As director of logistics for Grove Services Inc., Nick Iacopella coolly meets challenges of temperature-controlled logistics for one of the top three U.S. poultry exporters.

Nick Iacopella, director of logistics for Grove Services Inc., exudes a passion for temperature-controlled logistics.
Nick Iacopella, director of logistics for Grove Services Inc., exudes a passion for temperature-controlled logistics.

Iacopella advances a straightforward, creative approach, relying on personal relationships and technology alike, including applying experiences from a family warehouse business at Port Newark and a stint hunting submarines from Navy aircraft. In an interview at his office in Atlanta, the transplanted New Yorker also talks with the American Journal of Transportation about his Italian roots and his very personal involvement with Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

How has the challenge of securing sufficient containers been exacerbated since rollout of the new ocean carrier alliances, and why is this of particular concern to the temperature-controlled logistics sector, which has shifted largely to containers from breakbulk mode?

When you’re planning around equipment availability levels, there’s always a challenge. It’s especially true for temperature-controlled.

As a frozen protein exporter, we’re always competing with other seasonal commodities. Equipment is in high demand certain times a year because of other commodities coming online. There’s always some seasonal adjustment you have to navigate.

With the new alliance structures, I think the steamship lines have done a pretty good job trying to coordinate that. But with the new alliances come port changes and schedule changes, and it stands to reason they’re going to have challenges positioning equipment.

By having a strong personal relationship with our carriers, we can forecast. They’re very upfront with us about when they are – and aren’t – going to have equipment. Knowing what you’re dealing with is half the battle.

What else are you doing at Grove to respond to temperature-controlled logistics challenges?

Specifically with temperature-controlled, it takes lines a longer turnaround time to pretrip [inspect and prepare] the boxes. Also, it’s more difficult for them to match import commodities with where export commodities are coming from.

We’re trying to work with line partners in telling them where we want to go out of and see what they might be able to bring in.

How are you keeping pace with the westward move of U.S. poultry production and increasing demand from Asian markets?

From the U.S. Gulf to Asia, we’re trying to marry, even from a point of where we’re selling to, to have reciprocity with two-way traffic, so they can commit to the exporter overseas, and we can commit to them that we can get the equipment to where they want it to go as well.

We have to get creative. We’re always looking for new ways to route cargo. If it’s not cost-effective to go over the East Coast or to rail through the West Coast and we have to go out of the Gulf, where ocean freight rates to Asia have been increasing, with a lot of the production further west in the South, we have to be creative on how we route the cargo.

What role is technology playing?

I’m a strong advocate of personal relationships, but you’d be a fool to say technology isn’t essential to everything we do.

When I came from Janel [Group, in October 2016 after 11 years with the Lynbrook, New York-based integrated logistics provider], I spent a lot of time with compliance, with [U.S.] Customs and Border Protection with the ACE [Automated Commercial Environment] transition. A lot of our success there was in navigating the new ACE environment.

One of the challenges faced by a BCO [beneficial cargo owner] or exporter relates to the changing face of compliance regulations. Using technology with education of our staff to stay ahead of the compliance curve, we pride ourselves on being highly compliant.

We need to have electronic visibility of our supply chain. The better technology we have, the better the visibility and the better we can get that information into the hands of the people who need it.

In fact, we’re going to a more advanced IT [information technology] platform to better suit our needs.

I can’t help but notice how well you talk with your hands. Where are your family roots?

My father’s family is from Sicily and my mother’s family is originally from Naples, but they were born here. Iacopella is Italian for Jacobson. We found our family name in Sicily back to the 1700s.

How has your background with container freight station, trucking and third-party logistics providers – and your eight years as a U.S. Navy Reserve air crewman – helped shape your approach?

I started out in the CFS business – the brick-and-mortar aspect of the industry – in a warehouse in Port Newark, so I learned early on how cargo physically moves, which helped me learn time elements you need to factor into the equation when you look at efficiency, like how many moves a trucker can do in a day.

That’s why I’m a big fan of port tours and for office personnel physically seeing the warehouse and how long it takes someone to pull a product off the shelf and communicating throughout the various aspects of the supply chain.

Flying in the Navy was a great experience, something I’ll cherish forever. I learned a ton of lessons on a P-3 Orion, basically hunting submarines from the air. Processes like that at an early age helped me focus on how to do my job in logistics better.

I had the privilege of flying with three Navy commanders who taught me a lot, but one thing stood out. One of them told me, “Nick, if you want to know if you’re doing a good job as a leader, you should turn around and see if there’s anyone following you.”

It’s that straightforwardness I try to bring to everything I do now. It doesn’t matter how good you think the plan is. You need to constantly check it against your results. And if the results aren’t there, you need to change something.

What led you to first become involved in the logistics business?

My father owned a container freight station in Port Newark, so my summer job, since I was 15, was unloading import containers and driving the hi-low, and I went to college [graduating from City University of New York-Brooklyn College] and worked with my father a little while, and that’s kind of how I got bit by the bug.

At a very early age, I was dealing with people from all over the world, and the problem-solving challenges intrigued me. There is something different about this business every day. Just when you think you’ve seen most of the problems, something comes up that no one saw before, and you have to deal with it. That’s what I find exciting. That’s why I love what I do.

After spending most of your life in the New York City area, how have you adapted to the South since moving to Atlanta in 2013, initially for Janel and then last October joining Grove Services?

Atlanta is great. I love the South. It’s an amazing place right now. The population growth and investment in infrastructure are making the Southeast a magnet for business development. With Janel, I felt the opportunity for growth was greater in the Southeast.

I came to Grove in October. It’s been a great experience. Grove is an amazing company with great plans for future growth. I’m excited to be part of that. Our corporate office is in Boston [Wellesley, Massachusetts], but all the operations – logistics and our traders – are done here in Atlanta. We also have our Hong Kong, Brazilian and Zurich locations.

What is your involvement with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and what other nonwork interests do you pursue?

When he was a few weeks old, my son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis – a chronic lung disease affecting the pancreas and other organs. Being first-time parents, you can imagine it was a very trying experience. We didn’t know what to expect as parents, never mind parents of someone with a chronic illness.

The first outreach to us came from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. We went through the genetic testing and found – like one in 30 people in the world – my wife and I both are carriers.

Joseph is 9 now, and he couldn’t be doing better, mainly due to the fact that we had an early diagnosis and that the CF Center in Stony Brook, Long Island, did an amazing job. Up until about 30 years ago, they told you that, if someone was diagnosed with CF, not to make plans for high school. Right now, we’ve got people living to their 30s, 40s and 50s with it, so advancements the CF Foundation has made are phenomenal.

We got more involved to help raise money for the CF Foundation. I chaired a committee for a bike ride on Long Island, and the first year we had 200 riders and raised about $150,000. Now we work with the CF Foundation chapter at CHOA [Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta], and I’m involved with their bike ride here. There are a lot of logistics involved.

Our girl, Paige, is 5, and my wife [of 12 years] is Cindy, who is an amazing person, and I couldn’t imagine navigating this without her.

We’re outdoors people. Spending time outside with my family, whether it’s on the lake camping, hiking, we enjoy living close to the mountains.