Supporting the Supply Chain with Business Intelligence: A Q&A with Eric Kierstead of OHL

Originally published 2 November 2015

This BeyeNETWORK article features Ron Powell’s interview with Eric Kierstead, Business Unit CIO for International for Ozburn-Hessey Logistics, LLC (OHL).  They discuss the importance of providing self-service BI capabilities to support the supply chain from end to end.
Eric, could you give us a little background on Ozburn-Hessey Logistics (OHL)?

Eric Kierstead: OHL is a logistics company with two different business units. One is the domestic business unit and that is primarily warehousing, e-fulfillment and domestic transportation. Warehousing could be as simple as a company renting some square footage in one of our warehouses – we have 37 million square feet of warehouse space in the United States and Canada – or it could be something a little bit more sophisticated like e-fulfillment where if you have a website and you don’t want to rent your own warehouse or have your own employees, forklifts, racks, and so on, you’ll hire a company like OHL to be the e-fulfillment engine behind your website. As soon as people buy something from your website and credit card processing is finished, you send a transaction – usually an EDI transaction – to OHL, and then we’ll pick, pack and ship the product to your customer; and as far as they know it came from you, not from OHL.  That is one of the reasons that OHL may not be a household name.

That part is fairly straightforward. Domestic transportation can be an entire truckload – such as containers that just came in from overseas and need to have their contents put in a warehouse. Companies hire us to do that kind of shipping, or it could also be the other model where someone has bought a shirt from a website and we’ll do the small parcel delivery from one of our warehouses all the way to the end consumer. That’s the domestic side.

We have two lines of business on the international side. One is the freight forwarding, which is typically putting a container on a ship somewhere overseas and then bringing it into the United States, although we also do it in reverse. We do a lot of exporting from the United States, which is nice to see. As an American I like to see that we’re manufacturing things that are cost-competitive and exporting them to other countries. We also do import and export by air.

The second line of business in international is customs brokerage, which is a little more abstract. When things come in from overseas and they have to get through customs, there is a myriad of documents, government agencies and tariffs. A lot of companies just don’t want to be bothered with retaining subject-matter experts in this, so they’ll outsource that to a company like OHL and we’ll handle their brokerage. It’s a natural one-two combination to have us do the freight forwarding plus the customs brokerage. In addition, we can warehouse it and do domestic transportation as well. So it’s a really nice end-to-end supply chain offering that we have.

From a customs perspective, things are constantly changing from government regulations and rules of what can come in and what can go out. That must be a nice headache to remove.

Eric Kierstead: We have so many certified customs brokers inside our company, and part of their job is to stay completely current on all the changes. If you’re a 5,000 or 20,000 person company, maybe you could afford to have a couple of people on staff to do that, but smaller to midsize companies often decide it makes more sense to outsource the customs brokerage. We are a good fit for those small to midsize companies.

Can you give me a little background on the customer visibility portal that you have created?

Eric Kierstead: There are actually two big challenges in the logistics business. The first one is supply chain visibility, otherwise known as “where is my stuff.” Companies are no different than people. They want to know where their things are. And, we wanted to build a portal that would address that and really move the needle forward for the logistics industry and do a better job than the logistics industry had done thus far in providing supply chain visibility. You can imagine if you put $4 million of electronics into a container on a vessel in Indonesia and the vessel leaves Indonesia. You call your logistics company to remind them that you have supply chain dependencies that are completely relying on this container showing up on time in the port of Los Angeles and you need to know where it is. Your logistics company tells you that it left port in Indonesia about a day ago and it’s going to arrive in Los Angeles in about 22 days, they think, and they’ll let you know twenty-two days from now if it made it on time. That’s just not good enough.

What we wanted to build was a portal to improve upon that experience that our customers were having. The second part was performance – the visibility that we wanted to give our customers on how we’re performing on their account. That really speaks more to why we chose to go with WebFocus from Information Builders. In working with Information Builders, we wanted to put a key performance indicator (KPI) dashboard into our portal that showed our customers how we were doing on their accounts. Until we set up the portal, we were basically delivering all of that kind of information through spreadsheets that were emailed to our customers, monthly reviews, and quarterly business reviews – very traditional, non-real-time information given to our customers. We could be absolutely killing our service level agreement. We could be doing a fantastic job, but our customers would not know. That was a problem.

Does each customer have a portal specifically tailored for them so that they know in real time where everything is?


Eric Kierstead: They know where everything is to the best of our ability given the technology we have in place, and then the second part is KPIs. In release 1.0 – we just launched our portal about five months ago – we have 52 different key performance indicators that our customers can watch on the dashboard. That is really the part that speaks to WebFocus. We were going to build the portal. We’re going to have this larger portal and then we’re going to bake in a key performance indicator dashboard. We have to find a really visually appealing, easy KPI dashboard. I really didn’t know too much about business intelligence (BI), and I carefully researched the market. Over the course of three or four months, I spent a lot of time going to sales pitches, doing webinars, learning the industry, reading the Gartner reports, and things like that – and all roads led to Information Builders in terms of our requirements.

Are you in the cloud?

Eric Kierstead: We actually host it. We wrote it ourselves. In fact, everything that we developed in the portal is built effectively from scratch. We’ve used a couple of platforms that were open source. It’s written in Java. The only thing that we did not develop in house was the WebFocus platform. So, basically we built a Java portal around the WebFocus platform, which is brought in through an iframe. For folks that are familiar with iframes and portals, you basically bring in an application. You give the application a certain amount of real estate in the portal, and then you pull it in and you make it look like it’s just a native part of the portal.

From a benefits perspective, I would think that by giving all of this information to your customers so that they can just look at it would take a load off of your administrative staff.

Eric Kierstead: Our long-term goal is to lower the lake in terms of how much manual work is required to generate the reports because our larger customers – and we have several big household names as customers – would typically get a daily report that is manually complied – at least in part. There are very few fully automated reports. You get to the smaller companies, and maybe they’re getting weekly or monthly reports. Again, a lot of manual labor is required to prepare those reports.

The portal is only five months old, and we’re starting to see some benefits. Long term, we want our customers to use the portal exclusively. Then there would be no more manual reports at all. That’s the long-term goal. And five months into it, we can start seeing the level of the lake going down in terms of manual labor on the reports. I think that within a year to a year-and-a-half, we’ll have that down to almost empty.

From a customer perspective the ability to deliver to any device is a necessity, right?

Eric Kierstead: Absolutely. Another reason we use WebFocus is because they’re big supporters of HTML5. Basically, we have built our portal in Java with responsive design that dynamically fits itself to whatever screen size it’s given. So it’s a really nice combination. Our portal works extremely well on tablets. I actually think it looks better on tablets than it does on traditional PCs. And that’s nice.

You've been on this journey for two years. From a best practices or lessons learned perspective, is there anything you would do differently or is there anything that you’ve done that you would say is the best way to approach things?

Eric Kierstead: People always talk about flash versus substance. When you’re building a portal – I’m a fairly technical guy, but I have to tell you, you cannot underestimate how important flash is to make your website inviting. When I say “flash,” I’m talking about inviting, easy to use, appropriately colorful, and not overwhelming. You can have the best functionality on the planet, but if people get overwhelmed or scared off because it’s confusing, they’re not going to come back. And that would be the one thing that I’d emphasize more than anything else: focus on what the first experience is going to be for your customers. Navigate through that whole thing. A lot of times I’m overwhelmed – or underwhelmed, I should say. I’ll register on a website, and I’ll be able to tell that the CEO of that company has never walked through the customer experience. If he had, he would never allow it to be stood up this way. What’s the registration process like? What’s the first login process like? What happens when they first login? What do they see? What are they looking at? Can they understand what they’re supposed to do when they first login? How much typing is required? We live in a drag-and-drop, point-and-click world. I want this thing to be so easy. The registration process should take about 30 seconds – 45 seconds tops. And still be secure. When they get in, it should all be in front of them. I took a user interface design class about 25 years ago, and I’ll never forget the one thing that the fellow who taught the class said. He said, “If you end up writing a user guide, you failed. You should never have to write a user guide if you’re designing user interfaces. It should be so easy for the end user that they don’t need a user guide.

Think about the Google website and why Google is so successful. If you track it back to the very beginning, it was so easy. You log in – all you have is a cursor and one box. And they spend – from what I understand, and I’m not sure how much they pay attention now – but I think when they first launched I remember reading that they would count how many words were on the screen and make sure the word count was very, very small so that people could not get confused. One box. They didn’t necessarily return you 7 million results in some random order. They did a really good job of optimizing so that the most important things for your search showed up first. People liked that it was so easy.

And they gave you just enough to fill the page so there was no scrolling.

Eric Kierstead: Yes, brilliant. Google has great technology, but they did not turn a blind eye to the online user experience. They had both parts of the equation. Great technology with a great user experience.

We want to make sure that we give the customers a full 360-degree view of their supply chain, which includes four different things: the freight forwarding, the customs, the warehousing, and the transportation. That represents a lot of KPIs and it also represents a lot of different companies, subcontractors and then getting their information into a cohesive portal. That’s really our biggest challenge.

Well, Eric, it has been a pleasure learning how self-service BI capabilities support the supply chain at OHL.

SOURCE: Supporting the Supply Chain with Business Intelligence: A Q&A with Eric Kierstead of OHL

  • Ron PowellRon Powell
    Ron is an independent analyst, consultant and editorial expert with extensive knowledge and experience in business intelligence, big data, analytics and data warehousing. Currently president of Powell Interactive Media, which specializes in consulting and podcast services, he is also Executive Producer of The World Transformed Fast Forward series. In 2004, Ron founded the BeyeNETWORK, which was acquired by Tech Target in 2010.  Prior to the founding of the BeyeNETWORK, Ron was cofounder, publisher and editorial director of DM Review (now Information Management). He maintains an expert channel and blog on the BeyeNETWORK and may be contacted by email at rpowell@powellinteractivemedia.com. 

    More articles and Ron's blog can be found in his BeyeNETWORK expert channel.

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