Total Quality Logistics CIO Ryan Kean on rising to hyper-growth challenges


Ryan Kean, CIO at Total Quality Logistics, joins host Maryfran Johnson for this CIO Leadership Live interview, jointly produced by and the CIO Executive Council. They discuss rising to hyper-growth challenges, solving supply chain disruptions, high-touch 24/7 customer focus and more.

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[This transcript was auto-generated.]
Maryfran Johnson 0:04
Hello, good afternoon and welcome to this latest episode of CIO Leadership Live. I'm your host Maryfran Johnson, CEO of Maryfran Johnson Media. Twice a month we produce this video show and podcast with the generous support of my friends at and the CIO Executive Council. We're streaming live to you right now on LinkedIn and to our CIO channel on YouTube. And we welcome any of our viewers today to join in today's conversation with questions of your own. We have our editors watching the chat and we'll be sure to pass along those questions to me, as I go through our show today with our esteemed guest, who is Ryan Kean. He is the CIO of Total Quality Logistics. Based in Cincinnati, Ohio. TQL is the second largest freight brokerage firm in North America and Mexico. This fast growing $8.8 billion business provides domestic and international freight transportation and logistics services across the supply chain network of more than 160,000 carriers. Ryan came to TQL. In October 2021, bringing with him to this first CIO role for him more than 20 years of technology leadership experience in complex fortune 50 environments. Before he joined TQL. He was with the Kroger Company for more than 14 years, his most recent role there being Vice President of Technology strategy and operations for the grocery retail giant. Prior to Kroger, he held several management positions in platform engineering and software delivery with automotive retailer Reynolds and Reynolds. And in March of this year, in recognition of all the work he's done in enterprise data strategy, Ryan was invited to join the global editorial board of Chief Data Officer magazine. Brian, it's so good to have you here today. Thanks.
Ryan Kean 2:10
Great. Thanks, Maryfran. That was a great intro. I appreciate that.
Maryfran Johnson 2:13
Oh, well, I'm you've been out there working, working on all the fodder for such an intro. Let's start out with some context for the audience about TQ ELLs business. I know it's been experienced real hypergrowth during the last especially these disruptive pandemic years. And I wondered how that shaped your goals coming in as the new CEO, CIO, and what kind of accompany it's not like when people hear logistics, they think that it's a company that's running a lot of trucks on the highways, but from what we've talked already, that's a very different, you run a very different business as the CIO. So take us through that.
Ryan Kean 2:54
Yeah, you know, give a little context as to, you know, total quality logistics, what, what we do and you know, as I worked at Kroger and came over here, it was exactly what you're saying. Everything I learned about supply chain, this was a little bit different. This was different thing.
So the way to think about total quality Logistics is we're more of a matchmaker. So if you think about shippers out there, they need to move freight. And what they're trying to do is they're trying to find all kinds of people to move that freight for them in the best, most economical, highly available performant way that they can. So we sit in the middle and we play that matchmaker to ensure that you know, we're taken you know that that shipper and whatever they need to move, and that could be anything from, you know, bales of hay to finish rocket parts for NASA and everything in between. And then we go find the best ship or best carriers out there to do that for them. And that our bread and butter really is full truckload. And when we say full truckload, or FTL, we're referring to the semis you see on the road. Now, the huge part of really how the country operates 70% of all goods that moved throughout North America, at one point or another are on a truck. I remember when you told me that when we talked last and I was really caught me by surprise. I was thinking most of it was, you know, I don't know, flying around or being on ships and boats and that kind of thing. But 70% on trucks 70% on trucks. And we that's that is the core of our business. But as you said, by you know, their their stuff also moving around on planes on rail, cars, ocean, stuff that gets put into warehouses. So we actually operate in 14, I'm sorry, 15 different modes to be able to satisfy this supply chain movement needs for all of those shippers out there. So you've mentioned there we have gone through some explosive growth over the last several years. If you look back at 2019, our gross revenue was about three and a half billion dollars. We finished last year, it's slightly under 9 billion at 8.8.
Maryfran Johnson 5:10
You didn't do that by acquiring other freight brokers, you, that was all organic growth, from what you've told me.
Ryan Kean 5:17
Our growth has been organic. Okay. So we've doubled, or just about doubled the amount of seats we've had across the company, you know, obviously over doubled our revenue. We've doubled our real estate footprint. I mean, everything is just grow, grow. And so it's been pretty remarkable, you know, from a business and operations perspective. And then we need to think about, okay, what is all the ITC that has to happen to enable that? Yeah. And that's a testament to our IT team that we have here, being able to keep up with that growth, there's so many times you're moving that fast, that ultra curve that you're on, that it isn't get out in front, always sometimes say, you know, keep up, you know, continue to feed the beast as much as you can. And, you know, that's my predecessor, George Rubik. And the team here have done just an amazing job, you know, over the past, you know, decade plus preparing us for where we are today is a very exciting time. And we look to look forward to seeing that growth continue.
Maryfran Johnson 6:25
Yeah, well, I know how much fun it can be for CIOs, when they're in a hypergrowth kind of company, and sort of, you know, the problems that presents but all the problems that gives you to solve, I guess, as companies get bigger and faster now, TQL, is today at 8.8 billion. And you're number two in the market, the entire market size is a $400 billion industry. And at 8.8. You're number two in the field. So there's a lot of very small businesses that essentially make up freight brokerage.
Ryan Kean 7:02
Yeah, it is a highly fragmented market, a fragmented market. So when you think about the potential complexities that could come from that, when you think about those 15 different modes, the 10s of 1000s of customers, the hundreds of 1000s, of carriers, and then yeah, and competing with, you know, 1000s of players, you know, there's a lot of variability within our market, and a lot of opportunity. That's really how we see it, is there's a huge upside within this market. And it's really, you know, when we look at what sets us apart, you know, across all these many, many players across this fragmented market, it's our customer service. So our customer service is really at the heart of everything we do. We have signage all over our, our facilities, you'll see 24 by seven by 365. And, you know, we want to be there for our our customers and our carriers, any hour of the day, any day of the week, you know, any any part during the year? So if there's any issues that they have come up, you know, what are the habit? They were working with somebody else, maybe something didn't go as planned, and they need to just jump in right now and help them that's where we can then we can do that. And that we've built that trust with those customer and the carriers over time, because the customer service is so so great.
Maryfran Johnson 8:30
Well, and when you were first telling me about this, I was making the assumption, the leap that so many people in the tech industry do that? Oh, 24/7. It must mean that's a whole digital business. But you're talking about people on phones.
Ryan Kean 8:45
Yeah. So yeah. About the freight brokerage market, there's really sort of this spectrum to it. So on one end of the spectrum, is this high touch enabled by technology? Yes, but the broker is on the phone, our support individuals have, let's say a carrier has an issue they're calling they're talking to somebody. This is this high touch enabled by tech, and of this spectrum. This is where we've played the strongest. I'm obviously very biased. But I feel like we're the best on this. And on the other end of the spectrum, you have a fully digital model. And within this model, there you don't have necessarily that person calling you working with you to try to better understand when you're going into a website or going to mobile app, you're doing everything digitally.
Maryfran Johnson 9:34
You're clicking around.
Ryan Kean 9:35
Yeah, looking around. So for us, and certainly as we look towards the future, our sweet spot on this end and this high touch personalized, enabled by tech that will continue to be our primary focus. But we also love from a technology perspective, how are we developing a compelling offering across that entire spectrum? Okay, which is somewhat tricky, right? Because it really you have to get into understanding that customer experience and your carrier experience and being able to start to break down those products into components. They say, hey, this place here and we can reuse it somewhere else. Yeah, everything isn't, you know, this novel new invention is how do we start to, you know, attach the Legos, maybe it's slightly different way. But that leads to meet the customer where they are?
Maryfran Johnson 10:27
Well, and from your past experience in at Kroger and grocery retail and then Reynolds and Reynolds, which is automotive. When coming into this your first CIO role. How did you you don't I mean, you have lots of supply chain in your background, but not an entire company around it? How did you get grounded in everything that TQL does in your say, in your first 90 days?
Ryan Kean 10:52
Yeah, quite a surprise. So when I came in you, when you come into a role like this, you expect that you're going to spend a lot of time with your team, you're going to dive right into looking at strategies, understanding business models, and all the rest. What I spent the first three or four weeks doing is working as a trainee, I was a broker trainee on a team on the phones all day long. And I was talking to carriers, I was talking to dispatchers I was talking to drivers and customers. And I was using the technology that we put out there for all of our teammates to use. So the stuff there is super easy and familiar, I got to learn why that is the stuff that might be a little bit more challenging. I also got to experience that as well. And as I kind of wrapped up these three or four weeks, you're working within a broker team that I moved around, and I spent time with our our after hours, and I was sitting with people in the middle of the night answering calls from from a driver that just broke down on a highway somewhere it needs help. Yeah, sitting with our accounting teams and watching them and their processes, right. So we invest a lot in our leadership to understand our business, because ultimately, the only way they're gonna serve the customer serve the carrier and serve our associate is if you really have a better understanding of, of how all of those things work together. Yeah, anything coming out of that, then it kind of slid more into I think what a lot of the the audience would think of that traditional transition 90 day period.
Maryfran Johnson 12:22
Sure. Where you're evaluating the current technology strategy, you're looking at the platforms and what needs modernizing. What was the spending? Like? I mean, there are all those traditional approaches. I've always really enjoyed the stories from different industries of CIOs who do that, like the new CIO at a big winery business, who spends 90 days working in various jobs. I remember one a CIO of a big grocery store chain, who went and worked in the bakery for a week and talked about all the cakes that he burned, is in his first week. So I think that idea that technology is hands on in front line, you know, those stories were more unusual, probably 10 or 15 years ago. But today, they seem very much kind of part and parcel of CIOs and the strategic role that you're playing in business. But you're not off on a you know, you're not off on technology Island. Exactly. Right. Yeah. So tell me tell us more about your marching orders a little higher level about when coming in what your C suite, senior colleagues, what they wanted you to accomplish as the new CIO.
Ryan Kean 13:37
Yeah. So you know, throughout our conversation, you know, growth is going to be sort of this theme that's going to be weaved in and out because it really drives you have most of what we do here. So again, going back to 2018, we had two modes, largely two modes, full truckload, and what's called less than truckload and that's when multiple customers put pallets on a single truck, drives efficiencies, you don't need a whole thing. So you don't pay for a whole thing. Yeah, and then all of a sudden, we went through this great growth, and, you know, the pandemic, it and there was so much disruption with our customers. It through that that period, there was a lot of kind of react to where the customer needs are. I'll give you a great example. So a lot of people don't necessarily know what drainage is. Drainage is the activity of taking a container off of a ship, putting it on a truck or rail car and moving it out of port. Yeah. And so I'm everybody remembers, you know, the all the stories of just ships and ships backed up outside the port. Sure. One of the contributing factors to that was there was no no drainage capacity to get the containers off and get them ….
Maryfran Johnson 14:47
The first mile instead of the last mile.
Ryan Kean 14:49
Exactly. At the time, drainage was a very small part of our business. So this is kind of this nascent line in business for us. We saw that as a huge challenge for our customers jumped in and really leaned into that and knew from a technology perspective, it was how do we start to augment our existing platforms to support drainage more readily? Where's the automation that we can? And how do we start to create new processes. And over the course of, you know, less than a year, it goes from this nascent line of business to one of our largest lines of business. And, again, it's this growth that comes with that. And so, you know, there's example after example, like that, that the technology team just continued to rise up and answer the bell, throughout the pandemic. So now we're on the back side, we'll say on Oh, that, you know, challenging time. As I came in, and October of 21, a lot of the conversation was around, okay. We're in a highly complex industry. It's growing very, very fast. And oh, by the way, technology is really starting to pick up its velocity as well. There's all these new things out there that we could start to use. How do we now take this what we've have made sure that it's, it's really tight, it's well supportable, and it is set up to scale for the future so that we can continue on this growth, maybe looking at new markets, or new opportunities that are out there, without feeling that, you know, the technology at some point, you know, could inhibit that growth?
Maryfran Johnson 16:29
Right. Well, I know that we had we had planned to talk as we get into talking about your enterprise data strategy and generate generative AI, we actually have our first question from our alert watching audience here. And it's it jumps us ahead a little bit, but I'm gonna ask it anyway, how is AI, helping you cope with all of the variability and fragmentation of your supply chain universe there? And it's a, it's a really good high level question that also gets specific about a technology. So let's leap ahead talking about AI a little bit, and then we'll circle back.
Ryan Kean 17:06
Yeah, and, you know, it's, a lot of times when I have conversations with folks, I have to remind them that AI is more than Gen AI, right? Generative ai ai is this umbrella? And certainly, to the, to the listeners question, a lot of what we do around our data, and in science and our data analytics, it gets into the machine learning, and how do we start to surface insights, to our brokers, to our support teams, even to our customers and carriers, that is appropriate for them to help them make better decisions at that moment. So as you think about AI, that's one area where we continue to build out our data strategy. So that we're able to say, you know, wherever we can surface data insights, we want to do that. We want, we want our decisions to be based on, you know, rate data, quality data, and relevant data. So there's a lot within that data strategy to make that happen. And then on the other side, is we kind of look forward into this. For I would say, on the experience side of things, this gets into more than the generative AI. It's, it's a lot of fun right now. Right? It for more opportunities, that and ideas that come forward. And so whereas, you know, three or four years ago, when you'd have a conversation with a group, and you maybe pull out three or four good ideas about different models, or should we invest in terms of our data, and everything was sort of go back to the same themes all the time. But now, when you start asking the questions, because people are out there using it, they're using chat, GBT, right, they're waiting a lot about, there's so much insurance interest, there's a lot of hype around it as well. The ideas are all over the place. So all of a sudden, now you have this full funnel. And the challenge is less on what's bringing ideas together. The challenge now is more like, how do I start to construct the funnel? And then we sort through all that. Yeah. How do we really know we're where we want to prioritize our investment. Right? So we're, as I think most most folks are right now. Or experimenting a little bit, trying a few things, but really excited about the potential.
Maryfran Johnson 19:27
Yeah, well, I know in this jumps, again ahead a little bit, but it's next month, you have one of the annual hackathons coming up for tea QL. And that that's one of the ways and it's not just the tech team, playing with the technology, but your CEO and your business folks are involved. Talk a little bit about that, because I know this year's theme happens to be AI.
Ryan Kean 19:51
Yeah, so each year we do a hackathon. It is absolutely awesome. As probably the case in a lot of places. But our teams are comprised, you know, some of our business users, we have senior engineers, we have interns that take part. So it's pretty much just a lot of people with great ideas coming together, building you know, self forming their own team, so forming with their own ideas of a potential problem that they want to get to Apple. And then it's it's really gets into, like, how do we kind of take the take the guardrails off for a little while and let them experiment. They you know, there's a lot of work leading into the actual hackathon start, I think a lot of teams kind of want to get out in front, and they do a lot of work. So that when the there's two or three days happen, it is a Heads down 24 by seven activity, a lot of fun, a lot, a lot of snacks, and energy drinks that go into that. And from that, we have everybody kind of present, here's what we we created, we narrowed it down into a group of finalists, do them present to members of our executive team. And then the winning team from that, ultimately has lunch with our CEO, which is really exciting to see that. And so last year's winners. It was a lot around automation and RPA. And that team was comprised of, you know, engineers, and senior engineers, developers, folks on automation, as well as two of our insurance. So a nice everybody together, it's I'm really looking forward to it. It's a great topic this year. So irrelevant. I really think that we're probably going to have several things that come out of this year's hackathon that will quickly find their way onto product roadmaps.
Maryfran Johnson 21:41
Interesting. Okay, well, I want to know, I want to do some of that pivoting back to find out more about your technology team, and how you have technology for T SQL, how you have it structured, how many people you have, do you use a lot of outsourcing? What does the technology team world look like AT TQL?
Ryan Kean 22:01
Yes, we're about 425 or so strong associates, we do use external partners. So it's all dependent upon need at the time. Our structure, it's, I would say fairly traditional plus a little, right. So it's our infrastructure and operations team. And all of our cloud work kind of rolls into them to software engineering organizations that really comprise our overall product engineering. We have information security, our platform engineering and architecture team. And so that, you know, we think about that developer experience and building out under the guardrails in the automations. To accelerate our engineering teams, we have a great data engineering and analytics team. So as you can imagine, with the volume of data that we have, the amount of services we provide, that team is so busy all the time, which is absolutely fantastic. We have a agile project management office. And what that team is really focused in on is our ways of working, making sure that we're constantly trying to better ourselves be more efficient with our teams, more effective, help our engineering teams have better information to build from. And then here recently, we brought over our product management team. I'm super excited about this, our product management team, built up of some amazing leaders and talent that have largely come from our business. And so they've they've upgraded, they've maybe been in sales, they maybe had been in finance, and over the course of their career, then they moved into product engineering role or product management role. It's now by bringing them in closer, we really have that entire product lifecycle under our umbrella as being able to drive that accountability, all the way from ideation through engineering, building, building, getting the feedback from his customers and creating that great virtual loop. Okay, well, I do want to I do want to call out one more thing that because this on I'm super excited about. And I think this might be somewhat unique to our organization is we have a dedicated learning and development team within our technology team. Good. So it's our l&d team works very closely with our company's l&d organization, but they are 100% focused on building a continuous learning organization within technology. And this is something we've really been leaning into really over the last year or so. And I want to share a couple things that they're doing because they're, they're really excited and we're getting great feedback from our team. One is because tech track and tech track is all about building curriculum for roles based on where we're going in the future. So there's technologies of the future that we're leaning into. How can we grade the curriculum for our teammates so they can start to work through those? It's about building specific action lanes were both the technology and a leadership one. So that, you know from a technology one, we'll have external speakers and they'll come in and they'll talk to us about Kafka or they'll talk to us about next technology that we might be considering. We'll also have some of our senior engineers talking about best practices and what they're experimenting with and learning. You have more on the business and leadership side, talking about coaching and mentoring and setting goals and presentation skills.
Maryfran Johnson 25:34
So inside the technology, you're not borrowing people from HR.
Ryan Kean 25:39
That's within our team and in which all sounds overwhelming, so if you're if you're a technologist, right now, you're an engineer, you're like, holy cow, how can I do with that, and all reefing else, but that's where I think the kind of the secret sauce for us is, we dedicate time for this activity. So each sprint are our teams, they have hours to dedicate to focus learning, every reason we get together, and it is an all together, we're going to learn together and work through, you know, our learning tracks. So we people will go ahead and they'll sign up for sessions. And we'll be recording those, and we've put them back out there so people can watch later. So it's, it's a pretty fantastic program that we have going I'm so proud of our team that is really championing
Maryfran Johnson 26:26
Wow, now in an organization of 450 foreign and 25 plus Have you how large is this learning organization? And was this in place when you arrived in late 21? Or is this one of your, you know, one of the things you added as the CIO?
Ryan Kean 26:44
They are a small but mighty team of I think we're at four right now.
Maryfran Johnson 26:50
Okay. Oh, it's it's not dozens of people.
Ryan Kean 26:54
It was in place prior. So good. Learning here is, within our culture, it is just this critical component. You mentioned the shadowing, we would also do shadowing for for our leaders within technology. So we ask our leaders to spend three days a year, shadowing the sales teams, or shadowing our support teams, and then bring back ideas that we can to help them. So yeah, that leadership investment. And that overall training investment here is is definitely been critical throughout. So new organization, you know, what I mentioned, they're on our tech track, definitely a new program that we're excited about. But how do you make that successful with women for people, you do it by all of the other leaders within your technology organization, also leaning in creating those curriculum spending time with their, you know, the associates on their teams and say, What do you want to learn gaps and really, really get in and understand kind of your teammates, what are their career aspirations are and how those lineups we're going to go technically, and then build the programs around that.
Maryfran Johnson 28:02
Okay. Now, is there any part of this where you are doing specific mentoring? Or maybe you're getting mentoring from someone else on the senior business team? How do you get involved in this?
Ryan Kean 28:13
Yeah, so we actually have a structure mentoring program. So I mentor several of our teammates here, I also get to mentor and spend time with some of our sales leaders. So there's, which obviously is more reverse mentoring as much as anything. So while you know, maybe I have something to offer them, I am learning so much about our business, their challenges day to day, but we've actually extended that. So right now, earlier this year, we rolled out a program where we've taken 25 of our top sales leaders, and we've paired them with 25 of our technology leaders. And they get together and learn from each other. So their sales leaders are learning about how technology can help them and our sales firms, our technology. They're sitting down customer calls, they're sitting in on sales, and you're getting a deeper understanding. In fact, I had one of our sales leaders reach out this morning and say how excited he was because one of our technology leaders are in Chicago today, spending time with he and his team. That's great. And just fantastic. You hear that?
Maryfran Johnson 29:19
Well, and it can also be a great indicator to your customers, when you when you show up and maybe you show up at meetings with big customers. And you don't just have sales and product people there. But you actually have someone from the tech team. And that's, well that's a really great indicator, how important how deeply embedded technology is in the business strategy. And related, I've got some questions piling up. We've got a very we've got a very active group out there on LinkedIn and YouTube. So thanks for that to our audience. This is back to a question about data and the use of data in the digital landscape which I No, given your chief data officer kind of background, and this will be very familiar with you. But the question is, how does TQL? Legit? How does TQL effectively manage process and get meaningful insights from the vast amount of data that you collect? And maybe you could pick a couple, maybe an example or two of how you get some of those insights that are all part of this hyper growth that we've been talking about in terms of what the company is going through? I'm? Because I'm sure that's a big part of it.
Ryan Kean 30:32
Yeah, really, Maryfran, And I think that starts a lot with governance, you know, the wants to talk about, I know, I know, you have you and you have strong data governance, and you really can start to understand what is we call it a verified data set. So if you have a data set about your customers, or in our case loads are something and going through and saying this data set, we can attest to the quality, we can attest to the lineage of words, where did it come from? How did it transform on its journey to wherever it is now that someone wants to consume it, and then be able to say control or restrict the access the accessibility to that data, to those individuals that have that need. Some data sets, everybody can go in and work and build reporting or build insights from. And obviously, there's other things where that's not always the case. So for us, it's really about trying to kind of build that governance model, ensure that the quality got accessibility, and then get to a place where we have these verified datasets. But then from a data ingestion perspective, and democratization, helping our users understand how to use the data. So as an example, you know, right now going through and one of our data leaders, she spends time with a lot of folks from our, our different lines of business, helping them understand how to access our data, how to use it, how to build reporting, but you know, not have this data sprawl. Okay, you know, still we kind of control, control that, but get more into that education and the overall data literacy programs, I really think that more and more companies that they don't already have that in place is definitely a path that I'm certain everybody would be going in the future.
Maryfran Johnson 32:26
Yeah. Well, and we've been talking a lot about data. And I want to kind of pivot over to talking about digital business models. One of the questions I've been asking a lot of CIOs lately, because it means so many different things to different industries. When you hear when you're when your business people and your CEO hear about digital transformation efforts. What does digital transformation mean, for tq? Well, and indeed for the logistics industry itself, because it related to one of our questions that came in, Somebody wondered that, you know, isn't it likely that the entire logistics industry will be automated and run by AI algorithms? So, you know, this, this? What? Take that one next?
Ryan Kean 33:15
Yeah, I'll say that I'm not Nostradamus, so I won't make a prediction, AI taking over the world or anything like that, what I can tell you, and, you know, I mentioned that spectrum within the overall industry. There is, you know, that voice on the other end of the line, and when we think about our business, you know, our, our brokers, our support people, they are literally on the phones all day long, literally 24/7, helping our customers and our carriers, that personal connection is so critical to build that trust, if you're if you're moving millions, 10s of millions of dollars of goods. You know, there's a comfort level that comes with that. Looking for, you're often will see often looking for a more strategic partner that you have that and have developed a relationship with, necessarily this transactional. I'm just gonna go on click through a few things. And yeah, I want you to pick up $35 million of my goods. And I'll just, you know, hope it gets there. They want to talk all the time about where's it at? How's it doing? issues, right, are you there for me? So when we talk about digital transformation, or how do we use, you know, any type of technology to move this forward? It's really about how do you augment and enable that experience? Okay, how did this from our associates perspective? How do we use technology to make their experience much more familiar? So change management for anything that we do? It's how you make this a familiar experience. So everybody is used to using their iPhones or for naps that they just kind of fall into, right. So how do we create this familiar experience to them? Then from our customers, we want it to be this differentiating experience. We want them to know that we know them, right? We're there for them, we're providing them the data that says we're delivering for them. So we create that relationship with them. So we were the first place that they go when they need something. And then from our carrier perspective, we're really focused over there, because what's the carrier want, they want to know that if they have issues, that you're there to help them go through those issues, they also want to know at the end, when they deliver something, that they're going to get paid, and everything's gonna get closed out really fast. Right? How do you create that carrier spirits and technology really underneath all of this kind of lifting up that experiences and the thing about the technologies that are coming out now in terms of AI and generative AI, there are so many places for that to play across the three sets of experiences. It's wide open.
Maryfran Johnson 35:58
Well, I think what especially probably business people lose sight of the fact that there's been a good deal of, let's say, advanced analytics slash AI that's already embedded in products and deeply part of an IT organization. I mean, it's not like all of a sudden, I can remember having conversations with CIOs about blockchain, when blockchain was you know, and I still hear it described as a technology looking for a solution. But with AI has seemed very different because there has been so much of it with robotic process automation with RPA. with machine learning. And with advanced analytics, it feels more like a curve that is kind of driving everybody forward. Do you have a are there is every part of your customer base, essentially part digital and part high touch 24/7 human interaction? Or do the customers divided into specific segments?
Ryan Kean 37:00
Yeah, I would say they're largely largely on high touch. Okay. Yeah. So where are we focusing on our largest high touch customers? We do have certain customers that prefer that, that digital engagement. Yeah. But where we have found the greatest success? And really, I think the area of our business that we look to continue to build around, is that high touch, build that relationship with the customer?
Maryfran Johnson 37:27
Okay, yeah, because you had mentioned that there are tech first interactions, but the bread and butter really still is with the 24 by seven.
Ryan Kean 37:36
it is, but you we offer our to our customers, ways to interact with us that are fully digital. So we use a customer facing website called tracks that they can go in, and they can request for quotes, and they can find out what's the status of their loads. And so we want to give that to them. So if Yeah, if that customer if they that's where they prefer to play, we want to know where they're at. Right? Brokers, we want to provide that service to them. Similarly, on the carrier side, there'll be carriers that would rather have you talking to them. And then there's other carriers that want this digital experience. So we actually introduced the first mobile application for carriers in the industry, and it's actually the top rated mobile app, it's called carrier dashboard that provides an opportunity for our carriers are the drivers to go out and choose New loads, you know, go looking at what loads are out there, maybe, you know, this week they want to get from Chicago to St. Louis. So we want to give them the opportunity to go out there and browse and say, Okay, well, here's what we have in St. Louis, and are those fits for them. Once they booked that load through the application, then they can turn on tracking. And so instead of you know, us calling up and saying, Hey, how's it going, you haven't any issues, it just, it's automatically through the app, giving us updates as to wherever they are. And so being able to monitor kind of where that freight is at and how it's doing is super important. And we allow, you know, we want to have the app do that for them, making that easy, seamless interaction, non intrusive to the driver, because I mean, in the end, the driver has a lot of things going on. Right? Yes, yes.
Maryfran Johnson 39:21
Yes. A lot of real world things that…
Ryan Kean 39:25
That make that experience as seamless as possible. Okay, well, you're responsible for that.
Maryfran Johnson 39:33
Let's continue kind of in that vein, but get even bigger picture. I talked about your top three most strategic priorities for the technology team, you know, the rest of this year and into next year. I don't think I've ever met a C CIO, who didn't have a top three that was keeping him up at night sometimes. So what is your top three? What are you working on? Most importantly,
Ryan Kean 39:59
so we have what We have 123, but I'm gonna have we have one A, and so one A, that's above everything else. And that is the availability, performance 24/7 guilbeault, they have everything that we have 24/7. So as we've talked about this growth, we've we've stressed that 24/7 365, obviously, the systems have to be there for everybody to feel confident. So that's, you know, over and above everything else. Okay, so then we just kind of drop into our top three major initiatives right now. So modernization is our Top Initiative. And so modernization is all about going back and looking at these amazing platforms that have supported our organization for a long time you have scaled through the pandemic, but now how do we, you know, build that platform modified the platform in such a way that opens up greater opportunities in the future, and then also interject a lot of this new technology that's available to us that we didn't necessarily have before. So that's definitely top of mind. And then, like so many others, we have an ERP program going on. So we are rolling out a new financial platform that, you know, similar to the modernization story, that's because of scale. Right? So yeah, we're right in the throes of rolling that out, working through the configuration of the platform, but then, of course, all the integrations to all the applications and interact with your ERP system.
Maryfran Johnson 41:29
Yeah, I would imagine that would be, I guess, I'm not surprised that you didn't put that number one on the list, because they know that customer service to the 24/7. And it's a driving force for the whole company, but a new ERP system, that's the kind of thing that it makes you sit back and you feel like the wind in your hair at that point. And this is a whole new platform, you're not just upgrading what the company has been using for the last 20 years.
Ryan Kean 41:53
Yeah, so major platform change, major integration, change, data changes. So the team that we've assembled is a remarkable team. And they're, you know, you've you've been around and seen ERP solutions, and how challenging these are so, but I tell you, I'm so proud of the work, both of our technology teams, our product teams, and then our line of business partners, to see them cohesively come together, and work through the hard decisions, the hard conversations that have to happen through a program like that.
Maryfran Johnson 42:30
What are some of the considering those those very big balls in the air? Essentially? What are some of the biggest talent needs that you have right now?
Ryan Kean 42:40
Yeah, I would say that, you know, we're always looking for, you know, product management and product owners, software engineers, infrastructure engineers, it's really opportunistic for us, you know, our, our path, and our goal is to continue to grow the organization. And when we do that, we know that we're going to have opportunities for great talent and a lot of different places. Yeah, we really do Lean on our associates for referrals. So we love it, and people draw from their networks. And so we help we try to help people get out and create new networks. Because you know, who do you want to work with more than anybody, it's going to be the person that you know, you enjoy being around that you trust? Yeah. And when new people come into that network, and they, you kind of, you start to trust them. And all of a sudden, you're like, well, who's in your network? Right? Can you bring it and so we love that model here. But yeah, it's pretty wide open from the types of roles that we're looking for.
Maryfran Johnson 43:45
Okay, well, and I know that you have a large percentage of your tech team is actually physically located in the Cincinnati area. Has that changed over time? I mean, as you've been going, as the company's gone through the pandemic years, I can remember early on CIOs were very excited. They said, we've always been a traditionally kind of hometown, you had to be where the company is, but now I can hire from anywhere. The problem being that so Could everybody else. So do you have what do you do in terms of remote teams and hybrid environments?
Ryan Kean 44:18
You know, we have three technology hubs, so Cincinnati, and Tampa. And so, you know, first we try to hire within those hubs, we really feel that, you know, having this connection, being able to see face to face, you know, we're we operate in a hybrid model. So, you know, days a month that our teammates are hybrid and remote, but we love to get people together face to face. So we think about connection, you know, build those relationships, you know, start to build that trust amongst teams, drive collaboration, face to face, being able to walk up to a board, you know, start drawing new architectures, especially when think about like modernization a new type ologies that are coming out. And then our culture, our culture is one that, you know, we're constantly, you know, leaning into each other. I call it this all into winning culture, where we know that if we're there for each other, we satisfying and create this awesome experience out there for our customers aren't cares, then the company wins. And so we want to, you know, we support our culture through that as well. So, you know, connection, collaboration and culture. We tried to at first within Cincinnati, Tampa and Charlotte, and then if, if we have the talent, you're in the end, you are you are supporting a business. Yeah. So you try to find other ways to do that.
Maryfran Johnson 45:40
Yeah, exactly. Now, one of the one of the other questions from our alert listening audience here talks about what a tough business Logistics is, just as your industry and that margins are slim, and op x operating expenditures are high. How do you as the CIO, how do you ensure that you get paid on time while you're managing all your reserves to operate? Now that may get more into product operations? That sounds more like what you were doing at Kroger. But I thought I'll bet I'll bet you know something about that.
Ryan Kean 46:13
Yeah, I mean, in the end, if you let's take it, let's go from that from the technology side. Yeah. So we think about that payment on time, it really gets into how do you collect all of you know, whether it's digital or physical paperwork that comes in particular, we call them loads, and the complexity that comes with this is a single load, maybe have been on a container, and then they may have been on a rail, and at some point, maybe it was in a warehouse, and then maybe across the custom, you know, across the border, and then it got onto a truck. So that could be one, one actual load. And so the complexity that comes with that, how do I gather all of that information together in such a way that we can validate that that is accurate, it's complete, and that to our customer, to be able to satisfy, from a payment perspective, what they need to see. Sure, come back around and kind of close that loop. It is it can be challenging, and that we talk about AI and OCR and RPA. Those are all areas where we have opportunities that we're investigating or using currently. Process.
Maryfran Johnson 47:27
And I know we mentioned when we were getting ready for this interview, and also, as we're talking here, the word opportunities comes up a lot. You know, there are opportunities that TQ l was spotting in the market, especially supply chain, which all of a sudden we we all learned a whole lot more about supply chain and all the complexity of it over the last few years. And if we weren't paying attention before we pay attention now. So when you look at all that complexity, is there anything particular what what do you what could you highlight from what the tech team has accomplished? That shows the kind of the new role that technology is playing there in terms of tracking all those logistics?
Ryan Kean 48:10
Yeah, and if you go back to you mentioned, the pandemic, and all that we've heard supply chains from YC, and q3 of 2021. If you go and listen to all the earnings calls out there, you actually heard supply chain come up an increase of the word supply chain over 400%, more than in preceding quarters. So very real, very, pretty much a challenge. And so yeah, when, you know, any type of organizations are gonna look at that and say, Where's the opportunity within the challenge? So within our technology team, it really is about getting closer to our business partners and our product management teams, say, okay, within ocean or air, or drage? What are those things that you need right now that we need to bid on, to be able to satisfy and move the ball forward in a meaningful way, so that we can start to answer the bell on those opportunities. I think this is one of the things that we think about the pandemic in general and a lot of probably common challenges across the the CIO community. Prior to the pandemic, when we would do that opportunity assessment. It was a bit of a deliberate and intentional activity, you would go through a planning process, you go through all these big business cases, and that was…
Maryfran Johnson 49:29
It was a little more structured.
Ryan Kean 49:30
Yeah, there's a lot of structure, right? Yeah. And all of a sudden, the pandemic happens. And it was, yeah, well, this was gonna take you nine months, but we need it by Tuesday. Yep. And so all of a sudden, I think that organization started to learn what they're really capable of. If you strip it all down, and you just execution is number one to customer number one, what are we really capable of? A lot of processes we're obviously pushed off to the side. Probably some duct tape and baling wire were put in there you so not exactly the way you'd want it. But you answered that opportunity. And all of a sudden proven to the rest of the company and your your customers, you're able to achieve things that you didn't actually know you could do before. Yeah. So now where's the challenge, the challenge and the new opportunity that comes in as that's probably not how you want to operate, day or day after day, here…
Maryfran Johnson 50:22
The hair on fire approach,
Ryan Kean 50:23
It's there's a lot of tech debt, there's a lot of challenge that comes with that, you know, it's hard. But you don't want to go back to how it was before and this sort of deliberate activities, saying slow, you're gonna find sort of this middle ground that all of a sudden, you've learned to stretch and grow and, you know, in a new way, but how do you do that in a responsible way, as well? So I find that how do we talk about those challenges as opportunities? That's how I think about those that how do you kind of get the best of both worlds?
Maryfran Johnson 50:58
Well, I can remember talking to lots of CIOs of the last few years, about a certain level of kind of, I guess, I'm going to say, just comfort and angst that this can cause in technology teams that are used to having a process and having a certain pace. Do you think that the the technology teams have formed whole new ways of looking at this now I mean, have have technology people started to shed some of the kind of cautionary slower paced moves that used to that's why the Department often was considered the Department of No, it's like, oh, well, you want to do that? Well, no, we can't do that. Because that's going to expose this set. And the other thing, how comfortable do you think, you know, do you find your own staff are now with that idea that the slow, careful, you know, like the all of the i's dotted and T's crossed approach of past IT methods? don't fit the modern world as we have it now?
Ryan Kean 52:02
Yeah, I mean, I'll set apart TQL. as being an exception to my experience. We're an entrepreneur company. Okay. So we talked about taking risks and pushing forward fast. Yeah, yeah, that's what we want to do in a responsible way. So I'm super fortunate that our technology team here, they are so open to learning, trying experimenting, if we're going to fail, let's be able early, right, so we can try something else. But it's really about that alignment to the customer. I do feel like as I talk to my peers in the industry, there definitely is a shift, though broadly. Okay. Your people have had this taste, and it feels different to operate at that speed. Yeah, you don't want to go back. And so now it's like, how do you preserve the good parts of that?
Maryfran Johnson 52:55
Yeah, I know, it's like you've suddenly taken up running. And the idea of going back to sedate nature walks is, you know, not the kind of thing you want to do all the time, I guess. I'm thinking about leadership and your own leadership style. You've been in lots of management and leadership positions, both at Kroger and at Reynolds and Reynolds over the last 15 years or so 20 years, I guess 20 Plus, what has changed now that you've been a CIO for gosh, it'll be two years in October. What do you see changed in yourself, as a leader now that you've taken on Chief Information Officer, you've added to all of your other titles?
Ryan Kean 53:37
There's a lot to unpack there. So, you know, kind of go into probably the things that I've prioritized above more than any, as we went through, you know, I was at Kroger to the better part of the pandemic. And really started have a much better understanding of some of my own leadership style. How do I get more deep rooted in my values? So I did a great exercise about 10 years ago, one of my mentors said, if you want to be a great leader, you have to understand why you need and so you can time go home, write down your values, and what why you because that in the end, that's what comes through. Right that's. And so it took me a long time to do that. It took me probably weeks, and but it's been something has been so powerful that I've shared it with all of my teams and saving, here are my values. I'm not saying I'm not putting these out in front of you, because, you know, I want you to do the same. I'm putting them out in front of you because I want you to hold me accountable to these when I'm falling short. And I will I want you to help me be better. Well, as we went through the pandemic and the moving into this role, and you know, there's two items on there two values that really, I think put to come to the forefront and those are empathy and humility. And I know you hear these a lot From other CIOs, you know, I think about sort of the mentors from afar that people that you've never met, but you get the opportunity to reevaluate and re watch videos. And Alan Mulally is one of those people for me. And he talks a lot about empathy. And you can nobody, and I try to take a lot of those learnings in his style of leadership. And from an empathy perspective, it's about through all of this, how can I learn more about you, I'll never have your experiences, I will never really understand what you go through. But I can listen. And I can try. Right? So how do I how do I become better at that, so you and I have a better connection. And now the humility side, in you have experiences and I have experiences and we all may address a problem or opportunity in a different way. But what happens if we kind of put our egos aside, come together and say, You know what, let's just admit up front, we don't know everything. But together, we're going to come up with something that's one plus one equals three or more. We take these two things as humility, this empathy and bring that together. And I'm here in this role, and being able to connect with the team on a day in day out basis in a challenging environment and challenging market and coming through post pandemic, I found that those those two values are probably the most important for me to kind of reset myself every single day, how to do today, how they did yesterday, or what to do to be better. Yeah, so those are two big ones. From my own show journey here over the last, you know, 18 months. Yeah,
Maryfran Johnson 56:37
Well, good. Well, good. Those are, those are wonderful values to share. And I do I have heard much more about empathy and listening skills from CIOs over the last few years. So it's just, it's someone, someone said that, you know, fundamentally, they try every day to be a better human being than they were the day before. And I mean, this, this must be why it's always so wonderful to talk to technology leaders, because there's there's a lot like you out there, and I'm glad I know that we're grateful for Thank you so much, Ryan. This has really been a wonderful conversation. And thanks to our audience you sent in really, really deep and thoughtful questions, and we appreciate that. It's been it's been great having you here today. Really appreciate you joining us.
Ryan Kean 57:24
Thank you for the opportunity Maryfran, I had a lot of fun.
Maryfran Johnson 57:27
Good, good. That's I was guaranteeing you that as you'll remember, right at the top I said you'll be amazed how fast this time goes by. If you joined us late today. Don't worry. You can watch the full episode of my conversation with Ryan right here on LinkedIn and also on And on CIOs YouTube channel, CIO Leadership Live is also available as an audio podcast wherever you find your podcasts. And I do hope you enjoyed today's conversation with CIO Ryan Kean of Total Quality Logistics in Cincinnati. I'll be taking a summer break for the next couple of weeks, but we will be back with more episodes of CIO leadership live on Wednesday, September 13, at noon, Eastern when I will be talking with CIO Katrina Augusti of Carhart. Thanks again for joining us today. Take a moment if you will to subscribe to our YouTube channel CIOs YouTube channel, where you'll be delighted to find all of the 100 Plus previous episodes of CIO leadership live. Enjoy what's left of your own summertime and tune in again with us next month. We'll look forward to seeing you then. And take care.