From the December 2020 print edition
If the planet and human activity were a living body, supply chains would represent the blood vessels that shuttle value to different areas.
“That’s how I see it,” says purchasing manager Katya Vladykina. “That’s why supply chain can’t be isolated. It can’t just be supportive or clerical. It’s a part of the entire picture of business strategy.”
Yet like many, Vladykina, who now works for Vancouver-based Varsteel Ltd., got her start in the field rather by accident. As a student attending Irkutsk State University, close to the Mongolian border in her native Russia, she hadn’t yet considered a career in supply chain or procurement. As recently as 10 years ago, supply chain wasn’t yet widely viewed as the potential career path it has since become, Vladykina says. That’s part of the reason why so many enter supply chain having worked in other professions first.
“Whereas nowadays I see it’s changing,” she says. “We now have professional associations and institutes that teach supply chain as a profession. Many young professionals come with this educational background.”
But if the world is similar to a living body, Vladykina has always been intrigued by how that body works. That interest led her to study political science and international affairs, a field in which she eventually earned a master’s degree. Despite her interest, Vladykina was unsure early on what career path to take. But in her third year of university, she had an opportunity to travel to China for a month during the summer. Her study speciality was Russian-Chinese relations and she had long been interested in Asia.
“Plus, geographically I come from a city which is very close to the Russian-Mongolian border and just a three-hours flight from Beijing,” she says. “Geographically the two countries always had a very strong connection in terms of international students and other types of business, like trade.”
The trip also helped her to realize that while she had gained theoretical knowledge at school, there were still gaps in what she knew that she wanted to fill. After graduation she travelled again to China and studied for another year.
In 2011 she began working at a Chinese company called ESH Corporation as an e-commerce specialist. While the position was unrelated to her educational speciality, it nonetheless provided a great opportunity to practice Chinese.
“I became very fluent in written and spoken Mandarin, which is the official language,” Vladykina says. “Because it was a Chinese company it gave me a great understanding of the culture, of Chinese business culture, how they communicate, how colleagues and management communicate with each other, which is very different in each culture and very different here in Canada.”
Supply chain first steps
While still working at ESH Corporation and contemplating what career to choose, a European businessman in China offered Vladykina a job with a small but international trading company called STEELemotion, specializing in metal distribution. Headquartered in London, UK, the company was looking for young, enthusiastic employees to help grow its business in China. Vladykina gradually gathered more and more responsibility within the organization’s China operation. The company employed between three and five staff in the country, and the work was tough with long hours. But Vladykina was able to gain responsibility in several aspects of the business.
“That’s why it was a terrific opportunity, it shaped me as a professional,” she says. “It polished my skills and gave me a solid understanding of how international trade works.”
Working in metal distribution, Vladykina could travel around China and visit steel and aluminum mills while working with Chinese engineers. That gave her the opportunity to learn about steel making and gain a solid technical knowledge of the process. She also had opportunities to learn how other areas of the supply chain worked.
“I went to many ocean ports, I saw how it all works, how the transportation system works, how different modes of transportation work,” she says. “I learned customs, exports, imports, financial transactions and different methods of payments and how it affects the business.”
Vladykina also spoke with customers in Europe and the US, trying to understand their needs and what they were looking for, what they could buy locally. She worked for STEELemotion for three years. Her tenure there helped her realize that while she had little interest in a sales career, she enjoyed working with suppliers. She became interested not just in the procurement aspect of the field, but the entire supply chain – from manufacturing to delivering to the customer. She also gained an appreciation of supply chain’s international, global aspects. This appreciation is what led her to decide on supply chain as her chosen field.
Vladykina lived and worked in China for six years. While she still held a deep appreciation for the culture, she had come to realize that China – and Asia more generally – was not where she ultimately wanted to live. As she thought about where that might be, Vladykina began meeting Canadians who were in China for business or other reasons. Among those were Canadians from British Columbia who told her about Vancouver. She began researching the city on her own.
“That’s how I ended up applying for Canadian permanent residency from China,” she says. “Once I got my paperwork settled, I just moved to Canada.”
Vladykina now lives in Vancouver, which she chose in part because of its large Chinese community. As of 2011, Vancouver was home to 450,000 people of Chinese origin – living in such a city seemed a good way to keep up her Chinese language skills.
“I always had this type of thinking. I have no regrets. It’s a beautiful city, though I don’t need my Mandarin much,” she says with a laugh.
Vladykina moved to Canada in 2016 with no job offer lined up. Doing business in North America is quite different from Asia, so she invested a lot of time in researching, talking to people, networking and trying to understand how things work here. The search didn’t take long, and within three months of applying she landed a position as a procurement manager with Varsteel, a metal distributor. After two years she took another purchasing manager position, this time at Ebco Industries, a custom manufacturing company providing heavy metal fabrication, heavy machining and other services.
“I’ve never worked for a huge corporation or company – I’ve always worked for small- or medium-sized companies,” she says.
“This is probably my strength now, that I can build supply chain-procurement strategy for small- to mid-sized businesses.”
At Ebco she now works with a wide variety of goods and services within steel manufacturing, she says, and her daily routine covers areas including supply chain, procurement and project management. She works with the sales team, as well as the production and engineering departments to determine what’s required to complete each project and to optimize costs. Vladykina also works with the logistics team to get products to the company’s facility and, ultimately, to the customer.
With no two days the same, time management and planning are crucial, she says. Vladykina tries to manage a dynamic environment by planning out each day in advance. Much of the day is spent on paperwork, replying to emails and making calls. She also spends time on the shop floor monitoring progress, finding out what’s needed as well as what, if any, problems there are and trying to solve them. Quality control is also a large part of her daily work, as is monitoring global trends and news such
as exchange rates.
Vladykina particularly enjoys the hands-on nature of her profession. She has learned much by visiting ports, boarding cargo vessels and talking to their captains and crews and seeing how different types of cargo are transported. “It’s not directly connected to my job but this experience is something I’m proud of, talking to different people in other fields,” she says.
Visiting steel mills has also been a highlight of her career, Vladykina says. Watching liquid iron ore pour into the furnace and oxygen being removed, learning what is needed for certain steel alloys has been a fascinating experience for her.
“It’s huge, it’s hot, it’s dirty and dusty, but this is such a terrific, beautiful experience,” Vladykina says. “I’m very proud to work with my team of engineers who are very smart people. They explain to you why this little screw is so important for this project and how many certifications are required. You’d think, ‘who cares? You’re paying just five bucks for a bolt, let’s say. Who cares about all the certificates?’ But it’s very important how this bolt becomes part of a vessel or part of a gate for a local dam for hydro power. I value every day of my professional life.”
Vladykina was also included in Supply Chain Canada’s list of Immigrants Impacting Supply Chain, released earlier this year. Her current employer nominated her for the initiative, which is designed to recognize immigrants who “demonstrate pioneering spirit, relentless drive and visionary leadership” in the field.
“It’s an honour. I’m very proud of that,” she says. “It’s brought so many other people into my life – great, talented professionals. We are now talking and learning from each other and sharing experiences and ideas.”
Yet, immigrants must use more effort to achieve the same professional results as Canadians born here, she says. Immigrants go through more work and stress when learning about the country and culture, for instance. She recommends new Canadians do some homework before arriving, although she warns that their actual experiences here may differ from what they expect.
“It’s work to become part of society and it’s work to be of value,” Vladykina says. “We want to be of value to our communities, to the country where we live. It’s great to be recognized for that.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected practically every aspect of our professional and private lives – a situation which Vladykina notes Canadian supply chains were simply not prepared for. Yet, the pandemic can help them to change and become stronger. The importance of those supply chains is now more evident than ever.
Vladykina also recalls the railway strikes that began in late February, which highlighted the gaps in the Canadian supply chain between the country’s East and West Coasts. It’s currently less expensive to ship from Asia via ocean than to do so from Canada’s East Coast, she notes. Hopefully, the pandemic shows the importance of a strong transportation system across the country.
“COVID-19 will probably help us to improve those weaknesses and gaps we have in supply chain as a profession,” she says.
The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of agility for supply chain professionals, Vladykina notes. The ability to react quickly to changing circumstances is probably the most important trait to nurture as supply chain seeks to establish itself as a strategic partner in business.
“Life is changing, and many jobs are becoming obsolete,” she says. “We talk more and more about automation and technology these days. I don’t think we’re going back to life as it was before COVID. We’re going to have something new. It’s stressful for all of us and many people were hit harder by COVID than others. But this is a part of life, I believe. This is how progress and innovation comes.
It can be painful sometimes.”
Vladykina describes herself as someone “very hungry for life,” curious and always looking to learn. She supports lifelong learning, a message she consistently passes along to her younger brother and sister. This means not only academic learning – any type of knowledge, gained anywhere, can be helpful.
She is also a very outdoorsy person, enjoying hiking, camping, boating and, during non-pandemic times, road trips and travel.
At the same time, she describes herself as an introvert. While she must be extroverted in her job, for example during negotiations, she also enjoys time spent at home with a book on the weekends.
Along with being adaptable, skill in negotiations is important for supply chain professionals to develop, Vladykina says. This makes her education relevant to her profession in ways that might not be obvious at first. Her first lessons in negotiation came during university while studying international relations. Supply chain is often a global pursuit, and negotiations require acceptance and understanding of the other party.
“This is what I’m always trying to do with our vendors,” she says. “I try to learn their business – the problems they face, the challenges they face, how they operate. It gives me a chance to adapt, to adjust my work and to find ways to prepare us to do better, to optimize our costs and so on. I believe my education helps me a lot in my profession now, even if it’s not that obvious.”
For those considering supply chain as a profession, Vladykina shares three words: go for it. Supply chain has few limits, and a career in the field can be much broader than one might think. Looking at the bigger picture can help. At the same time, stay vigilant against getting lost if your goal is too big and too broad. Always be focused on what’s important. And while certain practical skills are necessary, networking is an important component to success in the field. For her part, Vladykina is always willing to offer guidance to those who reach out to her with questions.
“I’m always happy to share my vision,” she says. “I’ll never say that my opinion is always the best or the right opinion. But as we share, we can probably find a good solution to certain issues and problems together.”