Rising to the challenge

From the October 2019 print edition

When Alma Arzate was little she dreamed not of supply chain but of medicine. Her childhood ambition was to become a doctor and she even worked as a volunteer paramedic while still living in Mexico. Like many others, it was by happenstance that she applied for and got a position in the field, a decision she made only after encouragement from a manager at the time.

Image: John Packman Photography

The decision has served her well. Since entering the field, she has relocated to Canada, risen to become global director, supply planning at Apotex Inc and has been named to the top 100 influential women in her field, among other accomplishments.

And yet, Arzate notes, when looking to advance their careers, women often hold back if they don’t check every possible qualification box. Other sources support that claim—for example, a 2014 blog post by Tara Sophia Mohr in the Harvard Business Review says that men apply for a job when they meet 60 per cent of the qualifications, while women apply only to openings if they meet 100 per cent. The statistic, from an internal Hewlett Packard report, has also been cited in books such as Lean In, by Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg.

But not having all the answers can be a strength, stresses Arzate. “I’m sure we have all been put in positions before where we didn’t have past experience, and we made up for our lack of experience with passion, creativity, perseverance and collaboration,” she says. “As women, we just need to keep reminding ourselves we are more than capable to rise to any challenge.”

While she has faced her share of such challenges during her career, Arzate has also risen to meet them. Earlier this year, she was named to the Supply Chain Canada’s (formerly the Supply Chain Management Association) first ever 100 Influential Women in Canadian Supply Chain list. She and the other winners were honoured at the organization’s annual national conference in Montreal in June. At the request of Supply Chain Canada’s president and CEO, Christian Buhagiar, she also gave a speech on behalf of the winners at the celebratory breakfast ceremony held at the conference.

“I had to reflect on what being named into the first-ever list meant to me and to others,” she says of the speech. “To me, besides being an honour, it has also served as a recognition for the challenging journey that brought me where I am today, and I also shared this recognition with my husband, Jesus, who has been supporting me every step of the way.”

A start in business
That journey began in Ciudad Juarez, the most populous city in Chihuahua state, Mexico. Ciudad Juarez is sister city to El Paso, Texas, and the two cities and surrounding areas host the operations of a number of large, multinational companies. It also has several maquiladora—which are factories run by a foreign company that export products to the country in which that company is based. These factories operate largely duty and tariff free.

Despite this international environment, Arzate notes that supply chain was never really a career option she considered. Despite her childhood interest in medicine she decided in high school to get a business degree, encouraged by her mother, Dora, who showed her classified ads from maquiladora companies looking to hire those with a bachelor of business administration. It simply seemed like a practical path.
Supply chain also wasn’t highlighted as a career choice while she attended the Technological Institute of Ciudad Juarez (ITCJ), where she earned her BBA, or the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez (UACJ), where she got her MBA. But when a vacancy for a buyer, indirect procurement position arose at the company she worked for, her manager encouraged her to apply. At the time, she had experience largely in the finance area. But the hiring manager took a chance, Arzate says, and offered her the job.

“I really enjoyed the fast pace, how every day brought me different challenges to overcome, and how I was able to make tangible contributions to the success of the business—I was hooked!” she says.
By the mid-2000s, Arzate and her family made the decision to relocate to Canada. This, she now says, was her biggest challenge in her over 20 years in supply chain. After about four years of back-and-forth processing, Arzate, her husband and their (then two) children were granted Canadian permanent residency status in 2005.

But the family had to return to Mexico after their initial landing in Canada, as they weren’t yet ready to make the final move. Arzate had to remain at her job in Mexico as a supply chain manager for Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices for another year and a half. Finally, an opportunity arose at a J&J subsidiary in Canada, and Arzate applied. She had been monitoring job alerts for four years, but no solid opportunities had come up until then.

“I did well in the interview process, which you could say was the most important interview of my life,” Arzate says. “After sorting out some logistical challenges I was offered a job as a project manager, new product launch, in Toronto. We relocated in 2007.”

The physical relocation to Canada was the easy part of the process, she says. The real challenge surrounded integrating into the Canadian culture and workplace. On top of having to establish good working relationships with office peers and superiors, the family’s first winter in Canada was a harsh one. Arzate was pregnant, her son’s lack of English meant he struggled to find friends at school and her daughter began speech therapy. The family had no friends in Canada and no ties to the local community.
“We didn’t know where to get our hair cut, or where to buy our favourite food; even getting our driver’s licences was a long and complicated ordeal.”

But as she was able to demonstrate a solid performance, Arzate was promoted to manager, project management in 2009, then to senior manager, supply chain in 2011. That helped her land a role as a director, supply chain planning in 2012 with Apotex Inc, a pharmaceutical manufacturer in Toronto. She is now global director, supply planning, for the company.

No day typical
And like many in supply chain, Arzate stresses that few if any days qualify as “typical.” Collaboration, resiliency and perseverance are among the key traits that must be developed to succeed in the field long term. While some challenges can be resolved quicker than others, not knowing what lies around the next corner comes with the job.

Generally, a day in supply chain for Arzate involves lots of emails, several meetings and face-to-face conversations, comparing KPI results with targets, discussing talent and development planning with managers, along with reviewing the status of projects and initiatives. “I’m lucky I have a chance to work with a world-class team that’s as passionate about continuous improvement as I am,” Arzate says. “There are, of course, standard business processes and reporting going on, but no one day is exactly the same as the prior one, and that’s one of the main reasons why I really enjoy what I do. It keeps me on my toes!”

Facing these daily challenges still didn’t prepare her for the surprise last February when she got an email from Supply Chain Canada’s Buhagiar saying that she had been named to the 100 Influential Women in Canadian Supply Chain. At first, she says, she thought the message was a prank, but then recovered enough to check that the message was real. “When I met Christian a few months later at the 2019 Supply Chain Canada National Conference and Awards Gala in Montreal, he told me that most of the honourees reacted the same way,” Arzate says. “We just could not believe we were being recognized.”
The recognition paved the way for Arzate to join Supply Chain Canada and begin a role as a volunteer regional advisor for York Region, north of Toronto. She was also a guest speaker at the Ontario chapter’s

“Take the Lead: Women in Supply Chain” conference in London, Ontario. She was asked to join its member engagement committee, which reports to the board of directors, and works to ensure the Ontario Institute’s strategic plan is executed properly, and members are involved, engaged and continue to advance the profession. She officially joined the committee in September.

As she shared the honour on social media, other internationally trained supply professionals who now call Canada home contacted her to say her recognition gave them hope that they too could achieve their dreams.

Arzate remains positive about the supply chain sector and her place in it. And while she has over 20 years of experience in industries including automotive, electronics, medical devices CPG and pharma industries, she is always looking to explore new areas and hone her skills. In the years to come, Arzate hopes to continue adding value and taking on challenges that will offer her an expanded scope and increased responsibilities.

Along with her supply chain career, Arzate is a mother of three children: a 20-year-old son, Jesus, attending York University in Toronto, a 14-year-old daughter Victoria attending Grade 9 pre-AP high school and another daughter Gabriella, 11, who is in Grade 7. She met her husband Jesus while volunteering as a paramedic (EMT) for the Mexican Red Cross. Her husband was an ambulance driver and EMT team leader at the time. These days, each of the couple’s children have their own activities and need support at different levels, she says. On top of that, the family includes a six-year-old diabetic dog and a rescued tabby cat, age 12.

“You get the idea of how busy life at home can become at times,” she says. “That means that I must get creative when it comes to carving out some me time.”

Arzate does that through audiobooks, which help her transition from work to home and back again. She thanks her father, Rogelio, for encouraging her love of books when she was young. He would buy her comics and short stories when she was little, moving later to broader topics and larger books. Her father, she notes, was cultured and well-read despite never finishing university. “We were a middle-class family growing up, my mom being a kindergarten teacher and my dad working for the Mexican government, so we weren’t able to take too many vacations,” Arzate recalls. “Books were my ticket to new worlds and allowed me to use my imagination and enrich my perspectives in life. Once I grew up and started working, I was able to travel and meet a lot of interesting people. But my love of books always remained strong.”

While Arzate can’t read physical books as often due to her schedule, she switched to audiobooks about 10 years ago. Since then they’ve become her commuting companions, and she’s now able to browse the e-library aisles and check out any topics or authors that catch her interest. A recent book is Matt Richtel’s An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System.

“Reading books that are unrelated to my profession allows me to expand my horizons, which in turn helps me bring fresh perspectives and insights to what I do every day.”

The term “supply chain management” can seem confusing to those new to the profession, Arzate points out. But the field becomes more relatable once you realize the impact it has on the daily lives of most people. Food, clothing, electronics and many other products rely on the interconnected network of activities that brings goods and services to consumers, she says.

Talent needed
There’s also a sizable shortage of supply chain talent, both now and into the foreseeable future, Arzate notes. Finding and retaining that talent remains a major focus of leaders in the field, she says, counselling those new to the profession not to limit themselves to one position or industry. There are several ways to gain more experience and hone skills—on-the-job training, coaching and mentoring, advanced education, along with professional designations like the SCMP—that can help those looking to take on more advanced roles in the field. Supply chain career choices cover a broad spectrum and the skills that can be learned are transferable across many careers and industries, Arzate says. High demand also means employers will offer competitive compensation for those skills.

For those considering supply chain as a career, Arzate suggests simply giving it a try. After all, she notes, what’s the worst that can happen? Those who decide supply chain isn’t for them can always change fields. But they can still keep the experience, which can prove valuable and transferable to other professions.

And what about those who end up loving supply chain and decide to stick with it?

“Then you can gain the satisfaction of helping resolve the many challenges that come with it, working your way through the many pathways until you become an expert in your field, and ensuring that supply chain becomes a competitive advantage for your company,” Arzate says. “Trust me, the journey is fun and rewarding. You will not regret it!”