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  • Bio: Neil Ashworth is Supply Chain Director for tesco.com. He joined the Tesco business in February 2006 with responsibility for designing, implementing and operating the fulfilment environment for the new Tesco Direct business as well as inputting into the ev

Neil Ashworth

My early career

Without really knowing what I wanted to do from a career perspective, I went through the usual processes applying to what looked like solid blue-chip companies. I received a few offers, but in the end opted to join the Cooperative Wholesale Society (CWS) graduate training scheme.

Whilst, in some senses, never a fashionable organisation, I chose the CWS because of the feeling that the scheme would give me a good overall grounding and it offered the possibility of substantive roles at an early stage.

In addition, people in the company were genuinely interested in me and that set them apart from many of the other organisations that I considered. Intuitively I felt that this was the right call, and I am pleased to claim that it was one of my best career decisions.

The people at the CWS were outstanding, and in many ways I owe much of my success to those individuals who coached, mentored and guided me in those early years.

I was initially placed at the Newport Pagnell regional distribution centre, where I initially was exposed to all of the basic roles within a distribution centre. This was fantastic managerial grounding, as I learnt how the physical operation worked at a detailed level. After working on an operational relay project, I then progressed into the supply department. Here I learnt the fundamentals of inventory management, using traditional manual reorder techniques.

I stayed in Newport Pagnell for around 14 months and was transferred to a new operation at Bromborough where the CWS and the retail cooperative organisation CRS (both have now merged to form the “Cooperative”) were closing three operations and folding them into one new one.

Industrial relations issues then befell the new operation and I was asked to re-open one of the old dockside warehouses, based in Birkenhead to support the Christmas stock-build. This proved to be a real eye-opener in a number of ways – most notably the tendency to find rather ‘worse for wear’ seamen from the Baltic strolling around the operation in the mid-afternoon.

After closing the site down after three months and returning to the new operation, I was offered the supply manager role. This role had accountability for all inventory management and some buying for all of the stores in the North Wales and North West sector.

During this period of my career, the company also implemented a new suite of warehouse management, order management and stock management systems. I quickly adopted the new systems and embedded new working routines within the Bromborough facility.

Moving on

After three years working on the Wirral I moved into a new project management role, working for the Group General Manager and the Group Services Manager.

Projects over the next two years included re-evaluation and optimisation of the new systems suite, merger and integration of two operational and stock control functions, establishment and implementation of best practice methodologies and the central coordination of stock investment management.

This project role led directly onto the development of a new distribution, inventory management and finance function for East Anglia based in Peterborough. This involved site selection and design, closure of existing operations, relocation management, service design and the colleague relations aspects associated with such a significant change.

Hard work brings its rewards

When the site was close to opening, I was promoted to the role of General Manager, and became – at that stage – the youngest GM in the history of the CWS.

After a good three years at the site, during which the operations were streamlined and developed to include produce, chilled foods and frozen food operations, I chose to leave the Cooperative movement. I found that I was becoming less in control of my career due to the political machinations of the integration of the Cooperative movement, and my position was, I felt, being used in a larger organisational trade-off.

Working for Hallmark

After considering a few alternative options, I was approached by a headhunter who was retained to search for a Divisional Logistics Director for Hallmark Cards. The role appealed to me because it offered the opportunity to look at production and manufacturing elements of the supply chain, whilst still retaining a focus on end customers, which had become increasingly important to me as my career had progressed. It also offered the chance to return to northern England and the lifestyle that this offers.

During the course of the next two years, I fundamentally changed the way in which Hallmark Group logistics was organised, closing two major production and distribution operations, changing the nature of the existing and outdated trades union and colleague relationships, reducing manufacturing lead times, removing old demarcation processes and reorganising/redesigning the centralised logistics facility which resulted.

Getting to grips with Woolworths

In spite of this rapid change within the business, I left Hallmark after a comparatively short tenure and I took the opportunity to move on when a search opportunity presented itself through a role within the Kingfisher Group with Woolworths.

At Woolworths, the business had recently appointed new distribution and supply directors and a significant improvement process was underway. I joined as General Manager of the northern distribution operations, covering everyday and seasonal logistics operations. Much of the initial work was focused around cultural change and operational performance improvement, seeking to improve on-shelf customer availability, P&L control, contract management and improvement in communication and engagement of other business functions.

After 18 months the distribution division was restructured and a role was created for me as Commercial Development Manager which focused on all of the commercial contracts with service providers, accountability for quality and productivity management, design and implementation of new environmental and business continuity strategies and policy.

In addition, the role had accountability for all customer service operations, and much of the role involved designing and improving store and logistics processes in the ‘last 50 yards’ as it became known some years afterwards. In addition to these accountabilities, I was charged with all trade union negotiations and discussions and became heavily involved in a Kingfisher group supply chain review, which offered the opportunity to study supply chain capabilities across Europe.

The Distribution Director moved to a Kingfisher Group director role and I was appointed into the role of Director of Distribution within Woolworths with budget accountability of over £80 million. In my first year in the role, I delivered capital and change management projects with a value of over £25 million, including significant automation projects and what was widely regarded as the world’s most integrated RFID demonstrator project.

This position also allowed me to take a leading role in the recruitment, assessment and development of graduates, and future senior managers alongside a position within a key cultural change programme within the business. I also, at this stage, had my first experiences of a direct-to-customer business through woolworths.co.uk.

Unfortunately, this part of the Woolworths business fell prey to the hype surrounding the dotcom arena at that time, and the operations were to a large degree mothballed as a consequence. The experience was hugely valuable in the context of what was to come.

At the close of 2002, I was promoted to the operating board of the business in the role of Supply Chain Director. In addition to the areas of the business that I already held line accountability for, I took on the additional leadership of the Global Sourcing and Supply Operations and the stores replenishment activities. Woolworths was sourcing from around 50 origins across the globe, and we had significant teams based offshore, with a considerable operation based in Hong Kong.

A significant proportion of my time was spent reviewing the offshore operations and streamlining the approach to offshore sourcing and the methods for bringing stock into the UK in a more controlled fashion. This period also saw the relaunch of the woolworths.co.uk home shopping business which, with the learnings of 3-4 years before, was considerably more successful.

A new challenge with tesco.com

I needed to find a new career challenge, fortunately I was approached by a headhunter in relation to potential roles at Tesco, and accepted an opportunity to join Tesco within the Tesco.com business with a brief to design, implement and operate a new fulfilment capability for the newly conceived Tesco Direct business, which was scheduled for launch in September 2006.

In addition to the direct non-food supply accountabilities, I also hold accountability for returns and reverse logistics across the entire business, for Tesco Jersey, all online entertainment and books fulfilment plus elements of change for other parts of the tesco.com business. I hold accountability for the strategic design and development of the operations environment for the non-food elements of tesco.com, and also all of the Tesco Direct instore operations.

The importance of continuous learning and training

Throughout my career, I have maintained a desire to continue to learn and improve my knowledge and awareness of my field of expertise and of retailing in general.

This has led to the acquisition of the Certificate in Logistics in my early career, the Diploma in Logistics in the middle part of my career, and the election to the Fellowship of both the CILT and the RSA as time has progressed. I have also been fortunate enough to have studied at Manchester Business School, Templeton College, Oxford University, and Instead at Fontainbleau over the years.

I suppose that I have moved on some way from a science degree in geography, but feel fortunate to work in an industry that is evolving every day and is increasingly recognised within organisations as a key differentiator and having a profound role in the fundamental economic model of the business. I retain a fundamental belief that to be truly involved in this industry you have to stay close to your people, your customers, your suppliers and your operations.

As a result, I ensure that at I am regularly ‘at the sharp end’ – whether that is in stores with our service colleagues, within the depots or directly interfacing with our customers and suppliers.

People are the lifeblood of the supply chain industry – there is some great talent out there, but the range of opportunities gets broader and more exciting every day. Good luck in your future within this stimulating business area – one which touches all of our lives in one way or another.

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