Deborah Winkleblack, Claire’s Stores Inc.’s vice president of global supply chain, stops by one of the company’s 3,200-plus retail locations.
Deborah Winkleblack, Claire’s Stores Inc.’s vice president of global supply chain, stops by one of the company’s 3,200-plus retail locations.

Using multiple West Coast port gateways in an inland point intermodal supply chain model gives Deborah Winkleblack the diversified logistical strength she needs to make sure teens, tweens and other customers of Claire’s Stores Inc. have the fashionable jewelry and accessories they crave readily available at their local mall. Winkleblack, vice president of global supply chain for the worldwide specialty retailer, shares with readers of the American Journal of Transportation her views on the Claire’s Stores distribution model, concerns about newly launched ocean carrier alliances, insights as a pioneering woman in the industry, and thoughts on the value of relaxation with pickleball, jigsaw puzzles and feng shui.

What impacts do you see upon the supply chain of Claire’s Stores with the coming into operation of the new mega-alliances of ocean carriers?

We had meetings the entire month of March with each of the carriers, and our greatest fear, if you will, relates to what they are planning on doing with all of their services and how they are going to run and share their vessel rotations and terminals.

I can say that, with the last round of alliances over the past few years, they did not do a very good job of it, at least from a customer standpoint.

Without mentioning names, a specific example is that there were three carriers in one alliance and instead of just evenly allocating assets amongst themselves, they would run a specific string and one month use one carrier’s terminal and the next month it would be the next one’s and the third month it would be the third carrier’s terminal.

That’s a huge thing for us, because not all terminals have on-dock rails, and since we are 100 percent IPI [inland point intermodal] cargo into Chicago, the need for on-dock rail is everything to us.

We also know which terminals operate better than others for what your specific needs are; who tends to run short of chassis; who tends to bury their containers, and so on, and our shipments were suddenly routed via a terminal we would never have chosen on our own.

So the unreliability of all of this over the past two years was extremely damaging to our supply chain, and I’m not sure that they have figured it out for the future.

How did Claire’s develop its North American strategy of relying entirely on inland point intermodal via three West Coast hubs – Prince Rupert, Pacific Northwest and Southern California – and how has it proven successful?

At the beginning, we did not have a large amount of imports, and the distribution center was in the Chicago area, because it’s a good hub here, and everything was going out to our stores via small package.

We need to be located in the Midwest, where we are going across the fewest amount of zones with these small parcel people. It works well for us.

Moving across the different West Coast hubs came by live-and-learn experiences. I refer to our risk management as being a moving target. We try to bring in goods across the different ports as much as we can, therefore also utilizing the three rails coming in from the West Coast [BNSF, Union Pacific and Canadian National] and including using the rail terminals here in Chicago.

So, when something goes wrong – and it will somewhere – if there’s a typhoon somewhere out at sea, or a labor slowdown, only one string from one origin will probably be affected by it.

If at one of the ports there are weather issues or labor issues, our port diversification strategy will minimize our risk. The same thing is true with the rail. If we encounter rail delays or mudslides or derailments, this strategy minimizes the impact on us.

With more than 3,200 stores in nearly 50 countries worldwide, how is Claire’s able to operate its supply chain via only three distribution centers, I believe those being at corporate headquarters in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates, Illinois; Birmingham, England; and Hong Kong?

The one in Chicago covers 1,800-plus stores in the United States, Canada and Caribbean. The location allows us to get to all of our stores within one to five days using ground transportation.

Birmingham came into play when we purchased a couple of businesses in Europe back in the ’90s, with the UK DC being the largest one, a small DC operating out of Switzerland, Germany and Austria and one more out of France. We slowly closed down the four small DCs and consolidated the distribution in Birmingham. And again, everything goes out to the stores via ground, which works well for us.

Hong Kong is home to our franchise business. We use a 3PL [third-part logistics provider] in Hong Kong, and sell ex-works to all of our partners [wherein the seller fulfills its obligation to deliver when it has made goods available at its premises]. Most of the product is made in Asia, and, with a large amount of the volume going into Dubai or South Africa, Hong Kong is a pretty good origin spot.

As the business grows, we’ll look at either having more or even consolidating to two of them, but for right now those three locations work very well for us.

How have things changed for women in the logistics industry since you entered the business with Montgomery Ward back in 1973, staying there for 18 years before your 24 years at Claire’s Stores, and, noting that you were honored in 2015 as an Influential Woman in Business by the Chicago suburban Daily Herald Business Ledger, what further progress do you see?

I admit, it was pretty rare for females to be in this occupation back in the ’70s. I started out in freight accounting, so that was OK being a female. Then I moved to a position as a rate clerk that was available on third shift, so I could take some specific college courses during the day.

A little bit later, a dispatch position opened, and I wanted it because it paid more. When I applied for it, they just said no. When I questioned why, I was told, “We’ve never had a female dispatcher before.” I argued that it was not physical work, that I would be sitting at a desk on the phone and the radio and may need to walk out onto the dock every now and then, and eventually got the position. From there, I moved into other transportation positions at corporate.

I remember at one of the first conferences I attended, I met a female journalist in the women’s bathroom, and she laughed and said that one of the good things about women not being very wanted in this industry is that it means we do not have a long line for the bathroom.

Over time, as I moved over to the international trade side, there are more and more women in the industry. At the recent RILA conference [Retail Industry Leaders Association’s Retail Supply Chain Conference in February in Orlando], there were probably five females out of 25 participants in a senior leaders meeting, so I think we are getting up there.

I do see the international side really growing in a lot of different areas. However, I have to say that I find domestic trucking to still be pretty much an all-boys club.

As you have several years of experience as a logistics instructor at the College of DuPage and Harper College, both in greater Chicago, what is the most important advice you give to students looking to enter the business?

Quite often when students are working on a degree involving some part of the supply chain, it is because they have friends or family in the field, and not because it is a career choice thought about in high school.

My advice is to learn as much as you can along the way, taking as many lateral moves that are available if promotions aren’t in sight. Don’t worry about the promotions at the beginning, because, in this business, every little thing that you are learning is going to add up to something big later.

Within the logistics or supply chain area, it is a love-hate relationship. If you don’t absolutely love it, then leave it, because you’re going to be very miserable.

It’s very fast paced. Even though it makes sense when you understand the flow, like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, there is a lot of having to understand how things are done. It could be how Customs operates in Russia vs. Canada, or how, in the United States, we have these national LTL [less-than-truckload] carriers that are not readily available in Europe.

You need to just go with the flow, learn what it is, and work with what you’ve got based on that, instead of trying to make it fit into something that you think should work for everyone.

How has your own academic background – with an associate’s degree from Triton College, followed by a bachelor’s in psychology from Elmhurst College and an MBA in international marketing from Rosary College – shaped your approach to your work?

I was actually headed off in a psychology degree related to the mind-body connection, but, during all that time, I was working in logistics and enjoying what I was doing.

So, when I finished my undergrad and thought about what I was going to do, knowing that I liked the business world, I decided to work on my MBA, and most marketing courses are actually cross-referenced with a lot of psychology. Marketing is the psychology of selling something to someone, so I think they really go hand-in-hand.

Learning how people behave and recognizing that everybody behaves differently has helped me a lot in the international work here.

To me, the most important thing is learning – about the world and everything in it, because you don’t know what you don’t know. My early years framed my future, and because of it I started a scholarship fund at a local college [Triton College] called the Winkleblack Second Chance Scholarship. It is specific to females over 21, self-supporting, who did not attend or complete college after high school.

What outside interests take your mind off work?

My husband and I both like to go to plays. We’re avid pickleball [a cross between badminton, tennis and table tennis] players. We love to travel, going to hokey little towns in surrounding states, as well as internationally.

When I really need to tune out the whole world, I do jigsaw puzzles. I did a 3D castle and recently made a flower vase out of a puzzle. It’s interesting what they have out there now. I like it because I can work alone and it empties your mind. It’s almost as good as meditation.

I did yoga for seven years and take classes here and there in tai chi. I enjoy local junior colleges’ one-day courses in things like feng shui or something off the wall.

Because the work in supply chain is very analytical, I enjoy using that other side of the brain.