You've worked and strived your whole career in the supply chain management profession. You've honed your craft and have proven yourself to be a Most Valuable Player. But the months have cascaded into years, and the years into decades, and there comes a moment in your life when you decide to call it a career. You know deep down that it's time to pursue another calling.
Bruce Abels, 62, recently answered that call. On June 30, 2007, he retired from Saddle Creek Corporation, a third-party logistics company (3PL) in Lakeland, Florida, after serving as president for 15 years.
Under his stewardship, Saddle Creek's revenues exploded from $12 million annually to nearly $170 million. The company grew from 130 employees to roughly 1,800 and experienced annual compound growth in sales of 17 percent. Indeed, Abels helped transform Saddle Creek into a 21st century corporate contender.
Name: Bruce Abels
Title: Recently retired after 15 years as president, now nonemployee vice chairman
Company: Saddle Creek Corporation, Lakeland, Florida
A few weeks before Abels' retirement, I traveled to the Sunshine State to talk with him about his extraordinary career, his unique life, and his post-retirement dreams.
Born in Pensacola, Florida, Bruce Abels was the oldest of five children, all boys. When he was three years old, his family headed north to New York, where his father had accepted a job with Standard Oil of New Jersey (Esso) in New York City.
Abels learned the importance of responsibility from his dad, Arthur, a former U.S. Navy lieutenant. His mother, Colette, was a homemaker and devout Catholic. The teachings of the Catholic Church profoundly influenced and shaped his life.
The future president of Saddle Creek Corporation's career path started out humbly. As a teenager, he stocked shelves at a supermarket and worked in a bakery and at a Boy Scout camp. His devotion to duty was evident from the start. "When I was 15," he remembers, "I took 30 Scouts camping in the wilderness. It was a lot of responsibility. People trusted me to watch out for their kids, and I wasn't going to let them down. That's just the way I am, and I was that way even then."
Abels attended a Catholic elementary school, but his parents decided to send him to public high school. Despite the secular setting of his secondary education, he felt a spiritual calling to the priesthood. He enrolled in St. Joseph's Seminary and College in Yonkers, New York, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy. But he decided to leave the seminary at age 22, a change that led him to pursue what turned out to be his true calling: logistics and supply chain management.
One day after graduation, Abels walked in the front door at Nestlé in White Plains, New York. Two-and-a-half hours later, he walked out with a job. "I'll never forget the man who hired me," he recalls. "John Martell was bright and funny, and one of the best bosses I've ever had."
Two years later, Abels was offered a job as the assistant brand manager for Nestlé's Crosse & Blackwell brand. He jumped at the chance to do something different. In 1971 he moved into logistics and was sent to Atlanta, Georgia, to manage Nestlé's regional distribution center (DC). "I was 26 years old and had my first line job," he explains. "I was fascinated with the warehouse business, and because I worked for Nestlé, I thought that all warehouses smelled good!"
After a year in Atlanta, Abels was promoted to regional distribution manager and shipped out to Chicago, Illinois, to run six DCs. But one year into that job, he was fired. "I was absolutely stunned," he admits. "I was driven home in my company car, in shock. How was I going to explain this to my father? But looking back, I probably deserved it. I didn't handle the politics of an aggressive sales force very well."
Things eventually began to look up for the diligent young man, both professionally and personally. Abels got a call from Sweetheart Cup Company in Chicago, and before long, he was working for the family-owned business as the director of distribution.
While working at Sweetheart, Abels began dating the love of his life, Joan. They'd met while both worked at Nestlé, and despite the distance, their relationship bloomed. Joan eventually moved to Chicago, where she became Abels' wife.
As Abels was streamlining the warehouse operations at Sweetheart Cup, he received an enticing offer from his former boss and mentor, John Martell, to come work for American Can Company in Connecticut. He and Joan headed back east in 1973, and he began a six-year stint as director of distribution operations for American Can's paper and plastics disposable divisions.
At that time, the company had 17 factories and thousands of SKUs (stock-keeping units), and customers had to place separate orders with factories to get what they wanted. This led to long lead times and poor in-stock performance. But Martell had envisioned a solution, and Abels was to play a critical role in the plan, which to this day remains one of his proudest professional achievements. "John articulated a grand plan of creating a nationwide network of locally based, consolidated DCs from which customers could order their entire product mix," Abels explains. "The changes he was proposing were substantial and would be extremely disruptive. But they would ensure adequate inventory levels and drive sales increases. I built and led the team that opened the DCs and rolled out these revolutionary processes."
Leader, mentor, manager
Another milestone in Abels' career—one that has had a profound impact on warehouse professionals around the globe—was co-founding the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC) in 1977. He was the organization's first president and served for three terms. Abels has been such a fixture at WERC, in fact, that he is affectionately known among his peers as the association's "President for Life."
In the early 1980s, American Can Company sold the divisions where Abels worked, a change that resulted in the loss of hundreds of jobs, including his. The United States was also in the grip of a severe recession, and he was out of work for a year. He consulted for a small chain of hardware and lumber stores near his home, helping them to considerably lower their costs. Abels continued his search for a staff position, however, and in 1982 landed the top job at Unit Distribution, a 3PL in Jacksonville, Florida.
As president of Unit, he was charged with running the company's warehousing business. He helped it expand from a $15 million company to a $100 million organization in seven years. When the owners sold the company to Chicago-based GATX Corporation, he felt it was time to go.
It was around this time that Abels received a call from Saddle Creek Corporation's founder and chairman, David Lyons, who asked him to do some consulting work. "Bruce consulted himself right into a job," Lyons says. "We were at a point in the history of our company where we needed to bring in some outside talent, and it was clear that he was the perfect match for us. Bruce infused much-needed structure and discipline into our organization, which positioned us for the dynamic growth and success we've experienced under his leadership. We would not be where we are today without Bruce Abels."
Abels' successor as Saddle Creek's president, Cliff Otto, underscores the significance of those contributions. "Bruce implemented the necessary operating and financial disciplines to take the company to the next level and beyond," he explains. "He not only possesses exceptional business skills, he knows how to guide and direct his staff. And he genuinely cares about the people who work here."
Just as Abels had mentors who guided him throughout his career, he in turn mentored others. "I learned more in the three-and-ahalf years that I worked directly for him than I did prior or since," says Tom Patterson, Saddle Creek's senior vice president, warehouse operations. And it wasn't just individuals who benefited from Abels' guidance; he also helped many small businesses to develop competitive know-how. "Bruce fostered a friendly, competitive environment with other companies our size," Patterson continues. "More importantly, he professionalized the 'mom and pop' warehouses."
Says CSCMP's president and CEO, Rick Blasgen, about Bruce Abels' legacy: "Bruce is one of the few senior 3PL leaders who has been successful in both manufacturing-company logistics and in 3PLs. He keenly understands the supply chain management discipline. Bruce's experience and his willingness to listen and learn over the years have helped him see the total picture. He is always sincere and always willing to make time for others. He has had a profound, positive impact on many of today's leaders within the supply chain community."
Warehousing expert and WERC co-founder Ken Ackerman concurs. "Bruce is a very strategic thinker and great communicator. He is a natural leader."
But the measure of a corporate soldier's success is not only what the generals think about him but also what the guys on the front lines have to say. It's clear that Bruce Abels has their respect. "This company has flourished under Mr. Abels' leadership," says Frankie Barber, a lead warehouseman in Saddle Creek's Lakeland packaging operations and a 15-year employee. "He realized that those of us who worked in the warehouses were the backbone of the organization. He has always treated us with the same respect that he treated everybody else with. I don't have a college degree, but I'm smart enough to know a true leader when I meet him."
Willing to serve
Abels has also racked up some impressive educational and professional credentials. He earned a masters degree in business administration (MBA) from Pace College in New York, is a graduate of the American Management Association's Course for Presidents, and was awarded a Certified Logistics Professional (CLP) designation from the International Warehouse Logistics Association (IWLA). In addition, he currently serves as IWLA's vice chairman. Abels has been a CSCMP member for more than 30 years; during that time, he has been active in three roundtables, chairing two of them. He has also been a speaker at numerous CSCMP annual conferences.
Although he has officially retired from the president's post at Saddle Creek Corporation, Bruce Abels is not quite ready to punch out yet. Along with spending time with his wife Joan and his daughter Jennie, who has also pursued a career in logistics, Abels plans to stay involved in community service. He is active in his community of Lakeland, and he volunteers for a variety of caring causes, serving as board chair for the Central Florida Speech and Hearing Center and for Volunteers in Service to the Elderly.
Abels intends to remain active in the world of business, too. Saddle Creek has retained him in the role of nonemployee vice chairman, and he plans to do consulting work. He also hopes to take a seat on the board of directors of a for-profit company.
Looking back over the years, Abels muses on the theme that connects each of his many accomplishments. "The one thing I'm most proud of in my career," he says, "is that I have never once made a decision that put my own interests ahead of my company. If you're going to work in the supply chain profession, you have to put others ahead of yourself. You must be willing to serve."
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