Executive Spotlight: Kathy Smith, Procurement & Supply Chain Executive

Professional Development

SCS: Tell us about your background in supply chain – the roles you've had and how you got to now.

KS: My career started in operations and I spent ten years managing restaurants. I managed my first restaurant at the age of seventeen and was in a very unique position prior to being promoted. It was a challenge because all of a sudden I was managing my peers and that was a great learning experience for me. After spending 10 years in restaurant operations, I was looking for something different. By then I was with Red Lobster in operations, and I was looking to change fields. As I continued to grow a little older, I  looked forward and said, "Okay, can I see myself doing this in ten years?" and the answer was no. So I worked with my director of operations and they invested in me. I went back to school while working full time just to learn the basic skills that you needed for an office job.  From there, I took an entry level position into Darden's corporate office. Sometimes in your career, you have to take a step back to take a step forward. So I went in to an entry level role and spent a couple of years doing that. From there, I was quickly promoted into an associate buyer's position for Darden, a newly created role at the time. In that role I took on all the different items the seasoned buyers did not have an opportunity to spend time on and that was a hodgepodge of stuff. One of my first negotiations was with olives for the Olive Garden. I was able to take $1,000,000 out of the costs for olives and that was a big win for me.  Shortly after that, I was promoted to a buyer role and from there I took on some additional responsibilities.

KS: I was in that buying role for a period of time and then I took on concept development. That allowed me get involved in everything relative to what it took to build out Seasons 52 including the design and everything that was being purchased. I spent 2 years in a commodities buyer and concepts support role when the chief supply chain officer at the time and the director of supply chain actually worked with me to put together my career path, which included going back and getting my degree. All of this happened when AmeriServe was going bankrupt. So you can imagine we were working seven days a week, there were no days off. Really putting in the effort, I was able to get a four year degree in a little bit less than three years. After I got my degree, I stayed at Darden about two years. Then, McDonald's was looking to get into the casual dining space and they reached out to me. I went to work for McDonald's on the global supply chain side building out the logistics and the procurement infrastructure for all new concepts. After spending three years on concept development for McDonald's, I moved over to the US side of the business and I supported all of their high profile new restaurant product launches. That included salads, chicken, kids menu and Angus Burgers. McDonald's has a big footprint. Procurement was more than strategic buying and it took a lot of planning - things like contracting land, contracting seeds, working directly with farmers. So it went really deep to be able to support the 14,000 restaurants that they had in the United States. After six years with McDonald's, three years on the U.S. global side, three years on the domestic side, I was looking to make a move for personal reasons back to Florida. And with that I was very fortunate. Networking is so important in the industry and once people knew that I was looking for something different, both Darden and Smokey Bones reached out to me. Smokey Bones was actually in the process of being divested by Darden. That was a very unique opportunity to go after. I would say making that move for my career was probably one of the best things that I could have done as it afforded me the opportunity to lead and contribute to many parts of the business above and beyond procurement and supply chain. After spending 4 years at Smokey Bones, an industry peer that was retiring from his role contacted me for the role at Ruth’s Chris Hospitality Group to lead Procurement and Supply Chain of which I have led for over 10 years.

SCS: Thanks to COVID, everybody now knows what a supply chain is and why it's important. I'm curious to know from your perspective, looking back on the few years, what have you learned or observed in all the chaos?

KS: Supply chain has always kind of been an afterthought in a lot of companies. Some use it as their competitive advantage and some just look at it like a support function. Supply chain is just so important - it is 35 to 40% of the channel! No one else manages that big of a percentage of the P&L, and that needs to be recognized.  So with everything going on in the world, things got real for people who thought that things just magically appeared. Procurement and supply chain is a very strategic role and those at the senior level are recognizing just how important it really is.

SCS: You reference networking. How important was networking and mentorship to your early career growth?

KS: Networking and mentoring is always important! And you don't have to have formal mentors. You can just pick and choose who you admire and who you would like to be most like. And then really observe them, ask them for feedback informally. Mentors are extremely important. One person who helped me with my career path always said, "Never forget to reach back and pull somebody up from behind you."  That really left an impression on me. Networking is extremely important especially when it comes to accessing your network to understand how they're thinking about things and how they're approaching challenges. Learning from others is so much easier than trying to reinvent the wheel yourself.  That's not just for your peers in the industry, but also leveraging your supply partners. They are truly the experts in what they do. So it's important to understand how they are approaching things as well.

SCS: For people who are just  starting out in a supply chain career or those who want to advance in their career, what, what skills can help them most to take it to the next level? Maybe you're a category manager and you want to move into managing people or take on different types of responsibilities. What's your advice on navigating that?

KS: My advice is to learn anything that anyone is willing to teach you and sign up for the things no one wants to do. Put yourself in an uncomfortable position because that's how you're going to grow. Align yourself with the right people in the organization. It's so important to understand the why behind the what, because too many times people get one little piece of information that they're asked to work on and they have no idea how it integrates into the overall strategies of the organization. Ask a lot of questions and know the why behind the what, always. One of my mentors at Darden used to say, "You can't rush green."  Experience comes with time. So you have to mentally absorb that and be okay with that without losing your focus.

SCS: How do you see supply chain changing in the future?

KS:  I think it's going to be more of an emphasis on knowledge and adaptability. When COVID hit, we had every process in place that we could possibly think of, every safety net. But nobody had a playbook for this. Suddenly it was not only just managing your relationships with suppliers to get what you needed, but you had to manage their suppliers as well. Everything got another layer deeper and I think that will continue moving forward. Data and technology is going to continue to grow and be more important. The one thing all of us lost during COVID was any historical data that was relevant. So basically now we're starting to regain that. Anything that you knew to be true in the past relative to usage or what your needs were as an organization was turned upside down. Technology is going to continue to play a big role in this and the more data you can gather the better.

SCS: Anything else you'd like to add?

KS: No one day is the same in supply chain, every day is different. You just have to prioritize what's important and what's not so important. That's really weighing the risks and rewards of what you're faced with at any time. Know your audience and speak their language. For a young supply chain professional, make sure you understand cost drivers because that's what really matters so you can do what's right for your business and your suppliers. Everything has to be measurable if you're going to get credit for it. Always focus on sustained solutions. Know that as you start to grow, the job gets a little bit easier. Once you get into a leadership role and you have people reporting to you, stretch them so they grow, put them in uncomfortable positions, and make it okay if they get it wrong by having a safety net. But the greatest lessons are learned within failure. Challenge your processes by always looking to improve them and finally, my advice is to accept your job is not easy! Strive to stay agile and resilient in all that you do.


Author: Supply Chain Scene