The player-coach: Dan Pantano
When alphabroder was hit with a series of pandemic-related challenges, CEO Dan Pantano got the company back on track with a new strategy based on optimism and teamwork.
Few executives have a job as complex as Dan Pantano does. As CEO of the branded apparel and accessory distributor alphabroder, he oversees a sprawling operation that includes 10 facilities in the US and Canada, which ship 50,000 boxes – more than a million units of product – every day.
But despite his extraordinary set of responsibilities, he sees himself as one of 2,800 team members working collectively to provide excellent, timely service to alphabroder’s customers. "I try to operate as a player-coach," he says. "I’m on the team; I’m on the field with the team. I may be setting the direction and the vision, but I’m also in the trenches with the team as we face challenges as a business."
Dan likens his role to that of a rower on a crew team. "We have eight rowers, and everyone’s rowing in the same direction because we have a clear vision of where we’re going, and everyone is doing it at their optimal level," he says. "The power of the team is incredible."
In his previous role as President at alphabroder, Dan oversaw the commercial side of the business — sales, marketing and merchandising – for eight years. As CEO, a post to which he was appointed in April 2021, he is tasked with taking all of his knowledge and experience with the company and channeling it into a refreshed strategy for bringing products to market and also creating an optimal company culture and working atmosphere.
Having taken on this new role in the midst of a pandemic that’s disrupted in-person work and fractured global supply chains, Dan’s collaborative approach to leadership has never been more crucial.
It’s much more rewarding to be successful and to win in a challenging environment than it is when you’ve got the wind at your back.
"Literally, every week, every month, we were getting hit with new challenges that you couldn’t really predict as the pandemic unfolded, and we were able to adapt quickly as a team and rally around what we needed to do collectively as an organization to overcome some of the challenges in front of us," he explains.
Rather than be discouraged by these challenges, Dan chooses to see them as opportunities to adapt and become more flexible, and he encourages his team to do the same.
"I love to work with positive people," he smiles. "I don’t like to work with negative people. I want people who look at things as a glass half full, even when you’re facing adversity and challenges because, frankly, it’s much more rewarding to be successful and to win in a challenging environment than it is when you’ve got the wind at your back."
After spending the first couple months as CEO developing a road map for how to empower the organization and improve alphabroder’s five-year business strategy, Dan feels confident they are on the correct course. "I’m proud of our vision as an organization and getting the entire team to really be aligned behind it, all rowing together."
A central component of Dan’s revamped business strategy is developing what he calls the "one-stop solution". "We’re uniquely positioned as the only provider in the promotional products industry that can provide a full line of both apparel and hard goods accessories," he points out.
With the help of a few key acquisitions over the years, alphabroder has the unique ability to provide seamless deliveries of both decorated and blank apparel and accessories. Dan aims to spend the next few years strengthening that capability by launching a single website where customers can place orders from across the multiple product types the company offers.
"What’s really going to transform our business over the next three-to-five years is delivering on that solution by having an integrated front-end and an integrated back-end, so from a fulfillment perspective we’re able to provide all those products to our customers at one point in time," he says. "Nobody else can do that."
If you have a leaky bucket and you’re losing people as quickly as you’re hiring them, you’re really not making much progress.
But this transformation is not without its challenges, some of which have already reared their heads. The first major challenge is staffing alphabroder’s distribution centers, production facilities and customer service teams.
"On the hiring front, it really first starts with retention," Dan stresses. "We want to make sure we’re retaining the teammates that we have in the organization, because if you have a leaky bucket and you’re losing people as quickly as you’re hiring them, you’re really not making much progress."
But as usual, Dan sees this problem not as an obstacle but as an opportunity to learn and adapt. "We’ve learned to be creative around what we do to bring folks into the organization, and create greater engagement within our team to increase retention, whether that’s flexible schedules or, obviously, looking at wage rates. We’ve taken wage rates up where we’ve needed to across our different facilities around the country," he says.
The second major challenge to Dan’s revitalized business strategy is the disruption to supply chains – trying to build inventory within alphabroder’s distribution centers to support their customers. To overcome this roadblock, Dan has introduced new ways of dealing with suppliers that aim to be a win–win for all parties.
"We’re working very closely with our supplier partners to help them in the supply chain process, like ordering direct from their factories, which is giving them much longer forecast visibility into the business. We’re increasing the number of receivings we’re capable of doing in our distribution centers and providing more flexibility when they make deliveries to try and get inventory in," he shares.
This is particularly crucial for alphabroder because its customers rarely just order one item in one color and one size. "Let’s say it’s a corporate retreat, and they have 100 people attending. We’ll get an order for, let’s say, 100 polo shirts ranging from extra small to XXXXL. If you don’t have the medium, you don’t have the large, or you don’t have the extra small, you can’t fulfill the order," Dan explains.
If you create the right culture, you’re going to drive the right behaviors across the company.
"Unlike in a retail store or website, where you can just go to another brand, when you’re buying 100 units and you have to fulfill that order completely, we have to manage the supply chain across all those different sizes."
Fortunately, alphabroder has built a very sophisticated inventory management system with years worth of data to enable us to plan and forecast accurately. Having close relationships with suppliers also ensures that these orders are filled and delivered smoothly.
"We have very close partnerships," Dan says. "We talk to some of our supplier partners every day." These strong relationships are part of a company culture that he describes as "teamwork, attitude, purpose" or TAP. We believe that the power of everyone ‘TAPping’ their potential in their role and collectively as a team has a compounding effect on what we can accomplish as a company.
"Culture drives behavior, behavior drives performance. If you create the right culture, you’re going to drive the right behaviors across the company, and that’s going to ultimately drive performance. So the more positive, empowering and rewarding the culture, the more positive the results for the company."
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