The New Memphis Institute graduate takes the leap into logistics.
photograph by Jonathan Postal
To know Carolyn Hardy, you must first know the for- titude of her mother, Lois Chism. Hardy was raised among 13 siblings and lived in no fewer than 13 houses over her first 12 years. But her mother was a role model throughout, determined to steer her children toward a more stable, prosperous life.
“When I was in 7th grade,” recalls Hardy, “my dad’s employer helped him with a down payment on a house, which is the house where my mom lives now. About five years after that, my mom started working . . . after the last baby went to school. My mother didn’t believe in welfare. She didn’t want food stamps, didn’t believe in public housing. She felt if we received any form of public assistance, it would cause us to believe it was acceptable. We needed to work, get an education, and depend on ourselves.”
A graduate of Melrose High School, Hardy was employed at J.M. Smucker Co. when she earned her M.B.A. from the University of Memphis in 1987. Upon being promoted from an accounting position to quality management at Smucker’s, Hardy discovered the analytical skills — and, not incidentally, people skills — that have since fueled her business career. They weren’t necessarily the attributes of a CPA.
“In quality, you’ve got to make a decision about a product right away,” she says. “You can take all day with a financial report. I had to learn about the perfect balance between analysis and action, between spending money and not spending money. For an accountant, a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Well, in operations you’ve got to go into the bush. You’ve got to spend money to make money.”
Hardy found herself analyzing consumer complaints and evaluating the problems — large and small — that were costing the company money. Complaints you might have at your breakfast table — “This jelly is too watery!” — occupied Hardy’s workday. Eighty percent of the complaints, it turned out, were related to a single ingredient. “We put controls around that one ingredient,” says Hardy, “everything about the way it was processed. We reduced our consumer complaints by 70 percent.” The initiative caught the attention of Smucker’s headquarters in Orrville, Ohio. By 1994, Hardy was the Memphis plant manager.
A 2004 graduate of the Leadership Academy — now called the New Memphis Institute — Hardy has made career shifts that might puzzle on the surface: from Smucker’s to Honeywell in 1999 (where she dealt with software management), then to Coors (as a vice president) in 2001. Each employer, though, has recognized Hardy’s talent for thorough analysis, comprehensive management, and an unyielding drive for maximum efficiency. They are skills that translate well from one industry to the next.
“I thought I was an introvert [as an accountant],” says Hardy. “But that was totally a lie. When I moved to operations, my goal was to make you a better you. And that shocked some people. At the end of the day, the better ‘you’ you were, the better the plant ran and the more time I could focus on analyzing things, because I didn’t have to fix stuff.” How did Hardy focus on “you”? To begin with, she customized employee manuals, so instead of 200 pages, each employee had merely 10 to read and fully digest.
“I tried to help employees understand what their roles were,” emphasizes Hardy. “I would show a cook charts that detailed how a [Smucker’s] product would look if cooked one way compared with another. I could prove to her the optimum. Once she saw that, she could work toward that optimum every time.”
If leadership is best measured in times of adversity, Hardy’s finest hour to date may have been in 2005 when she and her staff were notified that the local Coors plant would be closed at the end of 2006. With morale understandably in the tank, Hardy gathered her 400 employees and delivered a new mission: win Coors’ prestigious Environmental Health and Safety Award. If the plant was to be closed, Hardy was determined her staff would go out on top.
“I’m the type of person who likes to show someone what they’re losing,” says Hardy. “Why don’t we do something that [corporate] never thought we could do? The employees looked at me like I was crazy. It was very emotional for me. But it was my job to get the plant stabilized again. If we could decide we would win, we’d win. We needed to evaluate why we hadn’t won before, and sneak up on everyone.”
Accumulating points for safety, health, and waste controls, the Memphis plant indeed finished atop the Coors charts on December 31, 2005. Coors management called Hardy, flummoxed. They couldn’t announce that a plant they were closing was the most efficiently run. Hardy is the only Coors employee to receive a personalized (smaller) version of this trophy.
In 2006, Hardy purchased the plant from Coors and formed Hardy Bottling Co., which specialized in non-alcoholic beverages like Arizona, Rock Star, and Fuze. Five years later, she sold the operation to City Brewery (parent company of Blues City Brewery) for a healthy profit.
Today, as CEO of Chism Hardy Enterprises, Hardy focuses on analyzing and shaping logistics for the railroad industry. “I develop container yards,” says Hardy, “like the one next door [to Blues City Brewery]. We talk about self-sufficiency, natural gas, and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Well, the rail industry is the solution. I’m following Warren Buffett [whose Berkshire Hathaway bought Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad in 2009]. Warren has not made a mistake yet. At the end of the day, I follow the railroad industry and Warren. Domestic intermodal freight grew more than 10 percent last year. Where are they going to store these containers? How are they going to move them? That’s what I do.”
Having led by example so long, Hardy sees two components as key to attracting like-minded business leaders to Memphis. “We’ve got to have a workforce that’s willing and able to deliver what business leaders need,” she says. “You’re not going to get the best and brightest to move here unless you have that workforce. The work that Southwest Tennessee Community College is doing for workforce readiness is absolutely key for our city. We’ve got to demonstrate to business leaders that we have the attitude and aptitude to deliver.
“Secondly, we have to demonstrate what we’re good at. There are more than 40 medical-device companies in this area. What are we doing to tell the world?”