Natural disasters. Civil unrest. Piracy. Most shoppers probably aren't thinking about these things while making their purchases. But Tobin Porterfield is.
"[Companies] need to be positioned so that should any of those disturbances occur, the supply chain can be resilient," said Porterfield, a professor in Towson University's Department of e-Business and Technology. "A customer doesn't want to hear that there's a port strike in Singapore. That's not an acceptable excuse."
Those are just a few scenarios among myriad unexpected events that can disrupt the supply chain, resulting in less-than-desirable — or a complete absence of — consumer products.
"Products go through a lot of different hands before they finally get to the person that is going to use them," Porterfield said. "If anything goes wrong along that process, the customer is either going to get a product that's inferior or it's going to cost more or it's not going to show up at all."
In an increasingly globalized world economy, the key is being prepared to deal with any and all potential disruptions, which is just what Towson has been training graduate-level students to do. This fall will mark the fifth class of students entering Towson's master's program in supply chain management.
"With the globalization efforts that are in play right now, supply chains are so complex, you can't just leave them to chance. You have to actively engage and manage your supply chain," Porterfield said. "Most companies are fully on board with that, or at least realize the situation, and are trying to get their arms around the supply chain — and that's where we come in."
During the two-year program, Towson's supply chain management graduate students learn a "360 approach" to supply chain management, he said. The coursework covers all aspects of the supply chain, beginning with procurement and product management and continuing to strategic and customer relationship management, as well as addressing logistical questions about how to move and store products.
Such expertise has become more valuable than ever. Thanks to an increasingly interconnected world with plenty of choices and crowd-sourced consensus about those choices, today's online shoppers are more empowered in their decisions. That means efficiency has never been more important to a company's survival.
"The going philosophy is that companies today are competing based on their supply chains," Porterfield said, mentioning companies like Walmart, whose supply chain efficiency translates to lower prices. "If you can't run your supply chain efficiently, your customers are at risk. You're going to lose them to somebody else."
Designed with working professionals in mind, Towson's supply chain management program courses are offered primarily in the evenings. Supply chain professionals looking to advance their careers make up about a third of the group of graduate students, while the rest are young professionals looking to enter the field and international students, who often intend to take their supply chain expertise back to their home countries.
Towson University couldn't be better geographically situated for this field. In addition to being home to major corporations that depend on efficient supply chains — such as Northrop Grumman, Stanley, Black & Decker and McCormick spice company — the region is also an important hub along the corridor of commerce throughout the Eastern Seaboard.
"The bulk of the U.S. consumer market is right here in our reach, and we've got the Port of Baltimore to feed it," Porterfield said. "We're finding that in this part of the country, here in Baltimore, we're in a really sweet spot for it."
—Leah Soleil for Towson University