Chad Autry brings futuristic global view to supply chain research

Brenda Cole

To supply chain professionals working on shop floors and in warehouses, the ivory towers of higher education may seem far removed from their lives. But the surprising amount of research coming out of the world's universities offers a wealth of knowledge on improving supply chain strategies and relationships. This real-world-meets-academia approach to supply chain management is the signature of Dr. Chad W. Autry, associate professor of SCM in the College of Business Administration at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Chad AutryChad Autry

Autry began his academic career teaching at small colleges before moving onto the University of Tennessee four years ago to pursue supply chain research. "I'm still teaching -- I still love that -- but [the university] has given me a chance to do some more discovery," he explained. Autry has taught undergrad, graduate, MBA and executive courses on topics across the supply chain, including demand planning and management, forecasting, purchasing and procurement.

Autry's supply chain research is mostly focused on a few areas of interest. His favorite topic is supply chain relationships -- interactions among buyers, sellers, carriers and third parties. "I look at all the situations where there's multiple supply chain relationships happening at the same time and you're trying to figure out how they impact supply chain efficiency," he said.

His other research has been more about supply chain technology, exploring which technologies are most useful for supply chain professionals and to what extent they are being leveraged. More recently, he has been covering the "supply chain of the future" and what that might someday look like in relation to global supply chain trends like population growth and migration, economics, resource scarcity, and the impact of climate change.

Autry is also a member of myriad professional supply chain organizations -- including the Warehouse Education and Research Council, the Production and Operations Management Society, the Institute for Supply Management, the National Association of Purchasing Managers and the Supply Chain Management and Industrial Distribution Symposium -- and sits on the Education Strategies Committee of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals. In his limited spare time, he has written over 40 articles and books on supply chains, and is a research editor for the International Journal of Physical Distribution and Logistics Management.

Cooking up a career in supply chain research

Autry's fascination with supply chains was born out of his first post-college job -- co-owner and manager of an Italian restaurant. "A lot of people think that the challenge in being a restaurateur is making the customers happy," he explained. "In my experience, it was much easier to manage what was at the front door than [at] the backdoor -- your supplier relationships. We used to live and die by the prices of pasta and wine. You can predict how a customer is going to react to something, but if you don't get the supply side right, you're almost doomed to fail. That's what launched me into this field of research."

Find realistic and relevant supply chain problems and study them rigorously, and you'll do well.

Chad Autry

From the restaurant business, Autry moved on to technology consulting positions, which ran the gamut of industries. He has worked in aerospace and defense with American Airlines, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Marine Corps; in high tech with IBM; and in the nonprofit sector with Goodwill Industries and the American Red Cross. Even with such a variety of supply chains, Autry noted some recurring themes.

"All good supply chains have a couple of things in common," he said. "You have a leader in the business that is supply-chained focused. If a supply chain has a highly placed leader, that company has a strategy on how they will handle supply chain logistics and purchasing issues. You'll find that these companies are more durable in the long haul."

Autry stresses the importance of leadership managing both supply and demand. "The answer to economic failure is usually 'Sell more.' I like to say, 'Sell more, but to the right customers at the right price,'" he said. "If manufacturing has an upstream supply chain that is efficient, it makes the rest of the supply chain from there to the last miles work better."

Supply chain research for a better tomorrow

One of the most satisfying moments of Autry's career in supply chains came last year, while he was co-authoring the book Global Macrotrends and Their Impact on Supply Chain Management: Strategies for Gaining Competitive Advantage, which explores how supply chains could change between now and 2030. Autry and his co-authors, Thomas Goldsby and John Bell, researched the global trends being noted by social scientists. "We asked ourselves, what are these [trends] going to do to the key pillars [of the supply chain] -- production, transportation, storage, and demand planning and management?" he said. "It was one of the most fulfilling things I've ever done. This was an opportunity to take research, do extrapolations and do some writing outside of the box."

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As he continues his supply chain research, Autry is keeping his eyes on the horizon -- and hopes his peers will as well. "I think we need to start addressing bigger problems in our field," he said. Instead of focusing on incremental process improvements, supply chain professionals should shift their gaze to global issues. "We ought to be doing everything we can to apply the knowledge we have on SCM to do things like cure the malaria crisis in Africa, to use supply chains to end hunger," he said. "We too often make cost the only [supply chain performance] metric. We also need to measure environmental and social outcomes."

Always a futurist, Autry has advice for the supply chain professionals of tomorrow who will follow in his footsteps. "Go out and experience SCM in a real scenario," he said. "Stay in touch with practitioners, shippers and carriers to understand what they're going through. Find realistic and relevant supply chain problems and study them rigorously, and you'll do well."

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