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June 2023 Vehicle Care RockStar: Marie Robinson

Robinson, executive president and chief supply chain officer of Sysco, is on the forefront of fleet electrification.
Marie Robinson, Sysco
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If you bought it in a store, it got there on a truck. It’s a trucking industry adage that highlights the importance of commercial vehicles from 18-wheeled long-haulers to last-mile delivery trucks that drop off your online orders. But there’s a fun Sysco spin on it.

If you ate it in a restaurant, it was probably delivered by a Sysco truck.

And that’s not hyperbole.

Sysco is a global foodservice giant that serves 700,000 customer locations globally through 333 distribution sites with a broadline operation business segment that focuses on delivering food and non-food products to away-from-home independent and chain restaurant dining locations. And Marie Robinson, Sysco’s executive vice president and chief supply chain officer, is the rockstar who serves up the deliciousness on a scale that, when you take a minute to think about it, can melt your mind.

The Logistics of Disasters

Sysco delivers food to almost anywhere you eat away from home, from restaurants, cafeterias and hotels to schools, universities, hospitals, prisons and assisted living centers. So that begs the question: How close are we to not having food? The supply chain issues of the pandemic are still fresh on everyone’s mind. So how much work and what challenges does Robinson field to keep that from happening?

According to her, “There’s good things that came from [the pandemic]. The good things that came from it were around supply chain resiliency and supply chain agility. In the past, probably the decade leading up to the pandemic, it was all about just-in-time inventory, narrowing down your supplier base to leverage your volumes to get the best prices. We’re all rethinking that, I think. And so making sure we’re even rebuilding our network infrastructure, the systems infrastructure, to make us much more agile.”

Robison notes that natural disasters are a continuous concern. Citing statistics from the Red Cross, she states that their historical model of activating to respond to five to seven large events across the U.S. in a year has been shattered. They’re now responding to about 25 a year.

“And so you can no longer just align around one or two big things. You have to be able to respond to lots of little things happening at once,” Robinson explains. “Look at the California rains and Snowmageddon that just happened. I need to be able to easily pivot service from one location to another. And that’s been quite the infrastructure rebuild that we’ve been going through over the past few years. But in the end, it will make it much more likely that if there’s any type of natural disaster in Ventura, California, I can flip and support them from [Los Angeles]. In the past, that was a pretty hard thing for us to do.”

Marie Robinson, Sysco’s executive vice president and chief supply chain officer

Sustainability Initiatives

Droughts, heat waves, floods, hurricanes and wild fires — those are just a few of the devastating ways that climate change is impacting the environment, and that isn’t lost on Sysco. The EPA is on record stating that the transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to anthropogenic U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Light-, medium- and heavy-duty vehicles make up 81% of the U.S. Transportation Sector GHG Emissions.

That’s why Sysco announced a science-based goal to reduce its direct emissions by 27.5% by 2030, and deploying electric vehicles (EVs) is a significant part of its efforts to accomplish this goal. Last year, Sysco announced a Letter of Intent to deploy up to 800 battery electric Freightliner eCascadia Class 8 tractors serving Sysco customers by 2026. And that is just the beginning.

Sysco plans to have 2,800 by 2030.

The company has committed to purchasing 40 by the end of summer 2023 and 100 by the end of its 2024 fiscal year (July 2024). To get ahead of that, Sysco is trying to build the infrastructure before the first trucks arrive, with plans to build five more charging centers in 2024. Sysco’s Riverside, California, operating site will be its first electric vehicle hub.

“So at that site today, we have 11 electric vehicles, five electric refrigerated trailers; we have 20 pumps up and running, dual-sided charging stations. We’re building another row of 20 double pumps. And the infrastructure is massive when you see it. We were laughing — it looks like a Buc-ee’s for trucks on our back lot,” Robinson shares.

Sysco plans to have 2,800 battery electric Freightliner eCascadia Class 8 tractors by 2030.

“And then behind that is the battery storage facility that we’ve had to build,” she continues. “It’ll store a little over four megawatts of electricity, and we’ve added an additional 1.5 megawatts’ solar generation to the roof there. And what’s been interesting is that it’ll probably only be California where we see the need for the solar backup, and that’s all around their peak capacity — the way they charge electricity now with that really broad window. So it’s not so much about the failure of the grid — we’re not as worried about that. We’re more worried about making sure that we’re good partners with a utility there.”

These are huge commercial EV investments — certainly among the largest in North America. This isn’t a company looking to score sustainability public relations points with its board of directors. Sysco is serious about making sustainability a reality, and it’s ready to rock. In fact, several of Sysco’s customers are excited about the transition, requesting these EV trucks be used for their deliveries.

“But you think about the place in a B2B [business-to-business] world: I’m a Class 3 or A emitter for our largest customers, and as they make their own public goals and statements, if Sysco is the biggest committed player in this space, those customers are going to give more business to us,” Robinson says.

But it’s not all just about the numbers for Robinson.  She sees Sysco as a purpose-driven company investing in the globe.

“We believe that’s what we’re doing. And we also believe that as the largest food distributor on the planet, it’s our obligation. And if you don’t start the work now, you will not be able to suddenly wake up in 2035 and go, ‘Oh, I’m going to buy electric trucks.’ So by being in the forefront, there is a business advantage,” she concludes.

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