Boxcars to boardrooms: interview with Doug Sampson
Forty years ago, Doug Sampson took a summer job unloading boxcars at a public warehouse. He’s still at the company today, but now he’s senior vice president and partner.
It’s a familiar story by now: A college student gets into logistics and supply chain management on the ground floor, unloading trucks or stocking warehouse shelves during summer breaks. Though the work is demanding, he grows interested in the nuts and bolts of logistics operations, eventually abandoning his original career plans to pursue his newfound interest. He works his way up through the ranks, gaining experience in nearly every facet of supply chain management, to become an executive in the field.
In Doug Sampson’s case, that story played out at Acme Distribution Centers Inc., an Aurora, Colo.-based third-party logistics and supply chain solutions provider. Sampson’s story began when he took a summer job unloading boxcars at Imperial Distribution, one of the forerunners of Acme Distribution. In the four decades since, he has worked in every position in the company and almost every facet of the business, including supply chain planning and optimization, real estate, and quality management. Today, he serves as senior vice president of Acme, which operates facilities in Denver, Seattle, and Harrisburg, Pa. In addition to his day-to-day responsibilities, Sampson has been active in both local and national trade associations. His deeply rooted passion for supply chain excellence has been a part of his journey every step of the way.
Sampson spoke recently with DC Velocity Group Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald about his career path, the biggest logistics challenge he’s ever faced, and why working in the industry is like being an offensive lineman in pro football.
Q: Tell us about your career journey. How did you arrive at the position you hold today?
A: It all started when I was in college. I was studying for a career in corporate finance and planned to work in my father’s company. Like any kid in college, I needed money, which meant I had to find a summer job. I was playing football back then, so I was really hoping to find something physical.
As luck would have it, my dad had just completed a financing package on a couple of buildings for a client working in something called “public warehousing.” He reached out to Leon Goldfogel at a company called Imperial Distribution [a forerunner of Acme Distribution] and the next day I was filling out an application. A day later I started work unloading boxcars of canned pet products. Although the work was grueling, my curiosity took hold and I began to wonder “why”: Why are the cases sized like this? Who decides how they should be stacked and how high? And about a thousand other questions.
I continued working in the warehouse during summers and vacations while I finished up my degree in finance and marketing. Upon graduation, I told my dad that I was going to stay and work there in management and learn more about this industry I had became so intrigued with. Today, I am a partner in the company.
Although I can say I’ve really only had one job per se, I’ve had the pleasure of working with folks from over 1,200 companies across all walks of commerce.
Q: Could you describe your operation for us?
A: We are a multiregional 3PL with close to 3 million square feet of operations, a truck fleet of about 50 units, and a full-service brokerage. Our world is a little different in that our client base is quite large, with over 400 customers, and also quite diverse, with 18 different industry verticals and with about 30 percent engaging in omnichannel operations.
It forces us to be a “master of all trades,” which requires good processes, great execution, continuous improvement, lean applications, and agile and dedicated work teams. We deal with everything, as long as it’s legal, and those rules are changing too, as is the case with marijuana these days.
Q: Which of your skills serve you best in the work you do each day?
A: I often make an analogy that working in our industry is like being an offensive lineman in pro football. If you do your job right, nobody notices. However, if you miss a block or take a penalty—or in logistics, make a shipping error—everyone notices. The accolades are infrequent, and the sanctions can be painful.
To succeed in this business, I believe you need to have a positive attitude, a thirst to continuously learn and then improve, and discipline. You also need to be persistent, show determination, and be able to solve problems. It helps to surround yourself with associates and mentors to help you improve you skills.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you face in achieving logistics excellence?
A: First would be people. Recruitment and retention has changed dramatically since the days I entered the industry, and it remains important today.
Next would be keeping up with all the systems and technologies that have come online and knowing when to pull the trigger for an implementation or upgrade. In our world, where our client base is so diverse, one of the biggest challenges is to figure out how to utilize a specific technology like AI [artificial intelligence] across multiple platforms or customers in a way that provides a reasonable return on investment.
Third is responding to the ever-increasing pace of the business. The window of execution has continued to shrink as our retailer, wholesaler, and consumer populations become more geared to immediate gratification: from next day, to same day, to two hours, to “I want it now.”
Fourth would be our aging infrastructure, which hampers transportation efficiency by causing delays, lengthening transit times, and raising costs.
Finally, we are continually challenged by government laws, rules, and regulations that impede our execution and costing.
Q: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve observed in logistics operations over the past decade?
A: Well, there are the obvious advances in technology. Beyond that, the facilities themselves have changed; today’s spec buildings are taller, better insulated, have better lighting, and feature more dock doors per square foot than used to be the case.
Then there are the increased regulations I mentioned earlier. Increased regulation usually results in increased costs.
Q: Despite all the changes in the industry over the years, would you say there are some basic principles of logistics excellence that have remained the same?
A: Yes. One is that when utilizing technology, you have to find the sweet spot where it increases accuracy and improves the process but does not limit or constrain productivity.
Another is to minimize travel, minimize movements, and combine movements wherever possible.
Q: What do you consider to be the biggest logistics challenge you have overcome in your career? What was critical to your success in that effort?
A: Back in the early 2000s, we received a contract to design a new supply chain network for a large electronics company. Long story short, we came up with a design that saved it $2 million annually. We were then awarded a contract to manage the full network, which involved rolling out 1.5 million square feet of space in five cities across the country in 90-day consecutive startups. We could not have done it without a total team effort at every level of our business.
Q: Any closing thoughts or comments for our readers?
A: In our world, there are numerous options for buildings, transportation, information systems, and the way we perform commerce. Yes, they are “must haves.” Still, the companies that succeed today and will continue to succeed in the future are fundamentally based on people, aligned principals, and values. A solid foundation of trust, accountability and communication is required when we “miss a block” during our next “set of downs.”