In today’s Ten Questions One Hot Seat, we’ll be grilling Keith Hallam, Senior Supply Chain Director for the EU for ASR Group. Our Head of Marketing Kerry O’Neill talks to Keith about his career and advice for others working this Supply Chain.

*Read the full transcript below*

Kerry: Welcome Keith, how are you?

Keith: Really good thank you Kerry, looking forward to this.

Kerry: Me too, I’m fascinated to hear about your career and how you’ve got to where you are today.

Kerry: First question for you then, what did you want to be when you were at school?

Keith: I think initially when I was at primary school I really wanted to be a policeman. But at the time I lived in a large village and there was a local bobby and he was actually one of my friend’s dad’s. So I think he had that sort of pillar of the community type of image and structure, he seemed to know a lot of people so that was appealing to me.

But as I progressed through my schooling and I got through my secondary school one of the things I really emphasized was that I got good at mathematics. As I came towards a school leaving age, ideally, I wanted to go into the bank. Again it was a little bit of attraction from that sort of pillar of the community, everybody went into a bank at the time it was a go-to destination I suppose on a weekly basis. I suppose I did follow through my mathematics in that sense but I never went into banking.

Kerry: Okay great stuff. So, when did you first start out working in Supply Chain and what attracted you to it?

Keith: Yeah very different vocations, well I followed my mathematics through into accountancy and really my first career progressions were all accountancy led and I had some good sponsorship from the finance function in that sense after coming from an administration background. It was actually one of those sessions I was presenting at a budget session, the supply chain director of that retail business came up to me and said “have you ever thought about coming into planning I’ve got a vacancy” and I suppose at the time he saw in me rather than me being attracted to supply chain and at the time it was the first words I’d seen about supply chain, I didn’t really know a lot about it.

I knew some of the guys and girls in there and the information I provided for them but really what he said to me was transferable skills and that’s resonated into me over a long period of time. At the time the business was going through some change and I thought that was a good option to get involved in some change management as well. But to be perfectly honest it is pretty down to him. He was also allowing me to get into the head office rather than one of the satellite sites so there’s a lot of positives.

Kerry: I must admit it’s not something that I ever recall being spoken to about at school, Supply Chain or Logistics or anything along those lines at all. So, which role or company you’ve worked for do you feel really elevated your career to the next level and why was that?

Keith: Very good question. I think throughout my whole career I’ve tried to learn and develop and sometimes that can be depth as well as breadth and as well as increasing yourself through the ladder. The key role and the key business which springs to mind for me is probably when I went to go and work for Muller Dairy. So previous to that my career at British Sugar, you know brilliant business really thinking about cost effectiveness and it was actually a declining three percent retail sugars were going down as consumption was changing at that time. Whereas when I joined Muller Dairy it was a double-digit growth business it was a very big vibe, massive advertising, huge marketing campaigns,  lots of promotional categories so I think it was a point in time in my career where you know I was joining a business really at the time it was on the up. And also a point in time when I joined that supply chain, it was a new position and it was something where the supply chain was trying to get the right processes, the right structure, right engagement with the customer, the right logistics management, all the things I was expecting to manage very quickly and so was a good point in time to join that business in the role that I had.

Then it was just constant growth from that, so I got involved in so much in such a short space of time really. Initially coming in to manage customer logistics or the customer side and the logistics business which was a big, big part and I got involved in looking at acquisitions, looking at joint ventures, got some license agreement things. So it’s really, really good and actually quite now, I’ll say, sexy stuff to get involved in and actually put me into the limelight with some of the real, at the time, senior management and board level. And even though the MD, Chief Exec level changed over the time I was there, it really gave me some opportunity to develop with two or three different people in that role and really flourish. At the time as well it was a good culture and as I say it was a very together environment it was a small head office but a huge production facility it was all centred on one side, there’s lots and lots of positives of the business, the structure, the people but in particular I think there’s a lot of accolades I took from the roles I had there and the added value I gave into the business so yeah really good

Kerry: Sounds fantastic, a fantastic opportunity. How long were you there for?

Keith: I was there for just short of seven years. I was actually searched out for that role, so that was that was the first time that I’d thought about moving away from the previous business. And I moved location, it took me on not from a business point of view but also personally as well.

Kerry: So, what does your current day-to-day role involve at ASR?

Keith: Well, I’m not too sure if this is just the last 12 months I don’t think it is. It’s lots and lots of meetings. So, I can’t get away from that my chunk of the day whether I’m in the home office here or previous to that a lot of the time would be in meetings on lots of different things. Some of them are operationally but I do have, like in this business, a really good team that manage most of the day-to-day operational part of the business. So, I’m not having to worry about every product, every parlour, every movement, every process.

I’ve got a fantastic team and teams across Europe to do that so that’s fantastic. Most of them are fairly tactical so where we’ve got some tension points to make decisions on and where we’ve got some conflicts of interest or where we’ve actually got into certain issues that need big decisions making early. Again, a few of those are strategic so where we’re looking into next year and beyond, or where we’ve got something big, so from a gravitas point of view thinking about the pros and cons of what that might look like. And most of it is centred either in any of those aspects who get good, and manage good, cross-functional decision making. So making  sure that my role and my team’s role is not to think function, not to think in an individual dynamic, but actually to make sure that we’re thinking a larger cross wrong decision and sometimes that can haemorrhage our own KPI’s that we’d be responsible for on inventory or waste or other service aspects but actually making sure we’re making good business decisions that are good for the business in the long term

Kerry: That makes perfect sense and I’m guessing I could guess what your next answer might be to this, but what has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your working career?

Keith: I’m not afraid to say that, actually, in my whole career I’ve seen a whole plethora of issues. They can range from financial collapses of businesses I have been working with in third parties and I’ve seen various system ERP disasters in my career and been involved in getting the business back to usual for that. And aspects of integration have been in there so, again, some really good. Two different businesses working together and being on the team or leading the team to make them happen.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen some real disasters, I’ve seen deaths, I’ve seen fires, I’ve seen floods and the business impacts of that. Now whether I’d be directing the business I’ve worked in or when I’ve worked in retail, the impacts directly into that retail business. So, there isn’t necessarily one that particularly springs to mind in the sense of, I could talk you through them all very much in depth and what’s the corrective actions and how to deal with them and be risk-averse in those situations. One of the key things for me is that when you’re managing those instances and those things that disturb the day, the week, the month or for longer is how you keep calm and really split out your emotion and logical senses because being empathetic, particularly when you’re seeing impacts to people personally but also about how you then steer that business back to normal and whatever normality then looks. But yeah, there’s not many aspects that I’ve probably not seen rightly or wrongly in in my career.

Kerry: Wow, sounds like you’ve been through a real broad gamut’s of everything. How have your team adapted to coping with the current Brexit and pandemic challenges?

Keith: Really well, the team really hasn’t missed a beat. The business has seen quite a significant uplift and it’s had various aspects within the pandemic and also within Brexit. Whether that be the initial panic buying, whether that be just generically higher demand for some of the speciality sugars that we’re producing, whether that be some reduced demand because of the food service aspects cafes restaurants etc so that’s affected our food service and our portions of business.

Whether it’s the fact that, obviously, there’s a lot more people working from home, so the consumption has increased. Latterly we’ve been personally affected, as a business, in absences and structure and we’ve had to cope with how we prioritise and simplify some of that. So, there’s been numerous challenges from the pandemic and I would say the team has shown their agility and their adaptability to really get involved and face adversity quite quickly and again making those good decisions, being involved in those forums, working the relationships and that’s probably also very similar for Brexit. Preparing for Brexit was over a long period of time and making some key decisions and from my point of view making sure we were as robust as possible. Even then, the free trade agreement came out on Christmas Eve, there was still a lot of work to do after that. We’re still actually dealing with what does that movement look like and there’s still a little bit to do in the short term. But, really good really pleased with the agility and adaptability that we’ve had as a business.

Kerry: Sounds like you’re managing to cope really well considering how much the last 12 months have thrown at us. It sounds quite impressive and there can be no doubt as well that technical advancements have had a significant impact on supply chains in recent years. How have they changed the way in which you work?

Keith: The way I look at these things would be how do you get things right first time and quicker? That’s really the total analogy for me so does it add some value? Technologies, for me, have all got to be based on taking people away from being transactional and getting things to be a lot more analytical and structured in that sense. Sometimes we end up with paybacks of systems. One of the things I really like to do is making sure that we don’t just drop heads and people out, we look at how do we actually resource people to be more analytical rather than transactional and therefore able to make better decisions quicker. Most of that is getting things right first time and getting the results in a quicker manner.

Kerry: Okay, and what advice would you give to businesses or food manufacturers looking to combat Supply Chain disruption?

Keith: I think over a long period of time I’ve seen disruption or changes as being one of the things that makes me tick. I think my biggest advice to anybody, either as an individual or as a business or as a function, would be to really embrace change to really engage with it and to really think about the adaptability of what does that mean. Change isn’t easy and therefore sometimes people step away from that but the element of being in the right stages in the right planning time is really important and change is paramount, and it does allow businesses to improve.

The other aspect is that a lot of time people do a sort of cost benefit analysis of change and they see the low hanging fruit or they see the euros, pounds, dollars signs that come up but to actually get to the end point I would always suggest pilot small, pilot big and then go big change. If you’re looking to do a big change there’s always something you that hasn’t been thought through very well I’ve not seen any change in my whole career that has gone 100% on time in full. That doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been good people working within it, it just hasn’t. There’s always some things, that can be around certain processes taking longer, certain energy fields, certain structures, certain other disruptions which have not been part of that. So there are other things to take into account outside of your control. But I think it’s pilot small, pilot big and then roll out.

Kerry: Okay, yeah, it is important to be able to take learnings from each stage and improve. What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?

Keith: Oh blimey, there’s a lot of people that want to tell you a lot of things. I think one of the things that when finding that my vocation one of the things that sticks in my mind is actually something an old boss said to me. He actually resonates with me as a senior leader in supply chain and something that I don’t get too hung up on and that is that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan and for me that resonates to me because it taught me that I’ll never be a hero in supply chain. I will never be a hero because everything I do right yeah, I can do a 99.9% service level and we don’t high five that, we look at the 0.1%. The 99 loads that go out today that get delivered on time, but the one load that gets held up in a motorway accident, that’s the one we concentrate on. So, it really is around that.

For me and the teams I lead, getting our head around that everybody will want to celebrate the success of the business and you may feel sometimes like you’re left alone to work out the solutions, but actually getting solutions in many heads and many hands really works and that’s where supply chain can really add some value.

Kerry: Alright okay, and then my final question, I can’t believe we’re at question 10 already, what top three skills do you think make a great Supply Chain Director?

Keith: Oh a great supply chain director, the first one is you’ve got to make sure that you are aligned. I think you have to have alignment across many functions you can’t see, as a Supply Chain Director, and make a decision in function, you can’t. You need people from lots of other functions and disciplines that you may or may not own in your role so, you know, different supply chain role zone operations or procurement or material and some don’t. It doesn’t matter whether you own them or not the alignment of commercial, finance, operations seems almost a big, deep, core part of the business is really paramount. That’s very important, also within that, from an alignment point of view, is making sure you communicate well. So you’ve got to really be aligned, it’s not just about telling it’s also about listening and communication on both sides so you learn and communicate well.

The second part that is probably linked to is people, you’ve got to be a really good people person to be a Supply Chain Director. Because you don’t just do things in function and you don’t just do things in your own team and you don’t just spend most of the time with your own team. So you’ve got to be slightly influencing and slightly negotiating sometimes, but really clear in in what you want from people. Maintaining and gaining those relationships at all levels and in all parts of the business is paramount. And I think trying to keep calm in those instances because things do change there are adaptabilities, there are things and you may not be aware of certain things so that’ll be the second point for me.

And then the last point or the third skill I would say, on top of being a broad decision maker, so make some key actions. Don’t just do it individually but make big decisions early because they help you in the long run. Putting off a decision doesn’t really help. So you may want to take extra intelligence, extra data, extra structure, extra advice but most of the time things haven’t changed from you changing that. Another resident of what was actually on a tablet of stone in one of my old bosses offices, is the “time is always now” because it is putting it off is only actually telling you, you gain extra intelligence and extra data that most of the time will confirm the right decision should have been made.

Kerry: That makes perfect sense. Well, we really appreciate your time today Keith. Thank you so much for talking to us about your career. It’s been really fascinating to hear about your role on a day-to-day basis.


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