North’s Tanya Bischoff on managing supply chain for a new product category

This article first appeared in Let’s Talk Supply Chain, for which HULFT is a proud sponsor.

Tanya BischoffWe’re kicking off 2020 with a new Women in Supply Chain feature. Meet Tanya Bischoff, director of supply chain for North, a Canadian company backed by Intel Capital, Spark Capital, and the Amazon Alexa Fund with nearly $200M in funding. The company recently launched FOCALS, AR-powered glasses that move notifications from your phone to your sightline. Part fashion and part consumer tech, FOCAL’S distribution strategy demand a non-traditional line of the supply chain network.

With over a decade of experience, Tanya – who was recognized as a Woman to Watch in Canadian Supply Chain 2019 — shares how discussions around Canadian chicken imports first piqued her interest in supply chain, and what it means to now be part of a growing team that’s redefining the intersection of people and technology.

How did your supply chain journey start?

I was about to graduate with a political science degree and an emphasis in international relations. That summer, I had a job at McDonald’s head office in London, Ontario as an admin. I sat next to a department that was always on the phone negotiating with the government to import chicken into Canada.

One day I walked over and asked what exactly they did—they were the purchasing department. I had never ever heard of supply chain as a profession. I started asking more questions and learned about SCMA and signed up my final semester of university. I felt graduating and starting a designation would help me land a job quicker.

I was right—I was immediately hired at Healthcare Materials Management Services in London as a purchasing analyst. Government and purchasing all rolled up into one career. How did I get so lucky?!

I continued to work toward my designation and took a job in Stratford Ontario at an automotive company buying steel and forgings. As soon as I finished my designation, I was hired by Blackberry to manage a $480 million portfolio.

Then I heard about Thalmic Labs, a startup with a YouTube video of a MYO (gesture control armband) on the internet. I contacted them and told them they should hire me to support supply chain creation to build the MYO. They did! I have been with the business now called North for the last six years. In that time, we built the MYO and then pivoted to make the world’s first fashionable smart glasses, FOCALS. It’s a new product category.

What has your journey to success meant to you?

It has meant everything to me. I was the first person in my family to go to University. I am a really driven person. I’m not afraid to grind it out and work hard. That’s always served me well.

What are the challenges you’ve faced along the way?

I’ve spent the last decade in consumer electronics which is very challenging from a supply chain perspective. Predicting customers wants and needs is difficult. I’ve been through the highs of barely keeping up to demand and the deep lows of excess inventory; un-buying and difficult liability negotiations.

I’ve always been open and honest with my supply chain. I’ve built solid relationships. When times were good, I was good to my suppliers. When times were bad, I’ve asked my suppliers to be good to me. I still believe in the power of relationships, that’s important with suppliers. Nothing is completely transactional—the human factor is everything.

Did you have a mentor to help you face those challenges? What makes a good mentor?

Formal mentor relationships sometimes feel forced. I like mentorships to grow organically. My mentors have been people I’ve observed in their roles. I’ve watched great leaders challenge their people, but also trust them.

I’ve watched amazing negotiators who can command a room. I’ve seen people who are great at reading body language. These are all important skills in supply chain. Master these, observe, listen and use them. I’ve also learned a lot from bad leadership and poor negotiations.

My advice is knowledge is everywhere if you are open to receiving it.  If you sit around waiting for a formal mentor, then you can miss some important teachings that are all around you. Heck, I’ve even become a better negotiator because of my children. Especially from my toddlers. Toddlers are never afraid to ask for what they want, they will ask a million why questions and they don’t take no for an answer.

How can we drive diversity in the supply chain?

Most of the industries I’ve worked in have been male dominated. We need to do a better job of ensuring students are aware of the career possibilities of supply chain. I speak at high schools to share this knowledge and teach at Conestoga College to inspire others to consider supply chain as an option. My students are diverse and bring an interesting international perspective to the role.

What is the toughest call you’ve made in your career?

The hardest decision I’ve made was when the business asked me to reduce the size of my team. Everyone on my team was an allstar—they worked hard and worked well as a team. It was an agonizing decision to cut the team in half, none of the layoffs were performance-based.

In the end, the team pulled together and everyone who was let go found great jobs immediately. That’s the cool thing about supply chain. We build a network with each other, passing along job opportunities, sharing knowledge and helping out, again relationships are everything.

What do you love about working at North?

I’m happiest when I’m adding value and being challenged. I’ve spent the last 5 years working in a startup. Startup life isn’t for everyone—it’s chaotic, things change on a dime, and nothing is ever certain. I thrive in this kind of environment.

I love the power to make decisions and change things that aren’t working very quickly. I work with some of the brightest minds and they keep me challenged and excited for work every day. In my personal life, I like to slow things down. I’m happiest up north at our cottage with my husband and our kids.

What’s next?

My plan is to have no plan. To keep doing what I love and see where that takes me. I’m open to all the possibilities.

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