Shipping Expert: Supply Chain Still ‘Fragile,’ But Recovering

Enrique Alvarez is the co-founder and managing director of Atlanta-based Vector Global Logistics

Although Enrique Alvarez is the head of a huge team of some 150 members in ports all over the world, he doesn’t necessarily see himself as a leader.

And Alvarez, the co-founder and managing director of Atlanta-based Vector Global Logistics, thinks that may be the very key to his company’s success.

Vector is a worldwide shipping and logistics company with offices in Mexico, Chile, Malaysia, China and Vietnam. Soon, the company will open a branch in Peru.

And at the helm is a boss who thinks of himself as “just another team player.”

“I don’t consider myself the leader of this team or this company,” Alvarez said. “I’m just another team player and I’m happy my team sees me as such. We have a really good team together and we’re strong because of that.”

Vector coordinates the international shipping needs for its various clients. The company has contracts with major suppliers, steamship lines in particular, and coordinates freight for those clients, “moving their containers from point A to point B,” Alvarez said.

While they’re doing that, Vector Global Logistics is exercising its prime directive: Helping people. Vector works with dozens of organizations to meet the company’s desire to “give back.”

For instance, for every container shipped from the U.S., Vector donates 50 meals to needy children in Kenya. Containers shipped in Mexico earn donations to children with cancer and their families.

Similarly, containers shipped in Chile are helping children with special needs.

“It’s all about trying to give back, doing the right things and knowing the more you give the more you get,” Alvarez said. “That’s how we’ve been successfully growing. It defines us and our company.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the folks at Vector Global Logistics felt compelled — “It’s part of the promise we made to ourselves and to the world,” Alvarez said – to help.

The company has a relief team that helps during natural disasters and other world events, and it coordinates a monthly meeting so that people who want to help can contribute.

“We’re matchmaking,” Alvarez said. “We open the forum, we coordinate these monthly calls and try to help connect people. There are a lot of people who are very interested in helping.

“It’s part of the culture we have, and part of the promise we made to ourselves and to the world,” he added. “I don’t think there was an option here.”

Alvarez sat down to talk about business issues during the most recent episode of “CEO Thought Leadership Series on LinkedIn Live,” the discussion series hosted by the National Association of Business Resources.

Produced in conjunction with the Best and Brightest Companies to Work for and Corp! Magazine, the series is hosted by NABR CEO Jennifer Kluge and features business leaders from around the country.

Jennifer Kluge: Supply chain (issues) are all we hear about. Where is the supply chain now and what advice would you give other leaders as it relates to predicting supply chain impacts on business operations?

Enrique Alvarez: Supply chain really embodies everything we use on a daily basis … it’s very broad and very complex and very global. Everything is very inter-connected.

When you’re talking about supply chain, some of the issues we faced were when it came to freight and ocean and air shipping, ocean in particular, it was really bad. No one really was expecting it, there was no way … to predict what happened during the pandemic and so it was a very humbling experience for everyone out there.

We all felt we had this under control … and all of a sudden the coronavirus took that out and left us finding ourselves in a position we had never seen before.

When it comes to forecasting things like that, I think we’re now much-better prepared for what might come becasue of two things: 1) We were getting a little too overconfident, and now we know that we don’t know as much as we think we know. We have to factor in that … variability of things into the equation.

The second part is … our clients have actually looked into their supply chains and are trying to change them or adjust them to make them more robust, by maybe near-shoring some of their manufacturing, maybe investing and developing new and more reliable suppliers.

The supply chains are still fragile. In general we are, from a price standpoint, better off than during the pandemic. We’re actually back to pre-pandemic rates … which is a really good thing.

What’s left is taking the time to readjust … the processes, learn from this experience and keep growing more integrated as a client supplier/manufacturer team.

Kluge: What’s your pandemic story? What are some of the challenges you faced, and what did you learn?

Alvarez: From a cultural standpoint our company is based on a results-only environment, based on a book called “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It (written by Cali Bessler and Jody Thompson). It says you take the time and space components out of the equation and you measure performance by results only.

When the pandemic hit, we were already working remotely. We don’t believe in the 9-5 mentality, we don’t believe in work-life balance. We were well-positioned as Vector to tackle this. As other companies were trying to learn to work remotely, we’ve been doing it since we started the company, so we were a little ahead when it came to that.

I know that was a big, big challenge for many. It’s not something we faced, but that was the main concern for most. For us, it was really the sheer volume that was needed. You went from shipping regular products to all the PPE products – the masks, the gloves – that was taking a lot of space. Some of the things we struggled with was time. We just didn’t have enough time. We were working many, many hours a day, our team was tired.

We learned we have really good partners around the world. It was something that validated the culture, validated why we do things. We all stepped up, and everyone functioned the way they should have.

Kluge: What do you do to engage your team? What are some of the cool things about working for Vector?

Alvarez: What really binds us together is the purpose we have behind our culture. We have the results-only mentality, and we have this purpose-driven organization that’s trying to leverage logistics – we’ve coined the phrase ‘logistics with purpose’ – to use what we do, use logistics and then try to really change the world.

If you combine the results mentality with the purpose-driven organization, it becomes a vibrant, dynamic, fun culture to be a part of. It’s fulfilling and I feel like that’s what everyone in our team feels.

Kluge: Let’s talk about the journey to get there. Do you have any lessons learned?

Alvarez: I have personally made all the mistakes in the book and then some. I’m OK making mistakes. We actually encourage people to make mistakes. I feel like right now our culture and the way the world is working we see mistakes as a bad things. It’s hard to grow a successful company if everyone is terrified of making a mistake.

For us, mistakes are going to happen. What really makes the difference is how you handle those mistakes, what are you going to learn from them? That’s what makes us very unique and different from other companies.

Kluge: Do you have any regrets in your leadership journey?

Alvarez: One of the regrets I have, and it’s something I’ve learned the hard way, is not letting people go earlier. I hate firing people. It’s just hard, I don’t want to do it, it’s just against what I really think. But I’ve learned if you don’t let people go who aren’t right for the company … you’re just hurting the organization. If there was one piece of advice, it would be … once you know a person just isn’t right for the company or the culture you’ve got to have that conversation, let them go. It’s not personal … you can be successful in certain cultures, in certain ways of working, and for some this might not be it.

Kluge: You’re certified as a minority supplier. How does diversity weigh in on everything you do, and what is your responsibility as it relates to DE&I?

Alvarez: It’s a big part of what we do and it’s a big part of our competitive advantage. Having teams around the world and having people from different backgrounds is key to successfully and efficiently resolving challenges.

If you really want to come with elegant solutions to problems, you need a diverse team. It can’t be just one person, it can’t just be one way of thinking. It has to be people who have different backgrounds who look at the problem from different angles. That’s when you can really succeed.

Kluge: It’s important for young people to see leaders like yourself being successful and leading. What advice would you give to a young person?

Alvarez: I would say leadership is very glorified these days. Everyone wants to be a leader, but that’s not effective. I would tell younger people you don’t have to be too stressed about being a leader. I don’t think true leaders actually want to be leaders, they just do what they need to do when they need to do it. Other people see that example and consider them leaders. I think if you’re considering yourself a leader, you’re probably not there yet. I would seek out good mentors, leadership examples, good opportunities to learn, to grow, to do things in areas you’re particularly interested in.

If you do the right things for the right reasons and you work incredibly hard, the money will come. We’re a successful company, but not because we maximize profits, it’s because we maximize value.