Hannah Kain is a unique combination in the realm of supply chains, logistics, and 21st-century manufacturing. As founder and CEO of Advanced Logistics and Manufacturing Technologies, or ALOM, Kain is a doer. But she’s also a big-picture thinker, a sort of supply chain pundit, and she was early to both roles.
“I had the crazy idea that you could produce something in just a day or two, and people looked at me funny,” she said in an interview with Insider.
Since Kain founded it in the late 1990s, ALOM has grown to nearly 200 employees at its Fremont, California headquarters, plus 19 global locations and nearly $100 million in annual revenue. In 23 years, however, the firm had never faced anything like the coronavirus pandemic.
The company offers supply chain management service to a wide range of clients in industries such as automotive, energy, and finance. ALOM also offers light manufacturing services and responded to the coronavirus crisis by making COVID-19 testing kits, leveraging its medical expertise.
“It’s been a huge challenge,” Kain said. “But I had set some personal and company goals. Number one was employee safety. Number two was to be part of the solution.”
Kain said ALOM has undertaken about 70 different COVID-related initiatives, including adding an outdoor cafe with superior air circulation, transforming another outdoor site into a manufacturing facility, imposing social distancing protocols, and using its heft as a purchaser to acquire high-quality protective gear that it could then supply to clients.
“I’m really hands-on,” she said, stressing that ALOM has instituted a higher degree of employee communication, including daily meetings to evaluate its progress and negotiate a fluid pandemic business situation.
COVID has, however, been but one challenge among a plethora, many of which have upended conventional supply chain wisdom. In an earlier interview with Insider, Kain recalled that when she first got involved with streamlining the supply chain after a youthful exploration of politics during her teen years in Denmark, she was met with astonishment.
This then-revolutionary idea about how to make things evolved alongside globalism, so a conundrum that Kain is now grappling with is how to continue the innovation in a world transformed by Trumpism and neo-nationalist economics upheavals such as Brexit.
“The disruption at a totally different level than it was a year ago,” she said. “I’ve been following geopolitics pretty closely. A year ago I did a lot of complaining, but right now it’s out of control.”
Kain told Insider in the past that she thought large corporations were going to struggle with a new era of cross-border complexity, but that view is also different now: She currently thinks that some disadvantages might have materialized for smaller firms.
“Nimbleness is better with smaller companies, but the financial impact is more difficult,” she said, noting that companies with limited resources have been hit too hard by COVID-19 to use their ability to quickly shift gears.
The unstable political and regulatory environment hasn’t helped.
“Politicians and the public don’t understand how difficult it is,” she said, pointing out that misunderstandings about the negatives of upending decades of free-trade agreements are almost universal. Businesses end up placing purchase orders, but they don’t know what the rules will be when products are ready to ship.
“That makes it very challenging to run a business, especially a business that does heavy-duty manufacturing and has long lead times,” she said.
Kain is cautiously optimistic about the incoming Biden administration and a restoration of the pre-pandemic environment, but she’s under no illusions about leaning on technology to solve every problem, mainly because complexity has outraced innovation.
Add to that what she called a dichotomy about the global situation and the difficulties become even more pronounced.
“Business is global, and global citizens are part of a world economy,” she said. “But politics is nationalistic.”