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What’s in a role: Ben Levick, Head of Supply Chain and Expansion at Bowery Farming

By Amanda Mulay, Senior Talent Manager

In this series, “What’s in a role,” we ask portfolio company leaders about their career paths, the best way to break into their vertical, and what operators should know about hiring for their position. Past posts profile a VP of Brand and Customer Experience, COO, and Internal Recruiter.

A well-run supply chain is nearly invisible. But when there’s an interruption, you notice. Though it varies from business to business, a company’s supply chain oversees and manages all the plans, stakeholders, and components that go into getting a product from point A to point B. Any disruption can result in too much or too little supply, missed deadlines, or any number of other production problems.

As a company scales and operations become increasingly complex, there comes a time to form a dedicated team to make sure the supply chain train stays on schedule.

For indoor vertical farm company Bowery Farming that’s Ben Levick, its Head of Supply Chain and Expansion. He manages a team of six who keep the trains running on time — meaning fresh produce gets from Bowery’s farms to stores to you. In our conversation, Ben shared insights into how companies can think about becoming vertically integrated, what goes into managing a fresh food supply chain, traits for successful supply managers, and more.

(The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Amanda Mulay: Tell us a bit about your background and how it led your current position as Head of Supply Chain and Expansion at Bowery?

Ben Levick: I was actually exposed to supply chain concepts for the first time during my undergrad at MIT where one of my majors was in Operations Research. It all felt very abstract at the time, but I enjoyed the idea of representing complex systems in clear ways, a passion that led me to pursue management consulting after school. During my years at Bain, I learned how to rapidly get up to speed on the systems that governed any industry or company, and had the chance to tackle many different flavors of business challenges. An MBA at Stanford added a layer of entrepreneurial passion and thoughtfulness about working and managing within human systems, where empathy, vulnerability and forthrightness often matter as much as the strength of intellectual ideas.

Eventually, I wanted to have an experience operating from the inside rather than advising from the outside. I joined Bowery as the first non-founder business hire, a role that essentially boiled down to “jack of all trades” at the start. Over my first year-and-a-half at the company, I helped lead the operational ramp up of our first facility and headed the team of engineers and construction personnel who designed and constructed our second farm. Along the way, I got crash courses in food safety, the fresh produce supply chain, agricultural science, various types of engineering, industrial real estate, construction management and data science. Once our second farm was commercially launching, we saw a need and opportunity to finally develop a full-fledged supply chain team, and I took on the role that I have today.

Mulay: What does your role entail and how do you typically explain it to people?

Levick: Supply chain is one of those business terms where the definition tends to be highly dependent on what your company does. At Bowery, I see supply chain as the glue that helps hold together the commercial, operational, and development goals of the company by making sure that the farms we run today, and the farms we build tomorrow, are set up to succeed.

Tactically, this means that for all of our farms, my team is responsible for procuring all of our raw materials, setting the plans and schedule of what crops we grow in the farms to make sure the growing system is highly utilized, and making sure we deliver to customers on time consistently without sacrificing any quality or shelf life. We also think more strategically about where, and how big, to build new farms as we grow our presence around the country and then the world, and how to continuously improve the efficiency of our business.

One other way I sometimes describe supply chain is that when all goes well, supply chain is largely invisible in a company: the trains are all running on time, the company is growing smoothly (not too slow, not too fast), and all of the teams within the company feel aligned to the plan. When something goes wrong, however, that is unfortunately when supply chain is most visible.

Mulay: What are some unique qualities the supply chain at Bowery has compared to other companies?

Levick: Bowery’s vertical farms sit in the middle of two more standard supply chain types: traditional agriculture and food manufacturing. Agricultural supply chains are all about risk management, since growing plants is an uncertain business with a short shelf-life product, so the supply chain tends to be about hedging that uncertainty with large buffers, consolidation, and resilience. Food manufacturing supply chains resemble traditional manufacturing. They are about super-tight management of production, maintaining appropriate inventory levels, and driving efficiency in every step of getting the product made and shipped.

Bowery’s farms tightly control all of our agricultural inputs via our proprietary operating system, BoweryOS, allowing us to guarantee significantly more stability and predictability in how much produce we can grow each week or month versus a traditional farm. We also grow year-round instead of on a seasonal cycle like a traditional farm. So overall, traditional agricultural supply chain theory isn’t super relevant. But on the other hand, we are growing a living thing with a limited shelf life and we commit to getting our harvested crops to stores within a few days at most, meaning traditional theories around inventory management don’t fully hold for us either. We’ve had to understand both worlds and build a hybrid supply chain model that takes advantage of our high precision growing while also managing a delicate, non-inventoried product.

Mulay: What types of steps can a company take to become vertically integrated? Is that an attainable goal for most?

Levick: Vertical integration — that is, looking at what either your suppliers or your customers are doing and saying “we’d be better off doing that ourselves” — is a perennially tempting proposition for companies small and large. The reality is that it goes wrong a lot more often than it goes right. The bet that you can do it as well as your prior vendor/customer and just take their margin is risky on a number of levels.

Bowery’s business model vertically integrates a few layers of the traditional agricultural world. Rather than having a farmer who grows the crops, a consolidator who rolls up the produce from many farms and washes and packs it, a trans-national shipper, and local distributors, Bowery controls the entire growing and supply chain process from “seed to store” by cutting out the need for consolidators, shippers, and, largely, distributors. Identifying similar opportunities to vertically integrate by the very nature of your business can be one way to make the goal attainable.

Mulay: Are there any surprising skill sets that have been useful to this role that you didn’t anticipate?

Levick: I’ve been surprised by the extent that I pull up my old college statistics knowledge to think about production planning and expansion. It’s tempting to think about everything in the world as a simple bell curve where the outcomes all center equally around an average. But, in reality, we have more success modeling our crops and farms in more complex ways that more accurately describe reality: the orders a customer is going to make, or the trend of a crop’s yield over time, require careful characterization to make sure the overall plan judges risk and reward correctly.

Maybe even more importantly, the soft skills I learned in a client and team management context in consulting are essential to the role. Supply chain works regularly with operations, development and construction, product development, sales, marketing, finance, data science, software — you name it. And that doesn’t even count the myriad of external vendors we rely on. The news or the plans you share never make everybody happy, so going in with empathy and a willingness to listen is critical to making sure all teams align around the plan and the priorities.

Mulay: How do you identify and recruit talent for supply chain roles?

Levick: I’ve tried to grow our team by finding talented individuals who have been exposed to the nuts and bolts execution of supply chain because things like managing POs to vendors, or coordinating outbound shipments, or setting a production schedule, are not unique to Bowery and it’s valuable to save the time if they’re already up to speed. But, beyond execution, it’s all about enthusiasm for building something new, a demonstrated track record of being proactive and seeking out problems to solve, and a passion for making a positive difference in the world.

Outside my own team, our data science team is often the group I work with most, as we increasingly automate decisions and systems where that automation can improve both decision quality and speed. To a large extent, a strong data science and AI background can also make a big impact on a supply chain’s success. Having that skillset or a knowledge of STEM can serve as a key differentiator.

Mulay: What advice would you give to anyone interested in getting a job in supply chain?

Levick: First, understand that supply chain is a big world, so it might help to know which part you want to be focused on. Is it the procurement of materials into the company, scheduling and planning a manufacturing site, managing a distribution fleet, or focusing on major projects like opening new facilities or launching new products? Some entry-level roles are called Transportation Manager, Supply Chain Analyst, and Supply Planner. Second, become the type of person who tries to measure everything. Supply chains live and die by tracking high quality data and using it to communicate decisions and chart the path forward. Third, remember that nothing a supply chain team does is done independent of many other groups within a company, so developing your collaboration, empathy and communication skills is critical. You want to be someone who can love bringing order to all the chaos.

Interested in a role at Bowery? Check out current job openings here.

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Lerer Hippeau

Lerer Hippeau

Lerer Hippeau is the most active early-stage venture capital fund in New York.