For the past 31 years, Shawn Curran has worked in supply chain management at Gap Inc. He sat down with Supply Chain Management Review to discuss his career, the evolution of Gap Inc.’s supply chain and the future of the profession.
In July 2016, SCMR published “A portrait of the supply chain manager,” our look at today’s senior level supply chain manager. The article was based on research we conducted with APICS, now known as the Association for Supply Chain Management, or ASCM.
At the time, we wrote that today’s senior vice president of supply chain had often taken a circuitous route to the top, and in many cases, had not begun their career in what we think of as supply chain management.
He, or she, was most likely at least 48 years old with a bachelor’s degree in something other than a formal supply chain program, had worked for three different companies, held at least four different positions before taking the helm and had likely worked for his/her current employer for at least 10 years.
We also described the senior leader as “a life-long learner who is engaged in advancing their career and the profession. Increasingly, the companies our respondents work for are looking to the supply chain to provide a competitive advantage and gain market share.”
While not entirely on point, that description sounds very much like the resume of Shawn Curran, who has spent 31 years working in supply chain management at Gap Inc., including four years at the helm of the retailer’s supply chain.
Curran’s duties are expansive, including everything from sourcing, production, transportation, distribution, engineering and call center operations. More recently, store strategy and operations was added to his portfolio. He is an example of a supply chain executive who has elevated the profession—and Gap Inc.’s supply chain—to the C-suite.
Curran recently took time to discuss his career, including his route to the top at Gap Inc., and the evolution of the retailer’s supply chain operations.
SCMR: Shawn, let’s start with the progression of your career.
CURRAN: Sure. I’ve been with Gap Inc. for 31 years now, and I’ve really only worked for two companies since I got out of college in 1985. As I think about it, I was in the field right from the start, and I didn’t know it.
SCMR: I’m guessing you don’t have a degree in supply chain management.
CURRAN: I have a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Dayton. Later, I earned a master’s degree at Xavier University in Cincinnati. I set out to be a design engineer, and my first job was working for Texas Instruments as a manufacturing engineer in their defense systems electronics group in Dallas.
It was a great job because you worked with design engineers, fabricators, assembly line teams and parts planners so that you really understood the process from end-to-end. Then when you became a design engineer, that experience would help to make you a better engineer. I was referencing that job when I made the comment that I was in supply chain and didn’t even know it.
I think about supply chain most simply as create, plan, source, make, move, sell and return. Today, we must think of supply chains to be ever more end-to-end, with our tentacles ingrained from the creation of the product all the way to the customer.
TITLE: Executive Vice President, Global Supply Chain Product and Store Operations
COMPANY: Gap Inc., San Francisco, Calif.
YEARS IN INDUSTRY: 34
YEARS AT GAP INC.: 31
RESPONSIBILITIES: Curran manages the Global Supply Chain’s end-to-end processes and leads the product-to-market model for each of its brands. Specifically, he is responsible for leading the company’s global logistics omni-channel operations, sourcing and production, product operations, store operations and strategy. These functions serve both on-line customers and more than 3,100 company-owned stores, along with 400+ franchise stores.
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s of Technology, Mechanical Engineering, University of Dayton; Master’s of
Business Administration, Xavier University
SCMR: What happened next?
CURRAN: Two things. One is that I began to really become more self-aware of the things that gave me energy, the areas where I felt like I had skill and competency. That’s where I began to appreciate the need for mentors, which has been a theme throughout my career.
My early manager at Texas Instruments said to me: “You clearly have a lot of energy and you’re able to not only think about design engineering, but work and solve problems with teams.”
So, three years into that first job, I moved into industrial engineering. I believed that by developing my skills in that discipline, I could do more around things that I really enjoyed, like time and motion studies, process engineering, systems engineering, ergonomics and end-to-end S&OP management. I also started to look around at other opportunities when this company called Banana Republic caught my eye.
They were looking for an industrial engineer for a new distribution center (DC) they were building in Erlanger, Ky. They were last on my list and I applied on a whim. That was 1988, and here I am 31 years later.
SCMR: What appealed to you about the job?
CURRAN: When I interviewed, I saw right away the opportunity to move from an environment where everyone was an engineer to one where I was one of just a few engineers in the company. My job was to develop the materials handling systems, the standard operating procedures (SOPs) and everything related to the time and motion studies aimed at continuously improving operations. It was an opportunity to play a critical role in a young brand.
How will tomorrow’s supply chain leaders differ?
CURRAN: As you look to grow future supply chain leaders, the best are going to have a global level of understanding. It’s critical for leaders to understand global markets and trade, given everything we’re dealing with these days. In transportation, they’ll have a broad and deep understanding of all of the modes, including air, rail, ground and trade compliance.
They’ll understand parcel and last-mile delivery. If you’re going to be a transportation professional, you have a mandate to acquire expertise and skill in
all of those areas so you have the ability to understand how to most cost effectively operate and deliver service reliability in a turbulent supply chain world.
Tomorrow’s leaders will need to understand how the various disciplines should play together and connect. That’s essential if you’re going to have the speed, flexibility and responsiveness that you need in supply chains today and tomorrow. They’re going to need to understand the next version of the supply chain that will be digital and driven by AI.
Supply chains will leverage real-time digital customer insights like never before, enabling us to respond with greater levels of speed and precision. We will have to aggressive act on these insights to create greater value in the way in which we manage our business.
The supply chain leader of tomorrow that I’m looking to pass the reins to will have cross-functional expertise across the various disciplines, will be an avid learner and will be a fearless change agent. That’s where the future lies. At Gap Inc., we have purposely tried to create career paths for supply chain leaders to work across functions and geographies.
SCMR: You started in warehousing?
CURRAN: Absolutely. It was a time of unprecedented growth under Mickey Drexler’s leadership. Banana Republic was shifting from the safari look to something that was more sophisticated and upscale, and that was really taking off. Gap Kids was really taking off. Our job in logistics and warehousing was to try to keep up with the pace of growth.
SCMR: Did you think of yourself as a supply chain manager then?
CURRAN: No. Back then, we called it distribution and we were located in Kentucky. Sourcing was located in San Francisco. It was not part of our collective organization. That began to change in the mid-90s, when Old Navy came onto the scene. That was a level of growth unlike anything we’d ever seen before.
We doubled as a company every three years to four years into the 2000s. We rebranded our organization from distribution to logistics. That included DC operations, engineering and transportation.
SCMR: How did you cope with that growth as an organization?
CURRAN: One way was to outsource transportation. At one point, we started down the path of building our own fleet of trucks, but because we were growing so quickly, we needed more capacity and chose to leverage third-party transportation providers. We also began to contemplate moving from a national distribution model, with a central DC in Kentucky, to a regional distribution model with more DCs around the country.
I was not involved in the decision making, but we bought enough land to support growth to a $30 billion company. Thank goodness we did because, over the years, it has advantaged us in such a big way, as we brought our on-line and retail operations together.
SCMR: Did your role change during this period as well?
CURRAN: It did. In the 90s, I became a technical services manager. All of the maintenance teams reported to me, as did the industrial engineers around our northern Kentucky network. Then, I had another one of those critical moments where my leader at the time challenged me to move into an operating role. Having worked so hard on my engineering skills, I thought that was career suicide.
But, the consistent message I got from my manager and my mentors was that I needed to continuously learn and grow. I struggled with changing disciplines, but realized these were people who had my best interests in mind and who saw potential in me. So, in the late 1990s, I jumped in with both feet and became an operations manager.
SCMR: What was the outcome?
CURRAN: The thing I most enjoyed doing was solving big complex problems with teams. Being in operations humbled me greatly. I learned that it’s one thing to design a solution and another to actually execute it, while motivating and training hundreds and hundreds of people and coping with all of the volatility associated with apparel retailing. That was a huge moment of awareness of what it takes to be a leader.
SCMR: Were you still working in Kentucky?
CURRAN: Yes. Over the next few years, I was fortunate enough to get roles of increasing responsibility, and ultimately became the senior director of one of the facilities there in northern Kentucky. At the time, we had four facilities in northern Kentucky, but we didn’t run our buildings as a leveraged operation.
I thought there was a tremendous opportunity for us to view ourselves as one big campus. Even if the buildings operated separately, we could pool our back-office functions together. I talked with my leader at the time, and was given the opportunity to lead that newly formed northern Kentucky campus.
During that period, we began to develop a tailored brand level of service to support the individual brands. To do that, we became more integrated with brand leadership teams in San Francisco and created brand director roles within logistics, and in the early 2000s, I became the brand director for Banana Republic.
SCMR: You were doing this during a period of rapid growth. Did that trajectory change?
CURRAN: It did. Following 9/11, we realized that the economy was going through a difficult period. There was also a change of leadership then, with Mickey Drexler’s departure. We began to pivot our supply chain away from just coping with growth to really focusing on costs.
We became extremely competent in driving operational efficiencies and began to better garner the leverage that we had across our brands. We brought logistics and sourcing together in San Francisco. That was a real milestone in the evolution of Gap Inc.’s supply chain.
Around 2006, Glenn Murphy became our CEO and we brought in Colin Funnell as our supply chain leader. Colin had been the senior vice president of production at Old Navy. He further strengthened our cost focus and accelerated change to maximize leverage across our supply chain functions and for all of our enterprise procurement activities.
CURRAN: Gap Inc. is a 50-year-old company, but I like to view us as a startup. We constantly have to make sure that we’re challenging ourselves to nourish a culture of test, fail and learn. That’s success. That’s not failure. We really encourage that. The learning piece—how you act on those—is key.We have pilots going on at a level that I’ve never seen in our history. The ability to be able to do that across a global organization in a disciplined way, in terms of prioritizing where the resources are deployed, is key for the management teams of tomorrow and for supply chain talent.
SCMR: How did that change your operations?
CURRAN: We really ramped up our capabilities as a global logistics and global sourcing operation to become much more leveraged in the way that we approached our business and more balanced across the dimensions of service, cost and people. In the late 90s we were singularly brand focused and delivered tailored services to each brand. So, if Gap, Gap Kids, Old Navy and Banana Republic wanted their deliveries at 6:30 a.m., we would send in separate delivery trucks to each store to give them the specific service requested.
Now, we started to look at how we could optimize the way we did this across the brands. In the example I just gave, our outbound transportation team developed store delivery optimization, or SDO. We worked with our brand partners to optimize our deliveries so that our routes to each of these stores are done as efficiently as possible.
Next, we looked further upstream to our regional network of distribution campuses. By populating all of the demand for the Midwest or Northeast into a transportation management system, we could maximize the labor, the loading hierarchies and the route efficiency as we dispatched orders out of our regional distribution campuses through our pool providers and onto our stores. That was just our domestic retail operation because online at that time was run by Gap Inc. Direct, or GID. We didn’t bring GID into the supply chain organization until 2012 or 2013.
SCMR: What did your global operations look like?
CURRAN: Globally, we also began to move from independent, geographically-led sourcing across the brands to category-based sourcing. For instance, we started to source denim across all our brands on a global basis. At that time, some of our international markets were run separately; each country had a managing director with their own reporting lines of accountability for distribution and transportation.
Because of that, our processes and the technology used varied across our operations around the globe. We began to bring that in with maniacal focus. That was another milestone for Gap Inc., and for me personally when I was given the opportunity to lead our North American transportation function in 2005. I was able to work with the team to build out the new transportation model that I spoke about earlier.
In 2010, I picked up European Logistics as we started to bring some of the international markets under the global logistics umbrella. That gave us the opportunity to drive best practices across all our operations across the globe. Then, in 2012, I had the opportunity to come to San Francisco, where I became the SVP of global logistics. Around that same time, Glenn Murphy recognized the opportunity to integrate GID and our logistics organization into the broader supply chain operations, and our online fulfillment operations came under my responsibility.
SCMR: That sounds like a pivotal moment in your career.
CURRAN: It was in a number of ways. I love to learn, so, I spent a lot of time studying my competition in each of our markets. I wanted to understand the best practices that we could apply to best serve Gap Inc., given where we were in our business. In that 2012 and 2013 time period, we developed a five-year plan with the goal of coming out with a single, end-to-end global supply chain organization in the way we operated.
While we were working on that, I was promoted to EVP of supply chain and product operations and continued to pick up additional areas of responsibility. Most recently, we’ve expanded to include Store Strategy & Operations as part of Global Supply Chain.
SCMR: Since becoming Gap Inc.’s senior supply chain leader, what have your priorities been?
CURRAN: One of my maxims is that supply chain principles transcend cultures. So, unless there’s a burning business need in a specific market, I believe our practices and systems should be consistent around the world, and we’ve worked toward that. It is easier said than done in a large global organization.
One of my first initiatives was to bring all the global transportation and compliance teams under one leader with one vision for an end-to-end global transportation function, and we have that today. We no longer have duplicative transportation teams or processes.
SCMR: Can you talk about some of your transportation initiatives?
CURRAN: One of our priorities was to leverage our capabilities, our technology stacks and our processes at our consolidation freight locations at our origin countries. For instance, we worked with our partners to maximize cube utilization whether we ship by air or by ocean. We have control tower capability across our operations, so that we have visibility at each node along the supply chain.
And then we created inland transload operations, what we call ITOs, at every port that we’re in. Once we ship across the ocean, we’re able to unpack a container very quickly, sort it into 53-foot trailers for greater cube utilization and then maximize the domestic transportation leg from the port all the way to our distribution campuses.
SCMR: Do you reallocate on the fly?
CURRAN: Speed and flexibility are key to supply chains today. We constantly monitor demand, and then, working with our partners and logistics organization, we can pivot to wherever we can extract better value. That can happen at the origin location port, or we can redirect freight when it lands at an ITO at any destination port. If we had originally planned on sending something to our Fresno campus and now we need it in the Northeast, we can quickly resort at the ITO and send it to Fishkill.
REVENUE: $16.6 billion, fiscal 2018
BRANDS: Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Athleta, Intermix, Hill City and Janie and Jack
NUMBER OF STORES: 3,194 company-operated stores and 472 franchise store locations as of fiscal 2018.
NUMBER OF COUNTRIES SERVED: Gap Inc. products are available for purchase in more than 90 countries worldwide through company-operated stores, franchise stores, and e-commerce sites.
SUPPLY BASE: 28 countries
NUMBER OF FACILITIES: 14 distribution centers worldwide
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES IN SUPPLY CHAIN: 8,000
NUMBER OF ITEMS SHIPPED PER YEAR: 1.2 billion units globally
SCMR: What have you done around your fulfillment operations?
CURRAN: We spent the first 35 years of Gap Inc.’s existence finely tuning our North American retail network model. You could walk into any retail building across North America and see consistent tools and processes. Fast forward to 2013, we had a separate online organization, GID, with its own logistics function. Originally, there were good reasons to do that because it allowed us to be laser focused in building digital capabilities.
But, given the rapid growth of e-commerce, that was no longer a winning formula for servicing the customer, and we pride ourselves on being demand-driven and customer-led. So, we began to build global fulfillment capability across all channels concurrent with our transportation initiatives.
SCMR: What did the network look like then?
CURRAN: In 2013 when we launched our five-year-plan, we had 19 distribution centers around the world, including our separate online centers. We had a big online fulfillment operation in Columbus, Ohio; a fulfillment operation with Kiva robots in Phoenix; another fulfillment operation with Kiva in Stafford, England; and a Canadian fulfillment center that also used Kiva. When we ran out of capacity, we’d open popups and they weren’t exactly small.
In Columbus, we once popped up a 300,000 square foot operation for peak. As you’re growing, it’s not uncommon to do that, but a 300,000 square foot popup is not a sustainable solution. At the same time, we had too much capacity for retail. As we overlaid the vision for our future global fulfillment network, we absolutely saw the mandate to bring together our online and retail fulfillment network into one global fulfillment organization.
Now, fast forward five years, and as we sit here today, we have only 14 DCs. By bringing retail and online together, we grew our capacity by 160% while reducing the number of DCs. What’s more, we implemented technology that enabled us to keep up with growth while leveling the demand for labor. And, we have consistent materials handling technologies in all our locations, consistent SOPs and we are very much focused on continuing to foster a culture of test, fail, learn and scale.
SCMR: How did you do that?
CURRAN: We recognized that we needed technology to solve our capacity problem and to give us the omni-channel capabilities we’d need for tomorrow. My colleagues and I went around the world, visiting different fulfillment operations to study what others were doing. When we got back, Kevin Kuntz, our SVP of global logistics fulfillment, and I worked with some of our materials handling partners and began to pilot some technologies that were new to us.
We used our Gallatin, Tennessee campus as our test campus. For instance, we worked with TGW to pilot two aisles of AS/RS shuttle technology. In Europe, the technology is used primarily with totes. We wanted to use it with our standardized cartons, which we spent a lot of time developing back in the 2000s—standardization and vendor compliance was one of the things that allowed us to get maniacal about costs and we didn’t want to lose that.
Frankly, it took a while to get it to the point where we were confident we could integrate it with the inbound AS/RS cranes we use for storage and scale it across the network. But once we could trust the technology, we developed the solution blueprint and a plan to scale it. The first campus was going to be Fishkill, New York, which is our Northeast distribution center. Then we were going to Canada and so forth through our North American campuses.
SCMR: What stopped that plan?
CURRAN: Unfortunately, we had an event that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. In August 2016, just a few months before peak, we had a serious fire on the Fishkill campus.
CURRAN: I believe we tend to underestimate our own potential as individuals. The mentors I’ve had over my career have reinforced this. They consistently said: “Shawn you can do this. What’s the worst that can happen? You fail? If so, you’re going to learn and grow.”
I also believe, we generally underestimate the potential of our teams and our responsibility as leaders to reinforce this and help remove barriers. Taking the learnings from the Fishkill fire, I find myself asking team members: “What do you need and how can I help?”
I have an eye toward teasing out line of sight to roadblocks—real or perceived. Teams can flourish with clear goals, empowerment and a relentless determination to overcome any and all barriers. When the fire happened, there was no time to hesitate or second-guess. We quickly huddled up, divided and conquered on our plan of attack and unleashed our teams.
We divided up our U.S. operations with clear owners who were empowered to move with speed. The results were amazing. Despite the fire, we delivered significant year-on-year increase in our online throughput during that holiday period, which shocked me. The other lesson to be learned is that we also tend to underestimate the potential of our strategic partners.
The night of the fire, I was on the phone with our sourcing offices, our logistics partners around the world and our parcel carriers. Other retailers called and offered to help. It was quite remarkable and reinforced the point that we underestimate the potential around us. If we as leaders can recognize that
and enable those capabilities, we would be amazed at what can happen. When I look back on my career that was the most powerful concept I learned.
SCMR: How did you handle that?
CURRAN: It required us to pivot our U.S. network very differently and very quickly. Almost overnight, we had to move from three regional distribution campuses to two: Gallatin served the Northeast and Fresno ended up servicing the West and Midwest for a period of 18 months to 24 months while we rebuilt the Fishkill facility.
Meanwhile, that growth in online demand kept coming at us, so we had to accelerate the implementation of technology in Gallatin, Canada and Fresno. Now, here we are in 2019. The Fishkill facility has been rebuilt, all our North American facilities have the inbound AS/RS crane and shuttle AS/RS technology for order fulfillment and we are rolling out Kindred robotic sortation orbs, or robotic putwalls, in all of those locations as well.
SCMR: One of the things supply chain leaders drill for is risk management and resilience. With an event like the fire, you had to put that in practice. What was that like?
CURRAN: It was an unbelievable moment in time for us. Not only in the adversity it brought on us, but as a team, we had to become skilled at managing large-scale change. I had to operate very differently as a leader. Instead of a central control and command, we needed to radically delegate decision making and allow Kevin and my other leaders to just run.
We moved at tremendous speed from that moment on in our concurrent implementation of the new operating model and the new technology. Today, what still keeps me up at night is finding the way to continue to scale more in our end-to-end operating model and the way we think about how we run our businesses. That’s just today’s reality.
SCMR: Let’s talk about your job as a senior supply chain leader.
CURRAN: My title is executive vice president, Global Supply Chain, Product and Store Operations. This encompasses leading our global sourcing, production, logistics, call center and store operations in service to a growing portfolio of great brands: Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Athleta, Intermix, Hill City and Janie and Jack.
Our supply chain team of more than 8,000 employees around the globe serve both online customers and more than 3,000 companyowned stores and over 400 franchise stores. We source over 1.2 billion units annually, in 28 countries and sell merchandise in 90+ countries around the world.
SCMR: What comes across your desk on a typical day?
CURRAN: I strive to spend 75% of my time in the strategic space and about 25% in the tactical. From a strategic perspective, it’s three tiers of work: long-range planning with business partners; learning and networking; and building talent and capability across our supply chain. I thoroughly enjoy the retail and supply chain space and strive to work with colleagues across the industry to learn and advance our capabilities, I co-chair the Retail Industry Leaders Associations (RILA) and I’m active in Gartner.
I spend a lot of time working with our brand teams, sourcing offices, our materials handling supply base and our logistics partner network. I also speak at conferences from time to time. I love this space and welcome the chance to talk shop and understand what’s going on in global markets. Lastly, I want to make sure that I’m a change agent within the organization.
On C-suite support
CURRAN: The evening of the Fishkill fire, I spoke to Art Peck, our CEO, and Bob Fisher, the chairman of our board. It was about 3 a.m. and what I continually heard from both of them was: “What do you need? How can we help? You’ve got the whole company behind you.” The support and trust in senior leadership through this time of crisis was so powerful and gave us the confidence we needed.
That was so powerful because of the speed at which we had to move. There was an important message there around trust, empowering your teams and removing the corporate barriers that don’t add value. Since then, our senior leadership team and our board has taken time to visit our sourcing offices and our distribution center operations. They understand that enabling supply chain capability is pivotal to a company’s future success.
SCMR: That’s the strategic side. What about the tactical side?
CURRAN: My job is to develop leaders who are in service to our customer and driving the day-to-day business consistently delivering on our commitments. I spend that time reviewing performance and supporting and coaching the talent. I spoke earlier about the importance of mentors in my own career.
I also believe in removing the roadblocks to getting things done. We did that with the fire in Fishkill, but a fire shouldn’t be the impetus to aggressively removing barriers, so I look at how I can do that day in and day out to achieve that same objective. You do that by getting out in front of the teams and understanding what might be coming next. You don’t necessarily learn that in school, and it’s something that my mentors reinforced with me early in my career.
SCMR: When you think about the future of supply chain at Gap Inc., how is your role going to be different?
CURRAN: The supply chain of the future is going to extend far more upstream and downstream than ever before. I’ve purposely mentioned the importance of viewing the supply chain from thought bubble—the creation of new products—to customer.
At Gap Inc., we strive every day to be demand-driven and customer-led. That’s the supply chain of the future. In my role, I really need to be working hand-in-hand with all my business partners across that continuum. We can’t integrate new design technologies with our vendors in a vacuum. We have to work more seamlessly than ever with our partners to develop great product that our customers love.
The future is digital, and we need to look at our supply chain as being digitally connected in a circular way with the customer at the center. Supply chain leaders of tomorrow need to be expert facilitators of change. That’s how my job is going to change going forward.
SCMR: Finally, what excites you the most about your role going forward?
CURRAN: It’s the ability to win and do it better than our competition. I love learning, I love driving breakthrough change and doing it with teams. The ability to work with a team of best-in-class talent on big audacious problems and challenges in delivering breakthrough results is what excites me every day, and I’m honored to be able to do that at Gap Inc.