Power through connection

From the June 2024 print edition

Kelly Singleton is not a put-your-head-down, focus-on-paperwork-without-speaking kind of person. For her, professional life is about interacting and collaboration, getting things done when colleagues pull together. She recalls her early days at Price Industries, a Winnipeg-based HVAC company, when she worked a job with little human interaction.

Image: John Packman Photography

“I was literally in a job where you just sort of kept your head down and you were reading drawings and processing them for the factory,” she says of the role. “But I knew Price was
a good company. And so, I wanted to work here, I just didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

The company had a PA system, and she would hear other employees called to the organization’s front desk to receive visitors. Or she would walk past boardrooms in which meetings were happening, longing to be involved in face-to-face interactions. The purchasing manager must have recognized that longing, as well as some potential in her, Singleton says, and encouraged her to apply for a recently opened position in the department.

“I was super-pumped,” she says of the opportunity. “I went into that interview over-prepared. They didn’t ask me any questions; they were just trying to sell me on the job. I appreciate that they saw something in me that maybe I didn’t even realize.”

Singleton may not have yet grasped it, but she had found her home – both at Price Industries and in supply chain. She started in the department as a junior buyer, and within a few years moved into a commodities specialist role. Eventually, she became a purchasing supervisor, then supply chain manager, and is currently the company’s director of supply chain. Singleton has now been at Price Industries for 17 years.

Despite that long tenure, her career actually started at another company in accounts payable and accounts receivable, doing payroll and other accounting tasks. Yet she knew even then that her outgoing personality didn’t fit that field. From there, she switched to radio broadcasting, which matched her personality better. Yet ultimately, she found its competitive, individualistic nature another bad pairing.

“I’m not a cut-throat person,” she says of her time in the broadcasting industry. “I’m more of a ‘let’s-work-together’ kind of person, and that’s not what radio is.”

Singleton was able to engage in some supply chain tasks, even as producer for a morning radio show. One segment she worked on involved listeners writing into the program to disclose something on their wish list. Particularly good stories would be picked, and the listener received whatever was on their list as a prize. For example, a listener might say they loved socks, so Singleton would source 365 pairs of socks as the prize.

“I was out there purchasing and negotiating, I just didn’t realize it,” she says of the experience. “But really, it’s at Price Industries that I started in purchasing and found my real passion. I could talk about supply chain and what I do all day long. I think that’s why I like teaching so much because I love to talk about it.”

Yet Singleton began her career looking for the right company, not the right job, she says. Like many people, she unintentionally stumbled into supply chain. These days, it’s possible to take courses in the field and earn university degrees, even at the master’s level.

Singleton had a colleague on the team who had recently begun the Certified Purchasing Professional (CPP) designation through the Purchasing Management Association of Canada (PMAC), now the Supply Chain Management Professional (SCMP) designation, offered by Supply Chain Canada. Her colleague’s experience with the program encouraged Singleton to enroll. The designation’s name changed while she was enrolled, and she was part of the second group to go through to get her SCMP designation.

After earning the designation, Singleton joined the SCMA board of directors. She values volunteerism, she says, and realizes the importance of giving time to the organization that helped her to accelerate her career early on. She also realized the tools that education gave her would prove valuable. Supplier approvals, vendor scorecards, and other mechanisms for improving performance quickly proved useful.

“That’s what truly helped me excel in my career,” Singleton says. “I recognized that this program was helping me and so I wanted to give back. Gerry Price, who’s the owner of this company, he always says a life of service is a life well lived. Giving back to your community and to those who supported you and those around you who need help is the key to happiness in life and the key to your own success. I truly believe in that and have learned over time that that’s really what’s helped our company grow. I try and live that in my own life.”

Singleton has taught at Supply Chain Canada’s Manitoba Institute for the past 12 years, a task she loves. She enjoys learning from students while teaching them. That helps her remain on top of current events and what’s happening in the supply chain industry. “I’m continuously learning and growing myself, and that’s why I teach,” she says. “It forces me to stay on top of current events and what’s happening in the industry.”

Along with her SCMA designation, Singleton takes workshops and seminars, as well as attending industry conferences, in order to sharpen her skills and knowledge. She has been to leadership courses through Price Industries and Supply Chain Canada. She has also taken several business courses at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. The result of Singleton’s education and experience is a busy schedule. Her job involves dealing with several hundred daily emails. Singleton is copied on many non-urgent emails and must wade through those to find what’s critical and requires a response. Doing so has made her realize that it’s impossible to do everything.

“If anybody ever looked at my calendar, I think they’d probably cry,” she says. “It’s full, from the start of the day to the end. It’s really hard for me to fit meetings in, and sometimes it’s just a juggling act of what’s more important, constantly trying to prioritize.”

A focus on team
Along with her other duties, Singleton spends time coaching, and mentoring. She focuses on her team and works to ensure that they get the support they need, she says. Much of her director role involves project management, and Singleton often facilitates meetings while ensuring projects are on track, don’t get forgotten, and that all the rights steps are completed. That means a lot of cross-functional team meetings.

For Singleton, completing projects and ensuring they wrap up on time is important. The best way to do that, she notes, is to meet consistently, talk about the projects, and discuss any breaks or interruptions in the flow of work.

“I find that if you do end up with a roadblock, and nobody’s talking about it, your project just goes nowhere,” she says.

Singleton enjoys her job and enjoys working, noting that having a good manager and company is important to feeling appreciated. She began working at the age of 12, delivering newspapers. Growing up, her parents emphasized a strong work ethic. It was while working in broadcasting – a field she didn’t enjoy – that she realized the importance of a good company rather than simply a good job. It’s possible to find ways to enjoy most jobs, Singleton stresses. She considers herself lucky to have found a mentor early in her career as well as a company that empowers its employees to try new things and learn from mistakes.

“The challenge is if you’re working for someone who’s holding you back or working in a company where they don’t support creativity or empower you to make decisions or be able
to be creative and fix processes that aren’t working for you, it’s just a life suck,” she says.

Maintaining supplier relationships is another focus for Singleton. It’s those relationships that keep the company’s supply chain strong, she says. Ensuring those supplier relationships, especially with the 15 top organizations, is important. Talking with them regularly, asking questions, and providing feedback occupies a place in her daily tasks. Building those relationships with suppliers stands out as a career highlight for Singleton.

To celebrate the company’s 75th anniversary, Price Industries held a supplier appreciation event for over 80 suppliers from around the world. That gave Singleton the opportunity to meet them face-to-face, all in one room. Those suppliers would all be strangers otherwise, yet she has been able to work with and get to know them, while building global relationships. Such opportunities are among the ones she cherishes the most.

“It’s your strong relationships that will hold your supply chain up and allow you to excel as an organization,” Singleton says. “And so, if you have poor relationships with your suppliers, you’re going to have a poor supply chain. I think the relationships I’ve built are kind of my pride and joy.”

Like many in the field, Singleton already sees the effects of artificial intelligence (AI) on supply chains. She considers ChatGPT a “game changer” and has used the application many times to help her work more efficiently. Still, she’s just begun to realize what AI is capable of, she notes, and how it will change the work world. The digital transformation has arrived, and supply chain professionals must learn all they can about available digital technologies – AI, the Internet of Things, blockchain, and anything else that enhances the field’s visibility and improves decision making.

That technology came in handy as Singleton planned the company’s supplier appreciation event. As she was wondering how to deal with the seating arrangement, a tech-savvy colleague suggested she use ChatGPT to deal with the issue. While Singleton had poured over an Excel spreadsheet to manage seating, the AI application arranged nine guests at each of 10 tables, with a Price Industries employee at each one, with employees who work for the same company sitting together at designated tables. The process took a few minutes, and after a few additional minutes of ironing out details, Singleton had her seating plan.

“It seems so simple, but I never would have thought to use AI for that,” she says. “It took something that was sitting on my shoulders, weighing me down, and solved my problem
in seconds.”

Those working in supply chain must learn more about digital technologies and how they can save time and streamline day-to-day tasks. Doing so will free up time to focus on more strategically important tasks, like building strong business partnerships. While technology can relieve us of several more mundane tasks, it can’t build relationships for us.

“It can’t be the touchpoint between people,” Singleton says. “The more we can digitize, the more we are freed up to spend that one-on-one time with our suppliers to work through some of those challenges that maybe AI can recognize for us.”

The power of learning
Supply chain’s digital transformation isn’t the only area that Singleton plans to learn more about. She plans to register this year for her Green Belt in Lean Practices, she says. Price Industries engages in a lot of Kaizen activities – a Japanese term referring to the process of continual improvement. Acquiring her Green Belt would allow her to further facilitate some of those Kaizen activities. She also plans to learn more about AI and the digital transformation and is looking for courses or other educational products on those topics.

Between teaching and working, Singleton says that much of her life is surrounded by supply chain. However, she and her husband own an American Bully dog, named Ponyboy, that occupies some of her spare time. “I can’t wait to get home and play with my dog,” she says.

Singleton also loves working out at the gym. Six years ago, she began a weight-loss journey after cutting the tendons in her right hand. She lost the mobility in that hand and underwent two surgeries to repair the damage. During that time, she was “completely incompetent” when it came to looking after herself. During that time, she was determined to lose weight. She ended up shedding 200 pounds over six years.

“And now, for the past two years, I’ve been weight training six days a week,” she says. “I’m really fortunate that my husband knows what he’s doing in the gym and basically tells me what to do most days. Because of that, he challenges me. It’s not just doing 10 reps and just rinse and repeat. You don’t just do the same reps over and over. Every single time, you’ve got to up your weights and after about a month, you start at a higher weight. Now I’m at 50-pound dumbbells for bench press and I think the highest I’ve ever done was 70-pound dumbbells.”

Singleton also loves musicals and attends live theatre at every opportunity. She has seen Hamilton three times and Les Misérables a handful of times as well.

“Any chance I get to go see a musical, even if I’ve seen it before, I want to go see it again,” she says. “Some of my favorites are definitely on my Spotify playlist and get played way too often. If they were cassettes, they’d be worn out.”

For those new to supply chain, Singleton’s first piece of advice is to volunteer, for example by joining a board. Doing so not only helps develop collaboration skills, but also networking, relationship building, and problem solving. Supply Chain Canada’s provincial institutes are a great place to start, she says.

As well, local not-for-profits that could use help with supply chain issues is another option to improve those skills, Singleton notes. The Red Cross, local food banks, and other organizations may need volunteer help with their supply chains.

A second piece of advice is to find a mentor, says Singleton, adding that she wouldn’t be in her current position without guidance from a mentor at Price Industries and through Supply Chain Canada.

“They were a great support system for me,” she says. “They went from my instructors to my mentors, to my friends. I don’t think that you’re going to be as successful if you just try and do it on your own. So twofold: one is to volunteer because I got so many valuable skills just from volunteering. And two, try to find yourself a good mentor.”
Finally, Singleton considers herself lucky to work for a company that has supported her career. Making decisions and dealing with mistakes arising from some of those decisions, helps you develop professionally.

“To feel appreciated by a company and by all levels within a company makes coming to work every day very easy,” she says. “And so, my final piece of advice not just to supply chain professionals, but employers, is to think about how you’re treating your employees. You can set your employees up for great success or you can set them up for great success somewhere else.”