The Young Executives Organization (YEO)’s sixth annual conference kicked off on Wednesday, May 1 in Springfield, Mo.
Hosted by McLane, the two-day event includes educational sessions, ample networking time, convenience store tours and an inside look at the McLane Ozark Distribution Center that integrates robotics.
John Lofstock, executive director of the National Advisory Group (NAG) welcomed the more than 55 attendees to the conference and explained the history of YEO, which is part of the National Advisory Group (NAG).
“We were looking for a way to bring young executives together. This is our sixth annual YEO conference. We held the first five conferences at convenience store chains. This is the first time we’ve gone off-site, and I think the McLane Ozark Distribution Center is the ideal place to do that.”
YEO Board Chairman Bart Stransky, vice president of merchandising for Atlanta-based RaceTrac, also welcomed attendees. “I think we have a really exciting agenda here,” he said.
For the third straight year, the day before the conference, YEO members had the option to participate in a team-building event with Habitat for Humanity. “We spent the day yesterday building a house out in Springfield. We had a great turnout — 16 people. Thank you everyone who came,” Lofstock said.
Future of AI
The YEO educational sessions kicked off Wednesday morning with a presentation from Paul Roetzer, founder, The Marketing Artificial Intelligence Institute, on “Artificial Intelligence and The Future of Retail.”
“Eighty percent of what we do every day is going to be intelligently automated to some degree in the next 3-5 years,” he said.
He explained the challenges with predicting future technology. “When we try to look out and predict the future, we can only predict a linear path,” Roetzer said. But the future of technology isn’t linear. It’s actually a steep, upward-right curve that is hard to envision.
“Change velocity will be fueled by artificial intelligence (AI),” Roetzer said. He compared the technology that existed in 2000 to what we’re using now just 19 years later, and how much change has taken place. Where it used to take decades for new technologies to grow, now the same changes are happening faster — from month to month.
“Demand smarter technology and a vision for intelligent automation,” he said.
He offered a number of starting points for retailers, including: Personalize offerings and promotions, in-store customer experiences, product mix optimization, inventory management and just-right staffing.
“AI is largely going to complement what humans are doing and take away a lot of the more mundane tasks we don’t like doing,” he said. AI solves problems and achieves goals more efficiently.
“Most AI requires mass amounts of data. You’re going to need experts who can take the data you have access to, structure it properly and use it to make decisions within your business,” Roetzer said.
AI adoption in marketing is still very early, Roetzer pointed out. The majority of businesses are still trying to understand AI or run pilot programs to test it, and often there is no C-level support. “AI can be your competitive advantage,” he said.
He challenged c-store retailers to think about the repetitive manual tasks that could be automated at their chains and assess opportunities to get more out of data in order to discover insights or predict outcomes.
Ozark Distribution Center
Attendees broke into groups and toured McLane’s Ozark Distribution Center.
Ahead of the tour, Lance Smith, director, McLane Inc. explained the ins and outs of the Ozark Distribution Center, which opened in Republic, Mo., in 2012. The 370,000-square-foot warehouse sits on 130 acres. It features a geo-thermal cooling system — the largest in the U.S., is completely automated and offers end-to-end distribution that integrates robotics from pick to tote to automated conveyer systems. It distributes more than 17,000 SKUs to 1,750 retail stores in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, and makes more than 141,000 annual deliveries.
The distribution center employees 480 total team-mates compared with 1,000 at other distribution centers, with over one-third of those team-mates representing drivers. The Ozark Distribution Center serves convenience stores, truck travel, drug, dollar, mass, club and military trade.
After lunch, Dan Kara, vice president, robotics and intelligent systems, WTWH Media spoke on “How Robotics is Changing Retail and Distribution.”
“Robotics is a hard thing to do. Even harder than facial recognition and things done with software and that’s why we’ve seen a lot of big companies just bail on robotics,” Kara said. But robotics is also bringing a whole new world of opportunity.
“When we say robotics, we’re not talking about chatbots, robotics process automation, software bots — those are software that happen to have the word bot in it, but it’s different than robotics,” he clarified.
Kara talked about the tailwinds pushing the digitization of robotics, and outlined the many ways robotics are being used and invested in today. He noted that the dust is starting to settle on what works and doesn’t work. Indoor navigation is largely solved, so there’s been a huge proliferation in mobile robot services.
In 2006-2007, companies started to make robots designed to work collaboratively with people. The first generation collaborative robots have soft, rounded edges, light colors and in some cases can even recognize when people are near. It’s the fastest growing market place in robotics sector. Capabilities have been growing in the last five years allowing them to perform light assembly, and the picking of objects for shipping and more.
So what’s next? We already have robots that are good at manipulation and robots that are good at mobility. Now we’re working to mix the two to achieve mobile manipulation — robots that can move and complete tasks, such as completing picking operations with a mobile robot.
Commercial exoskeletons are also gaining traction. These use the intelligence of human operators and the strength and endurance of industrial robots. Light-weight exoskeletons can allow people to do repetitive motion without injury by removing just enough weight or helping employees stay in proper alignment to prevent injury.
He also spoke on machine learning and how robotic manipulation can be learned instead of programed.
Robots are moving in a direction where they can grasp objects with the same amount of certainty as a human. And we’re moving into a future of pervasive connectivity, pervasive sensing and pervasive cognition, allowing robots to eventually think for themselves.
In an afternoon session, Jeremie Myhern, chief information officer, Road Ranger, spoke on “Mining Data in the C-Store Industry.” Data mining, which began in the 1990s, is the process of discovering patterns within large data sets. It can be used by c-stores to improve existing store performance, enable smart growth and to see the future.
“In today’s retail climate, being a smart consumer of data is what’s going to allow you to continue to maintain relevance, and if you desire — to grow,” Myhern said. “It starts with adopting a data driven mindset and integrating it with your organization’s culture.”
He spoke about successful uses of innovative data mining in other industries, and examples of how c-stores can use data as a key way to compete.
“We can use our data and our data mining competencies as a weapon against our industry competitors, as well as other industry competitors,” Myhern said. “Weaponization is achieved when we develop a skill or competency that is not easy to replicate or duplicate.”
He suggested questions, c-store retailers should consider asking of their data to determine if how their data measures up, and a practical approach to building a data-mining platform in-house.
The educational sessions concluded with a leadership workshop for young executives by Linda McKenna, principal, Employee Performance Strategies Inc. McKenna shared the foundations of leadership. “The first step to being a great leader is being self aware,” McKenna said. “Get comfortable becoming uncomfortable.” McKenna led attendees in an interactive session about leadership qualities.
In the evening, YEO attendees enjoyed a dinner at the Springfield Brewing Co.
Tomorrow includes a tour of convenience stores in Missouri and additional educational sessions.