Transformative Leadership, No Limits

For a career in which he’s embraced challenges, been at the forefront of innovation for companies and advocated for supply management without boundaries, Tom Linton is honored with the 2019 J. Shipman Gold Medal Award.

By Dan Zeiger

A bedrock belief of Tom Linton’s is that supply management is omnipotent.

“Our profession is an always-evolving one,” says the chief procurement and supply chain officer at Flex, a San Jose, California-based supply chain solutions provider. “It’s a borderless environment that we’re created for ourselves. I don’t want to say we’re taking over the world, but we don’t have any limits.”

Linton’s supply management career — particularly his specialization in disruptive and threshold-stretching technologies — has exemplified that no-limits philosophy. Those achievements and contributions were recognized and honored last month at the ISM2019 Annual Conference in Houston, where Linton was named this year’s recipient of the J. Shipman Gold Medal Award, the supply management profession’s highest honor.

After nearly four decades of breaking barriers as a practitioner and executive, Linton has reached a career zenith with the Shipman Award, which has been presented each year since 1931. “I’ve received lifetime achievement awards and been blessed with a lot of recognition, but this is the biggest,” he says.

As the 88th recipient, Linton joins an exclusive club of supply management dignitaries: “Those honored have been from all walks of supply chain life, whether as academics or practitioners,” he says. “What they have had in common was that they have had creative views on how supply management should be done. Our job is to lead. It’s called supply management, and while I’m not picking on that term, it’s really supply leadership. You manage down, but you lead up and out. So, it’s about leading, not managing. And as we lead into the future, what are the tools, processes and skills needed to take us there?”

The most critical tools, Linton says, are digital, mobile and cloud-based technologies, the subject of The LIVING Supply Chain, a 2017 book he wrote with Robert B. Handfield, Ph.D., Bank of America Distinguished university professor and executive director of the Poole College of Management Supply Chain Resource Cooperative at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. The book advocates that supply chains should be viewed as LIVING (live, intelligent, velocity, interactive, networked and good) ecosystems, with digitization, mobile technology and cloud-based computing serving as the “sun,” or the fuel.

Linton’s change-management skills made him a perfect fit for his position at Flex, which hired him eight years ago with a goal of expanding beyond the company’s technology-hardware roots to develop tools and software to better connect and manage global supply chains. Flex — which changed its name from Flextronics in a 2015 rebranding — adopted an integrated product-development model made up of real-time supply chain tools, advanced analytics, market intelligence and global sourcing best practices.

Innovative platforms developed under Linton’s direction include Flex Pulse, which combines digital, mobile and cloud-based technologies to provide real-time intelligence between the company’s global “pulse centers” and more than 5,800 client companies. Among other successes, Flex Pulse immediately alerted its network of the 2015 port crisis in Tianjin, China, and the 2016 earthquake in Kumamoto, Japan, enabling swift activation of contingency plans that avoided about US$55 million in combined disruption costs.

“People talk about the end-to-end supply chain,” says Linton, who has 16 years of CPO experience with four companies. “I don’t know of any company who has more of an end-to-end supply chain than Flex does.”

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