Marshall Fisher is a UPS Professor of Operations and Information Management at Wharton. His research and teaching focuses on retailing and supply chain management and has published 4 books on the subject matter.
I launch with my standard warm-up question by asking Professor Fisher how he first became interested in supply chain and retailing. I am met with silence.
After a pause he says, “I’m wondering, how far back should I go?”
He first came to Wharton in 1975 as an academic to do theoretical research, applying math to various kinds of stylized operations problems. But then he wanted to have more of a realistic impact on the world and thus began looking for more applicable contexts for his work.
“In 1979 I started working on private truck fleet scheduling. You have a fleet of 10,000 trucks which deliver their products to grocery stores. They have to decide which deliveries go on which truck route, in what order. A little jigsaw puzzle that you can apply math to but has a big impact on operations.”
He co-founded a company to do just that for blue chip clients such as Frito Lay, Anheuser Bush and Exon and later sold that company to Manugistics in 1990.
I say, “I actually just read an article about how to solve the traveling salesman problem while also having to consider the happiness of the salesman. In this case, how UPS and Fedex incorporate whether a truck driver is happy or not into their modern routing models.”
“So the human side of truck scheduling.”
Professor Fisher responds, “I must confess we never considered our drivers’ emotions. One of our first customers was a restaurant distributor in Chicago called Edward Don. We deployed our routes, which respected all the Department of Transportation laws, but they showed us drivers’ feedback forms full of complaints. I still remember one of them said, “I’m going into Indiana, that’s crazy!” The Chicago to Indiana border distance is 20 miles so there was nothing irrational about that, but his emotional reaction was, ‘I’ve never done this before!’ So maybe we should have considered emotions.”
“If you did you would have been VERY far ahead of your time. That’s only something people are looking at now with technology. So anyway, that was your first company…”
“Haha yes, that was the 80s, scheduling trucks. Then I thought planning supply chain for fashion products would be more fun.”
The shift to fashion products happened as a result of a project with Sport Obermeyer, which led Professor Fisher to start a company in 2000 consulting and doing inventory management for retailers.
“But then as you look at what’s happening with retailers, everyone is sourcing from Asia. So, that’s what got me interested in Global Supply Chains today.”
“What specific things are you looking at now in your research?”
“Global issues for sure, particularly retailing in all its many facets. Retailing has become more receptive to analytics. Back in 2001 Ananth Raman and I co-wrote an HBR paper called Rocket Science Retailing, to connote something akin to what happened on Wall Street with analytics in the investment world.
The other thing obviously that’s happening in retailing is the Internet, the ecommerce omni-channel. I’m working with Chinese Internet retailer YiHaoDian, the fastest growing company in the world, co-founded by Gang Yu who did his PHD at Wharton in 1990. With some other retailers, I’m looking at how bricks and mortar retailers use the omni-channel to compete since they’re getting killed by Amazon. They fight back by having their own e-channel and that leads you to think about how to blend both stores and online to be a better choice for the customer.”
“What’s a piece of advice you would give students, having seen so many students come and go?”
“The advice I got while getting an MBA is go where they’re making or selling the product. Line experience can be very valuable. To the extent that you are in the investment banking or consulting world, position yourself in the day to day of consumer companies. We have folks here that look like me back when I wanted to work in the real world. I had all this book learning, math skills and analytical skills but not a lot of practical knowledge. So I think getting some portion of your career where you’re gaining practical knowledge will make you invaluable.”
I close by asking Professor Fisher about his hobbies. He responds: traveling, tennis, and hanging out with his wife. I jump ahead and guess he’s into running, after having seen several pairs of his beat up New Balance running shoes he demo’d in class.
“Actually, triathlete!” He points to a picture on his desk, “This is with my son when we did the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon.”
Always refreshingly humorous, Professor Fisher follows up with, “The beauty of my age bracket is that the ranks thin out. If you show up at the finish line you pretty much medal.”
1. What is your favorite word? Adventure
2. What is your least favorite word? Tedium
3. What makes you happy? Spending time with my wife
4. What makes you unhappy? Nights in lousy hotels
5. What sound do you love? Yes
6. What sound do you hate? No
7. What is your favorite curse word? Heck
8. What profession other than yours would you like to attempt? Professional football player
9. What profession would you not like to do? Accountant
10. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates? What took you so long to get here? We’ve been waiting a hundred years for you.