Link Theory’s Nicholas Fox sits down with Nick Bradley to talk technology, the world post-Covid, trends in logistics and the Supply Chain Excellence Awards.
“I have seen some great presentations and some not so good ones, but generally the standard is high – and has noticeably improved over the years,” remarks Nicholas Fox, commenting on the Supply Chain Excellence Awards – which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary.
As well as participating in last month’s Supply Chain Conference, Link Theory’s Head of Logistics (Europe) is also one of the 15 scrutinous judges of the famous industry accolades. “Competing in the awards – whether you win or not – should focus the mind on what a management team is doing,” says Fox, whose day job is to develop logistics managers and 3PLs to create omnichannel operations to support the growth of the company’s Theory and Helmut Lang brands. “So, apart from the excitement of seeing the envelope opened, a well-presented project will reflect the fact that it has already had plenty of management ‘buy-in’ and has also been well-managed.”
You gotta be in it to win it.
To roll out a well-oiled cliché, then, the Supply Chain Excellence Awards really is about taking part. “Being shortlisted and winning is especially a great achievement when – on occasions – a smaller operation wins over a larger PLC in the manner of an FA Cup shock result. Either way, the most pleasing thing as a judge is to see better-quality projects every year,” enthuses Fox, a self-confessed AFC Wimbledon football fan and an aficionado of 1970s heavy metal music.
Taking this further, Link Theory’s supply chain chief goes on to advise that all participants should take heed of the competition and see what others are doing as well as how they can lever off these. That’s why he believes it’s important that all companies – from SMEs to the multi-nationals – join the party.
“There is now an emphasis on all sorts of technology and with increasing technology developments, what used to be exclusively for big players is now more commonplace,” Fox continues. “The use of self-guiding robots is an area where I have seen some great presentations and I can see a lot of growth for all operators. There are many different types that can be implemented into a traditional warehouse, so there is no huge capital cost and the payback is getting shorter and shorter.”
Such automated technologies could answer a lot of questions, as Fox reveals in more detail. “Labour shortages with or without Brexit, for example, will become more common, so exposure to the sorts of ideas that are presented in the awards can show that developments are available for all levels of businesses. It allows providers time to showcase their ideas and gives management teams the chance to show what they have succeeded in doing, such that others can follow.”
The awards ceremony itself – to be held at Hilton on Park Lane on 8th November – is also a special occasion in itself, not least for its networking. “There is the personal touch (well, in less socially distanced times, anyway), whereby at conferences and events there is the opportunity to have ‘blue-sky’ conversations that may or may not lead to something,” Fox explains. “I have found some great partners over the years. All it takes is having an open mind, and most importantly of all, the ability to listen. This might sound like a level one management course but listening really is an underrated skill and the only way to learn and to consider the merits of various ideas. We all have our stories of colleagues who talk too much but I have never heard a complaint about anyone listening too much!”
After graduating from university, Nicholas Fox embarked upon his career with George Wimpey’s transport division, mainly because – in his own words – he had no idea what he wanted to do, and they offered him a company car!
“After a brutal introduction to transport, I decided to move up the food chain and become Operations Manager in a M&S chilled food regional distribution centre where I must say I learned a lot,” he recalls. His expertise would subsequently take him up the ranks and across sectors, from British Airways Catering, Iceland Foods and Firetrap to becoming Managing Director of Mode Logistics, his most recent post before joining Link Theory in 2020. Fox has twice reached the final of the Supply Chain Excellence Awards, winning it for ‘Best Logistics by an SME’ back in 2016.
Fox is clearly someone who is passionate about the supply chain sector and the technologies that we are starting to see roll out, as well as the smart solutions in the pipeline. “There is always something new, always the next level to go to with plenty of innovation and opportunity,” he says. “In addition, it is a genuinely global industry and I have always enjoyed the travel and the times working with different people, cultures and ways of working.”
Of course, travel has been off the cards for many in the past 12 months as a result of the lockdowns and restrictions. Does Fox therefore think the industry will change significantly post-pandemic? “I think a redesign to supply chains could come with localisation,” he feels. “The drip-drip of bad news about other countries having pandemic issues, political instability, growth of nationalism and the borders erected – even within the EU during the pandemic – will naturally force people to look inward.
“The post-Covid world won’t look different in terms of demand patterns for, say, consumer goods, but I think it will make risk-averse supply chain strategies more common, will increase closer-to-home sourcing, and will provide opportunities for quality businesses to reach into markets dominated by mega-players. If the world is serious about sustainability, then this will happen – the Covid years may
start to make this happen.”
As to other disruptive trends that may be on the horizon, localisation could be something to keep an eye on. “Blockchain was going to be the big disruption, except it isn’t,” Fox feels. “I think the big potential disruption could come from on-shoring of manufacturing and changes in the global structure of supply chains. Although China still dominates, there could be a move to quality over quantity – there are only
so many thousands of widgets a family can buy from Amazon.
As for tech innovations, Nicholas Fox is predicting massive growth in smart mechanisation, which he feels will impact at all levels. “In the big scheme of things, provided we can always improve education levels, then warehouse operations should become a place for skilled IT programmers and skilled operators,” he predicts. “The culture of employing increased numbers of migrant or seasonal workers is declining so better productivity is essential for the future. To me, this is a win-win whereby there are more opportunities for better-paying skilled roles. If a warehouse job is low-margin and basic, 3PLs especially will never get out of a sort of industrial poverty-trap but flexible robotics is a good way out of this.”
“If this does happen, then instead of the ‘big is beautiful’ Amazon-type process, I think disruption could occur more locally. Look at the new competition for 10-minute supermarket deliveries with the likes of Dija, whereby they are opening hundreds of local fulfilment operations to deliver locally.
“Another good example is the explosion of locally produced beer. The equivalent to Amazon a few years ago were the massive breweries such as Watney Coombe Reed or John Smith. These have gone to be replaced by far higher quality and much smaller local breweries. Repeat this now with gin distilleries.”
You would hope that after the challenges of the past 15 months, it’s a case of ‘Keep Calm and Bring It On’ for whatever else may lay ahead. Nothing could match Covid-19 with a side order of Brexit. “Ultimately,” Fox assesses, “the biggest challenge is the hyper-competition in most markets, whereby most consumer goods are over-supplied. The amount of goods sold at full price and not on some form of discount is declining, so for the supply chain, probably the most important metric is to reduce lead times and be first in front of customers’ eyes.”