Firefighter: Doing what seems impossible

by Ajay Gupta


Beginning in 1996, I worked for enterprise software solutions company Hummingbird Ltd (later acquired by Open Text Corp) as senior manager, corporate logistics and fulfillment operations. The company was thriving, and we were fulfilling over 200 customer orders a day on a same-day basis from a corner within the basement of the company’s Toronto headquarters.

In 1998 we graduated to our first proper distribution centre, located across the street. The new DC quickly evolved into an outstanding success. In 1999, the company decided to open a secondary DC in Europe in order to bring customer service closer to customers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) and take advantage of tax incentives.

My team was tasked with commissioning the DC in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a remote village in northwestern Switzerland. This involved creating a new facility, hiring and training staff, decentralizing the flagship product family for the EMEA region and tweaking the model to suit EMEA conditions. Other tasks included: implementing new logistics requirements for the largest distributor for North America; integrating, in record time, three new acquisitions into our DC operations; and managing the existing operations of Hummingbird, a demanding task by itself considering its profile as a prominent high-tech company.

We had to complete all this within one fiscal quarter. At the same time, our ongoing business realities included same-day or next-day order fulfillment; more than 11,400 SKUs—huge for a mid-sized software company—and 5,400-plus active SKUs (including intangible ones). There were also over 1,500 shippable SKUs, including 46 tangible SKU variations for one major product alone.

Product version rev-ups were done once a year, or more often, and were staggered across product lines, so the DC had to be virtually reinvented a few times a year. We had no boots on the ground in Switzerland, or any other resources, for that matter. To top it all off, as the company focused on integrating the three acquisitions, all discretionary spending was frozen. That meant no travel between Toronto and La Chaux-de-Fonds. As well, executive guidance was virtually inaccessible.

Talk about being asked to climb Mount Everest, without oxygen, in your shorts.

My reaction was to go into a tailspin. I was tempted to visit the CFO, my immediate boss, and say what he was asking was impossible, especially considering everything else we had to deliver. Still, I wasn’t completely convinced, and decided to mull it over the weekend before throwing in the towel.

I was on pins and needles for the next three days. I came to believe what we would be doing was creating in Switzerland a smaller version of the DC we had commissioned in Toronto, with some tweaking, and our experience was relatively fresh. Maybe it was worth a shot.

The following week, I assembled a cross-functional project team, and co-opted as much help as possible. I asked our North American partners for introductions to their La Chaux-de-Fonds counterparts. I spread my tentacles in every direction, seeking any useful information I could get, and leveraged external contacts I had accumulated over the years. These included the canton’s Economic Development Agency in the La Chaux-de-Fonds area and local logistics associations.

I empowered our logistics team with added delegation, so regular operations could continue. I went into communication overdrive for three months within Hummingbird and with the logistics team, sharing regular and frequent updates.

Our corporate taxation manager, during visits to La Chaux-de-Fonds, had short-listed some potential sites. We called contacts and had them courier building blueprints to us. We also unearthed a Swiss-trained architect now based in Toronto. Within three days of getting the blueprints we’d come up with a high-level prototype design for our DC and tentatively selected a site. Although the first design went through several refinements, we had made a breakthrough.

With help from the La Chaux-de-Fonds Economic Development Agency and a local HR consultant, we interviewed candidates, short-listed one, made him a tentative offer, and brought him to Toronto for one-month probation and training. He was outstanding, and once back in Switzerland helped us hire other personnel. He eventually rose to director, fulfillment operations, and still works for Open Text today.

Only time can establish the ultimate success of any project. Our DC in La Chaux-de-Fonds continued to serve customers successfully for many years, virtually unchanged. It was moved to another Swiss region after 10 years of operation—solely for tax considerations. It survived the acquisition by Open Text and was eventually given a larger mandate.

It mystified me how the seemingly impossible had been accomplished, and with relatively minor scars. Then one day I stumbled on a program called The Power of Intention, led by motivational speaker and author Wayne Dyer. His message on the show was: contemplate yourself surrounded by the conditions you wish to create. We all have our challenges, but we can conquer them when dedicated people work together with a common vision and concern for each other.

Ajay Gupta, MBA, CITT, P.Log ( is co-founder and director of Sterling Agility.