In Europe – if you’ll pardon the pun – Lidl is big. Massive, to be more precise.
The discount supermarket giant operates 10,000 stores across 27 countries, stretching from north of the Arctic Circle in Finland’s Land of the Midnight Sun to Spain’s Canary Islands off the western edge of Africa, where desert winds drive Saharan dust over Atlantic swells.
Headquartered in Germany and with annual revenue reported at $87 billion in 2015, Lidl has been described as a cross between Trader Joe’s and Costco.
Now it is crossing the ocean to compete against those retailers – as well as the industry’s behemoth, Walmart – in their own backyard. In 2018, Lidl plans to open stores up and down the East Coast from South Carolina to Maryland.
It falls largely on the shoulders of Michigan State University graduate Ana Cifuentes Gonzalez to ensure Lidl’s transatlantic rollout is kink-free.
“I’m responsible for all the import and export activities of the company, and the global supply chain,” said Gonzalez, who joined the German retailer in fall 2015 as a customs manager and is based in Arlington, Va.
The native of southeastern Spain has undergraduate degrees in business administration and international business. She began her career in the import-export industry about a decade ago, climbing from assistant to manager roles.
“I wanted to get more knowledge in the field and advance professionally,” she said of her decision to enroll in Michigan State’s Master of Science in Supply Chain Management program.
Two factors weighed heavily in her choice: prestige and flexibility.
U.S. News & World Report has ranked Michigan State’s supply chain management programs as the nation’s best, and recruiters told Gonzalez that Michigan State was “the Harvard of the supply chain.”
“I was talking with different people in the field and I realized that, in the industry, this is a very good program that people recognize and that people value,” she said.
Additionally, at the graduate level, the blended program format combines 24/7 access to online courses with four campus visits for three-day weekend sessions, where students collaborate on simulation assignments and interactive case study exercises.
“For a working professional, a program like this is probably one of the few ways you could spend this much time on something, with it being flexible,” said Gonzalez, who changed jobs and relocated from Chicago to Washington, D.C., while completing her graduate studies.
“And I think you also get the best when you’re [working and studying] at the same time because you can apply what you’re learning to your day-to-day activities.”
A Link to Career Advancement
Even before Gonzalez had her diploma in hand, the MS in Supply Chain Management program was paying dividends for her career.
Lidl “approached me and said, ‘Hey, we are trying to come into the U.S. and we need somebody who understands the full picture of the supply chain and what it takes to import products to the U.S.,’” she said. “And the fact that I was pursuing my master’s … definitely helped me to get the job, for sure.”
In spring 2017, just months after earning her master’s from Michigan State, Gonzalez was promoted to senior purchasing manager/import and customs at Lidl.
The role encompasses assorted logistical links along the company’s supply chain: securing suppliers; developing distribution networks; managing warehouses; forecasting inventory; and navigating the maze of regulatory and compliance mandates, from city zoning boards to the Food and Drug Administration.
Ultimately, it means making sure that when a suburban dad walks into a Lidl store in North Carolina’s Research Triangle he can quickly find the rack of pork ribs and bottle of hot pepper sauce he needs for his Fourth of July barbecue.
“It is a lot of work … and that’s why we have to start working so far in advance because there’s a lot of things that need to work and they need to be in place,” Gonzalez said of Lidl’s multiyear planning efforts to establish a foothold stateside.
“Once we open, there’s no room for mistakes,” she said. “We have to be like a clock. Boom! Boom! Boom!”
Assembling Industry Expertise
Lidl supermarkets carry everything from peaches to pants and pinot noir to power saws. (Heads up, American shoppers: the company says its often-mangled name is properly pronounced Lee-dell, not Lid-ill.) Store layout is no-frills, with merchandise from suppliers sold straight from pallets and other shelf-ready packaging to cut down on unpacking and repackaging.
Lidl’s centralized distribution system lowers travel expenses and speeds the supply chain, the company’s website states.
“We try to work with a very efficient supply chain in order to keep the retail prices as low as possible,” Gonzalez said. “So any little mistake throughout the supply chain is going to impact the final price to the customer.”
When Lidl hired her to assemble a supply chain for its U.S. operations, Gonzalez incorporated lessons from MSU’s Global Supply Chain Management course. She credits the master’s program with strengthening her grasp of the complexity and diversity of the 21st century supply chain.
“It has given me a lot of knowledge of areas that I was not comfortable with or that I didn’t know that much about before,” she said. “And, eventually, if I move to a management position where you have to oversee different teams or the whole supply chain at a time, it helps you to be able to identify what needs to happen as a big picture.
“Definitely, if you are going into supply chain,” Gonzalez said, “MSU is one of the top schools.”
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