Inside Track: Navigating transportation and supply chain management


Les Brand and business partner Jim Ward started Supply Chain Solutions in 2001 with a contract with Steelcase, thereafter moving from consulting work to operating at an international level. Photo by Michael Buck

Les Brand, chief executive officer at Supply Chain Solutions, considers his biggest career break walking away from a chance to sail around the world with Wally Stenhouse during the Whitbread Round the World race after finishing school in 1974.

“Wally Stenhouse had a boat called Aura out of Chicago, and he was going to do it and I was going to be part of that crew,” said Brand. “My godfather decided it wasn’t a good plan for the start of my business career so he talked Wally out of taking me and I started in a trucking business in Chicago as an executive recruit.”

Brand launched his professional logistics career working for transportation company Willett Nationalease, which was based in Chicago, and gained experienced working with railroads while serving as general manager. The company managed all of the local pickups and shipping for Sears, which was headquartered in Chicago.

“Willett did a lot of interesting things. They ran seven different intermodal rail ramps,” said Brand. “We would manage all of those supplier pickups and then ship those products all over to the Sears distribution locations at that time around the U.S. market.”

After working hands-on with rail, Brand went on to serve as vice president of sales and marketing for VolvoGM in Chicago, and director of business development with Ryder Systems, before starting Supply Chain Solutions in West Michigan in 2001.

“I also worked in moving businesses; we did a lot of work in school busing for the public school children in the city; we had a large truck-leasing company; we had a heavy-equipment company; and we had a driver-leasing company,” said Brand.

“I started to touch all of those logistics pieces, and it is probably the foundation of my background today.”

It was in 2001, during the dotcom bubble and before 9/11, when Brand and his business partner, Jim Ward, president and founder of Supply Chain Solutions, decided to start their own business in West Michigan. While previously residing in downtown Chicago with his wife and family, Brand said they decided to move to West Michigan because he had grown up visiting White Lake as the fourth generation of “cottagers” in his family.

“(Jim Ward) and I were travelling all over the world for a large third-party provider and we decided in 2001 … to start our own business,” said Brand. “We started with a contract with Steelcase. They wanted us to take a look at inbound materials supply, and at that time they had 19 plants.”

From consulting work to operating at an international level, Supply Chain Solutions has expanded its network of owned and affiliated offices to Kentwood and Holland in Michigan; Chicago; Lafayette, Indiana; Los Angeles; Hong Kong, Shanghai, Ningbo and Qingdao, China; South America; Africa; Australia; and Europe.

In 2013, the company acquired the freight-forwarding business unit of England Logistics, and the international freight forwarder known as Vanik International.

“We have grown with the office furniture companies throughout West Michigan,” said Brand. “Most of those suppliers also supplied the automotive industry, so we started to get involved there and we started to expand our reach.”

Supply Chain Solutions focuses on creating business value and generating profits for clients by assessing, designing, implementing and managing end-to-end integrated supply chain solutions. Through consulting, strategic sourcing, transportation management, lean materials, or distribution management, the company strives to help businesses become more cost-efficient in how they provide services to customers.

“Our little sandbox is trying to provide engineered solutions for customers around the world. We are a very small organization, but we do a ton of different things. We are unique in that way,” said Brand.

“We are very interested in taking our clients, helping them grow globally, and also having them help us grow globally. The design of our organization is to be the sole supplier for many of our West Michigan companies as they grow around the world.”

Nearly 80 percent of Supply Chain Solutions’ business supports durable manufacturing, from tool-and-die shops and suppliers to original equipment manufacturers in the automotive sector, according to Brand.

“Our big project for 2016 is to enter Mexico, so we are working on a joint venture with a Mexican company,” said Brand. “A lot of the automotive OEMs are going into Mexico, so all the supply base is moving down there. We have a lot of West Michigan suppliers moving into Mexico so we are going to be participating down there with our friends and family.”

In response to what excites him about going to work every day, Brand said there is a lot happening in Michigan right now, from waterborne shipping as the next big way to help businesses reduce cost and improve their service to exploring food processing as a growth industry for the state.

“There is a big initiative through The Right Place and others to look at food processing,” said Brand. “Up in the Muskegon area, we have 11,000 acres of undeveloped property that has a huge wastewater treatment plant on it, so we are looking at all kinds of opportunities to ignite that area in some way, shape or form.”

Brand said one use for the property would be food processing, and with Continental Dairy’s recent deal with Coca Cola to export its products overseas, there are “a lot of exciting things happening here.”

Brand also serves on Michigan’s Commission for Logistics and Supply Chain Collaboration, which advises agencies on initiatives designed to improve efficiency and cost-effectiveness of supply chain management. One of the projects the commission is working on is bringing the Port of Muskegon to the regional logistics cluster to add commercial, waterborne shipping into the mix.

“I am serving at the governor’s pleasure on the logistics and supply chain committee,” said Brand. “We are right in the middle of a process to connect the Port of Muskegon to the Port of Milwaukee and do containerized waterborne shipping across the lake on a scheduled basis. That is a big project for Michigan as a gateway.”

The ability to ship through the deep-water port in Muskegon and the option to have commerce trade with Canada with the international bridge will result in no longer considering Michigan a peninsula, according to Brand.

“Our largest trading partner is Canada, but as we take a look at going westbound, now we can go either direction,” said Brand. “If we add waterborne activities and use the lake as a thoroughfare, we are no longer a peninsula, and it really helps businesses reduce costs and improve their service.”

If commercial trading through the Port of Muskegon becomes a reality, the hope is to connect the waterborne shipping with an intermodal train in Milwaukee to allow for easier export and import activity for Michigan. The port would also eliminate using the rail connection in Chicago, which ties up truck drivers due to traffic congestion and bad weather, according to Brand.

“If we can do that up in Muskegon, we don’t lose those drivers for the whole day. Those drivers can be more productive, and the cost of crossing the lake, even though it is a short little link, those 90 miles are very cost-effective when you compare it,” said Brand.

While Brand may have missed the opportunity of a round-the-world sailboat race before starting down his multi-modal career path, he said it is still something he thinks about doing someday. 

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