I think there are two kinds of people who go into the cold chain industry: those who try it, immediately dislike it and get out, and those who fall in love with it and never look back. I’m one of the latter. Each day I feel a sense of accomplishment solving problems and satisfying customer needs so they can move products to their customers. I’m always cognizant that a lot is riding on the service we’re able to provide. Everything we do is focused on protecting food safety and quality, which in turn protects the client’s brand and the food that families eat.
I’ve worked in cold chain logistics for more than four decades. Today, I’m Vice President at Eskimo Cold Storage in Gainesville, Georgia, about an hour north of Atlanta. Our primary focus is poultry, which is more than 80% of our business. About 75% of what we do is exports, shipping around the world to places like China, Honduras, Antigua, the West Indies, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the Congo, Haiti, Columbia and Cuba.
My career in cold chain started in 1977 when I became a part-time administrative clerk at Southeastern Freezer, mainly typing and filing warehouse receipts. I left for a brief period to finish my education, but I returned to Southeastern Freezer in 1980 full time, taking up my former duties and also working in accounting.
In 1989, I went to work for a new construction company named Georgia Freezer with Steve Williams, who was president of the company. While with Georgia Freezer, we built three new warehouses and eight additions. Georgia Freezer offered me the chance to help design and build on greenfield sites and additions to current buildings. I started as office manager, but being in a small company allowed me to wear several hats from operations to sales, so I got a lot of hands-on experience.
I also joined the International Association of Refrigerated Warehouses (IARW), which is part of the Global Cold Chain Alliance, where I met many people who would help mentor me as my career progressed in the industry. Georgia Freezer was eventually sold several times and the three warehouses we built in Gainesville, Cartersville and Pendergrass, Georgia, are now owned by Americold.
"Being female in a male-dominated industry means that sometimes co-workers or customers think you don’t have the skills or practical experience to do the job right."
Steve Williams and I eventually opened Eskimo Cold Storage in 2007. I was offered an incredible opportunity to help design and build our cold storage facility, and today I am an owner/operator/partner and vice president of the company. I enjoy the work, and I have always been curious about customer service as well as the financial aspects of running a warehouse: how did we deliver on customer needs? How do we make a profit? What factors influenced how profitable we were? Early on, I looked for mentors and peers to help answer those questions. I have been incredibly lucky to have a great business partner and friend in Steve Williams. He believed in me even before I believed in me.
As I took on more responsibilities at Eskimo Cold Storage, I looked for educational opportunities like those offered by IARW, and, as a woman in this industry, started attending networking conferences to meet people like me who shared similar responsibilities and challenges in warehouses around the world. The ROI on that outreach was invaluable. I could pick up the phone and ask for help in working through any new challenges Eskimo Cold Storage was facing. I was also fortunate to meet some great mentors and peers who offered advice on how to provide excellent customer service and run a more efficient operation.
A busy day inside Eskimo Cold Storage, which Karen Reece oversees as owner, operator, partner and vice-president.
As my career progressed, I became more interested in inventory management, and developed new procedures and business rules. Then, I started learning more about the regulatory environment impacting our business and picked up essential knowledge along the way about Good Manufacturing Practices, or GMPs.
Today, I do a lot of troubleshooting and root-cause analysis about how to solve problems and prevent them from happening again. The work I engage with on a day-to-day basis includes regulatory issues and other governmental affairs; employee disciplinary actions; customer service issues; and other general operational issues.
Of course, for the last few months, it’s (mostly) all about COVID-19. Like many in our industry, I’ve worked through challenges most of us had never dealt with before, like restructuring work schedules and break spaces to provide social distancing, taking staff temperatures and monitoring employee health. I’ve written standards and policies for using and maintaining personal protective equipment, and so much more. We’re a fairly small operation, so we did not close down or scale back operations; we worked harder and longer to ensure customers were happy and our employees were safely earning a living while literally feeding the world.
As I think back on my career and how I navigated challenges in this industry, I would give this advice to other women: trust your gut, always be honest, and stand your ground. Acknowledge mistakes quickly and emphatically, but always keep learning. Make it a habit to learn a little bit about every aspect of the business each day. It’s up to you to develop your own growth plan and find out what knowledge and connections you need to excel. Also, think about how you’ll give back to the industry. How will you help the next generation of women in the cold chain?
Being female in a male-dominated industry means that sometimes co-workers or customers think you don’t have the skills or practical experience to do the job right. I remember early in my career, a new company president visited and told me that my standards were too high, and it was impossible for those around me to reach them. Almost like, as a woman, I didn’t really understand the industry and therefore I wasn’t making realistic day-to-day decisions. I told him these were “my” standards and I wouldn’t change them. He called me a few weeks later and said he thought a lot about my standards and that he was wrong. He said I should keep my standards high and that he understood they were a big reason our operation ran so well.
Karen Reece is VP of Eskimo Cold Storage in Gainesville, Georgia, and a member of the IARW Board of Directors.
I’ve found the effort I put in to learn the business from the ground up has truly paid off, both personally and professionally. I now sit on the IARW Board of Directors, helping to shape the tools, resources and educational opportunities the association offers, and I’m playing an active part in grooming the next generation.
I think the future is bright for women in cold chain logistics, and they should reach for the stars in this industry. So many women before me have paved the path forward, and helped make it possible for me to lead and excel today. Even after more than 40 years in the business, there are still women I look up to as role models in our industry, and strive to make them proud as I continue to sharpen my skills.