This year’s CSCMP 2023 Distinguished Service Award[remove all caps and bold] (DSA) winner, Dr. Ted Stank, is highly revered by his colleagues, particularly for his ability to move with ease between academic and practitioner circles. Stank is constantly listening to the ideas and concerns of both communities—and using that information to direct his research at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville (UTK). In fact, many of his colleagues refer to him as a “practical academic.”
Under Dr. Stank’s guidance, the University of Tennessee has become one of the premier supply chain programs in the world at both the undergraduate and post graduate levels. He’s responsible for setting the priorities, tone, and culture for UTK’s program.
Stank currently serves as the Harry and Vivienne Bruce Chair of Excellence in Business and Professor of Supply Chain Management, co-faculty director of the Global Supply Chain Institute, Haslam Family Faculty Research Fellow, and founder and faculty director of the Advanced Supply Chain Collaborative at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
Under his leadership, the university’s Global Supply Chain Institute has become a hub for supply chain thought leadership and talent development, with involvement from companies like Amazon, Boeing, Procter & Gamble, and Walmart. The Advanced Supply Chain Collaborative has enabled these and other corporate giants, such as IBM and Pfizer, to leverage academic knowledge and advanced innovations to improve lives around the world.
Recently, he spoke with CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly Managing Editor Diane Rand about his work.
NAME: Theodore (Ted) Stank
TITLE: Harry and Vivienne Bruce Chair of Excellence in Business and Professor of Supply Chain Management; Co-Executive Director of the Global Supply Chain Institute; Haslam Family Faculty Research Fellow; and Founder and Faculty Director of the Advanced Supply Chain Collaborative at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville
OTHER EXPERIENCE: Operations officer in the United States Navy; sales and marketing experience for Abbott Laboratories Diagnostic Division; consulted for numerous organizations, including Anheuser-Busch InBev, Dell, IBM, Lowe’s, Norfolk Southern, OfficeMax, Pepsi, Siemens, Sony, Textron, Walgreens, Walmart, Whirlpool, and the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps.; educational advisor to the Health and Personal Care Logistics Conference; associate editor for the Journal of Business Logistics; and serves on the editorial review boards of Journal of Operations Management and International Journal of Physical Distribution and Logistics Management.
CSCMP EXPERIENCE: served as president of the old Paso del Norte Roundtable; session chair and track chair of the EDGE annual conference; led special task forces for the board; and served as board officer and the chairman of the board of directors
AWARDS: 2023 CSCMP Distinguished Service Award; member of CSCMP’s Supply Chain Hall of Fame
EDUCATION: doctorate in marketing and distribution from the University of Georgia; master’s in business administration from Webster University; and a bachelor’s degree from the United States Naval Academy
You started your career in the Navy and then moved into industry. Why did you eventually decide to go into academia?
After leaving the Navy, mainly due to a desire for better work/family balance, I became a sales rep for Abbott Labs Diagnostic Division (ADD). During the time I was with ADD, the marketing organization created a strategy of competing not just on our product lines but on the distribution intensity we had that enabled us to deliver to our customers. … I was not cut out for sales—not thick-skinned enough—and began searching for something else. A great Navy friend of mine (Bill Simon, who went on to become CEO of Walmart North America) sent me a Wall Street Journal article outlining the opportunities that were opening for business professors. We both decided to quit our jobs and get our PhDs together (he was working as a third shift plant manager for RJR at the time) and become business professors. I did, and he didn’t. He now owns racehorses, and I am still working.
But I don’t regret my career; it has been great professionally and also allowed me to coach my kids in sports up through high school, play in a rock and roll band, and do a lot of other things I could not have done without the work flexibility that an academic career afforded me. Interestingly, that flexibility is what millennials and Gen Zers are seeking with their work/life integration today, and good for them.
Your academic career has been very focused on developing strong partnerships with industry and focusing on research that produces industry best practices. Why is that so important to you?
I have been influenced by some giants in our field, starting with my dissertation chair, Dr. Patricia Daugherty, and continuing with Dr. Don Bowersox and Dr. Tom Mentzer. All believed that business professors needed to be closely aligned with our industry practitioners. We are not medieval language professors, but professors of a practice, just like in medicine, nursing, law, and engineering.
One of my huge “ah-ha” moments was hearing Dr. Bud La Londe during a presentation to a group of academics when a finance professor challenged him about how much time he spent working with industry. Bud’s response was that no one would challenge a physics professor about spending time in their lab, why would you challenge a business professor from spending time in our lab (that is, the business world)?
Don, Pat, and Tom all enforced the notion that our research must be theoretically and methodologically sound and rigorous, but also practically relevant. It pains me that our academic model has moved increasingly away from that model, and I have spent the latter part of my career trying to bring us back. I am extremely proud that our program at the University of Tennessee (UT), more than any other program in my opinion other than MIT, embodies that notion of rigor and relevance. I think it has proven out in the success of our programs and the recognition we have in rankings, etc.
The results from the research I participate in today as part of our Advanced Supply Chain Collaborative at UT have been implemented by the companies we work with and published in top supply chain management (SCM) academic journals. Three of my close colleagues, Dr. Tom Goldsby, Dr. Lance Saunders, and my last doctoral student, Dr. Anne Dohmen, now on faculty at Michigan State University, embody this notion and I could not be prouder of them. They will be continuing to push this philosophy long after I am gone.
What advice do you give academics on how to best form partnerships with practitioners?
What works is getting out to where practitioners are—conferences, their workplaces, etc.—and getting to know their struggles and challenges. And to get to know them as people, because academic-industry partnerships are all about relationships. Sharing a dinner or drink with our colleagues in industry goes light years toward building trust in each other that results in working relationships. By the way, those relationships start when you have talented students in class. If you do a good job there and show them that you are interested in helping them succeed, and then keep up with some of them afterwards, they will open doors for you in the future.
What does not work is cold-calling industry folks and asking them to give you data when they know nothing about you and have no trust. So, like so many things in business and personal life, it’s all about the relationships. CSCMP, by the way, can be impactful in helping establish those relationships, first at the local roundtable level and also at the annual conference. Many great academic-practitioner relationships start at dinner at the local roundtable meetings.
When we started the Advanced Supply Chain Collaborative to do joint academic-industry research, I told the 12 CSCOs who took the risk to participate with us that first year that I staked my reputation and relationship with them on this idea creating value. Those folks put their trust, time, and money on us, and they would not have if they did not have a close relationship with me in advance. I learned that from Don Bowersox.
Do you see any ways that CSCMP could help better foster collaboration between industry and academia?
My passion for CSCMP is that it remains the only professional organization in business that brings academics and industry practitioners together, and always has. … Other business disciplines, including our colleagues in operations management, marketing, finance, accounting, and management, all have professional organizations whose academics and practitioners meet separately at different times and in different places and never speak to each other. I consider that a shame and a travesty of what business scholarship is meant to be.
CSCMP could provide a key role in bringing like-minded academics and practitioners to the table to engage in collaborative research. Academics have the research skills and bandwidth to take on some of the challenging issues that all SCM leaders are confronted with. Dick Powell, a Council of Logistics Management (CLM) chair back in the late ‘90’s, once said that the role of academia is to separate truth from hype. I heard him present that at an annual global conference, and I internalized that message.
A lot of your work at the University of Tennessee has focused on integrated supply chain management. What gains have you seen over the years, and where is progress still needed?
As I work with our various industry partners, I have been encouraged to find that most of them are somewhere on the journey to integrated supply chains. This is a big difference from 10 years ago. Three things have helped make considerable changes in the last 10 years:
Progress still needs to be made in all three of these areas, although the lessons we learned during the COVID pandemic have accelerated progress—for now. It is easy for companies to backslide into old behaviors, and my CSCO friends tell me that is indeed happening. Old habits die hard, and keeping the attention of senior business leaders is a hard thing to do as they shift to the latest shiny object in their view.
How have the skills that companies have been looking for from your graduates changed since you started in academia?
The biggest change has been that companies are looking for students who have a broad end-to-end knowledge of supply chain functions but also enough depth to succeed in their first job, which will be in one of those functions. That’s a tough challenge as the content of SCM broadens constantly. The other big thing is a consistent demand for analytics skills, the more the better. Our biggest combination is an SCM major with a business analytics minor—and vice versa for analysts going to work in SCM.
What continues to keep you engaged in supply chain management?
Wow, it just changes constantly. We have just come through a period of time with COVID that has shaken our notions of business, and global business in particular, to the core, and we are still in reaction mode to what that did to us. Combine that with geopolitical upheaval, both abroad and here in the U.S., and things look very different than they did just five years ago. The assumptions we made during the first 30 years of my career have been challenged, and we are trying to figure out what comes next. If that doesn’t pique your interest, then nothing will.
A lot of my current research relates to those big trends—what do new global networks look like? How do we focus more on true agility in our supply chains instead of paying it lip service? Can we make supply chain risk management a core capability instead of also just paying it lip service? How can we dramatically change how we do things to take advantage of the information we have at our fingertips, particularly in planning, but also across all supply chain functions? How can we as supply chain leaders make the biggest impact on sustainability?
I won’t be around to figure all this out, but our teams at UT are working on all of these issues and will really be making a mark on knowledge and practice in the years to come.
What has been one of your proudest professional achievements?
Other than winning the CSCMP Distinguished Service Award and being accepted into the Supply Chain Hall of Fame? My proudest achievements are following my students as they move on to their careers and hearing from them how they applied what they learned from me and made a difference in their organizations. I have a file of the emails I get from them, and at the end of the day, the most meaningful thing for me is having a positive impact on the people with whom I work—from my colleagues to the companies I work with—and to all of my students from undergrads to executives.
I hear a lot from my top-performing students, but here is one of my favorite messages from a former student: “Even though I wasn't the most serious student, and earned a 2.5, what I learned helped me to get a job. I had an interview today with the operations manager, production manager, and the engineering guy, and I was able to answer their questions pretty well. I have to say, a lot of that was because of stuff I learned from your class.”