects for Boards and CEOs at public, private equity backed, and family-owned businesses across a range of industries including asset management, consumer goods and services, industrial, technology, and healthcare. To learn more about RSR Partners, click here.

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