A former stand-up comedian with three decades of logistics experience, Pete Mento stands out as weirdly unique among top global supply chain executives.
Applying his distinctively diverse expertise and a teamwork mentality, Mento is keeping things fun while advancing tailor-made forwarding solutions in his latest gig – as head of procurement and commercial excellence for the international supply chain of Boston-based furniture and home goods e-commerce leader Wayfair Inc.
Mento, who joined Wayfair last September with extensive hands-on knowledge in freight forwarding, customs and trade policy and, yes, stand-up comedy, shares thoughts with AJOT readers in an exclusive interview:
You have described yourself as “the most unlikely trade nerd you will ever meet.” Why is this so?
I like to think that I’ve worked hard to create a reputation as a person who makes very difficult topics easy to understand by using comedy and storytelling. Trade and logistics can be painfully dry. It really doesn’t have to be.
Global trade is the engine of our modern civilization. When you begin to think of it in those terms, it can get exciting to explore how moving goods across borders has helped to make our world more peaceful and full of opportunity.
I started my life as a deck officer for cargo ships and was God awful at it. I went into comedy, and I was pretty good at that – but hated the lifestyle. So, like a lot of people, I fell into a world of forwarding. There aren’t a lot of formerly seagoing comedy writer/Ivy-educated/economists-customs brokers running global logistics for e-commerce companies.
I think I’m weird – but my therapist tells me it’s healthier to think of myself as “unique.”
How are you applying your broad background – as a customs house broker, trade academic and even standup comedian – and diverse education (including a master’s in government trade theory from Harvard University and a bachelor’s in marine transportation management from Maine Maritime Academy) to your efforts to enhance Wayfair’s supply chain operation?
MMA [Maine Maritime Academy] was really an education on managing projects in difficult environments with motivated teams. Attending the maritime academy remains the most important decision I ever made. It taught me how to improvise while working in multicultural environments.
There was always something very broken – but this was an opportunity to learn and collaborate. It taught me that not everything was a crisis and that people all really want to just have a chance to contribute to the solution if you’ll let them.
The most important thing it taught me, though, was that being a good leader comes from listening to the people closest to the problem, trusting that they know the simplest solution and respecting them enough to let them try to fix it.
I came to Wayfair with nearly 30 years of direct global logistics experience. I’m sure people thought I was going to walk in here like some kind of gorilla and just tell everyone what to do. The truth is this business is built on incredibly innovative solutions manifested by brilliant, technically gifted people who saw smarter ways to do things than I ever would. They have taught me more than I could ever teach them.
As for Harvard, it’s really all marketing. That school was a great experience in that I had access to amazing professors. However, I could have gotten the same education at Bunker Hill Community College.
The greatest lessons I ever learned about trade were from failing at trying to do new things and then overcoming those failures with great teams at companies like Expeditors [as principal of its Tradewin global trade compliance consultancy] and C.H. Robinson [as vice president of global customs and trade policy].
Thank God for failure. Now my team gets the benefit of all my experimenting with none of the pain and humiliation of all my past mistakes. Pretty cool tradeoff.
How has Wayfair’s supply chain network evolved from a less-than-efficient drop-ship model to the company’s current CastleGate distribution center network, and how is this proving beneficial in the low-value-to-weight-ratio home goods business?
CastleGate Forwarding is focused on providing value-added global logistics services to our suppliers in order to lower costs and increase reliability of service.
In an environment where procuring reliable space on vessels is akin to buying ammo in a zombie apocalypse, using our size and negotiation ability to bring well-priced and reliable space is a key tool.
We have a surgical focus on our suppliers and our business. It allows us to create tailor-made technology and processes that suppliers simply can’t find from other forwarding solutions. It’s a real partnership. We are a small part of a very large solution that is obsessed with efficiency and driving opportunity for suppliers and our customers. It’s inspiring, to be honest, that we care this much about a supply chain.
I see the forwarding industry in a time of significant change. Larger companies like Wayfair have the scale and the insight to do much of the work that we would have outsourced before. Because so many large forwarders have commoditized themselves, it’s become a race to the bottom. Those of us in e-comm and large BCOs [beneficial cargo owners] will be forced to build our own platforms in order to get the value we and our suppliers seek.
More importantly, the technology many of the forwarders are building is extremely self-serving – and rightfully so – most especially in the universe of this new phenomenon of digital forwarding.
Why try to fit in with someone else’s technology road map when we can design what our suppliers and customers have told us they want? We don’t have to make a digital solution for the entire industry and market, just ours. This is why I sincerely believe we will beat everyone else to punch. And do so handily.
How is Wayfair responding to present global supply chain challenges?
Technology-enabled, process-driven solutions backed up by incredibly smart and hard-working people who dive in hard and commit to the customer. You know, forwarding! We are doing what I’m so proud of this industry for doing for decades: Improvising in a brutal situation and finding ways to make it work.
Since the days when the pandemic blew a hole in the global economy, our industry has been out-thinking problems and outworking the issues, like we always have. At Wayfair/CastleGate, we are continuing that tradition. I think we are just doing it with better technology and a lot fewer people.
What roles do you see the U.S. Maritime Resource Center, of which you are longstanding vice chairman, and the Federal Maritime Commission’s newly formed National Shipper Advisory Committee, of which you are a member, playing in improving the international ocean freight delivery system?
I’m a big fan of NSAC. The committee has taken on the big issues of congestion and demurrage head-on. The FMC is to be commended for reaching out to the people closest to the problem – shippers – and asking them how they see a solution forming. I’ve seen real collaboration and a sincere desire to get to a solution. It’s been both refreshing and exciting. I love having this opportunity to serve and to represent Wayfair. It’s been an honor.
How is coaching youth football, as you have done, like leading a supply chain operation?
It’s all about team. I have – hands down – the best team anyone can ask for. And, just like coaching any sport, it’s about empowering the individuals to do their job, supporting their growth, giving them all the glory and just letting them play.
If it isn’t fun, why even do it? That’s my job. Support everyone, make a game plan with my leaders and drive results but make it fun. I think we do a great job of that. I’m getting older, slower and crankier, but I’m surrounded by young geniuses who make me skip to work every day. I’ve never been happier to be on a team in my life.
What is your favorite supply chain joke?
The current draft of the Ocean Shipping Reform Act… It’s gotta be a joke, right?