What it’s like to lead a distribution center

The Nestlé leader who “cranks out 1 billion bottles of Coffee-Mate and Nesquik every year” shares insights from the job
By Lottie Watts
Published Mar 14, 2022

From starting as a warehouse associate in 2005 and working his way up to the role of senior manager of a Nestlé distribution center and warehouse in Indiana, Paul DiBartolo answers “20 Questions” to give an inside look at his career, the opportunities in this key area of retail and more.

Here are a few questions, along with DiBartolo’s answers (watch the video above for all “20 Questions”):

Why is supply chain the industry you picked for your career?

I wouldn’t say that I picked supply chain. I would say that supply chain picked me. I started off as an order picker. I thought I was just getting a job that would pay the bills.

And after about a year or so, I realized this supply chain thing is the way my brain works. I really love efficiency. I love the challenge. I love the fast-paced environment. And I said to myself, “You know what, I'm going to see how far I can take this Nestlé thing.”

What is something you learned early on that has carried with you into today?

Get involved and ask questions. Do not be afraid to ask questions. Anytime I saw something that didn't make a lot of sense to me, I would ask, “Why is it like this? Why do we do it this way? Is there a better way to do it?” And I found, as I asked those questions, I was involved more in some of the decisions and that led me into a frontline team leadership role, which ultimately led me to supervisor and then manager.

What career advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?

Be self-reflective sooner. Like any 20-year-old, I thought I was invincible. I thought I could do no wrong. I thought I was the best supervisor that there ever was. And it wasn't until I was able to take a critical look in the mirror that I started to grow as a leader.

I started to understand that every behavior that I have reflects in my team, it reflects in the performance – really embracing that the speed of the leader and the mentality of the leader determines the pace of the pack. Once I realized that any situation I would be in was usually a reflection of how I handled that situation, I saw that things started to get a lot better for me in my career. It was a lot easier for me to move up.

What is one misconception about retail that you would love to debunk?

It is not easy to get product that you want to the shelf. It requires 15, 20 and sometimes 30 people planning, producing, distributing, picking, loading and transporting to get that product to you.

So when you see an out of stock somewhere, it's not just somebody didn't do their job. There's a lot that goes into it. It's very, very difficult sometimes, especially in our current environment with how constrained some of the systems are and how high demand is with people working from home. It takes a village to get you your product.

What skills are key to succeeding in warehouses and distribution centers?

First and foremost: Positive attitude. I always tell anybody walking in the door that I can teach you how to drive a forklift. I can teach you how to run machinery. What I can't do is teach you to have a positive attitude.

I walked in the door 17 years ago. I had never driven a forklift before. I had never picked an order. I had certainly never managed anybody. I try to use myself as an example to say, "Hey, if I can do it, you can do it."

Get ready for jobs that are hiring now with the NRF Foundation’s RISE Up Warehouse, Inventory and Logistics course. The course can be completed in less than 10 hours and is designed to assist people of all backgrounds in becoming career ready for opportunities in their communities in retail supply chain.

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