The problem solver

From the December 2022 print edition

If there’s one thing that Bernie Uhlich knows about, it’s coming up with solutions.

Image: Mike Ford Photography

His decades-long career has shifted between IT, supply chain, and operations. During that time, Uhlich has worked to understand problems and constraints, then create cross-functional solutions while delivering transformational leadership. Often, his solutions develop into a department or process of its own that Uhlich then hands off to a colleague.

“I ended up developing a reputation as the guy that, if you’ve got a problem and you don’t know what to do, call Bernie,” he says.

Uhlich is now president and managing director of Uhlich Associates Inc., a supply chain and IT transformation consultancy. He is also the board chair at the Supply Chain Management Association of Ontario (SCMAO). Along with setting up his own consultancy, his employment resume includes Celestica, IBM, Indigo-Chapters, and Coca-Cola.

But his beginnings in Canada were humbler. Uhlich was born in Germany and his family emigrated to the Kitchener-Waterloo area of Ontario when he was four. He describes his family as “poor immigrants who didn’t have anything.” His father worked in a tire factory while his mother sewed and did other work to make ends meet. Everyone in the family worked multiple jobs.

He has long taken an interest in systems and how they work. He began computer programming in high school, landing a job as a computer operator. He learned how to program in his spare time by reading manuals and asking questions of the technicians who fixed the computers.

“It started from there and I got a job at a shoe company operating a computer – I was 15 or 16 at the time,” Uhlich says. “I operated the computer in the evenings and on weekends doing payroll runs, inventory, financials, and things like that, because they just needed some help.”

Uhlich attended the University of Waterloo, studying systems engineering. Through their co-op program, he eventually began work at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. in Missisauga, Ontario – his first job after high school that involved working with computers. Uhlich’s job was to automate the organization’s project management disciplines. He punched data into a form to produce large printouts of all the tasks the engineers did there.

Uhlich next worked at Fibreglass Canada as an industrial engineer. In his quest to find better ways to do things, he got access to the company’s computer. He began writing programs to automate certain processes, eliminating the need for handwritten paper forms.

While at Fibreglass Canada, Uhlich partnered with IBM to pioneer the development of factory automation tools. At the time, automation was still in its infancy, and IBM had just produced computers that connected to a production line that would count the products as they were made, eliminating the need for manual counting. Uhlich employed that technology at Fibreglass Canada.

“People talk about systems thinking.” Uhlich says. “A system is defined by its environment. You’ve got a system – here’s a piece of machinery – but the system is actually the people who have to feed the machine, the people who have to capture and figure out what it did. You look to a certain point, and you say, ‘that’s now my system saying, these things are all interrelated. So, I can optimize how it works but I need something to enable me to optimize it better.’ To enable it you have to integrate information with the operations, with the technical, so you get into optimizing and integrating. That allows you to create new capabilities. That’s how my life and my career have unfolded, looking at the system approach.”

By the mid-80s, Uhlich had worked in various, progressive roles within several organizations. Eventually, after a hiring process that included 13 interviews, he landed a position at Coca-Cola. His role included re-engineering the company’s supply chains across Canada. At the time, Coke was consolidating over 60 independent bottler operating units and Uhlich spent almost the next three years integrating and updating the company’s supply chain and operating footprint.

Uhlich and his team worked on what was eventually called Project Max. The goal was
to save $10 million, and to get there, the team realigned supply lines and procurement policies. Coke’s product had good quality control, Uhlich said. But the systems needed aligning. Bottling operations had to be upgraded.

To do so, the company established sub-teams and sub-projects. Among the challenges were upgrading operations, linking multiple programs, establishing sales and operations planning, and rolling everything out nationally. Success in his role meant acting almost like a military general, says Uhlich – appear on the battlefield to provide direction and leadership before leaving to allow the soldiers to return to their tasks.

“You need to know enough detail to get in there and have a conversation, to step up to the corporate level and look at the business impact of doing or not doing this, manoeuvring around the organization to build your power bases and to navigate through the organization,” Uhlich says. “Put together the right players, identify the obstacles, move to get rid of the obstacles, put it together the way it needs to go, and then be on the ground and work the crowds because you’ve got to encourage people to do things in a different way.”

Following Coca-Cola, Uhlich worked at DMR Consulting before taking a position at Celestica, where he would spend the next 15 years. The organization needed someone with consulting experience. Uhlich oversaw the IT and supply chain teams in deploying integrated IT and business process solutions. He also led those teams through over 20 mergers and acquisitions globally.

He progressed through more senior positions, eventually moving out of IT entirely and into supply chain. Uhlich worked to tackle process issues, setting up operational discipline, and establishing training programs. At the time, Celestica was acquiring several companies. Uhlich once again had to establish discipline within an organization with several competing global cultures. The process involved implementing ERP systems, establishing standards, setting up training programs for several thousand people and so on.

Uhlich took early retirement in 2012, setting up his own consultancy, Uhlich Associates Inc. Along with his various activites with his consultancy, he is also a senior consultant with Supply Chain Alliance. Although he was by now experienced, the new role proved challenging. “There are two things about being a consultant,” Uhlich says. “One of them is being very good at what you do and differentiating yourself. Two, how do you market your skills? If you’re not spending 40 to 60 per cent of your time marketing yourself, you’ll have zero work. That took a couple of months to sort out. I had enough contacts that I would get people saying, ‘do you want to do this?’ Once I got better at working out the pricing and other things, I started becoming more able to maintain an independent consulting operation. I could pick and choose the companies that I wanted. I was able to move forward.”

The supply chain landscape
Alongside his career, Uhlich also volunteers with several organizations. He serves as the vice-chair of the Georgian Bay General Hospital, as well as board chair with the Supply Chain Management Association of Ontario (SCMAO). His experience in consulting has prepared him for these roles, he notes.

“You need to know how to gather information, assimilate it, and turn it into a solution that you can sell and package into a proposal that somebody will buy,” Uhlich says.

His roles have also given Uhlich a unique view of today’s supply chains and its trends. Those supply chains have begun to stabilize, he says. Still, many issues remain unresolved. For example, many large retail companies continue to struggle getting products from Asia. Finding warehouse space remains challenging. Yet many in the field are finding workarounds.

Supply chain professionals are dealing with the disruptions and finding workarounds, Uhlich notes. Yet those disruptions now occur more frequently, with a shorter lag between them. Events that once happened across decades are now compressed into a few years, he says. To deal with this, remove the word “can’t” from the discussion.

“You need resilience, tenacity, and innovation. The resilience to live through it, the tenacity to put up with all of it, and the ability to push through,” Uhlich says. “We have an obstacle; we need to break through. Otherwise, you’re dead. Churchill had a good view of it: don’t let a good crisis go to waste. A good crisis drags out the best in people and organizations and the worst in them. It also provides huge opportunities.”

There’s a shift towards a holistic, optimized approach to supply chains, Uhlich notes. It’s better to think of supply chains not as chains, but as networks.

The business model for many global supply chains has changed from ‘just-in-time’ to ‘just-in-case.’ It pays to have a ‘demand-and-supply’ view of these networks. Know who your suppliers are, as well as who your suppliers’ suppliers are. “That’s supply chain 101,” Uhlich says. “We’ve forgotten all that stuff now and people are panicking. Some of the answers are already out there.”

The automotive industry has long had effective, just-in-time supply chains, he notes. There are advantages to these lean operations. Yet, these systems rely on predictability, forecasting and
a lack of volatility. The pandemic challenged that.

A lean supply chain depends on a relationship with a large supplier that can deliver inexpensive, high-quality product consistently. But that arrangement gets in trouble if supply gets cut off. That’s especially true during catastrophes like pandemics and wars. Risk management means maintaining buffer stock and extra warehouse space to guard against shortfalls.

An example of this is the decision to throw out old, expired PPE equipment just before the COVID-19 pandemic began, leaving many without such equipment for several months. Uhlich presents a unique solution to this dilemma.

“You don’t need to have the buffer stock sitting there,” he says. “What if you decide that some percentages of purchases are going to go into the buffer stock and we’re going to draw anything that’s a year old out of the buffer stock? If it’s got a two-year life, we run it into the buffer stock and we pull out the more current stuff. So now you’re keeping the replenishment of your buffer stock into live production so that you’re not letting it go stale.”

This arrangement can lead to other issues, like how to manage rotation through stock, minimizing single points of failure, and operating like a network, Uhlich says. But networks tend to be self-healing, and good relationships help with finding alternative supply sources and creative solutions.

Another challenge that supply chain practitioners face is capabilities gaps, Uhlich says.
It can be tough to deliver what customers want due to space or time constraints, or through regulatory limitations.

One issue with buffer stocks, reshoring, friend-shoring, and other supply chain techniques is that it’s much less expensive to import goods from Asia, India, and other locations due to their lower cost of labour, Uhlich says. Paying far more for labour for goods made closer to home isn’t sustainable in the long term. The pendulum swings from outsourcing to achieve lower costs back to reshoring or friend-shoring.

“You’ve got to have smart people who understand those implications and can deal with the dialogue,” Uhlich says. “In some cases, it means creating better relationships and partnerships. That goes back to supply chain 101: you should have good relationships with your suppliers.”

Uhlich has received numerous accolades throughout his career, including the ‘President’s Award’ from several of his employers. Such recognition is not only personally gratifying, but also shows that whatever the recipient is doing is effective, Uhlich notes.

Celestica also awarded him the ‘Energizer Bunny Award,’ for success on a project designed to turn around lagging financials, fix cash flow and inventory turns. That meant getting about $2 billion of inventory off the books. Uhlich’s personal portion of that was about $400 million in excess and obsolete inventory. Achieving that involved travel to 40 global sites while working to get multiple players onboard with changes, several times a year.

“Ultimately the team delivered the changes, and we went from worst to first in the next couple of years and it kept getting better, going from an organization in trouble to one that’s leading the pack again,” Uhlich says.

Future plans
Going forward, Uhlich wants to continue travelling, speaking, consulting and leading breakthrough projects, he says. He also looks forward to continuing to work with SCMAO, coaching and mentoring professionals and organizations while advocating growth, innovation, education, and problem solving while elevating the profession.

“Where am I going? It’s hopefully continuing to make a contribution to the industry and things that are going to move the needle and get out of the tactical thing and help move things forward,” he says.

In his life outside of work, Uhlich has been a master scuba instructor for several years. He has a passion for the underwater realm, and has swum with octopuses, sharks, stingrays, and manta rays. He also enjoys photography and does a lot of event, building, and nature photography. The hobby lets him spend time in the outdoors with his dog. He also likes astrophotography – pictures of the night sky. Photography is a great networking opportunity and conversation starter, he notes, for example through event photography. Uhlich also enjoys building little wooden boats from model kits.

“That’s when I’m not chasing my dog Stella around the house,” he says. “She’s a rescue, one of those Covid dogs that people just couldn’t take care of anymore.”

For those new to the field or looking to develop their supply chain careers, Uhlich recommends following one’s passion and having a goal or vision. Pick a path and follow through. Avoid distractions but change course if necessary.

Also, ensure to add value, Uhlich says. Identify the outcomes you want then tackle barriers head on. Respect everyone and leverage all your resources. Inclusivity and teamwork are important, as are leading and following when appropriate.

Stay connected, informed, and relevant, he adds. Continuing education is always useful, as is networking to remain active in your industry – organizations like SCMAO, and its CSCMP professional designation, are useful in that goal.

“It shows commitment to your profession and being part of the leading supply chain community,” he says of the organization. “You can do that through a couple of things. There is industry-specific, thought leadership and training programs and events that you can attend. There’s professional development and a world-class leadership series that are offered.”
Finally, a supply chain professional’s competitive advantage lies in the results they deliver, Uhlich says.

“Races are won in the turns, and you’ve got to be ready for that,” he says. “If you go in strong and you execute well, you’ll have the skills to navigate that turn without crashing into the walls and you’ll come out stronger at the other side. Lead change and supply chain excellence and make a difference for success.”