Tan Miller spent more than 20 years in the business world, but he always acted as though he were a research scientist.
From his earliest job as the operations manager for American Olean Tile Company to his posts running the consumer distribution networks for Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, Miller engaged in what he calls “operations research using mathematical modeling techniques” similar to those used in the laboratory.
So when he was approached by Rider University about heading up its new Global Supply Chain Management program, it seemed like the perfect fit.
“I had always enjoyed academics and academic research,” he says. “I always was interested in learning more just for the point of learning. From the beginning of my career in logistics and supply chains, I always had one project at work that had some kind of collaboration with a colleague in the academic world.
“I wasn’t satisfied if I wasn’t learning new skills or new areas of academic endeavor. As a hobby, I’d tried to do some research, or publish an article.”
Miller has published more than 50 articles and five books on supply networks and now spends his time in the classroom, working with students about to enter the business world, giving them a sense of how supply chains work in the real world.
The program, which launched in the fall of 2009, was developed by the College of Business Administration with input from various departments in the business school and people from private industry to provide students with a base of knowledge and skills that will allow them to meet the challenges of the supply chain management field.
Miller, who was working with Johnson & Johnson, served on an advisory board to the program, which consisted of professionals working in the supply chain field. That led to the offer to join the Rider faculty as executive-in-residence, the Harper Professor of Global Supply Chain Management, and director of the program.
“For many years, I’d done guest lectures at various universities,” he says. “I liked doing that very much. When the opportunity at Rider came along, I wasn’t sure if something like that would come along again. If I didn’t take it, I felt like I’d be in private industry for rest of my career. I accepted it and I haven’t looked back.”
Miller grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from Haverford College, a liberal arts school in Philadelphia’s western suburbs. His parents were professors at the University of Pennsylvania, his mother working in population studies and his father in finance and financial and economic history.
“After I graduated, I lured myself to the discipline that I ended up working in,” he says. “I responded to an ad in a newspaper I saw for something called a distribution planner. I had no idea what that was. I saw the ad and somehow I thought that my undergraduate economics background and familiarity with some modeling techniques would fit. I applied out of blue.
“It was working for a ceramic tile company. It is how I started to become familiar with the field of distribution and supply chains.”
He was a distribution planner, which included a number of responsibilities. His first real project was to “develop a mathematical model, an optimization model of the firm’s manufacturing and distribution in the U.S.”
“The company had seven factories and well over 100 points of sale,” he says. “It took the better part of the year to develop and implement, and it was quite successful in helping the firm do its annual manufacturing and distribution planning.”
That project prompted him to continue his education. He had already started working toward his masters of business administration at Penn’s Wharton School, but he decided to enroll in a doctoral program in regional science at the school because there were some links to transportation networks.
Miller tried to pick courses that were relevant to his full-time position with American Ceramic, which gave shape to his studies. He received his doctorate and eventually took a position with Unisys, working in distribution, before moving onto a management consulting firm where he was responsible for “large-scale network operations consulting engagements, network modeling assignments, and related logistics assignments.”
He went on to work for Warner Lambert, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson in what now is known as supply chain management.
He uses his long history in the business world in the classroom.
“I find it very helpful when talking to students and going through the basics of (supply chain theory), because I can supplement the standard academics with real-world experiences,” he says. “Maybe it is the nature of the business college, but students overall seem very interested in your real-world experience as additions or complements to textbook learning.”
For instance, there are things that occur in business that cannot be accounted for in a textbook. In the consumer healthcare and consumer products world, he says, there are a lot of firms that have sales pushes at the end of the quarter.
“From a supply chain and logistics point-of-view, that means that in the last few weeks of each quarter there is an uptick of business with inventory that has to be shipped out the door,” he says. “That poses added challenges that you don’t read about in textbooks. It creates a demand that you have to be aware of and plan for. To be able to communicate with students those kind of realities is very helpful.”
Supply chain research essentially is a new business school discipline. While elements of it have been taught as part of other business programs, it is only within the last 10 to 15 years that you find a growth in undergraduate courses in supply chains and logistics, Miller says.
“Everything I learned about inventory management, logistics, transportation, import-export, all of that had to be learned on the job,” he says. “That was kind of a challenge that anyone coming into the field is still going to experience. We do a better job now in preparing them, but it very much is hands-on type learning.
“The corporate world is very fast paced, but you also need to maintain a long-run perspective, and that is the kind of knowledge and skill set you can’t learn in the classroom. You have to develop that over time.”
In an academic setting, he says, the value is placed on the long, rigorous process, on the research. In the business world, he says, that remains important, but you also need to be as concise as possible.
“This can be a challenge,” he says. “And there is the whole idea of personal relationships, of networking and how you interact with other colleagues. That is not very easy to teach or learn in college or grad school. It is an acquired skill set.”
He views his role in academe as creating a base of knowledge for his students, preparing them to meet challenges they may not anticipate. The program is designed to give students a “basic and broad understanding of what supply chains and logistics are” and to ensure that they have the analytical framework to address issues as they come up.
“I try to emphasize and give a lot of cases where students have to do analytics on a particular problem and then give a recommendation of what they would do in private industry,” he says.
“And I bring in a lot of outside lecturers to give students an understanding of the importance of networking,” he adds. “By bringing in outside practitioners, we give them an idea how they work with their colleagues.”
Ultimately, he says, the student should have “enough understanding and a good enough skill set that whatever activity or function they move into they have an understanding of how to proceed.”
“Quite honestly, what you are going to have to learn on the job you can’t duplicate in the classroom,” he says. “What is involved in moving, in planning to move shipments across borders, or what type of fields of information are necessary in electronic data interchange — you can’t learn it all. You just have to get involved in it.”
That’s why he recommends that students who enter the business world remain open to opportunities and experiences. “You’re not going to find the perfect job, but you want to get into a position and make some progress with your business skill sets,” he says. “Even if it is not perfect for you, you are always learning.”
The first step, he says, is to get in the door and try different experiences.
“There is something to be said for getting a broad base of learning,” Miller says. “You want to get a sense of what are all the different areas of opportunity.
“I didn’t have a specific career path,” he adds. “My career path was more a matter of, once in the working world, looking for positions where I thought I’d learn more.”
He acknowledges that, sometimes, you have to take positions out of necessity, but that “whenever that opportunity is there you want to be excited and approach it with a lot of enthusiasm.”
For Miller, the transition into the academic world was somewhat seamless. But it is important to note that he laid a lot of the groundwork for the move early on, by getting his advanced degrees and publishing. He also taught as an adjunct and gave guest lectures. That is something he would recommend to anyone looking to make a similar transition.
“What I would really recommend are a couple of things,” he says. “I did quite a few guest lectures, a supply chain course. There are lots of academics who would love to have guest lecturers come in and discuss what is happening in the real world. You should look for the opportunity for guest lectures or speeches.
“And maybe you can teach a course at night as an adjunct,” he says. “There are a lot of opportunities. Universities are looking for good adjuncts. It gives you experience and allows you to find out, do you like it? Teach one course to get a sense of what it takes and it gives you the experience that universities are looking for.”
The other major piece of advice he would offer is this: Know what credentials you need.
“If you really are looking to move into academia, you need to know what background is required,” he says. “Most universities — universities like Rider — often require that you have a Ph.D. Ph.D.s are degrees that the majority of people in business world do not need because they are working in their field and do not need to pursue the extra schooling.”
There also are clinical professorships, which often are non-tenured positions offered to people based on their experience in a particular profession. They can provide an opportunity to gain teaching experience and determine whether pursuing an advanced degree is the proper path.
Regardless of whether one opts to leave the business world or stay, he says, it is important to ask one question: “Does this really excite me?” If it does, he says, then you will be making the right decision.
Rider University College of Business Administration, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville. Steven Lorenzet, dean. 609-896-5152. www.rider.edu.