In an emerging industry like supply chain, almost no one takes a direct path to leadership. For Chad Autry, becoming department head for one of the nation’s top supply chain programs started in an Italian restaurant.
“I spent four years running a place that sold $13 plates in a $6 college town,” Autry says. “I learned pretty quickly that the revenue coming in the front door wasn’t going to be the problem as long as we did our job in the kitchen and on the floor; it was managing the supply…the inventory coming in the back door that made or broke us.”
This realization and a chance encounter with a certain customer — an old professor from his undergraduate degree at the University of Oklahoma — set Autry on the road to his doctorate.
“He told me if I ever got bored to call him and that he’d love to have me as a doctoral student,” Autry says. “At first, I pursued it because I thought I’d love teaching. Once I tried it, I did, and I very much still do; but after I was there for a while I finally figured out that I would love to be a supply chain researcher.”
Autry published his way out of his first three professorial positions, always with Tennessee in mind.
“I shared a doctoral advisor with Ted Stank and the three of us wrote a paper in 1998. It was my very first one, and I had no idea what I was doing, but Ted helped me through it. It’s now one of our most cited studies,” Autry says. “I graduated from Oklahoma in 2001, and I interviewed with UT several times before either of us thought that I was really ready to be here. I knew Ted, Dan Flint and Tom Mentzer, and worked a lot with their formal doctoral students. I knew in 1999 that this was where I wanted to be.”
Autry says that his initial hesitation about approaching Tennessee stemmed from the program’s global reputation and blistering pace for turning out research. This culture, which survives today, turned out to be very attractive years later.
Autry enjoys studying supply chain management problems, especially those that focus on how supply chain functions collaborate with other business functions, including marketing. The culture of excellence is what he hopes to preserve and perpetuate as head of the department.
“Our faculty published nine articles last semester,” Autry says. “That’s as productive as we’ve ever been, and per capita we’re one of the country’s most productive supply chain faculties.”
Autry took over from Mark Moon in February of 2016, with supply chain comprising almost 40 percent of business school majors and the Supply Chain Forum membership at its largest to date. True to his roots, he sees his role as one of maintenance and management, not transformation.
“The department is doing so well on so many fronts thanks to Mark’s passion and vision,” Autry says. “I want to keep the train on the tracks and take all the barriers away so that our stars can shine. My job is to remove all of the impediments and just let our faculty be the excellent scholars they are.”
He attributes the Global Supply Chain Institute’s success and the surge in graduates and recruitment to the close ties the department has built with companies through the forum and advisory board.
“What we teach is relevant and reactive to business,” Autry says. “That’s because we listen. We listen with very open ears, and when you look at the academic journals, the trade press and the classroom, you’re seeing the response.”