Interview with Jill Kuhlman, Chief Administrative Officer at FST Logistics (Video & Podcast)

In this episode of the Wise Decision Maker Show, Dr. Gleb talks to Jill Kuhlman, Chief Administrative Officer at FST Logistics, an employee-owned and operated third-party logistics company that serves food and grocery brands. Jill shares about the importance of vulnerability, flexibility, and emotional intelligence for overcoming crises and shifting organizational culture.


Video: “Interview with Jill Kuhlman, Chief Administrative Officer at FST Logistics”



Podcast: “Interview with Jill Kuhlman, Chief Administrative Officer at FST Logistics”



Links Mentioned in Videocast and Podcast

  • The book Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage is available here.
  • You are welcome to register for the free Wise Decision Maker Course 


Gleb Tsipursky  0:00  

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of the wise decision makers Show. Today we have a special guest for you. And she will introduce herself momentarily. But as a reminder, my name is Gleb Sapolsky. And I’m the host of the wise decision maker show where we help you make the most y, wisest, most profitable decisions. Alright, Jim, over to you.


Jill Kuhlman  0:20  

Alright. Hi, thanks for having me. My name is Joel Coleman. I’m the Chief Administrative Officer for FST logistics. I’ve been in talent acquisition, HR and employee engagement for about 15 years.


Gleb Tsipursky  0:32  

Excellent. Thank you very much. So what we discussed prior to the show, the first question we’re going to talk about is what problems expected an unexpected, have you been encountering, as you’re transitioning to a new normal, both in the early stages of the pandemic? And now that we know we’re hopefully getting out of the pandemic? And in a few months, hopefully, within next year, it’ll become more of an endemic situation?


Jill Kuhlman  0:55  

Yeah, let’s hope, let’s hope, um, gosh, what have I learned? You know, at the be, I would say throughout the beginning, and even today, it’s, it’s the unknown, it’s the unknown, and then what changes? So it’s a little bit of, hey, we might have to work from home. And, you know, being in logistics and having warehouse employees and drivers, that was not common for us. So it was, you know, what don’t we know, what do we know? How do we mitigate it, and then a lot of changes that would happen trying to stay compliant, we would watch, you know, dewine, and then we’d say, Oh, we have to go get thermometers, because now we have to check the temperature. And lo and behold, there were no thermometer, thermometers to be found, right. So we’d have to constantly pivot. We got pretty good with that. We found that our employees appreciated the transparency, quite frankly, of hey, we don’t know what we don’t know. We’re learning as we go. I would say now it’s a little bit of the vaccine mandate. Are we going to have to require it? What’s our stance on it? What if it goes through? What will we do? What if we don’t do so in the background, we’re always just kind of talking about it, planning for it. But we’ve also let our employees know that we’re not going to mandate unless it’s mandated to us. We’re our plan. And our strategy has always been to educate our employees, give them the resources available. We had vaccines come on site for those that wanted it. But it’s not required unless that government requires us. So we’re a little bit of the unknown, and it’s just constantly planning for it, and then re planning for it. Thank


Gleb Tsipursky  2:29  

you know from your conversations, your organization’s and employee owned organization. Can you tell me a little bit more about that, what that means and how this impacted the way you approach pandemics?


Jill Kuhlman  2:43  

Yeah, actually. So we are 100% employee owned, so a full ESOP was the founder of the company, how he wanted to kind of transition. What that does is it makes every employee, an owner, a stakeholder. And statistically, Aesop fared better and laid off more or less employees, excuse me, then those that were not employed. Reason being, culturally, employee owned companies tend to want to dig their heels in to do what’s best for the company. There’s a little bit more investment because we get evaluated, every year issued a share price, that share price gets distributed to all of our employees. So there’s when we talk about ownership and entrepreneurship. It’s extremely real in our environment, because we truly are employee owned 100%.


Gleb Tsipursky  3:34  

And I know that another dynamic that’s been going on with you is you’ve been going into the pandemic with some a little bit of upheaval in the organization. Can you tell us a little bit more to the extent that you’re comfortable about that, and how that impacted the way that you’re approaching the pandemic?


Jill Kuhlman    3:50  

Yeah, we went through quite a transition coming out of 19 into 2020 2019 was probably our toughest year, there was a leadership change. But really what was uncovered with that leadership change is less about the leader and more about the processes structure or lack thereof, a lot of tribal knowledge. So a lot of things just kind of unraveled. In hindsight, great thing, probably the best thing that could have ever happened to us. And looking back on it, we really did not lose a lot of employees, again, because of that employee owned culture of hey, we want to see this through. We have extremely resilient employee owners. But we did then go through a leadership change with our new CEO, he came on board as a consultant kind of looking at it and really decided and really highlighted the inefficiencies, the lack of documentation and processes. And our technology had really fallen by the wayside. And so it’s pretty remarkable and one of our board members who does a lot of change management is shocked at How much change we’re able to get through in about a year and a half without outside consultants or anything like that. We really went through what we call a technology transformation. It was how do we make our systems and processes work for us so that we’re not just rowing faster and harder and running faster and harder. And we went from probably our most challenging year in 2019, to stabilizing in 2020. And we’re having a record year in 2021. So it’s pretty shocking to me how quickly we can do a full 180


Gleb Tsipursky  5:32  

It’s wonderful that you know, 2019, for most companies, not yours was a banner year by comparison. 2020 was a much less banner year. So you are in kind of a different situation, you’re kind of we’re on the upswing already coming into this. Now, I bet some of those technology changes actually proved quite beneficial unexpectedly. So during the pandemic, can you share a little bit more about that so that people who are listening would know about the impact of technology on logistics? And what’s been going on specifically with you?


Jill Kuhlman    6:02  

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we were 100% not working from home. That was our culture. And a lot of in a lot of ways, that still is our culture. Because we have the core group of our employees, the employees that have the hardest jobs are our over the road drivers and our warehouse employees, they don’t get that luxury. But we certainly did have to pivot. And we had to really encourage working from home, we had encouraged people to stay home when they’re sick. As an employee owner, sometimes they just want to come in and say I can grin and bear it. And that’s not what we encourage. But we we were able to very quickly with our technology upgrades, take hourly employees that don’t have laptops, they just have desktops, our operator that handles the whole operator line, we were able to get them working from home in a very short amount of time, where they then they could travel back and forth. So they have worked from home. But we’re also able to come into work once we start doing more hybrids with very little business interruption. And that was our technology solutions group just being, you know, reliable and adaptable and our employees as well. So it was we were able to disperse relatively quickly, and with very minimal disruptions, but then we were able to start doing that hybrid versus, you know, everybody all has to come back back in at once. It was never an all or nothing. We were able to kind of mitigate that a little bit.


Gleb Tsipursky  7:32  

Okay, great. So that technology unexpectedly helped you in those waves. Thank you for sharing that. Now. You had to have a number of mindset shifts and changes, both for the 2019 transitions. And then with the pandemic. Can you describe those for us a little bit, you’re talking about systems and processes, but then we’re also culture shift sounds like so help me understand those?


Jill Kuhlman    7:53  

Yeah, we have, we have a lot of, honestly, when we look back with COVID, probably our biggest challenges were employees, the varying reactions to COVID. We adhere to all the policies and procedures, we wrote all the policies, pushed them all out, we followed all the guidelines mandated. But it was the fear and people’s varying reactions to fear. So some people are like, Oh, it’s okay. And I’m not gonna get it. And some people were like, you know, it could be sitting on this cardboard box for weeks on end. And I could walk by it and get it right. And so it was a lot of that that caused the most disruption. And the best thing we found was face to face conversations, lots and lots of communications. We actually did a town hall after hours and encouraged employees to bring their family members online, to answer questions, q&a. How are keeping employees safe? What’s reasonable to expect from a company to keep employees safe, and what’s reasonable to expect of employees to keep themselves safe? And you know, working from home being temporary, what the expectation when we sent them home, it was always this is temporary. We actually tried to bring them back multiple times. But we had a pandemic Response Team, and we’d say, Hey, we’re ready to bring them back. You know, you just never know how COVID cases were going to spike at the time we stayed nimble. We said, Nope, it’s not the right time. Now we’re kind of running into schools, right where you’re under 12. You can’t be vaccinated. And we’re running into Hey, my kids quarantined and yes, I’m supposed to be at work, but what do you do so we’re continuing to stay flexible? I think the biggest thing with the mind shift was being very transparent. Tons of education, encouraging them, go to the CDC website, read up on it yourself, see that we’re adhering to what we’re supposed to adhere to ask the questions, and also being really transparent and saying we don’t know what we don’t know. We need we Have a pandemic Response Team, we talk about these things. But we don’t know just as much as the CDC doesn’t know. And we all are learning as we go. So give us a little bit of grace. And I think just being humble and honest about what we didn’t know, made a lot of sense to them.


Gleb Tsipursky  10:15  

So it sounds like there are two big things that I’m hearing, one is about the role of emotions as such in people’s responses, which is not something that’s just typically considered at work. And the other is vulnerability on the part of the leadership and kind of that humility. Can you talk about what you learned about both? Let’s start with the role of emotions and its importance in leadership and leading a company in the responses of employees,


Jill Kuhlman    10:41  

The biggest thing I learned is that everybody’s emotions are real to them. And you can’t discount that. So it’s not a simple thing, here are all the facts. And so your emotions don’t matter, because they do matter. And it’s certainly the people that worked from home struggled more with coming back into the office, because once you remove yourself, you create this sense of safety, whether real or imagined, or a combination of the two, that was very hard for them to kind of, to come back. And so they created a lot of barriers in their mind about what, what it means to be safe and not safe. And so it was just a lot of that one on one dialogue. Here. I mean, I would email and talk to my spouse’s children. On that said, I don’t think you’re keeping my mother safe at work, let me talk to you, let me explain what we’re doing. Let me feel at ease. So it was a lot of those one to ones but also never discounting their fear, because it was very, very real. So I think that was the biggest thing I learned there as well. As far as vulnerability. You know, it’s very humbling to try to read these relief bills and laws and policies and and, and try to do the best that you can do with the little information, you know, in the government’s learning as they go as well. So we quickly were humbled. And we were just really quick to say, you know, we might pivot and we’re not trying to like, make this yo yo emotion for you. We’re looking out for everyone’s best interest. Our number one priority was always the safety of our employees and their families. And we said that every step of the way. And if that meant I said something, and then I had to take it back. I think over time, they knew it was for the right intent. And it was because we didn’t want to put anyone at harm, we do have a business to run. And then important business, we get food to grocery stores. So it was pretty essential. So there was an element of Hayward and essential business. So we have to take that as important as well, but never, never above the safety of our employees. And so I think that was, you know, important to our employees, and they would see us pivot, but I think they knew that was for the right reasons.


Gleb Tsipursky  12:50  

And so it sounds like you’ve learned from them with a number of things, a number of guidelines that were changing dynamics, how are you applying these lessons to the vaccine mandate, which it looks like will be passed, and you are in the size of the employer, where it would be meant where it would likely be mandated? So given that, let’s say it is mandated, how will you respond to that, and including employee fears about being vaccinated, which is obviously an important consideration.


Jill Kuhlman    13:18  

I mean, we feel pretty good about it, we just recently came off a town hall where we shared our philosophy on it, you know, on the backend, we have systems where if we needed to track it, from a compliance standpoint, we would have that we feel like we’ve done a lot of education, and we brought vaccines on site on two separate occasions. So anybody that wants to be vaccinated is at work, if we have to require it, we’re just gonna hear by the law, regarding any exemptions and what needs to be provided for it. But you know, we’re in a little bit of a wait and see, but at the same time, we feel like if we had to act on it quickly, we would have the CIP systems in place to track it. And I think our employees are kind of used to, hey, we’ve got to pivot and go this way this manner, and we would have everything in place as far as people that might require an exemption, and then people that might require it. And we would, we would just kind of go from there.


Gleb Tsipursky  14:13  

Excellent. So what kind of challenges do you see remaining major ones as we’re coming out of this pandemic? Hopefully, as we talked about, within the next year for fast logistics,


Jill Kuhlman    14:24  

you know, I labor you can’t you can’t not talk about logistics and supply chain and talk about labor. And you know, COVID, exasperated, the potential great resignation and the labor shortage, but at the same time, we also had baby boomers, we knew were retiring. We knew that was going to happen. We knew it was going to create a shortage. And I’m not sure that we all effectively plan for that. And then you have COVID hits and people are like, well just retire early. CDL drivers, you know, there’s a lot of regulations with drivers. Entering the clearing house that they didn’t want to do, drivers have been exiting the industry faster. And these kinds of things exasperated. So I think that’s going to be a challenge. I think we as an organization, we talk about it all the time, how we can effectively attract, but most importantly, retain our top talent in our employees. So I think as this continues, we’re just going to have more and more people that want to work from home exclusively, or, you know, not want to get into the industries that we need, which are forklift operators, and CDL drivers. Those are kind of the heart of America in a lot of ways, especially as it relates to the supply chain. So we have to just get really creative. And so those are the things we talk about pretty much every day.


Gleb Tsipursky  15:46  

So how are we going to handle the people who do want to work from home exclusively? Have you decided that or is that a topic of conversation and curious about now,


Jill Kuhlman    15:54  

We are pretty much working in the office, we have some positions that we have that have to work from home, we have a policy around it, they have to apply their certain criteria. And it is a you know, maybe once or twice a week, we try to create a flexible work environment, we know life happens, we do have some people that don’t work in our city. And so they obviously have worked from home. That’s, that’s, that’s an advancement for us where it was exclusively 100% work from home all the time. So we’re a little bit more flexible. But we work so interconnected with people, we just recently moved to a corporate office where we’ve got our HR accounting and finance our sales team. That’s never been the case before and the synergies and excitement of it. And so it’s culturally for us, we want people that want to do that. I don’t think our business we’d be as effective for our employees and our customers if we were 100% diverse or dispersed, so to speak. So we’re really kind of looking for employees that want that engagement. You know, we’re at the point where for interviewing candidates, we zoom in, and Microsoft Teams like everyone else, but we bring them in for the final interview. We want them to meet the team, meet people, see our space, get excited about it. We don’t we think that’s an advantage versus a disadvantage, because some of those employees entering the workforce from college, they feel left out there, like I’m not getting mentorship, I’m not getting I’m getting passed over over for advancement opportunities, because nobody knows me, I’m just a zoom person, right? So there’s pros and cons to it. And we’re probably I wouldn’t say in the middle, we’re probably a little bit more towards being in the office more than anything else. But it is working for us. And I think because we have such a large part of our employees that would never get that option being that they’re in a warehouse. They’re in a truck. And they by and large are what keeps our company floating. They kind of need us to be present for them. So that’s kind of why we do it.


Gleb Tsipursky  18:03  

That makes a lot of sense. So we’re talking about your business being a logistics business. And obviously that was a huge concern. What for right now with logistics? What are you seeing on your end to the extent that you can see about the supply chains? And can you make any predictions from your perspective about when things will be getting back to a less crunchy situation?


Jill Kuhlman    18:25  

Yeah, that’s, uh, oh, I don’t know. Um, I think things will continue to get better. I think companies are learning the start of their products and figuring that out more, because they’re not able to produce it in bulk as much. So I think you’re, I think companies are figuring that out, like, how much do I have to produce to store to get out and speeding that process up? So I think that’s happening. I think consumers, you know, are also kind of getting used to delays. I took my kids to Dairy Queen. I’m standing outside Dairy Queen, and for like 20 minutes, and then they post a sign up saying go through the drive thru. We can’t serve you here, because they were just so busy. And they were so understaffed. And, you know, I’m like, Okay, kids get the car, we have to just get back in the drive thru line. That’s just kind of the nature of where we are, I think it’s going to improve. Because I think companies are going to get smarter and faster and more efficient. Do I think there’s going to be more labor out there necessarily to fill all these positions? Not necessarily. I think we just have to get a little bit smarter. We absolutely have to treat our employees with the utmost respect and make them want to stay with you because they do have options, those that want to work. They can find jobs. So you have to treat your employees extremely well. And they need to know they’re valuable. So you know, I think those things are going to continue to happen for a while. You hear everybody saying get your Christmas presents right now because it’s on a ship out there and it can’t get, you know, off the ship, I think we’ll get better. I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight though.


Gleb Tsipursky  20:08  

So when we’re talking about companies being smarter and more efficient, I work with a lot of companies on their strategy. And one of the big things that they’re doing to future proof themselves against these logistics problems, is honestly stocking up on inventory. So stocking up on inventory, they’re kind of going the opposite route of being efficient, or in the moment, or, you know, on the moment delivery, they’re stocking up their inventories is what I’m seeing. And you can tell me if you’re seeing that. So I want to hear if you’re seeing some of that, and also, more broadly, what steps you’re taking as a company to future proof against those potential future threats, and also to seize opportunities.


Jill Kuhlman    20:47  

Yeah, I mean, in our world, we’re not necessarily seeing the stocking up, because there’s such a shortage of labor, making, like baking the goods that we store. So we’re actually seeing a kind of turn faster than storage. But what we’re doing, you know, because we’re a third party logistics provider, for our customer, you know, we just have to service everything. And especially because our customers want their product when they want their product, that we stay really high level or high quality in our service. So when we say it’s going to get on a truck, and it’s going to be there, by that time, we will make sure it gets there. And so we’re building our efficiencies in house making sure we’ve got the best talent that’s skilled, that’s reliable and there every day and that we have the systems to mitigate errors and keep the processing and we’ve had customers leave us for pricing and come back and saying you know what, your pricing is fine, because you get there on time. And we want that more than we want cheaper. We’re not very, we’re not the cheapest provider, but we’re a premium kind of white glove service. And that’s what we’re staying focused on.


Gleb Tsipursky  21:59  

So it sounds like staying focused on your brand, being a white glove service. And really making sure that quality is what happens even if you’re a little bit higher price provider. That is the way you are working on future proofing against challenges with customers. What about internally within the company? What steps are you taking to guard against threats, not in the next year, but in the next five years and to seize opportunities.


And internally as far as maintaining our employees,


your employees, your systems, your processes, kind of looking forward to the longer term future, not the shorter term future?


Jill Kuhlman    22:34  

Yeah, lots of things. I mean, we did a board overhaul, we’ve brought on just some absolutely skilled and talented board members, that meant our executive leadership team. And we’re really building out a five year 10 year strategy kind of building towards that. So we know where we’re going, we’ve kind of moved away from just the treading water. But making sure we’re making really smart decisions moving forward. We’re doing a ton of training and development internally to make sure our leaders have leadership skills. Lots of resources for our employees, you know, we have an FST University for any sort of self service training they might want to apply for training grants, so that we can upskill all of our employees, we recently got a $40,000 grant and got about 55 employees. So we have a lot of warehouse employees that are fired, safety and CPR certified and food grade certified. Doing all of those things. We’re very invested in our technology solutions and integrating that with our operations. So we rolled out business analyst positions that kind of bridge that gap between our technology solutions group to make sure that technology serves our operations. So just structurally, the organizational changes we’ve made kind of help connect those dots a little bit between the departments. I mean, the list kind of goes on and on. As far as just making sure that we’re internally structured to grow and expand with the company, we’re in a very niche market. And we can really poised ourselves for success and growth, if we make sure we focus on what we do well, and make sure that we’ve got repeatable processes. So that’s really the main focus.


Gleb Tsipursky  24:24  

Excellent. That’s very clear. Thank you very much. Well, I think though, our audience will learn a lot from this interview. Is there anything else that you would wish to share as a last word to the audience some final thoughts?


Jill Kuhlman    24:36  

No, um, the only thing I would say is, you know, I think COVID has taught us a lot. And the biggest thing is being resilient and being adaptable. And when you do that, and you’re open and honest with your employees and your company and your customers, I think people appreciate that. And we’ve been really successful doing that. So


Gleb Tsipursky  24:58  

Thank you very much, Joe. Appreciate saying that and thank you everyone for listening. All right, please make sure to subscribe to this podcast on wherever you’re listening to it, whether it’s you’re watching it on YouTube or you’re checking it out on Apple podcasts or anywhere and leave your comments, share your thoughts email me at Gleb at disaster avoidance with any comments, and I hope to see you next time, my friends in the meantime, the wisest, most profitable decisions to you


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