Reprinted from Knowledge Leader, Colliers International Property Magazine, Summer 2011

Ann M. Drake is CEO of Chicago-based DSC Logistics, a leading national provider of supply chain management solutions. A recognized thought leader in her industry, and an active civic leader both nationally and in the Chicago area, she offers her perspective on leadership and the future of her industry.

Ready for Anything!
Staying open and flexible to changing markets, DSC Logistics CEO Ann Drake uses technology and collaboration to help her company and clients succeed.

In 1994, Ann Drake took the reins of the family business, a traditional brick-and-mortar public warehousing and trucking operation called Dry Storage Corporation. Among the first things she asked the head of sales for was a list of key national customers—only to be told no such list existed. “This was not just an information problem,” Drake explains. “DSC wasn’t thought of or run as a single company, but 22 standalone businesses, in which everyone did their own thing.” So began the long process of transformation to the DSC Logistics of today: unified under a single brand, the company is now a strategic, dynamic logistics solutions provider, leading the way in the new era of supply chain management.

“The change in the business as it was then to the business of today is enormous,” says Drake. “Some reflects change in the industry, but mostly it’s what my instincts told me 20 years ago would be necessary for us to be successful in the 21st Century.”

The move toward a single nationwide platform was the first step in DSC’s becoming a leading strategic logistics organization. Founded as Dry Storage Corporation in 1960 by Drake’s father, James McIlrath, the business had grown from a regional warehousing and trucking business to a national operation that comprised 22 distinct entities—each with its own capabilities, culture, systems and operating standards. Customers who worked with DSC in more than one location were forced to adapt to operational differences among the various divisions in the DSC “family,” which were managed and organized by geography. “It was so clear to me,” Drake recalls, “that that wasn’t what the customer wanted or needed.”

Among the first major initiatives was technological integration. “Moving to common platforms and a single OS for warehouse operations and transportation management in the Nineties was huge for us, because we started to get information about our customers’ businesses that even they didn’t have.” Armed with this new business intelligence, Drake reshaped the operational and management structures to create a true partnership with the customer that provides continuous improvement.

“Fifteen years ago, we were order-takers on a good day,” she explains. “Now our customers bring us to the table for thinking and planning. It’s not just about the execution of the business, but staying ahead of the business.” For instance, DSC has pioneered labor management systems that provide detailed efficiency information on order fulfillment, to help their customers control costs. Drake’s team has taken the further step of aggregating this information to give clients visibility into the “cost to serve” their own customers.

This kind of thinking is becoming more essential to supply chain management, according to Drake. “It’s really being studied as a science now, which is exciting. When I entered the field there were only four schools that offered a degree in logistics and supply chain management. Now there are hundreds.”

She sees the next decade accelerating the trend of aggregation and integration. Not only will new technologies bring more usable information directly off different points of the supply chain, but supply chain managers will need to integrate increasingly outsourced providers across the globe.

Drake’s perspective on the future is clearly informed by how much DSC does now that couldn’t have been conceived of two decades ago. “I think there will be all kinds of unpredictable ways to use information and technology to improve the business. We have two warehouses now experimenting with iPads right now. Who would have thought that?”

How do we prepare for the unpredictable? “Flexibility is the name of all games,” Drake insists, which is why she has fostered an adaptive, learning culture within DSC. “I think we have to continually prepare our people and business models for unpredictable futures.”

Drake cites real estate strategy as an example of this flexibility: “This used to be a business of bricks and mortar, like manufacturing: you decide where you want to be, and that’s where you put your buildings.” But the model has changed drastically, not least because rising fuel costs have driven suppliers to reduce their ownership footprint. “It’s very different model now, with more leasing. The megatrend of huge distribution centers is starting to reverse, with a move to smaller centers closer to market. This is why flexibility in real estate is so important. It’s hard to achieve, but our customers demand it.”

Colliers International Executive Vice President Lynn Reich has worked with DSC for over twenty years, and has seen first-hand how Drake’s early investments in technology and collaboration have paid off. “When Ann took over for her dad, she had a vision of a truly client-centric organization,” Reich says. ”She was instrumental transforming DSC—realigning the financial, physical and technological components to be more responsive to their customers’ needs.”

DSC celebrated 50 years in business this past year, but Drake is firmly focused on tomorrow. “We rely on six strengths that will keep us ready for the future: Leadership, Collaboration, Information, Execution, Flexibility and Integrity. We don’t just want to sit back and react; if we can stay process-oriented, collaborative, and be open-minded about the future, we’ll be ready to apply ourselves to tomorrow’s customer challenges.”

© Copyright Knowledge Leader, Colliers International Property Magazine.
“Behind the Scenes” (U.S. Profile). Summer 2011.
By Aaron Finkelstein. All rights reserved.

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