One for the Books : Logisticians Take Pride in Moving Goods Efficiently. So When They Commissioned a Novel, They Weren't Fazed by . . . Logistics

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One would hardly expect to see the words "logistics" and "thriller" in the same sentence.

Yet here they are, and here's why. When the Council of Logistics Management set out to raise the public's awareness of the task of its 14,000 members--which is basically to keep the world's goods moving efficiently from factory to warehouse to store--it landed on a novel scheme: Have a writer pen a thrilling story in which a logistician saves the day.

Doctors have medical thrillers to glamorize their profession, and lawyers have John Grisham to make court life look exciting. Why not do the same for logisticians?

Enter Daniel Pollock, a Glendale author of three previous thrillers, who answered an intriguing ad placed by the council. Pollock beat out 100 competitors and now finds himself headed to the group's annual meeting Oct. 5 in Chicago to sign copies of his 460-page book. "Precipice" is about a Gulf War veteran who rescues her family's imperiled discount retailing chain after a saboteur injects crippling viruses into the company's computer system.

Hair-raising as the tale is, it paled next to the logistical nightmare of getting the $29.95 book produced in time for the meeting after the manuscript sat unopened on a printer's desk for 10 days because of a communications foul-up.

"We're going to make it work no matter what," Elaine Winter, director of communications and research for the council, said a few days ago. She added brightly: "We're logisticians."

Based in Oak Brook, Ill., the 34-year-old Council of Logistics Management is the professional organization for individuals who are employed in, teach or write about logistics management.

Its goal is to help members by reporting on new technology and other developments in the field and by encouraging and conducting research. Among its members are logisticians working for retailers, shippers, manufacturers, computer companies and consulting organizations, as well as college professors who teach supply chain management.

The job of the logistician is to ensure that products from batteries to cereals to television sets make it to store shelves so that customers are not inconvenienced by shortages and merchants don't lose sales. Inconveniences arising from the recent United Parcel Service of America strike served as vivid reminders of how most of us take smooth logistics for granted.

The concept of moving items swiftly and efficiently is borrowed from the military, and, Winter said, one of the legendary practitioners is William G. "Gus" Pagonis, a retired Army general responsible for setting up supply lines for the Gulf War in 1991. Now executive vice president for logistics at Sears, Roebuck & Co., Pagonis devised a system of bar-coding containers of goods made for Sears in China and Hong Kong. The system enabled the retailer to cut out handlers, forwarders and entire shipping departments at an annual savings of $1 billion.

A few years ago, the council's research strategies committee began reflecting on the importance of logistics in modern society and how little the typical individual--and even the average chief executive--knows about it.

"It's so important to have logistics work well in a country," Winter said. "Nobody notices when things work well, but when things go awry, all eyes are on the logistician."

The panel seized on the notion of commissioning a novel that would pique the interest of young people who might be drawn to a career in the field, Winter said.

After hiring a consultant who assured the group that such a project was feasible and then signing on an editor, in January 1996 the council placed a blind classified ad in the Los Angeles Times and other big newspapers. "Published novelist sought by worldwide professional association to write mainstream novel," the ad said. "Remuneration matches credentials."

Pollock was casting about for a book contract without success when Constance Pollock, his wife and assistant managing editor of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, showed him the ad. He fired off a copy of "Pursuit in the Darkness," his 1994 novel of corporate intrigue set in the Venezuelan rain forest, and then promptly forgot about it.

A month later, Winter called to request more samples of his work. By the end of April, Pollock had the job and a five-figure contract.

There were a few catches: First, he had to choose from three premises created by the research strategies committee. Second, he had to be open to plentiful suggestions from committee members. Third, the council would own the copyright, although Pollock would be eligible for royalties.

Pollock, 53, was intrigued by the scenario of worldwide mass merchant who gets sabotaged by a computer virus that brings the company's operations to a halt. The council flew him to headquarters for a crash course in logistics and to meet with committee member Joel Sutherland, vice president of logistics for Monfort Beef, a division of food giant ConAgra, and Toby Stein, an editor, novelist and "book doctor."

They also recommended that Pollock talk to experts in Los Angeles. "I went to the harbor and was taken around by freight consolidators and terminal operators to see how the container [business works]," Pollock said. He also visited a collection of stores near Chino and learned how garments put on hangers in Thailand or Indonesia or Bangladesh end up on store racks in California. He toured the Ralphs grocery distribution center in Glendale and UPS' western hub in Ontario.

"I could see," Pollock said, "that a computer problem could be catastrophic."

Throughout the process, council members cooperated--to an extent. Most were reluctant to cough up any horror stories about projects going amiss. "These people all really love their work," Pollock said. "Everybody in logistics loves to tell you how well everything is working, but that's not very interesting."

Pollock devised heroine Jane Akers (named for his 3-year-old daughter), who served with the Army in Desert Shield and later left the family's Wal-Mart-esque retailing enterprise after her father had an affair. When Pollock learned that Colin Powell would be the keynote speaker at the council's meeting in Chicago, he worked in a reference to the retired general's role in the Gulf War.

After months of researching and writing and fielding seemingly endless suggestions from council members, Pollock finished a final draft in July. Writing a "book by committee," he said, often proved rocky. But eventually the council seemed enthusiastic; Winter thinks the story would make a good movie or miniseries.

Stein, the editor, came up with the title after the council rejected Constance Pollock's suggestion, "Logistical Nightmare," as too much of a cliche.

How ironic, then, that Winter had to wage an edge-of-the-seat battle to get the book and its special jacket printed and married up in time to make it to the conference so that copies could be sold to the membership. The book can also be ordered from the council; to request an order form, call (630) 574-0985. It will soon be available on the Web at http://www.clm1.org. The cost is $29.95, plus Illinois sales tax of $2.02.

"This is a logistics principle borrowed from the Japanese, the just-in-time concept," Winter said, "but we never thought we'd have to live it so closely ourselves."

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