Executive Spotlight: Mitch Plesha, Senior Director of Distribution, Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers


Executive Spotlight: Mitch Plesha – Senior Director of Distribution for Raising Cane’s

Interview conducted by Amanda Pape, 2nd year MBA Student at Texas Christian University

July 18, 2019

Amanda Pape (AP): Thank you for joining me today. To get us started, could you tell me a little bit about your background and the roles that you've had that led you to where you are?

Mitch Plesha (MP): Sure. I went to undergraduate school at Miami University (in Ohio) and majored in Operations Management specifically to learn how to work through bottlenecks, whether it’s in a production process, supply chain, or logistics. I came out of Miami and took a position in Chicago working for DSC logistics. I started off in warehouses working with co-packing lines and helping lay out warehouses and just really got into that side of the business. Later, I got the opportunity to move out to Colorado and work for Coors Brewing. There I had a whirlwind of training and did everything from financial forecasts and looking at packaging materials to planning and labor scheduling. Then I went into their supply chain group and helped them look at the distribution network. We went from 26 distribution centers (DC) down to six and had the chance to go through all those transitions and learn about freight into and out of those DCs.

We had a great experience, but I’d started a family and we wanted to move back East so I took a job with Penske Logistics. Penske’s supply chain group was basically a supply chain engineer and project manager, so It was a phenomenal opportunity to go work in some different industries, look at people's supply chains and distribution networks (inbound and outbound), so I got to learn about everything from newspapers, automotive, and pipe manufacturers and to companies like Mission Foods to Jason's Deli and Starbucks, which gave me a taste of food distribution. Eventually I went to a company called LandAir, doing something very similar to [Penske] working with John Deere, Colgate, and Eastman Chemicals. Eventually I got to the point where I said, “Look I love all this stuff, but I'm traveling all the time, I love my family, and I'd like to be home.” So, I started looking around Dallas to see what were the best companies to work for, some place that's growing and where I'm not going to be bored and Raising Cane’s rose to the top of my list. Luckily I had a mutual contact there and when this position came up I made the jump. That was just over two years ago and it's been great!  With the pace that Cane’s is growing and with all the different projects going on, it's never been the same two days and it's been a fun place to work.

AP: Are there any skills that you feel have helped you progress within your career? For example, what would you tell a student or someone who's looking to follow a similar career path.

MP: I think one big piece is to get comfortable with data—being able to pull detailed data and roll that up to a meaningful level, usually in Excel, to show why a decision makes sense is a very important skill. Communication is also important. I remember that I had communication classes as an undergrad. In it they taught us how to write effective emails, how to list out your ideas as bullet points, and how to make a 1-2-page long business case that you can take to any level in the company to explain your idea. That's also another related skill that I’d strongly recommend.

AP: What does your average day looks like? For example, on LinkedIn you're work is shown as a Cashier, Fry Cook, and then Senior Director of Distribution. Are you cooking fries on a regular basis in addition to working in supply chain?

MP:  I am for at least two days a year. That's a huge focus point for Cane’s—we all start off as fry cooks and cashiers, which goes back to my starting an operations and distribution. You can't ask a distributor or warehouse employee to go pick an order a certain way or make a delivery a certain way if you don't understand how it impacts their job—at least that's the way I feel.  Since I worked in the warehouse and I’ve driven a delivery truck, I know how those things operate and what a driver does helps me know if what I'm asking them is realistic or not. So, when you start at Cane's, everyone spends a minimum of two weeks working in a restaurant. My first two weeks on the job I learned how to make toast, French fries, and chicken and then how to put it all together and serve guests at the front counter and in the drive-thru. I learned how to take out the trash and every other job in the restaurant. We've all done it and that's why we understand how our work supports and impacts those restaurant operators every single day. Every year we spend two days in a restaurant to recertify ourselves so that we remember what it's like and to get back in touch with that operation. This really guides me a lot and when I go into those restaurants and sit down with our operators, I can better understand their pain points. 

To go back to your question about what a typical day is like, I realize that I haven't had two days that have been the same. I have yet to have a boring day and I’ve only probably had one bad day over the last two years. For my job, every day I must have a balance of strategic objectives—things we're trying to work on and making progress on those objectives—as well as what's gone wrong and things that needs to be addressed today. In the distribution world, you could have chicken that came from the plant and the bags weren't sealed correctly, which caused early spoilage. I need to figure out how we're going to handle that. We might have issues with a hurricane—one just came through Louisiana, so I need to think about what we are going to do ahead of time. Are we going to push product out to the restaurants? Do we have enough inbound shipments coming in to our distribution centers and are any of those DC’s potentially going to be impacted? If that distribution center is flooded out from the hurricane, what's our backup source? So I’m making sure that we do as much proactive stuff as possible beforehand, so that throughout the storm I’m able to stay in touch with our operators, determine if a restaurant has lost power and whether we need to divert product somewhere else. Then once the restaurant reopens, I need to make sure that we have enough product coming in to them. So we work on things like that which pop-up every day. There's always something different and you just never know what you’re walking in to. 

AP: What are some of the challenges that your organization is experiencing?

MP: One of the things we're looking at is the alignment of our distribution network. Today we have 16 distribution centers. This year we opened new restaurants in Alaska and Hawaii, which meant that we opened two new distribution centers. We know that we're expanding into future markets, so we must prepare for it, determine where the next DC needs to open, and then also factoring in future growth. Right now, Cane’s has over 400 restaurants, but we're opening 75 new restaurants domestically each year. If we’re going to continue to open at that pace, we need to be looking out 18 to 24-months in advance because our network might change. Right now I could have a market that I’m servicing by stretch distribution, meaning they’re five hours away from DC. However, that market two years from now might have 25 restaurants and I’ll need a DC there to support it. So I’m working on finding the best partners and aligning with those partners. We also have a series of smaller things to work on. We implemented a system called FoodLogiQ to help with visibility issues and we also use ArrowStream and so we’re looking at the next versions of those software packages coming out. We’re constantly looking for something we can do better, so we solicit a lot of feedback from our operators. In fact, we're putting together a supply chain conference next spring where we're going to release surveys to everybody that touches Cane’s product from shippers and receiving people, to pickers in the warehouse and delivery drivers, and our restaurant operators. From that we'll put together an advisory panel to identify what are the things that Cane’s is doing well as well as what are the things that we need to be doing differently, along with some of the best practices in the industry. Right now we’re also looking at access to our restaurants because we are very much focused on crew safety, especially at night. So we don't want people propping doors open or accessing the back of the restaurant, because coming in and out of the back of the restaurant is normally something that our crew doesn't do—they come in and out the front doors of the restaurant. However, delivery drivers don’t do that, so we’re looking at how we should make it to where a delivery driver efficiently enters and exits the facility without putting any crew at risk. We're looking at things like key fobs, instead of traditional keys, so that a door stays locked, but if they’re a driver then they just have to touch their fob to the door rather than fumbling with keys. We’re focused on a lot of things, even down to small details like that.

AP: In addition to the key fobs, are there any other types of technology that you've been trying to integrate?

MP: Another big tool we're analyzing is where the industry is going in relation to tracking and tracing product from the supplier all the way through to the restaurants. That could be blockchain, GS1, or a variety of other methods. Learning what the industry is doing and getting aligned on that so for example, if you have a nationwide recall on romaine lettuce (like last year) we can quickly identify where exactly that product has gone. I've been a bit surprised in the industry of just how hard it is to get that visibility from a supplier through a distributor down to the restaurants served by that distributor, including which restaurants got a product and when. I think part of it is because there's so many different suppliers and products moving to a distribution center that the number of interfaces it would require, and the absence of an industry standard makes it challenging. That’s why we [as an industry] have got to figure something out to be able to track that in the future. I think it's going to take somebody like NRA to kind of push everybody together and say this is what's needed across the industry—this is the standard we're going to support—and then aligning and pushing that standard to its members.

AP:  We’ve talked about lots of changes within the industry. In the future, how do you see your role changing?

MP: That's a good question and it’s, in part, why we're hosting our roundtable and advisory board meetings—to figure out what the next big thing is that's out there. When I walked into this role, I was able to do a quick assessment and come up with 20 things I wanted to work on. Some of these things would take a couple of years to get off my list and then the question becomes, “What’s next?” That's why we're looking to our partners and everybody that touches our product to give us feedback. I think for us the challenge is going to be going from 400 to 800 to 1500 restaurants. We've got to add more redundancy and suppliers, but you can't just rely on single sourcing when you’re that size. You must have back-ups. Then the question becomes, “How do you incorporate those backups and how does that impact your supply chain?” Today we manage a lot of our own inbound freight from suppliers and our distribution centers. There are efficiencies in that and in moving larger volumes, but as we keep adding more suppliers, we add more origin points. How do we continue to keep that efficiency high? How do we seamlessly move from one supplier to another or back and forth between suppliers without impacting our final guest or our operators? That’s the piece of it where I think we'll see more and more technology coming into play.

AP: Given all the different experiences that you've had, across various industries, what skills would you say were the top transferable skills that you were able to develop along the way?

MP: The top one is being able to see the smaller details, while understanding how they impact the big picture. Another one is being able to sit down and talk to people to get an understanding of what it is they do each day along with what they think they're doing well and what they think their challenges are.

AP: Last, but certainly not least… If you were you were sitting where I’m sitting now, as a current supply chain student, what do you wish you would have known? Are there any words of wisdom that you’d like to share?

MP: Coming out of undergraduate, I had a great mentor that helped me evaluate companies, job offers, and stuff like that. I think some of the advice he gave me is what I would pass on: take every opportunity to go get new experiences—especially straight out of college before you start having family and other commitments; take the jobs that let you travel around and see different companies—the more places you can get into and the more things you can see the better. Eventually when you decide to settle down into a role you'll have that many more different things that you can apply to it.