Never shy away

From the August 2021 print edition

Eric Woollings began his supply chain career pretty much when he started working. Even as a teenager, the Waterloo, Ontario resident’s resume already included positions like the warehouses of local department stores and similar jobs. That longstanding interest, combined with an entrepreneurial drive, has fuelled Woollings’s supply chain career ever since.

“The first paid job that I had was working at a Towers department store as a stock clerk,” says Woollings, now senior manager, operations and logistics at Emco Corporation. “There was lots of loading and unloading the trucks, identifying products, picking and putting, putting away and stocking shelves, that sort of thing. Very hands on, very hands in.”

Woollings’s career direction, fuelled by a love of and interest in supply chain and logistics, stands in contrast to many in the field who fall into it from another speciality.

He jokingly describes himself as “one of those rare individuals that actually enjoy what they do. Although, what do they say, if you love your work, you never work a day in your life? Although I still feel like I’m working.”

While now a Waterloo resident for the past 23 years, Woollings grew up in York Region just north of Toronto. After his time at Towers, he worked at Eaton’s, spending time in several departments, including the receiving area and warehouse. The experience gave Woollings a respect for superiors who excelled at managing people. He recalls one store manager who, especially while preparing for the Christmas rush, would remove his jacket and tie and perform physical tasks like moving boxes.

It’s a lesson he has carried with him since when dealing with those on his own team.

“It gives me a real respect and a great amount of trust and rapport with a team, if you’re a leader who is willing to roll up your sleeves and jump in when the need is there,” he says. “I’ve adopted that throughout my career.”

Woollings spent four years at Eaton’s, working there first in high school and continuing while attending Seneca College, studying for a business administration marketing diploma. While a student at Seneca, Eaton’s management asked if Woollings was interested in joining the company’s management trainee program. He accepted, at the same time halting his studies at the college. But Eaton’s cancelled the program before Woollings completed it, forcing him to continue his studies part time at Seneca College through distance learning and night school, while also working full time at Eaton’s.

Along with his time at Seneca College, Woollings has taken a number of additional educational courses to fill in some knowledge or skills gaps. He has completed a project management certification and the Six-Sigma Green Belt.

Woollings worked at a credit card manufacturer in Markham, Ontario after his stint at Eaton’s. The position was in shipping-receiving, where he did mostly clerical tasks along with some driving. Management quickly picked up on his interest in supply chain, giving him some responsibility for load planning and coordinating other areas of the business.

Woollings got married and the couple, who were the parents of twins by this point, began house hunting. High housing prices in the Toronto area drove the couple to search in Waterloo. His wife also had family in the area.

Woollings then took a job at Krug Manufacturing, an office furniture manufacturer in Kitchener. The position focused on operations, and again management there recognized his interest in supply chain. Soon he had graduated to load planning, booking trucks, coordinating routes and similar tasks.

He worked at Krug Manufacturing for over two years before hearing about an opportunity at a then up-and-coming company called Research In Motion.

“I had a brother-in-law that had started there as a software developer two months before and another friend that had just started there on the supply chain side about five weeks before me,” Woollings says. “I thought, if they’re hiring, I’m interested. I quickly jumped on board in February of 2000 and spent the next 17 years there.”

After his bid for employment was successful, Research In Motion initially hired him as a shipper. Within six months, the person that hired him moved to another role. Woollings at first hesitated to apply for the now-vacant postion, since so many others had been with the company longer. But a superior approached him about the position, urging him to apply.

“That gave me the encouragement that I needed, some sort of recognition at least,” Woollings says. “So, I threw my name in and became the manager of that group.”

Research In Motion saw explosive growth over the next few years, Woollings says, with the company being profitable almost in spite of itself. Opportunities for on-the-ground, real-time learning were everywhere. For example, being a member of the team tasked with establishing the import of the company’s products into the EU offered challenges. Around the same time, he was involved in setting up the company’s first US distribution hub, which also meant on-the-job learning opportunities.

For six years Woollings worked as shipping manager at Research In Motion. In 2006 he left that role for an SAP BI analyst position. That position saw him building metrics and developing KPIs for two years before stepping back into a role managing people. Woollings was in that role until 2014, by which time the demand for the Blackberry phone had decreased. The company had stopped being as profitable as it once was and layoffs within the supply chain organization increased. That time proved both the most difficult but also rewarding, as he learned to function effectively and efficiently in a cost-controlled environment. Woollings was also forced to adopt new responsibilities as his peers within supply chain and logistics left either through layoff or retirement.

He eventually took a package and left the company. Woollings had always had an interest in entrepreneurship, and he also wanted a position offering a breadth of operational responsibilities. In 2018 he accepted a position as senior manager, operations and logistics at Emco Corporation, a plumbing wholesale company. The position checked several of the boxes he was looking to fill, including ample responsibilities and the opportunity to work in new areas.

Now, any given day can see Woollings assuming roles like operating a forklift, then switching to answering customer calls and working with vendors and sales. The role involves a bit of several areas, helping to check off many of the boxes he had hoped to fill.

“I get my fingers into anything and everything regarding the business,” Woollings says. “I’m constantly looking at P&L, reviewing the financial numbers on an ongoing basis, trying to control cost. I’m into the hiring and people management side of things, as well as being completely hands in on any given day.”
While the pandemic has upended everyday life and supply chains globally, the past year and a half has been both a busy and successful time at Emco, Woollings notes. While the company expected a 30 per cent drop in revenue, it ended up finishing last year just under its original target. Much of what the company sells was deemed essential. A lesson learned might be to remain more conservative regarding how bad a future downturn might be, Woollings says.

“But we were pretty confident in the fact that we’re in the business of supplying the things that people require in order to get water in or out of their house,” he says. “As long as humans need water, we’re in a pretty good place for still being essential.”

Yet the pandemic has affected the company’s business from the supply side, Woollings adds, as it struggles to get the products it relies on. That includes finished products manufactured overseas, along with products like plastic pipe made with resin, which became difficult to get after winter storms hit Texas in February, disrupting supply chains.

The company then had to decide how to allocate what product it had. To do so, Woollings and his team contacted other Emco outlets, offering to provide them with certain products in exchange for other goods.

Woollings describes the process: “We have more demand for this product, but we’ve all been given equal based on our historical use.

If you can give up some of this, we’ll give you some of this,” he says. “We’re doing a little
bit of the sharing from a supply and procurement perspective.”

Sharing the praise
During his time at Research In Motion, Wool­lings’s performance received recognition, sometimes in the form of money or a small gift. That sort of recognition provided an opportunity to highlight his team’s contribution, he notes. Acknowledgments from higher ups provided opportunities to share that spotlight. In one instance, Woollings used a monetary bonus to hold a backyard barbeque party for his team.

“From my perspective, none of us is successful individually when we have teams,” he says. “In one way or another you’re being supported. If you’re the only one who was officially named on a project, if I was assigning more of my time to be on a project, I was likely delegating more work to someone else while I was doing that.”

Going forward, Woollings would still like to pursue something entrepreneurial, referring to such a pursuit as an itch he’d like to scratch. At one point, he even followed an interest in opening the first local franchise of Chick-fil-A, a fast food chain based in the US. He got through the first three stages of the process before someone else interested in the franchise beat him out.

Beyond that, he hopes to continue to strive in the future for a large breadth of professional experiences. Regardless of what direction his career takes, Woollings wants to continue with the kind of hands-on, sleeves-rolled-up tasks he’s done so far. “I’ve never been one that likes to just sit in the office all day long on a chair,” he says.

While he has no strong desire to spend the time or energy needed to pursue an advanced degree, Woollings continues to take courses related to the field. He recently completed an online supply chain management certificate program at the University of Waterloo. He also works within his network of peers to stay on top of issues affecting the field. During the Brexit debate, for example, Woollings participated in seminars on the subject, talking to seminar leaders about how the process would affect companies looking to use the EU as their entryway into the UK. “I try to keep up to speed on the knowledge even though I’m not living that experience on a day-to-day basis,” he says.

Although short on spare time, Woollings counts woodworking – either refinishing or building pieces from scratch – as an interest that he enjoys when not engaged at work.

He enjoys being busy with his hands, noting his interest in woodworking was inherited from both his grandfathers. He and his brother also inherited the chance to comb through their grandfathers’ workshops after they both passed away, keeping whatever items they thought they would use in the future.

His wife often requests that Woollings take on refurbishing projects. He even sells some of his creations. For example, a neighbour tore down a backyard shed that Woollings knew had been built using 100-year-old barn board from a farm. Since the neighbour planned to throw out the wood, Woollings took it and made several pieces from it, including furniture and picture frames, and ended up selling some of it. And while the pastime provides money, there are other reasons that motivate him to pursue his hobby.

“It keeps me busy,” Woollings says. “It checks off a little bit of the entrepreneurial interest as far as getting an opportunity to sell something. My wife generally takes care of the sales side
of it. I also don’t like the clutter around the house.

“That’s probably my main hobby outside of just time with friends, playing sports, going out golfing when I can. I’m a terrible golfer, I just enjoy the sport. And just spending time at the cottage, spending time with family doing things.”

Woollings and his wife, Vonda, have three children: twins Mikayla and Brianna, both 24, and their 22-year-old sister Kendra. Kendra has been working with her father for the summer, organizing and getting familiar with the product at Emco. There’s plenty to do, as the company is currently adopting an ERP system. Part of the preparation is an inventory of everything in the building, including 9,000 SKUs that must be accounted for within the next few months.

Words of advice
For those looking to start in supply chain or logistics, or already pursuing a career, Woollings stresses the importance of education. That’s especially true as technology morphs. It’s easier for companies to replace employees with machines if they lack the education that company wants, he says. The value of education is a message he’s worked to impress upon his own children.

Another message is to never shy away from work, regardless of the task. Woollings notes the example of the owner of a company he worked at who angrily marched an employee off the property after that employee refused to perform a task they thought beneath them. While not necessarily agreeing with the employer’s response, the scene, and the lesson learned, has stuck with him: if a company employs you, anything they ask you to do is part of your job, regardless of whether it’s the role for which you were hired.

That lesson reminds Woollings of the store manager at Eaton’s who could have employed resources to deal with busy times but instead jumped in to help perform tasks outside of his job description, like unloading trucks.

“If you’re doing that well, no one should ever ask you to pick up the broom and sweep the floor. If you see something that needs to be done, do it. Never shy away,” he says. “Be available
to wherever the need is.