Clarifying complexities

Kouvelis' work untangling supply chains helps get goods to consumers more efficiently

When Panos Kouvelis, Ph.D., was a professor at Duke University, he loved to go to the Waffle House in Durham, N.C. But it wasn’t the waffles or the coffee that attracted the young Greek immigrant.

“I liked their omelets,” says Kouvelis, the Emerson Distinguished Professor of Operations and Manufacturing Management at the Olin Business School. “But if you’re an operations guy like me, you’d be fascinated by how they do it.”

Panos Kouvelis, Ph.D. (center), with third-year doctoral students Ehsan Bolandifar (left) and Xiaole (Sherri) Wu. “Panos is a very warm person with natural leadership skills,” says Lingxiu Dong, Ph.D., associate professor of operations and manufacturing management. “He is one of the most talented, creative and hard-working scholars in our profession. I admire his continuous high level of scholarly curiosities and endless energy in exploring various areas of supply chain management.”

Everything from the organized layout of the restaurant to the easy flow of orders from customer to waitress to cook and back to the table impressed Kouvelis, who has made a career of studying supply chains and how they work.

“A supply chain is a system that goes all the way from companies that work with raw materials to companies that do productive transformations to companies that do distribution and selling,” Kouvelis says.

Technology, modern transportation and communications have stretched supply chains around the globe, creating complex webs of all the necessary components to create and deliver goods to consumers. For Kouvelis, the challenge is to figure out how to coordinate all the links in the supply chain in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible.

Researching and teaching supply chain management has become an important focus of the Boeing Center for Technology, Information and Manufacturing (BCTIM), which Kouvelis directs in addition to teaching courses in the Executive MBA and MBA programs.

Monsanto Co.’s director of global supply chain, Brad Morgan, says his former professor’s soft-spoken, calm demeanor belies an ardent enthusiasm for his area of expertise.

“Panos brings a great deal of passion to everything he does and is therefore able to inspire and challenge his students,” Morgan says. “While he has a strong grasp of the complex, technical ‘inner workings’ of supply chain risk management, networks and operations, he is always able to clearly articulate the relevance of supply chain from both a strategic standpoint and as it relates to everyday operations.”

‘California dreams’

Kouvelis majored in mechanical engineering at the National Technical University of Athens. He knew he wanted to combine his engineering studies with business and says at the age of 23 his “California dreams” came true when he was accepted to graduate school at the University of Southern California (USC).

The only son of a physician and homemaker, Kouvelis, who was born in Lamia, a small city in central Greece, initially thought the move to Los Angeles would be temporary — just long enough to pursue a master’s degree.

With a dual MBA and industrial engineering degree from USC, Kouvelis was lured to Stanford University to earn a doctorate. His first teaching position was at the University of Texas at Austin, where Kouvelis says with a smile, “I don’t know if my accent or theirs was harder to understand!”

After nearly four years in Texas, the bachelor professor moved to the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. While teaching there, Kouvelis met a nurse, Helen, from Canada at the only Eastern Orthodox Church in Durham. Her Serbian family shares the same religious tradition as his Greek family. They were married and moved to St. Louis when Kouvelis joined the Olin faculty in 1997.

Panos Kouvelis; his wife, Helen; and their children, (from left) Vaios, Alexa and Teddy, visit the Acropolis in Athens. Annual summer vacations acquaint the Kouvelis family with the ancient heritage of Greece.

The strategy of sports

Former Olin dean Stuart Greenbaum, Ph.D., recruited Kouvelis to St. Louis and introduced him to baseball. The great American pastime is foreign to most Greeks, according to Kouvelis, who admits he found it boring at first.

Kouvelis says with his colleague and friend Mark Soczek, Ph.D., director of the Center for Experiential Learning and lecturer in accounting, as his coach and the St. Louis Cardinals as his new hometown team, he soon discovered the intricate strategy and statistics of the game.

He says George F. Will’s book “Men at Work” helped with his conversion into an ardent baseball fan and student of the game. Kouvelis is a proud quarter-season-ticket holder and enjoys making trips to Busch Stadium with his wife, family and friends.

Helen and Panos Kouvelis have three children: Vaios, 13; Alexa, 9; and Teddy, 4. As a family, they enjoy traveling, including annual visits to see Panos’ mother in Greece and family in Toronto, where Helen’s family lives.

In addition to being baseball fans, the Kouvelis family also has adopted St. Louis Rams football as a favorite spectator sport.

“It’s a nice game to watch,” Kouvelis says. “There is lots of strategy, and you can see how organized they are. Football is about synchronized movement — many people have to do the right thing for a certain play to advance. Teamwork is very important. It’s how to be in the right place at the right time.”

Kouvelis adds with a laugh, “Football is a lot like supply chain management!”

Kouvelis can’t help finding supply chain metaphors and connections from sports stadiums to restaurants and beyond. When he goes shopping with his wife, he admits, they see different things. While she may admire the color or style of a sweater, Kouvelis says, “every time I look at a sweater, I think, how did it get here?”

“There are thousands of suppliers, hundreds of factories, thousands of workers who contributed to delivering this sweater to this store,” he says.

Supply chain management

Panos Kouvelis

Currently teaches: in the Executive MBA program and the joint Olin-Fudan EMBA program in Shanghai, China

Launching: a new master’s in supply chain management degree program in September 2009 at Olin Business School

Corporate consulting and/or executive programs: Boeing Co., Bunge, Duke Hospital, Emerson, Express Scripts Inc., Hanes, Ingram Micro, MEMC, Smurfit-Stone, Solutia Inc., and others

Real-world experience with companies and their supply chains is a vital component of Kouvelis’ research and teaching. Through consulting projects with BCTIM, Kouvelis and his students work with supply chain managers and the challenges they face daily.

“I believe in the model of faculty doing all three of these activities: teaching, research and consulting,” Kouvelis says.

Research and consulting not only provide insight into real management issues, but they also provide excellent subject matter for the classroom. Kouvelis has used many consulting projects as case studies for his courses.

“I like what I do,” he says. “I get stimulated by the new challenges by understanding what companies do and if it was the right or wrong way to do it.”

Driven by his passion for research and teaching, Kouvelis has published three books and more than 80 papers in top-quality academic journals. He also serves in editorial positions at several leading management and operations publications.

“The joke around here is that I sleep in my office,” Kouvelis says with a lighthearted laugh. “I work hard — 60-hour weeks. I’m productive and efficient at what I do.”

Colleagues such as Siddhartha Chib, Ph.D., the Harry C. Hartkopf Professor of Econometrics and Statistics, admire and praise his skills.

“I think that Panos is a terrific example of a high-quality academic,” Chib says. “He has very high standards for research, and he is a committed mentor through his supervision of Ph.D. students and his support of junior faculty.

“He is an extremely effective teacher across various demanding programs,” Chib says.

“Finally, he is director of a very successful center that showcases and advances research in supply chain management and related areas.

“He handles all these many things with equanimity and, remarkably, without overt display of effort. It all just seems to come easily to Panos,” Chib says.

Students have bestowed the Reid Teaching Award on Kouvelis 12 times, and he has received numerous other awards for his teaching, research and service.

In his narrow, book-lined office in Simon Hall with a picture-window view of Francis Field, Kouvelis reveals what he has learned in more than 20 years of teaching.

“The secret of good teaching is passion for what you teach so you feel very close to it, and at the same time, you have to be very interested in the people you teach,” Kouvelis says.

“You’ve got to understand their backgrounds and why they are there. These are the two most important things,” he says.

While it’s hard to imagine this 48-year-old professor slowing down anytime soon, he says he still has a California dream. This time, it’s about retiring somewhere on the West Coast with a view of the Pacific Ocean.