Lessons from a year of supply chain change

Data insights, agility and greater visibility will combine to improve supply chains, but without trusted relationships and collaboration, success will be limited

Joanne Elson, Head of supply operations, JoJo Maman Bébé

Simon Finch, Supply chain director, Harrods

Alice Marmion, Supply chain director, Rapha

Richard Fattal, Co-founder and chief commercial officer, Zencargo

Jamie Lewis, Managing director, Europe, RMS International

Ian McConville, Group procurement director, MKM Building Supplies

Why is visibility across the supply chain now business critical and how can it be improved?

RF: I hope businesses use the learnings gained in the last 12 months to catalyse some supply chain changes, in terms of where you hold stock, how you move goods worldwide, optimising a multichannel strategy and dealing with the regulation in challenging parts of the world. Supply volatility means the broader business needs to have more visibility into the inbound pipeline.

SF: Businesses have adapted and come together. The amount of contact I have had throughout the last year with Harrods merchandise director or fashion directors or the IT director has been far higher than before. Virtual conferencing tools like Zoom and Teams have been phenomenal enablers to build those relationships and work more closely together. I think there was overconfidence, pre-pandemic, in lean supply chains. The balance was wrong and supply chains have since evolved to become better because we have the technology, data insights and visibility to make real-time decisions.

AM: Rapha [road bicycle racing clothing and accessories brand] has lengthy, complex supply chains because of the technical nature of the products. A year or so ago, we had a supply challenge because we manufacture a proportion of our stock in Asia, which was the first region to be impacted by COVID-19. Then the whole world embraced cycling and it became a demand challenge. Having visibility across the supply chain and leveraging extremely close relationships with trusted partners has been essential. Greater flexibility, agility, dynamism and making the right decisions is what we are striving to achieve.

JE: We’ve always been proactive and flexible with our supply chain, but the last 18 months has been a real test for everyone. We have worked hard with our freight forwarders, with whom we have great relationships.

IM: There was a period of great uncertainty in the building fraternity when the pandemic hit because nobody knew what would happen. That’s when visibility and supply relationships were beneficial. We have had to face many problems across the globe and it’s a demand-led market. The tight supplier relationships have been incredibly important, as has the access and exchange of information.

JL: These are interesting times, but luckily we have longstanding relationships with our freight forwarders. Ultimately, they helped and we moved the critical stock we needed for a certain period in the year and came out somewhat unscathed from the various recent crises.

The last 14 months have emphasised the importance of flexibility and having multiple routes

What must businesses do to strengthen supplier relationships?

RF: Being a responsive, proactive partner that can provide greater visibility, and identify and warn others about potential problems in the supply chain, is likely to build trust quickly. When volatility inevitably hits, you want to know the realistic knock-on effects. The relationship has to be based on trust and responsive communication, augmented by data insights, is decisive.

IM: Transparency and clarity in terms of what’s happening when, and the exchange of data, is fantastic. The challenge for those who don’t have any central distribution is disseminating the detailed information to multiple locations, especially in a traditionally people-to-people industry.

SF: Having the data alone doesn’t help. You need to know how to use the data, so understanding, alongside supplier partners, is vital to generate greater visibility and meaningful, value-adding insights. This strategy is only achieved through trusted, transparent relationships.

JE: Our ethos at JoJo Maman Bébé is “people and planet before profit” and because of our ethical drive, our suppliers are very important. We have worked with some suppliers for over 20 years and supported them with technology and more. They have become like an extended family. For example, we funded an emergency kitchen in Mumbai during lockdown last year because we knew it would impact our suppliers.

AM: Because of the last year’s events, Rapha has strengthened our relationships with strategic partners. That trust has provided greater visibility and helped streamline internal processes, too. The partnership approach is now embedded in our decision-making process.

JL: Given the nature of my role, I have to have relationships with suppliers and also customers, and I find it most effective in the long run to be honest and realistic and manage expectations. The level of understanding and co-operation on both sides has definitely increased since the start of the coronavirus crisis.

What might the perfect supply chain look like in five years’ time?

IM: It’s been pleasing to see greater collaboration recently. For instance, the Construction Leadership Council, which I am part of, and the Builders Merchants Federation have pulled together in an all-industry forum and met frequently. It spans the entire supply chain – trade, merchant and manufacturer – and not only is there more comprehensive visibility, but we also have better channels to government. That end-to-end understanding and collaboration will improve supply chains.

AM: While I miss travelling to suppliers, virtual reality and videoconferencing capabilities will reduce it, and that’s good for the planet. Collaboration can help here, too, and there are not many suppliers in the sportswear world. So we are now sharing supplier information with other brands in this space and I hope that will continue because we learn a lot from one another. This knowledge and collaboration will make the industry stronger and more sustainable.

JE: We seem to be having an Armageddon of a year in the supply chain, but businesses will learn from this and become more resilient and improve infrastructure. I hope air freight doesn’t become more widely used, as we all need to keep down our carbon footprints.

JL: There’s definitely a big role for technology to play moving forward, to allow more visibility across the supply chain and enabling businesses like RMS International to make better decisions and also keeping our customers informed.

SF: The last 14 months have emphasised the importance of flexibility and having multiple routes. What’s exciting is that having better data and more diverse and localised distribution nodes will drive supply chain sustainability.

RF: I believe we will see a move towards more sustainable supply chains, which is made possible by having the visibility and data at your fingertips to make better decisions. Decision enhancement through better data and more structured inputs will mean supply chain professionals can do their jobs more effectively and be proactive rather than fire fighting.

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