University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 163: Finding Integrations Throughout Your Business from Operations to Supply Chain with Don Frieson

February 23, 2022

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In this week's episode Matt sits down with Don Frieson, Executive Vice President Supply Chain for Lowe's Companies, Inc. Don's background includes a variety of executive roles across operations and supply chain including Schneider National, Walmart, Sam's Club and Massmart. In the episode he discusses the importance of integrations no matter your industry and how to integrate culture, supply chain and operations through his experience as the Chief Integration Officer for Massmart in South Africa. 

Episode Transcript

Don Frieson  0:00  
But what I found is that those that are really successful are the ones that have come in with a sense of being genuine around learning the business.

Matt Waller  0:12  
Excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. These are the values the Sam M. Walton College of Business explores in education, business and the lives of people we meet every day. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton College, and welcome to the Be Epic Podcast. I have with me today. Don Frieson, executive vice president supply chain, Lowe's Companies, Inc. Don, thank you so much for taking time to visit with me today, I really appreciate it.

Don Frieson  0:45  
It's an extreme pleasure, thank you for having me.

Matt Waller  0:49  
Well, you have such an impressive career and I want to get into it, but just to give people an idea. Don was with Schneider National, the carrier, for 12 years, in an operations type of a role. And he eventually came to Walmart. So he lived here in Northwest Arkansas for quite a few years. But he was at Walmart for 11 years, actually, with the company longer than that and I'll explain that in a minute. But he was VP of fleet operations, private fleet operations, Regional General Manager and SVP president of Central Division Operations with Walmart. But then Walmart acquired Massmart, which was in South Africa and operated in I believe, 16 countries in Africa. He was there for two years as the chief integration officer, so he did the integration of the companies. And then he went to Sam's Club, and he was there for five years as senior vice president, replenishment planning, innovations, real estate and then Executive Vice President of Operations. He's on the board of directors of Casey's General Stores. And he is Executive Vice President of Supply Chain for Lowe's now, as I mentioned. So Don, I think one of the reasons we have a lot of common acquaintances is because you were here, for so long,

Don Frieson  2:15  
When you put all the experience together like that, it really feels like I'm really old Dean.

Matt Waller  2:22  
Well, you're very accomplished. That's for sure. I think it's interesting, you know, having worked in operations role with a carrier, Schneider, what a great way to get people management and operations kind of experience, but then going to Walmart, and then Massmart. Would you mind if we started at Massmart? 

Don Frieson  2:43  
Sure, that's great. 

Matt Waller  2:44  
It's just so interesting. I've had over 160 guests on this podcast, and I just think, what is it that's super unique about them, and you have several, but one of them is being involved in integration of a acquisition in Africa. So would you mind talking about that a little bit?

Don Frieson  3:04  
Absolutely. Absolutely. I think I think one of the things to note, and I speak from a personal and professional perspective, probably the most broadening assignment of my career was the opportunity to go live and work in a different culture that was so far away from home. I think that the great thing about Massmart, is Massmart is a very good company, but a totally different approach to retail, than what we had at Walmart. And when you bring in two companies together like that, then I think the easiest thing is to look at the systems and understand common systems, accounting, and things of that sort. The most difficult piece, however, of an integration, particularly of that magnitude is all about the culture of the companies. And we've seen in our history in the US, many large scale integration to go left or right, because the cultures were not a fit. And this was a great opportunity for us to take a company that had great attitude around people. And you got to think this is in post apartheid South Africa. And so a lot of vestiges of apartheid still there. But knowing that you had a company that was on the leading edge of valuing everyone in that business, which so aligned to where Walmart was, and so what a great experience to be able to be in the middle of that.

Matt Waller  4:31  
I would imagine it was really challenging for you too wasn't it, I mean, having to relocate to another country and then being in charge of a challenging integration.

Don Frieson  4:43  
Again, one of the most challenging assignments of my career to go over and very quickly assimilate to their business and their business practices, and developing a roadmap of which to integrate the the really important things of the business into Walmart, bringing a thought process around or at least a methodology to move that business to an everyday low price business from a high low business was probably the most difficult. Because as you go to marketing the rest of your competitors there are set in stone around high low, then it's very different to change your model. And have the customers look at you and say, is this for real? How can you offer me an everyday low price, and not run an ad every week or two ads a week. And I'm always looking for things that are on sale, and have the customer have supreme confidence that when you come in and you buy from us, this is going to be the lowest price, whether there's an ad at a neighboring business or not, this is the place you need to shop. And really showing that your total basket, quite frankly, is going to be much lower than what you will have with a high low retailer. So very interesting. Massmart as you know, was really five different retailers that was brought under one umbrella a holding company, which is Massmart Inc. So really, we had the dynamics of an integration within an integration, bringing the five companies together, and then as one then bringing them into a Walmart stores, a Walmart international at that time. So really, really interesting, interesting thing to do, when you have five different companies that quite frankly, were running in five different directions. And and again, bringing those together. But there was some simple things that we did very early on. First of all, we had a great integration team. So I don't want to make this sound as though I did these things myself. We had an excellent integration team. Matter of fact, we had associates from four different countries that were involved in that integration that move their families over. So we could be one team. And having that level of experience and that depth of experience really proved helpful. The first thing was obviously getting the companies to be on the same sheet of music. So I give you a great example. And I laugh about this today, we start in the back of the house, things that weren't so customer facing. And how would you take a look at procurement. Everyone, every entity there, you use some common items in your business. And I'll use the example of of toilet paper. Everybody uses toilet paper, not only do you sell it, but you use it internally within your business. And yet, each of the businesses were buying toilet paper on their own. And we were able to convince the team let's get together. And let's spec a common toilet paper that we can purchase in bulk and use across the enterprise. I suggest that it's two ply at the minimum, right from a spec perspective, when you're thinking about toilet paper. But that was just one example of what we pulled it together. And we were able to show the different businesses, the cost savings associated with bringing that buy together from a procurement perspective. And then it moved on to other common items within the business, whether it's a wrap you use in your bakeries, or in your meat departments or trays and just consolidating all of those purchases. And when you start to see your bottom line impact it because you're smart. That is a simple way to start an integration process. 

Matt Waller  8:38  
That is so neat. I think your supply chain background probably helped you think of that a bit. But it also brings in cultural change as well. Thinking about where costs are really important. What you explain there is an interesting insight into integration. In some ways, it's like you did this and got a quick win with the integration of that procurement of an item. But I think too, I was thinking when you're talking about trying to, from a marketing perspective, bring in idea of everyday low price. I would imagine your background in supply chain probably helped you explain why it was so important, not just from a marketing perspective, but even from a supply chain perspective.

Don Frieson  9:25  
Well, well, absolutely. I mean, you know, again, as well as I do that, at the time, Walmart had always been on the leading edge relative to supply chain. So those are principles that we were just able to take over and very quickly articulate how it made sense and team put together presentation so that they could clearly see the bottom line impact. And when you leading a business, any business, you know that profitability is king and to show that you could drive more profitability by procuring in a different fashion was an immediate hit. You know, I think as we got more mature in the integration, we were able to take that to the retail side of things. So even with customer facing items, we started to sponsor some farms, because we had three of the entity said, so food. And by supporting the farms, we were able to take the their best crop, or the very best products, you put those in your high line stores, for the ones that had great quality, but maybe their appearance wasn't as great, you could put that in your mid tier stores. And let's say you have great quality, and I'm thinking about a carrot, where there may be a carrot, that's somewhat crooked, and you don't want to sell that, well, you take it and you grind it up to use in your delis, great quality, you don't have to worry about the appearance, and you're able to leverage that crop. And so it gave us an opportunity to think about things like that in a much broader sense.

Matt Waller  10:59  
Again, looking at your background, you know, some people may not realize, I mean, going from being in operations at Schneider and for truckload care, to Walmart, and then MassMart. You then went to Sam's Club and were in charge of replenishment, and you eventually were executive vice president operations. You know, Sam's Clubs operate quite different than Walmart, they got similarities for sure. You know, even from a branding perspective, you know, Walmart, save money live better. Sam's Club, savings made simple. There's some similarities, especially from a cultural and marketing strategic perspective, but how they operate like different. So then you went from Massmart to Sam's Club, which was another big change, you were head of replenishment. The way replenishment is done there is a bit different as well. Did that take time to adjust to or were you already kind of familiar with it from your work at Walmart?

Don Frieson  12:01  
Luckily, for me, one of the businesses within South Africa was a warehouse club and I had an opportunity to cut some chops on on that business before being repatriated into Sam's Club. But it is a different business, you know, you're replenishing by pallet quantities, versus eaches in that business. It's a membership model, which obviously, it's all about lower prices based on the membership, or your profitability piece of the business is all about the membership, and doing everything else at cost. And it's a model that is proven to be a very good model, particularly for small businesses and, and customers that buy in bulk. So yes, big difference between Walmart and Sam's Club. From that perspective, but I think the commonalities were, it's all about the customer. It's all about that journey. And particularly when you're in operations, you know that you are only as good as what the customer thinks about you. They make a decision every day, to walk through your threshold, and spend money with you. And you really have to be dialed in, in terms of how you are serving that customer. And so from a supply chain perspective, that's where the whole methodology around being efficient, being first to market, how do you take cost out, because all things being equal supply chain is the great equalizer when you're taking cost out of your business. And so I think it becomes very important, whether it's a Walmart or Sam's, or even in my current role with Lowe's, it is really important to look at it from an efficiency perspective.

Matt Waller  13:40  
Of course, you were executive vice president operations at Sam's Club. So now you're executive vice president of supply chain, at Lowe's. But you have so much experience and from carriers to mass merchants to international retailers to Sam's Club. That's a unique set of experiences. How does taking those experiences to Lowe's, how did that help you in terms of really seeing opportunities for improvement?

Don Frieson  14:12  
The thing that's been really great for me is having broad experiences and understand how different factions of the business works. And when you understand more about how the total business work, then it allows me to be very specific relative to supply chain and meet my internal customers needs. Because I know what they're looking for that I know what's optimal for them. And it's really helpful. Given the current state of supply chain and then I tell you Dean when supply chain is your leading news story, you know, it's a pretty difficult time, but it helps us ground ourselves in how do we ultimately get back to serving that customer well? That broad experience has been really helpful in me. Now, I had to learn a bit big and bulky business, because Lowe's is a big and bulky business. And that is decidedly different than general commodity retailing. And so I've had to be a student, quite frankly, and really learn from my peers here at Lowe's to understand more about specifically home improvement, but the movement of big and bulky goods like appliances, and things like patio furniture, and large deck riding mowers, it's a lot different in moving those things and particularly getting into a customer. So we've been on that journey of learning how to do that, and how to do that well.

Matt Waller  15:38  
No matter what we do in life, right? There's times where we all have unique paths, and journeys. And we go down these journeys, and we learn things that sometimes we think I wish people in other areas understood this, like, you know there's things in business higher ed, for example, I think, I wish parents knew and students and people hiring our students, etc. Within a company too you know, with your experience, there's always things you think, gosh, I wish people in merchandising or finance or whatever it may be understood, what are some things that come to mind,

Don Frieson  16:14  
Well every opportunity and every interaction is a chance to educate. And I really think you have to, to approach it that way. I don't expect for individuals to know what I knew about supply chain. And so when I can help them put the dots together, and how it impacts their business, that's the educational opportunity. And I expect for them to do the same with me. And so I think you always keep it simple. There's a way to keep the message very simple, and not complicated. And when you can explain it in simple or layman terms, and educate people that then clicks for them.

Matt Waller  16:54  
Back in the 70s, and 80s, the focus was really on just transportation

Don Frieson  16:58  

Matt Waller  16:59  
Then when deregulation occurred in 1980, it started to take a broader logistics approach, where you start looking at balancing costs between inventory and transportation, etc, etc. And then, you know, really in the 90s, and up to current, there's the been this push on Business Process Integration

Don Frieson  17:21  

Matt Waller  17:21  
and the customer journey, and so forth. And there's a professor, actually, retired professor from Ohio State that really pushed this notion of cross functional integration as a key role for supply chain, Doug Lambert, he talked about this, let that, you know, for supply chains really to go to the next level, you've got to be able to integrate disparate functions and operations to be able to work in sync with one another. And so when I was looking at your background, and that's why I started with Massmart. Because at Massmart, you were focused on integration. That was what you were responsible for. I was thinking back to a number of things Doug Lambert used to talk about. And I thought, wow, what a great experience for someone who's going to actually be overseeing all of supply chain. Is it true? Did it help you in terms of that?

Don Frieson  18:20  
Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, if you think about it, and it is when you think about, and I use the term or an example end-to-end inventory visibility, there in lies the secret, if you want to see things from raw materials all the way to the trunk of a customer's car, and integrated in a view, where you know, where things are at any stage during that journey, then you must integrate all of your systems, whether it's a retail system that has an opportunity to look upstream into a distribution center, and know exactly how much inventory is there, how much inventory has been allotted to a particular store? How do the merchants understand what's flowing from overseas, and meeting the demand based on their sales plan, all that has to be pulled together. And not a simple task. And you'll find that there are a lot of, of suppliers out there business partners out there that do portions of that. But it's really up to your organization, to pull it all together in a way that's common. And that there's a common view, and that the organization is speaking a common language across those. So where you could get away with years ago, having disparate systems because they didn't have to talk. Our people were working in a silo. You can ill afford to work in those silos anymore. You have to be able to look at I call it up down and across your business and making sure that all partners are using the same data sources, the information sources. So when we talk about data, data is so supreme. I think the toughest piece around the data is putting it in a usable form. And a common form that everybody is speaking the same language. So that's the essence of where we are today from a supply chain perspective.

Matt Waller  20:21  
here we are, in January of 2022, the pandemic's been hanging on a long time and it's really had a big impact on how we do business in many different ways, especially in supply chain, but in many other ways as well. Would you mind speaking to that little bit?

Don Frieson  20:40  
Absolutely. The first thing that comes to mind, particularly in the environment that we've been in, gosh, almost two years now is workplace safety. I think it's very important that that we've had a lot of associates that have worked throughout this pandemic. And our first mission is keeping them safe. And so we've had to pivot in our particularly in our distribution center environments, our transportation environments, as we go into a customer's home, with the delivery, really thinking about that differently. How does touchless retail start to move itself forward, a touchless supply chain, if you will, where you actually limit the number of touches as you get to a customer. So that's that whole efficiency piece. We also know that ot has taken a toll on the number of people in the workplace. And so how does automation robotics play a much larger role in supply chain, particularly on the distribution side of things, so that you're able to have repeatable work, and not be so dependent on a large workforce, I think that's been really important. And lastly, even within supply chain, and a support environment, remote work has been a game changer. My biggest fear around remote work, however, is how do you be creative and keeping your associates engaged in that process, when they aren't able to pop over a cube and ask a question, or meet someone at the water fountain and talk about things. And we know that oftentimes that informal communication is really what drives innovation. So how do you continue to build on what you had in a remote environment. And you know, quite frankly, I think some portion of the workforce will always be remote from this point forward. So I think it's something that we have to continue to think about, and solve for.

Matt Waller  22:41  
Don, you know, a lot of people that listen to this sort of students, I want to make sure that you have the opportunity to speak to them. From your experience. I mean, you you interact with students all the time and new employees that are out of school, what what advice do you have for them, any advice, what they should be doing, what they should be focused on how they should think? Anything you think that might be helpful to them?

Don Frieson  23:10  
Probably one of the best parts about weeks or month, is when I have an opportunity to interact with what we'll call the next generation of leaders. And as these students take off, in their first year of work environment, it's really about understanding the mission, and what the company is looking for in them. I always think it's a two way street. And so you got to give as much as you get, and companies owe you that. But what I found is that those that are really successful, are the ones that have come in with a sense of being genuine, around learning the business. In many cases, the degree starts the process, but the experience starts when they hit the workplace, and how do you learn from individuals that you may even be managing, but they've been in the role for a long time. So a genuine approach to understanding and really wanting to gain that knowledge is huge. I've crafted over a number of years, what I call Don's 10 rules for leadership success. And among those known is be genuine, but it's also about hiring people that are smarter and better than you. And that can be tough for folks that are new in the workplace because you want to show your expertise. But I tell you, I'm a lot smarter about hiring smarter people. And that's really moved a lot of initiatives along but really focus on giving others credit, particularly when you work in a cross collaboration type of setting. Trust. Always start off every relationship with I trust you 100% not that you have to earn my trust. We're going to start off day one, that we trust each other and build on that. Treating everyone well, I don't care what the role is, it's important. And so I think it's really important that as you move toward a workspace or you leave, or even moving from from a bachelor's and going into a master's program, it's just really important that you understand that everyone along that journey has a role. And you've got to make sure that you treat them with equal respect. In many teams situations, find a really small wins, you know, in this environment we get so focused on we'd have to hit a home run. And if you think about it in baseball terms, if you're batting percent is point three, three, you're a Hall of Fame, batter. But that means you're only connecting one out of every three balls. And so think about that hit the singles, because they add up to big wins. And lastly, I'll tell you, over a long career, you're going to work a lot of hours, there'll be a lot of things you do, putt a little fun in there, it's going to be really important to not miss out on the fun things of what you do. Because that is what sustains you during the tough times.

Matt Waller  26:11  
Well, that's great wisdom. Don, thank you so much for sharing that with our students. I really appreciate it. And thank you for really I know you've got a lot going on. And you're very generous to give me time to interview you. So thank you so much.

Don Frieson  26:25  
What a pleasure to work with the University once again. So I wish you and the faculty and staff and particularly the students all the best luck as we roll into 2022.

Matt Waller  26:37  
On behalf of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, I want to thank everyone for spending time with us for another engaging conversation. You can subscribe by going to your favorite podcast service and searching be epic. Be EP IC

Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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