No Weak Link

Interior view of the men's department at the Sport Chek flagship store in Toronto.

Keith Lambert discusses the management of product sourcing and supply for FGL Sports

In the age of ever-expanding e-commerce, FGL Sports Ltd., Canada’s largest sporting-goods retailer, still has a thriving brick-and-mortar business. Since 2000, the company has acquired Coast Mountain Sports, Sport Mart, National Sports, Fitness Source, and Athlete’s World, and when purchased by Canadian Tire in 2011, it had more than 1,000 retail locations across Canada. In 2013, though, FGL closed a number of these retail banners to focus on its core brands: Sport Chek, Sports Experts, and Atmosphere. As senior vice president of supply chain and merchandising management, Keith Lambert manages 500 people and oversees the company’s sourcing, its vendor compliance, and its physical distribution system, ensuring that products reach each FGL location as quickly as possible. Here, he shares insights from his more than 30 years of professional experience and explains how the gradual integration of technology will help FGL maintain its edge over purely digital competitors.

You started working in the grocery business. What led you to sporting goods?
I’ve been with FGL Sports for almost 15 years in many roles related to the supply chain. I was attracted to the industry because I saw its potential for growth, and I knew some of what I learned in my previous positions would work well in sporting goods. We’re setting vendor standards and defining how the product will be bought and packaged for shipment to our distribution centre and our stores. We ask the vendors to package and label things in certain ways, and that means we can accept delivery, scan items, and route them to the right location in just a few minutes. This is cutting-edge in our industry but standard in the grocery business.

“You can’t survive by only investing in brick-and-mortar stores. We’re also heavily invested in e-commerce and social media. Plus, we’re introducing e-commerce into the brick-and-mortar stores.” —Keith Lambert
“You can’t survive by only investing in brick-and-mortar stores. We’re also heavily invested in e-commerce and social media. Plus, we’re introducing e-commerce into the brick-and-mortar stores.” —Keith Lambert

Speed, efficiency, and accuracy seem critical. Why is a strong supply-chain department especially important at FGL?
We process 30 million units each year, so the whole chain has to work well. Purchase orders have to be right; products must be well packaged and shipped. They must go quickly to the [distribution] centre so that we can deliver everything to each store in a cost-effective way.

How do you make sure this all goes as planned?
We’ve done several recent projects and system upgrades. We upgraded our merchandising system with an enterprise-wide planning system. Our corporate warehouse-management system was redone for the first time since 2006. We’ve enhanced our EDI [Electronic Data Interchange] initiatives, and we’ve really improved our technology use and electronic transactions with vendors.

What’s the one thing in all of this that really makes or breaks the supply chain?
Again, it comes down to efficiency across the board. We need to continue to streamline the process to get more products moving more quickly through a well-organized supply chain.

Are there other ways to streamline besides adding upgrades?
Well, one way is by adding space. We’re adding a western distribution centre to accommodate FGL’s planned growth over the next five years. We’re looking to open 100 new corporate stores across Canada in addition to the 150 we already have. The supply chain has to keep up with the retail-growth plan.

What is your management style like as you prepare for so much growth?
I believe in being as hands-off as possible and trusting the people we’ve put in place. We have to have a solid succession plan in the leadership group and are always on the hunt for new talent. We develop internally and look outside for talent as we prepare to expand. Our [distribution] centre has 300 employees managed by 14 team leaders, and we’ll have to almost double that in the next several years.

So you’re growing, but what besides size keeps you competitive?
We stay on the cutting edge of product innovation and product sourcing. Our buyers are always out searching for products instead of looking at catalogues behind their desks. We are just about to open our first flagship store, a 70,000-square-foot space in West Edmonton Mall.

Talk about that choice. As many retailers flee to online platforms, FGL seems to be doubling down on physical locations.
You can’t survive by only investing in brick-and-mortar stores. We’re also heavily invested in e-commerce and social media. Plus, we’re introducing e-commerce into the brick-and-mortar stores. We have in-store kiosks where customers can order online and tie in the experience with what they are doing in our store, where they get an amazing personal, visual, media-filled experience. We offer online couponing to brick-and-mortar customers and vice versa. You have to look at it holistically and keep it connected well so [that] you appeal to customers of all kinds with many different preferences and behaviours. That’s how we’ll keep leading in the sporting-goods space—by connecting with each customer in a way that makes sense to them.