Seasoned Leadership in Action™ – An Interview with Wolfgang Lehmacher!

Wolfgang Lehmacher

At Supply Chain Game Changer we believe in sharing experiences and expertise from people in every industry and from across the globe.  As such we have introduced our “Seasoned Leadership in Action™” Interview series.

This interview is with Wolfgang Lehmacher, Board Member, Advisor, Author and Business Leader! Wolfgang has worked at TNT, GeoPost Intercontinental, CVA, and the World Economic Forum along with having many other industry leading affiliations.

Here is our interview with a global industry leader, Wolfgang Lehmacher!

Tell our readers a little about your background and experience? 

First, I would like to thank you so much for inviting me to this conversation. My passion is supply chain and positive change. Why? I think positive change does not need an explanation. But supply chain may. Supply chain is the economy and the economy the supply chain. Hence, it is so central to our life that it is worth spending some decades in this industry. 

In 1991, I started my career in a senior operational role at TNT. In 1996, I was promoted Country General Manager Switzerland. In 1997, I became Head of Eastern European and Eastern Mediterranean Regions. After my time at TNT, I was driving for more than a decade the international expansion of French La Poste.

Wolfgang Lehmacher
Wolfgang Lehmacher

As President and CEO GeoPost Intercontinental, I was heading the global network and businesses in Europe, the CIS, the United States, Hong Kong, India, the United Arab Emirates, and Africa. In 2010, I joined global strategy firm CVA to head the global logistics practice.

In 2014, I accepted to support the World Economic Forum in developing the supply chain and transport industries. A role that I left end of 2018. Since 2010, I have been supporting startups, like Hyperloop Transportation Technologies as well as asset owners – including serving on various boards. 

I am judge of the IATA Air Cargo Innovation Awards and the Automotive Logistics Awards Europe. I am also member of the Logistikweisen, a think tank under the patronage of the German Federal Ministry BMVI, and the Expert Network of the World Economic Forum.

Founding member of NEXST, alias Centre of Excellence for Global Emerging Supply Chain Technologies, initiated by Reefknot, Kuehne & Nagel and SGInnovate, in Singapore, and expert of SEA20, an international not-for-profit initiative and network of ports, academia, associations and companies supporting maritime transformation.

I am living between three major economic platforms, the US, Europe, and Asia. Currently, I am in Hong Kong.

What are some of your greatest achievements in Business? 

At TNT, my mission included the launch of an extensive investment plan for Eastern Europe. Expanding the network of stations and establishing new road and air connections. Preparing the plan involved the local and regional teams and the result of the initiative was phenomenal. We significantly improved the operational footprint and the financial performance of the region.

At French La Poste, I have been leading the team that drove home the acquisition of the European parcel network DPD. Subsequently, we set up strategic partnerships across the globe, including Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the United States.

At global strategy firm CVA, where I led the global logistics practice, supporting expansion projects and Chinese auto suppliers to strengthen their position in the European market.

As director and head of supply chain and transport industries at the World Economic Forum in New York and Geneva, I was facilitating groundbreaking research in supply chain and logistics innovation. The work is summarized in several insight papers and white papers, covering topics like blockchain in supply chain, sustainable supply chain practices, intelligent assets in the context of circular economy, trade tech and 3D printing.

Also, I authored or co-authored more than 10 business books and wrote and published over 100 articles.

How has Business and Supply Chain changed over the course of your career?

I saw containerization eating into bulk business, integrators encroaching the airfreight market, and parcel operators attacking national posts. Significant consolidation has occurred in the industry along my journey.

When I started working in the field in the 1970s, I witnessed the emergence of punch cards to feed large computers. People were still working with typewriters and used carbon paper. It was in the 1980s when I saw the first terminals arriving on the desks of clerks and dispatchers. We used computers to accelerate our work processes and started communicating by fax.

At that time, I familiarized myself with programming which enabled me to write codes to digitize documents in order to eliminate paper in the office and reduce archiving space. It was also the beginning of the rise of personal computers and the emergence of business intelligence.

In 1991, I joined TNT. An integrator with processes and a hub and spoke system able to deliver consistent service levels as the basis for a standard product offering. We used rate cards and discount schemes to standardize the commercial side of the business. Track and trace helped to monitor the shipments. We still had lots of loopholes but were better than what had been there before.

I also witnessed the consolidation in the postal, parcel and express market. I was running a German joint venture between Deutsche Post and TNT when the DHL takeover by Deutsche Post took place. I was Country Manager Switzerland at TNT when the company was bought by KPN. These moves changed the postal and parcel landscape in Europe and the world.

In 1999, I joined French La Poste. It was the year when British Royal Mail Group acquired German Parcel Paket-Logistik GmbH. This caused another shift in the European parcel market. Our mission at La Poste was to establish in the first step a pan-European parcel network. Thanks to technology, namely digital connectivity, I was able to manage a multi-billion-dollar acquisition series with a small team of ten people.

In 2001, La Poste had become a leading player in the express parcel business in Europe. In 2004, I started to drive La Poste’s expansion outside of Europe. When I left the group in 2010, we had established a highly profitable business based on partnerships and joint ventures in Europe and across the globe overlaid by a global network anchored in strategic hubs and markets. This made La Poste a recognized player among the large parcel operators in the world.

In the 2000s, we had implemented handhelds and experimented with RFID. In the 2010s, I saw more and more new technology solutions emerging in the logistics and supply chain industry. Through my involvement in technology startups and scaleups I was priviledged to see what was shaping up. In 2012, Amazon bought KIVA Systems, a maker of robots that service warehouses which kicked off the boom of warehouse automation.

In 2015, I had the honor to visit the Flex Pulse Center with wall-to-wall touch screens and flowing data visualization before it officially opened. Flex Pulse aggregates and interprets live streaming data from multiple sources to spot and manage disruptions in the supply network of 14,000 suppliers.

Over the last five years I have been giving a lot of talks about advanced technology in supply chain and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. I was sharing content of the World Economic Forum and my own research. At the beginning the audience was fascinated but distant. In 2019, digitization got some traction. Adoption of visibility solutions is increasing. With this the demand for analytics is rising too. The main push comes from manufacturers and brands.

The 2020 global Covid-19 outbreak has demonstrated the need for digital solutions and the power of digital tools. Hence, I think that we are now facing the advent of exponential digitization.

What are some of the lessons you learned in your career that you would like to share for others to learn from? 

The world and the movement of goods have been fascinating me since my childhood. A career is not a sprint but a marathon. Purpose and passion help me to keep going. I always want to contribute to making life worthwhile for people and keeping the planet livable for future generations. Choosing to follow my purpose and passion has never misled me. This is my map and my sense of reality and righteousness is my compass.

I have hardly had a moment where I was tempted to break from my believes and principles. Stay loyal to yourself is not easy but worth it. I speak my mind, I stay authentic. This made me a leader. Naturally. Leaders inspire with ideas that are far greater than themselves.

But more important for their long-term success is that they walk their talk. This way of leading brought me great friendships, trust, and support. This is so important. Leaders do achieve through people. It is the people’s greatness and buy-in that drive achievements and success.

Another learning is that our team is always the best. It is the only one we have. If you wish to separate from someone do it quickly. But please do it also for a good reason. People expect you to care, to be protective, generous, just and objective. 

People often ask me how they can become a thought leader in the industry. First, you need to be ready to give. To share something people truly need, and something which is unique. Knowledge or insights that are new. Hence, this implies constant work. It is not the one article, book or talk.

Thought leaders are researching and publishing all the time. They speak everywhere. It is their unique value proposition and their presence. Their omnipresence. Of course, having worked in an important role at a prestigious organization helps. But most important is the continuous investment in creating value for others.

In times of social media, there is a lot of discussion about content. But it is not only about content. It is the debate around the content and the continuous evolution of our thinking that is most important. It is the collaboration to build collective intelligence which will contribute to our progress.

In a world where we face significant challenges resulting from the size of the global population and our way of living and operating, we need global collaboration and collective intelligence to find the appropriate answers.

And I am sure “we can”.

What challenges facing the world are important to you?

Challenges that threaten humanity are important to me. Part of my personal purpose is to protect the planet so that it can provide also for future generations. I know we can only achieve something at scale through others. Therefore, I aim at spreading confidence and competence to empower people to drive positive change in the world.

Key challenges are climate change, the pollution of air, ground and water and diminishing biodiversity caused by plastics, pesticides, fertilizers etc. There is also nationalism with dangers for the populations in the nationalist nations themselves, but also the people in other countries and the world in general.

Covid-19 provides margin for correction. We can rebuild our economies in a much more sustainable and regenerative way. Enormous amounts of money will be mobilized to keep economic activities going. It is up to us to where to channel the funds. Investors, companies, and governments will be judged on their actions and ability to manage the crisis and its consequences, and we might see some corrections ahead.

The programs and efforts to curb the consequences of climate change are continuing. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) Low Sulphur Regulation which came into effect 1 January 2020 is enforced around the world with very few non-compliance cases so far.

The European Union is pushing its Circular Economy initiative. Also, countries leverage the opportunity. One of three conditions on Air France in exchange for a EUR 7 billion Covid-19 rescue package is to end competition with viable railway services offered by French TGV.

More and more companies taking a stand, like Nike with their new ad on racism. Other companies stop single-use-plastics in the interest of our ground, rivers, and oceans.

What is the role of Business, Supply Chain and Change Leadership in addressing these challenges?

Only 9 % of the existing global economy is considered circular. In other words, 91 % of the more than 90 billion tons of materials are wasted.

Excessive consumption, environmental degradation, and the negative effects of CO2 emissions helped to drive high economic growth but did also harm our planet, which puts the future of our species at risk. Companies need to apply long-term thinking, a systemic approach, and circular knowledge. Everything we produce should be reused, refurbished, repurposed, or recycled to ensure a continuous circular flow of resources. I believe that focusing on our future in a circular way also produces superior financial results.

The transportation industry needs to replace combustion engine-powered vehicles with clean modes. In urban areas electric vehicles and bikes are a great start. In long-distance transport, on the oceans, on rivers and in the air, we require alternative fuels. It is honorable to see Maersk, Orsted and other Danish companies teaming up to produce sustainable fuels on a large scale.

Supply chains are a significant source of environmental damage. Supply networks cause 66% of all global emissions. Emissions are released when raw materials are converted, processed, and manufactured into goods for consumption. Politicians, industry captains and citizens need to contribute their share.

Each leader has the responsibility to generate results in a way that protects the organization, the people within and beyond an organization’s borders and nature and environment too. Organizations need to produce products and conduct their activities in this light. DHL has committed to zero emission logistics and UPS to reach net zero by 2050. We need to keep the momentum and scale up.

What are you working on these days?

Everything I am doing is about the top of the spear of innovation in supply chain and logistics. The work with startups, the books and papers, the speeches and webinars, the think tanks and innovation awards committees. It is a very synergetic approach. One field of activity cross-fertilized the other.

My engagement in social media also contributes. Unconsciously, I have been building a global community of supply chain and logistics enthusiasts ready to share and support each other.

At this point in time, I am just launching a new startup and preparing my next book. I am also planning to launch a Supply Chain Innovation Network and a global community around Circular Economy.

Soon, I will be able to report in more detail.

What advice would you give people who have a career in, or who are considering joining, Business and/or Supply Chain?

If one wishes to operate at the center of the world economy, then business, and supply chain is truly the place to be. No other profession provides more insights in the real life of business than the supply chain. And a deeper understanding about how value is created goes a long way in life.

Succeeding in business and the supply chain industry has always required problem-solving capabilities. An open, hands-on approach, pragmatism and strong relation-building skills are critical. Today, people also need a good knowledge about digital technologies and solutions. Which is valid for supply chain as well as business in general.

Covid-19 is a human tragedy. But it is also an opening. There is no pivot without pain. Covid-19 brings an opportunity to make major changes. It is now that we can build a better world. But we are the ones that need to take initiative to make it happen. The people that imagine a better future and mobilize towards their goals will make a difference. This is valid for people in business, government, but also for everyone in society.

Everybody can contribute. Robert F. Kennedy once said. “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.” 

How can people contact Wolfgang Lehmacher?

At [email protected]

Originally published on July 7, 2020.