Kathleen Farley has a few pieces of advice for young people starting out on supply chain careers.

Originally published March 2017

First of all, Farley, who has more than 30 years’ experience working across manufacturing and supply chain, says it’s really important to think about the industry you want to be in: “You have to like the business you’re in,” she says. “If you’re not really into making cars, then you’re not going to be happy working in the auto industry for any length of time. Understand what drives you, and understand the link to the customer, because you need that if you’re going to be your most successful.”

Farley studied Chemical/Biomedical engineering, and whilst she has spent her whole career in supply chain, manufacturing and operations, she has never strayed from her interests in pharmaceutical and biotechnology, working across generics, branded proprietary drugs and medical devices.

“For me, it was always about the patient, and making drugs for people who are sick,” she says. “That was always what motivated me.”

Also industries that have complexities in Supply Chain due to Regulatory agencies like Pharmaceuticals -the supply chain can make or break your bottom line. As such, the Pharmaceuticals market is a great place to build a supply chain career: “In Pharma, there’s nothing but risk,” says Farley. “You really need good supply chain people, because they are always looking for better ways of doing things from ensuring we are dual sourced on our raw materials to launching New medicines that could potentially save a life.. I would say that if you were graduating in supply today, a Pharma company would be a great kind of company to go to.”

Now running her own consultancy business, Core Strategy Solutions, and working with clients to build and assess the strength of their manufacturing and supply chain strategies, Farley is also a manufacturing advisory board member for Gilead Sciences, an American biopharmaceutical company.

Before launching her own business in 2012, she was Vice President of the US operations at Teva Pharmaceuticals for two years, and before that, she spent many years with Merck, latterly as vice president manufacturing franchising, from 2007 to 2009. In that role, Farley was responsible for the global end-to-end supply of two of Merck’s top franchises, diabetes and respiratory, representing close to $9 billion in sales.

But it was much earlier in her career that she acquired her expertise, starting with her first job at Merck in the early Eighties: “I went straight into a chemical factory from college, and I was making some of the drugs that were blockbusters back in the day, that are now generic,” she says. Her skill was in taking the chemical skills she’d learnt in school, and commercialising them. “I was the person responsible for transferring the knowledge from the research scale to the factory,” she says. “We were taking the chemicals we produced from a pot the size of something on your kitchen shelf, to a vessel the size of your living room.”

She quickly transferred from the chemical side of Merck, into the pharmaceutical business, making tablets and capsules. Then she started working in technology transfer, helping the plant managers around the world, first in China, and then in Brazil: “I was literally the first woman ever to set foot in plant sites in those countries,” she recalls. “People didn’t know who I was, and they weren’t necessarily happy having a woman in their plant. But at the end of the day, I was technically competent and that’s the only language that counted.”

Farley ended up spending 10 years in Latin America, serving as vice president of manufacturing operations – a job she secured in 1997.

Farley says: “When I took over Latin America, it was all male. I had 12 plants reporting in to me and most of the people in the management roles were in their mid-fifties, and they had never had to deal with a woman before, let alone one in her late thirties. My boss had no concerns at all, and it actually worked out beautifully. I worked very well with all the plant managers.”

She describes her style as being all about the metrics, working with methodologies to set out clear goals, and then working with plant managers to achieve those. She says she never micro-manages, and never imposes models or structures from above everything was team work.

And therein lies her second piece of advice for young supply chain professionals: as well as choosing your industry carefully, you should also choose your route into supply chain wisely. “Just make sure you’re really good at what you do,” says Farley. “And that means experiencing all the key elements of supply chain. There have been so many supply chain folks over the years who wanted to be heads of supply chain but came from only one functional area like procurement or logistics and didn’t have the breath of manufacturing or planning, so they struggled.”

She adds, “You have to have that breath not just depth and planning or manufacturing expertise, along with procurement or D&L create the most skilled Supply Chain executive.

Farley has also learned a thing or two about leadership along the way, she says, and focuses her management style on ‘the three Ts’: technical competence, trust and transparency. “If you can run your function with those three things,” she says, “that gives you the credibility, and to me that is the key to successful leadership.”

The role of the supply chain continues to expand in both remit and gravitas, says Farley: “There’s definitely a new buzz around it as a function, recognising it as a critically important part of the overall operation.” Choose your industry well, and it’s a place to build a shining career, she says.