Forging connections

From the April 2021 print edition

Environments can help to shape people, and Hugo Fuentes’s childhood home did just that. The veteran supply chain and procurement professional and current CEO of The Owl Solutions, a supply chain consultancy, grew up in the Chilean port city of Valparaíso. The city, a major seaport about 120km northwest of Santiago, remains one of the South Pacific’s most important seaports. The city’s port has served as a major stopover for ships travelling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Image: Mike Ford photography

“I’m from there,” says Fuentes, who is now based in Waterloo, Ontario. “That’s the reason my passion for supply chain and logistics started, because I spent most of my days in that place for my first 25 years. And today it’s still a very large port but pretty much focused on exports, like wine. Chile is very well known for wine.”

It was against this cosmopolitan, logistics-driven backdrop that Fuentes began his career
in 2000. His first job was in the maritime industry, working for a large container shipping line called CSAV. He had just graduated in 1999 from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso with a degree in industrial engineering when CSAV hired him as a trainee engineer.

The company ran a program in which it hired five or six engineers into a year-long training program. The engineers would rotate every two or three months to different functions, including operations, sales, marketing and so on.

Fuentes’s first rotation was in procurement, specifically the bunkering division, which is responsible for the supply of fuel to ships. Along with providing an immediate education in procurement, the tasks associated with the position proved exhilarating.

“I felt like I was working on Wall Street,” he says. “We were doing a lot of things like forward buying, evaluating trends, assessing risks and taking options – very exciting at that time.”’

A year later, the company moved Fuentes to a cost control management position in which he acted largely as a bridge between the operations and finance teams. The position involved costing operations worldwide. Similar to the bunkering division, the post proved exciting to the 20-something Fuentes, as the company assigned him to manage cost control for the west coast of South America and the Caribbean.

“I had to travel a lot,” he says. “But it was very nice because I had to visit pretty much all the Caribbean ports, all the South American ports on the West coast. It was very exciting travelling and getting to know different cultures.”

Fuentes worked in that position for a couple of years before deciding to quit. The position was exciting, and those he knew questioned his departure, but Fuentes had long dreamed of studying for a master’s degree and possibly continuing his education abroad.

Fuentes was eventually accepted into the Master of Science, Maritime Economics and Logistics program at the Rotterdam School of Management. He began the course in 2002, moving to the Netherlands with his new wife for what felt like an extended honeymoon.

The young family returned to Chile the following year, where Fuentes was rehired at CSAV as global transportation manager. After a few years, the company offered him the position of director of operations and logistics at its branch in Mexico. The family, which now included the first of four children, moved to Mexico City in 2006. He worked for CSAV there for about two-and-a-half years.

“It was very exciting because I had to negotiate a lot of contracts with ports in the country and all the rail companies and tracking companies,” he says.

While Fuentes was still based in Mexico City, a consumer packaged goods (CPG) company named Tresmontes Lucchetti in Chile with operations across Latin America, offered him a position as supply chain director. The company wanted someone to help the existing team to design and implement a new distribution network.

After about five years working in Mexico City, Feuntes and his family returned to Chile, where the company offered him a global supply chain role, based at their headquarters there.

The opportunity involved implementing a sales and operations planning process (S&OP). After about four years at Tresmontes Lucchetti, a Canadian company named Finning offered Fuentes a position as supply chain director. The company is the largest Caterpillar dealer worldwide, with headquarters in Vancouver. While based in Canada, the organization has sizeable operations in South America due
to the large number of mining sites on the continent. Those operations were situated in Santiago, and from there managed operations in four South American countries. The position seemed like an interesting move for Fuentes, given his experience in transportation and CPG.

“I had the opportunity to learn about something different, which is the more industrial supply chain: spare parts, large mining equipment for big mining companies,” Fuentes says. “I thought it was really interesting.”

After about three years there, another Canadian company called Factors Group of Nutritional Companies offered Fuentes the position of vice-president of global planning and procurement, a position based in Vancouver. The company manufactures vitamins and nutritional supplements such as Webber Naturals, which are sold by large retailers like Costco and Walmart.

By that time, Fuentes and his wife had four children and had just settled back in Chile and bought a house, after almost six years in Mexico City. After considering the offer for several months, Fuentes initially turned it down. But the company eventually made another offer: go to Vancouver for a few days on the company’s tab. See the city and get to know the company better. If Fuentes reconsidered the job, the discussion could continue. If not, no hard feelings.

“I discussed it with my wife and said ‘well, I think it’s a good chance. Let’s go and see. If not, at least it’s a trip to get to know Vancouver,’” says Fuentes.

The family spent two days in Vancouver visiting the company’s operations and exploring the city. They returned to Chile afterwards, with Fuentes ultimately deciding to accept the position. The move would allow the children to learn English, along with living in a different country. He continued the position for three-and-a-half years, until 2018, when he started his own business, called The Owl Solutions.

The name comes from Fuentes’s admiration for owls, and some of the animal’s attributes can be reimagined for business. Owls have great vision, a reputation for wisdom, can see in the dark and are excellent, silent hunters. Fuentes sees this as representative of hunting for efficiencies and savings in business. An owl’s ability to rotate its neck 270 degrees also offers an apt metaphor for supply chain visibility.

Fuentes says he started the company to help supply chain decisionmakers increase their awareness of what’s happening in their operations. For example, many organizations monitor their key business metrics on a weekly, sometimes monthly, basis. But whether due to a lack of resources, support, tools or other reasons, the level of detail they get is often superficial, Fuentes says. Supply chain professionals risk unexpected hazards along the way.

“The idea was to find a way to help professionals to have fewer bad surprises,” says Fuentes, who has been based in Waterloo, Ontario since the middle of 2019. “To face fewer situations where they were uninformed, they were not ready and not prepared for those circumstances. We created the company to provide some tools and support for these individuals to receive fewer bad surprises and increase their level of awareness about their performance so they can do better.”

A typical day for Fuentes centres around building connections with customers, talking to people in the industry, learning from their challenges and providing perspective on how they might improve in their operations. As the CEO of a company he founded, Fuentes must also take care of the day-to-day business.

Different cultures
Among the highlights of his career, Fuentes points to the opportunities he’s had to work
in different industries and cultures across South America, the Caribbean and now North America. Working in the CPG industry was also a highlight, as he enjoyed the environment. The concept of speed-to-market and the complexity of issues to be dealt with were especially enjoyable. In particular, Fuentes recalls a project while in Mexico that he and a team were tasked with to develop an entire supply chain and distribution network.

“We had the responsibility for delivering full truckloads to Walmart and making sure we delivered one small box of product to a very distant location in the middle of nowhere,” Fuentes says. “That was our respon­sibility and our accountability. That was very rewarding.”

Another highlight is that, throughout his career, Fuentes has helped organizations implement sales and operations planning (S&OP). This process is appealing since it helps align people around an outcome while promoting communication within an organization, he says.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed his day-to-day work life drastically, Fuentes notes. When the pandemic was declared in March 2020, he had recently started The Owl Solutions. Practically overnight, everything got tougher.

“At the time I was visiting customers and trade shows and participating in those activities,” Fuentes recalls. “And all of a sudden, boom. Everything stopped. We had to adapt to a new reality. That was tough.”

Fortunately, the company can deploy all its services and run operations remotely, he adds. The Owl Solutions has customers 10,000km away but can still do business with them. Still, the pandemic has changed things significantly.

Among the areas that COVID-19 has highlighted is the importance of focusing on the important issues, Fuentes says. This requires awareness. With everything that’s happened over the last year, it’s easy to get derailed. Staying focused has become a critical skill.

“The pandemic has reminded us that that’s critical,” he says. “In supply chain, with all the complexity, with all the things you have to deal with every day, staying focused is key.”

The importance of communication, monitoring and alignment has also risen to the surface during the pandemic, Fuentes says. Supply chain professionals now realize that some practices must evolve; for example, many have realized the importance of more real-time, granular data when looking at the business. Companies that had a S&OP process and better ways to delve into the details before the pandemic hit have had better outcomes and results, he says.

“They have to understand what’s going on in the business because I believe that the supply chain devil is in the details,” Fuentes says. “I truly believe that. If you’re not equipped in your organization to really get to those details in a simple and effective way, you’re going to suffer.”

In 2020, Supply Chain Canada recognized Fuentes as one of the Canadian Immigrants Impacting Supply Chain. The accolade was an honour not only since it was recognition in a country that had recently accepted him and his family, but it allows Fuentes to offer an example to his children that hard work pays off. He tells his children that there are no limits to what can be achieved. But you must first imagine what you’d like your life to be and don’t be afraid to take the steps to get there.

The nomination also coincided with a two-decade journey in the profession. “I think it was a really nice opportunity for me and I’m really proud of that,” he says.

Supply chain management is his passion, Fuentes says, and he plans to continue working with supply chain professionals to help them succeed. His vision for the future of the profession is that many more companies will have CEOs from supply chain and operations roles in the next decade. He looks forward to helping those future CEOs influence how their teams work and deliver results.

Fuentes notes that more people are realizing how important business data is for improved decision making. He sees that as “the fourth business pillar” around which organizations are built, alongside people, process and technology.

“I’m excited because I’m seeing that folks in supply chain are understanding this better,” he says. “They’re trying to take action towards incorporating this fourth pillar much more. I’m excited about what this fourth pillar is going to bring for supply chain and for professionals in the field.”

Fuentes is an avid sports fan and plays tennis. He was also a Boy Scout for 15 years, starting when he was eight. He moved up to become a group leader at 23 years old. He credits the organization, in which he managed and organized activities for up to 30 kids, with providing him with many of his leadership skills.

Supply chain and procurement remain great areas in which to seek a career, Fuentes stresses. Challenges abound, and hardly a day goes by without something new to deal with. Yet he also notes that some people may benefit from thinking twice before jumping into the profession.

“If you’re a person that doesn’t like to solve problems, or you get overwhelmed by facing complex situations, perhaps it’s going to be too much for you,” he says. “Maybe you could evaluate other options.”

Yet the field offers rewards, Fuentes notes. Supply chain is like the engine for many organizations, and there are opportunities to create value for customers and the business.

“If you like that, that’s great – it’s the greatest place to be,” he says. “But I think first you need to evaluate yourself and assess whether you have those characteristics.”

Supply chain also requires many of the skills needed to thrive in today’s world, Fuentes notes. That includes critical thinking, like judging and evaluating situations before making decisions; a focus on details; and listening more while talking less. Anyone can improve listening skills, Fuentes says. It’s a matter of staying aware of the situation. “Technical things you can learn,” he says. “But the three things that I mentioned are critical skills that for me are really relevant today in the future of supply chain.”

The year has been tough and supply chain and procurement have faced hardships, Fuentes says. But those in the field have done excellent work keeping goods and services flowing.

Fuentes stresses that while supply chain and procurement continue to evolve, practitioners shouldn’t fear advancing technologies. While it’s common to hear about robotics, advanced analytics and other forms of automation, people will remain at the centre of the profession, he says. Continuous learning is a key to dealing with an evolving supply chain landscape.

“Changes are inevitable, but we can always be better prepared – that’s the message at the end.”