The King Of Cool

From the December 2018 print edition

In a way, Doug Harrison has been working in supply chain since he was a teenager. Growing up in Hamilton, Ont., the future president and CEO of VersaCold Logistics Services worked at the lumber and building material business his father and uncle ran. At its height, the operation had six lumber yards across the Niagara Peninsula and the 16-year-old Harrison engaged in nuts-and-bolts logistics like driving a truck, operating a lift truck and garnering exposure to box cars, flatbed trailers and tractor trailers. His father and uncle eventually sold the business, but supply chain has woven itself into Harrison’s career ever since.

Image: Joel Robertson photography

“The more I grew on my summer jobs and my part-time, weekend jobs in our lumber yard, the more I came to appreciate that this is really what we call logistics and supply chain,” Harrison reminisces. “It was through that evolution that I managed to get into it. I’ve been in it and out of it, but really, it’s been the vast majority of my career.”

Harrison and Jodi, his wife of 32 years, have lived in Burlington, Ont. for the past 25 years. While his career has moved the family (they also have a son Trevor, 26, and a 24-year-old daughter, Brooke) to the US and Europe, their collective path has always led back to Southern Ontario.

And that career began in earnest after Harrison started at Ryder Integrated Logistics in 1986, working as vice-president and managing director for Canada and Europe. He became president of Acklands-Grainger in 1999, staying for eight years before joining Brookfield LaPage Johnson Controls, an outsourced real estate and building management firm. He worked at Kalex for three years before joining Day & Ross Transportation Group as chief operating officer and president, then VersaCold in 2013.

Harrison sits chatting in the boardroom of VersaCold’s offices in Vaughan, northwest of Toronto. It’s an industrial area the company shares with outlets for other heavy hitters like Grand & Toy and Magna. VersaCold once had international operations but eventually split into two—the global arm became AmeriCold, while VersaCold remained Canada-focused. It now has 32 warehousing facilities and its Milton DC, Harrison notes, is the largest single facility owned by a provider in the country. VersaCold runs three assets-based transportation business units, a third-party logistics business unit, a food distributor business and a non-asset based 4PL. Its transportation assets cross the US border daily, while the 4PL is involved in international air and ocean freight.

Harrison notes that as a student he wasn’t “a big fan of learning.” It was after graduating that he realized its importance. He is a Certified Professional Accountant (CPA) and earned his MBA at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He also graduated from the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD) and earned a business diploma from Hamilton’s Mohawk College.

His designations include P.Log. certification (Professional Certification in Supply Chain Logistics) from the Logistics Institute and the CITT-Certified Logistics Professional (CCLP) from the Canadian Institute of Traffic and Transportation (CITT). In June he received fellowship with the Supply Chain Management Association’s (SCMA). Each year, SCMA recognizes those who have contributed to the field and the Awards of Distinction are presented at its national conference, held this year in St. John’s, NL. Harrison was one of three recipients. “That was a real honour and I was incredibly proud to accept it,” he said.

Harrison has sat on numerous corporate boards, including Horizon Utilities Corporation, Hamilton Utilities Corporation, The Conference Board of Canada and Livingston International. He chaired the board of governors at Mohawk College for six-and-a-half years, and still sits on the board of Superior Plus Corp. He is vice-chair of the board of directors for the TSSA Technical Standards and Safety Authority and recently joined the board of Canadian Commercial Corporation, a Crown corporation helping Canadian businesses export products when the contracting party is a foreign government.

“I see it as an opportunity to give back,” he says. “Those boards allow me to have a different perspective about a business, the perspective of the shareholder and other stakeholders as opposed to my 70-to-80-hour week as the CEO of a company.”

That schedule may sound daunting, but for Harrison there’s plenty to love. Much of that love is the result of VersaCold’s “great” team, he says. Even when asked about career highlights, Harrison points to his interactions with people, those who have taught him and those he’s helped guide. He spends much of his time in the field with employees. Harrison has committed to visiting each site, every year—that means 40-odd sites and plenty of time on the road. The CEO’s role is to build bridges across an organization, he says, and communication plays a pivotal role, whether it’s with VersaCold’s executive team, getting in front of customers or chatting with employees.

“I love to be on the floor with our people, answering their questions, thanking them,” he says. “We’re a service company at the end of the day and people are a critical differentiator to us. I spend a lot of time travelling to see customers. I spend a lot of time travelling to see our facilities and our employees and equally, learning things through our industry associations, key partners and stakeholders.”

Harrison didn’t target the top of the corporate world. But mentors along the way saw potential and guided him towards his eventual role as a CEO. Some of those people have been “incredible” guides who allowed him to grow professionally, even allowing him the freedom to make mistakes. The process has afforded a front-row seat to supply chain’s evolving role. Canada is a logistics-challenged nation, he says, noting its low population density and large land mass, a recipe for an expensive supply chain.

Still, Canadian businesses are realizing that—rather than strictly a cost centre—supply chain provides a strategic, competitive weapon that helps get products to market, faster.

“That’s great, because as you’ve seen supply chain professionalize over the last 20 years, it means more supply chain conversations in the board room,” Harrison says. “That brings more capability to the table where you have CEOs now thinking about how to leverage supply chain. With the number of free trade agreements Canada will sign over the next several months, how do you leverage those free trade agreements to get into new markets that, in the past, you couldn’t get into because of the economic challenge of distance or tariffs?”

Harrison notes he’s been fortunate for opportunities to give back. VersaCold’s tagline is “Your Food Matters,” and rotting food is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. There’s enough food available to feed the world, it’s simply in the wrong place and that, Harrison says, is a supply chain issue. Protecting food, ensuring it’s safety and working with customers and food banks lets the company give back.

Image: John Packman Photography

Along with his commitment to career and family, Harrison keeps active during his spare time. Travel is a hobby, as are outdoor pursuits like fishing, hiking and cycling. An interest in wine and restaurants helps create another opportunity to communicate and learn. “Wine creates great conversations around a dining room table,” he says. “You get to experience something from another part of the world and end up talking about travels and experiences.”

In a career, there are always improvements to make and new territory to cover, he says. As Supply Professional went to press, Harrison had stepped down as VersaCold CEO to work as a fulltime coach and consultant, while focusing on the many boards on which he sits. A well-rounded life, he stresses, balances family, hard work, fun and giving back, and corporate board work has always been rewarding and enlightening. Perhaps most important, all his pursuits ensure opportunities to learn something new.

“The greatest piece of advice I’d have for people is: find a mentor, learn every day, ask your manager for help,” he says. “When you have your performance review be tougher on yourself than your manager will ever be and set a career path plan to grow.”