APU APU Static Business Careers & Learning Everyday Scholar Podcast

Reverse Logistics and the Hidden Value of Customer Returns

Podcast featuring Dr. William Oliver HedgepethFaculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management and
Rich Bulger, CEO, RecirQ; alumnus, Reverse Logistics Management

What happens when customers return items they’ve bought? Where do those products go, and how can companies transform their returns processes into sustainable operations? RecirQ CEO and American Public University alumnus, Rich Bulger, joins Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth today to answer these questions, and more.

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Oliver Hedgepeth: Welcome to this podcast. I’m your host, Oliver Hedgepeth. Today my guest is Rich Bulger. He’s in a sustainability company in Miami, Florida.

He’s also a recent graduate of American Public University and just earned a master’s degree in Reverse Logistics Management. And by golly gee, he’s written a book about reverse logistics, something we’ve been needing for, really, a couple of decades. So, Rich, welcome and thank you for joining me.

Rich Bulger: Thank you for having me.

Oliver Hedgepeth: You’ve been involved in reverse logistics for your entire career, and it is a fascinating field of study, and an exciting career.

Rich Bulger: Well, actually, I fell into reverse logistics. Actually, the first part of my career was military truck driver, moving troops and products from place to place. And then after I got out of the military, I started with Verizon at 17 as a temp from Adecco and worked through customer service sales management, ran the largest retail district in the company, so half of my life I spent on commission sales.

And then in 2009 I became one of the youngest directors in Verizon over operations and marketing for a region that had $6 billion in annual revenue and 10 million subscribers. So, my remit was part marketing – how do you get customers and keep customers? – as well as doing the store operations, getting inventory in, processing returns and getting them out and controlling cost. So, I fell into reverse logistics after that, but my first half of my career was commission sales.

Oliver Hedgepeth: Since we’re talking about reverse logistics, how would you define reverse logistics now?

Rich Bulger: Yeah, great question. And whenever you tell people that you work within reverse logistics, everyone asks, “Well, what is that?” So the easiest way I’ve found to communicate what I do for a living is to explain logistics as moving products from place to place.

Forward logistics is moving product to a point. Reverse logistics is moving product from a point.

An example is if you ever bought anything on Amazon, the process of making the product, getting it to a facility and getting it to the customer is a forward-logistics process. Most people see that every day, very visible as you get the things that you need.

But, most people have also returned something at some point in their life, and when they drop it off, the thought process of, “Where does it go after that?” becomes invisible. So, reverse logistics in the modern corporate setting is, “How do you handle things that people no longer want?”

What they want to return, a warranty claim, a recall, and more modernly, trade-in programs where you turn in your product and use that credit towards your next purchase. What you do and the process to get that product from the customer to the next point of use is reverse logistics.

Oliver Hedgepeth: What kind of skills would you need in the reverse logistics part of, say, the supply chain world? What skills do you need to make reverse logistics work if you’re at a company?

Rich Bulger: Yeah, and I’m going to use some provocative words. I’m going to use modern reverse logistics to illustrate a few points. So, in order to move products, systems, tools – managing labor – you have to have people skills, and you have to have a mindset that is good at solving puzzles. How do you get product from place to place with the least amount of touches, lowest cost to maximize value and velocity? Those are typically legacy skills that you need in any logistics operation. In modern reverse logistics, the interaction with sales, marketing, finance, data management – those are all key, critical skills now that you need in order to go through and make sure the product finds its next home at the best economical point at the lowest cost.

Oliver Hedgepeth: All right, well that’s a lot of skills. Did you get a lot of your training and those skills on the job or did you have to take a course or something to learn those skills that you’ve used?

Rich Bulger: Well, I got into this because I started Verizon’s very first retail trade-in program back in 2009, when I was a marketing director that was tasked to go through and drive consumer growth. How do you get customers, how do you keep customers? And at the time, the way that customers bought phones was a buy one get three free model. People really weren’t accustomed to paying for phones. They expected them when they signed a contract.

And Verizon had a program called New Every Two where we gave the customers a $100 discount towards their next purchase when they signed a new two-year contract. The iPhone changed everything because the cost of the iPhone was so great that they couldn’t afford to give it away, and the finance team started sunsetting those retention discounts.

So, I took a look at the 62% market share that we had, and I knew that we were going to be challenged with T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint attacking our customer base. So, I wanted to provide them value and I thought that if we didn’t give them a discount that we would have a problem.

So, my regional president looked at me when I told him we needed to figure something out and he basically said, “You’re right. You know what I would appreciate more than knowing what the problem is, three solutions.”

And one of the solutions I found was a company that wanted to buy used devices in scale, but they weren’t involved in the transaction when a customer was more likely to trade in their phone. You’re more likely to trade in your car when you’re buying a new car. You’re more likely to sell your house when you’re buying a new house. You’re more likely to let go of your old phone when you’re buying an existing phone, especially if you could apply that value towards the next purchase.

So, I started the first two-district pilot that had to figure out how to get the product back from the customers and how to get the used product to the place that was buying them from us. I was doing reverse logistics before I knew what reverse logistics was.

And when we had to present our results to the C-suite and talk about the profitability, because the profitability was great. After the review, I got a call from the vice president of supply chain that said, “Hey, Rich, you’re pretty good at reverse logistics. How would you like to move your family to Fort Worth, Texas and run Verizon’s CRTC?” And I said, “That sounds fantastic, but I have two questions. What is reverse logistics? And what the heck is a CRTC?”

I now know it’s a Centralized Returns and Testing Center. And I learned that reverse logistics is what happened to all the boxes of returns that we sent from our store back to the warehouse.

So, when I got there, to answer your question, Oliver, there is no corporate training that I have found. There was no, “Welcome to reverse supply chain, here’s what you need to know.” It was all on-the-job training that we had to go through to figure out just how to keep the lights on and keep products moving. And, eventually, we started assembling our own training documents and protocols, but the ones that we did were different than any other company.

Oliver Hedgepeth: Interesting. It seems like then there might be within really every retail company, several misconceptions or misunderstandings about what reverse logistics is all about. What are some misconceptions then you might advise some people? Somebody’s listening here, they have a store, what are some misconceptions that they need to be concerned about?

Rich Bulger: I used to make this analogy a lot, especially at Verizon. When you’re working in a store and you’re seeing the box or two of phones that are returned, exchanged, traded in, accessories, whatever was bought that came back, you package it up, and you put a label on it, and you send it to the warehouse. A lot of people thought that the warehouse was just seven guys and a forklift. If you need something done, just throw a note in the box, have Larry call you before lunch, and if Larry doesn’t call you, shame on Larry.

But then when you go to those places and you see that there’s 1,500 stores that are sending multiple boxes on top of a hundred million customer base that are buying and returning things online or handling warranty claims, when you zoom out and you look at reverse logistics at scale, there was over 2,500 people that were processing returns for Verizon. And it was much more complex to go through and match a box that came in – that came from someone that had a face and a name and a real problem to their order – and make sure that it was closed appropriately. So, the complexity of reverse logistics is a lot more nuanced and in depth than anyone understands that it is until you get into reverse logistics.

Oliver Hedgepeth: As a customer, what might be a misconception from the customer side then? So, the customer who has to return this box, what are some misconceptions you’ve seen from the buying public?

Rich Bulger: So, modern reverse logistics is all about data, and the better you can handle data, the more efficient and customer-friendly your policies and processes can be to move the product from the customer back to where it’s returned. An example: if you go through and you’re trying to return something to Amazon and they generate a label for you, the tracking label isn’t just the vehicle that has FedEx pick it up and pay for the movement of product. That tracking number is actually tied to the return order. The return order is tied to the contents of the return.

So, when things come back, there’s typically three ways that you can match a return to who sent it. By the invoice or paperwork that’s in the box, by an RMA number, or by the tracking number. So, a lot of the packages that come in bulk, the tracking number on that package is a key part of the presortation process. So, I saw some people at different times go through and just think that the return label to get the carrier to pick it up is just a piece of paper. So, if they lost it or couldn’t find it, they would just regenerate a different one, but the lack of linkage between the tracking number to the order took away one element of visibility to match the box to who sent it.

Oliver Hedgepeth: I’ve been teaching logistics for 30 years, and it seems like everybody got into reverse logistics by trial and error. But, I also see, I saw your record that you’ve got a master’s degree in reverse logistics. Why did you need to go get a master’s degree? You’ve got all that great experience. You could teach the courses, you could teach people. Why’d you go get a master’s degree?

Rich Bulger: Kind of funny, I was at a Reverse Logistics Association leadership conference in June. And one of the questions that we asked a panel of a couple of hundred people, “Raise your hand if you chose to get into reverse logistics. If you got out of college and said, ‘That’s the career that I want to get into.’”

And no one raised their hand.

In fact, spending as much time, Oliver, as you and I have in this profession, everyone that I know fell into reverse logistics from another position, because the company had a need, and they tried to put creative people in there to figure it out.

So, when I worked for Verizon, Verizon was a distributor of things. They distributed Samsung, Apple, Motorola, and they distributed through retail stores online through business-to-business sales, and I had a chance to retire from Verizon, and I moved to Cisco, a maker of things, a brand. They made different things. They made networking equipment, and I got to learn international reverse logistics. But, at Cisco, I was permitted to go through and join the advisory board of the Reverse Logistics Association, which put me in a boardroom scenario with professionals from other parts of the reverse supply chain: distributors, brands, third-party service or logistics providers. Different categories: clothing, apparel, toys, home goods. And we all had similar problems. We all had people that needed to learn how to do complicated logistics, and none of us had a corporate-sanctioned training program, because no corporate trainers knew how to write one.

So, as I was going through and I was trying to run Verizon’s reverse logistics, where I was the director of Cisco’s Global Reverse Logistics, bringing in employees and talent and training them was a challenge for Verizon and Cisco, and was a challenge for my friends in the RLA board.

When we were going through and we were at one of our board meetings, Oliver, I believe it was you that came on and talked to the board about a college class that American Public University, American Military University set up in conjunction with the Reverse Logistics Association and had a four-year degree option and a master’s degree option. So, I didn’t have a master’s degree at that point, but I thought it would be a responsible thing for a board member to do, to go through, take an online class.

I had tuition assistance at Cisco. And I thought that there would be multiple benefits of going through and signing up for American Public University. Number one, I wanted to see if the course curriculum could be used as a training program for my employees. Could I leverage our corporate tuition assistance, raise the skills of my employees, and what cool benefit would it be if they could walk away with a master’s degree program learning what they need to do every day? I thought it was a win.

The second thing was it’s hard enough to find people that know what reverse logistics is. So, I thought, how amazing would it be to be in a class with people that chose to pursue a master’s degree in reverse logistics? So, I was going shoulder to shoulder with people with military experience and backgrounds and driving to go through and make themselves better. So, I made a lot of really good friends, and the talent pool that is available in that class is extremely valuable in the reverse space. So, I wanted to have a position to go through and recruit.

The third thing that I wanted to do is, I believe in the good work of the Reverse Logistics Association, and I wanted to be a positive advocate. I had a great colonel that I drove when I was in the 101st Airborne Division that had a chance to come in and go through air assault school where you learn how to repel out of helicopters and sling load equipment. There was a three-day gentleman’s course versus the 10-day course that most soldiers have to go through when they go through that class. And he took the 10-day course even though he had an option to do it at an easier pace. He took the hard one because A) he wanted to be trained, and B) he didn’t ask anyone to do anything he wasn’t expected of himself to do, and he wanted to be a good example.

So, I thought a board member going through this class would be a value-add to the university. It would be a value-add to the Reverse Logistics Association. It was just wins all across the board. And the best, unintended benefit that I found from going through this program is it forced me to write everything down that I had done through Verizon, through Cisco, and I had to research things to a greater level, which made me more effective in a boardroom scenario and better able to go through and provide written instructions for my teams to follow.

Oliver Hedgepeth: Okay, wow. So, the world is changing. There’s some technology changes. You’ve got the basics and the Reverse Logistics Association is well-versed in international reverse logistics, e-commerce applications. How do you see what we call, “reverse logistics,” evolving in the next, say year or two?

Rich Bulger: I’ll lean in specifically on e-commerce, and then I’ll talk to a broader evolution that I see taking place in the industry. Because reverse logistics was pretty much initially designed to go through and foster a customer promise. In the 1890s Montgomery Ward, a mail order salesperson created one of the first known customer guarantee programs, 100% return if you weren’t satisfied for any reason. And he made that promise to encourage people to buy from his catalog. And once he made that promise, he had a reverse logistics problem because people would take advantage and send things back, and what happened? That introduced the concept that returns were a necessary evil, a part of business, in order to create promises to customers that would inspire them to go through and remain loyal.

What’s happened a lot with e-commerce, especially in a post-COVID environment, is people have dramatically changed how they shop. The same way that the mail order catalog transitioned to in-store retail, especially in the ’80s, ’90s, when retail malls were blowing up just getting bigger and more stores, people were going through and buying from brick-and-mortar locations. With the advent of smartphones and people buying from apps or through people shopping online, you fundamentally change how people are purchasing from you, which means you need to evaluate your return policies, because what works in retail doesn’t necessarily match online. And what a lot of companies have done is they’ve tried to go through and merge the retail policies to an online environment, which is creating inefficiencies. I’ll give you an example.

Oliver, if you were going to try on a blue polo shirt at a brick-and-mortar location, you’d go through, you’d pick out the shirts that you want, maybe the same one in three different sizes, so you could find the fit. If you find the one that you like, you take it to the counter, you pay for it, you check out, you create a sales transaction, and you put the other two back on the rack that the next customer could go through, pick up, and buy. Online doesn’t work that way. A lot of people online will go through, and they’ll buy three different shirts. So, three different things are checked out. They’ll keep the one, and they’ll send the other two back. But, now you have three sales transactions that have taken place for an item that has not been handled more than it would’ve been in a dressing room.

So, if the rule of engagement was to go through, treat all of those things as something that has been worn, write them down, you’re taking perfectly good product, you’re devaluing it, you’re discarding it. Because the way that people had shopped had changed. So, a lot of companies have started to evolve to where they’re putting tamper-proof seals on clothing to see: has it reached a level of wear that changes its value and its status from new to used? Fraud is different and theft is different in retail stores that is as it is online. People won’t necessarily shoplift online, but people will buy a brand-name item and replace it with a counterfeit and send it back. How do you stop that?

So, reverse logistics professionals, in my opinion, need to always evolve to the challenges that are taking place, based upon the way that a company’s customers are buying from them. And the way that customers are transacting right now is evolving in a massive way.

Oliver Hedgepeth: I didn’t think about that. So somebody might buy something online that’s very expensive and then find something similar or maybe at a Goodwill store and send that back. And then what, try to sell that good pair of shoes or something to somebody else to make money? That really happens?

Rich Bulger: All the time. You look at mobility. The iPhone 13 has been out for a couple of years now. But, as of last year, they’re still sold in new conditions. So, if you go through and you buy a new device, never been used, pristine cosmetics, full battery cycle, and you go through and you buy one that’s a couple of years old, and you return the one that has two years’ worth of wear and tear use, battery use to send back, if you’re just taking a look at the make and model, you could say, “Well, hey, they’ve returned the exact thing that they should have, so let’s go through and give credit.”

But, if you do something like a serial number match, and you can determine that that serial number was not sold to that customer, the value of something that has no wear, and a full battery is greater than something that has wear and lower functionality. There’s a lot of nefarious behavior that are taking advantage of these reverse logistics blind spots that can get solved through smart processes and technology.

Oliver Hedgepeth: Somebody could do research and identify all these blind spots. That’d be a good course to take. Or maybe you could teach one.

Rich Bulger: Absolutely. One of my good friends, Sender Shamiss, who runs a company called goTRG, they do Walmart’s returns. He was just on CNBC talking about some of the current trends that have taken place with the changing of customer behavior. One is this philosophy of, “Just keep it.” So, if the cost to recirculate is greater than the blended benefit of what you can get from the output of that return, then it might be better in some cases to have a customer that you sent a $3, $5, $10 item that decides that they want to return it, just say, “Hey, keep a hold of it. Don’t send it back because it’s going to damage the environment and it’s going to cost more to get it. So, just keep it. We’ll give you your money back.” It’s called an instant refund.

But the advent of instant refunds and awareness that those are a play invites bad behavior. And what you don’t see is all the algorithms and calculations behind the scenes going on, IP tracking, login information to track and verify the customers that are able to go through and take advantage of that. If you do it one time, and you do it again the next week, they’re going to block it. If you’re in a high fraud-risk area or your IP has been flagged for behavior, there is so much big data that is talking together to try to change the ways that customers can take advantage, and it’s just going to continue to happen.

Oliver Hedgepeth: Welcome back. Rich Bulger and I are talking about the future of reverse logistics. Let’s get back to the conversation. Well, you’re talking about, really, the technology today that’s improving that tracking of customer behavior is artificial intelligence. I know that on my computer, I’m always getting advertisements about, “You know, you bought this shirt for your grandson, wouldn’t you like to buy this one, also?” It’s tracking my behavior pattern. So, I see artificial intelligence maybe becoming a bigger role in reverse logistics. What is your opinion of that?

Rich Bulger: So, one of the ways that you can tell if a technology is successful is by how many people are using it. It took mobility over 14 years to generate a hundred million customers. It took Facebook about four and a half. It took ChatGPT three days to go from no users to a hundred million users. So, if people think that artificial intelligence is not here and it’s not going to be used, it’s a misconception. It’s not if it’s going to be used; it’s how. And there’s a lot of really smart things that are taking place with artificial intelligence to go through and provide customer support. You talked about the targeted way AI can learn shopping behaviors and try to put the right product in front of you at the right time. If you make your purchasing decisions at 7:00 at night, you might not get pinged with the advertisement at 2:00 in the afternoon. They’re very targeted in what you’re looking for and when to go through and reach out.

Return behavior is also undergoing the same things. Transactions could go through and flow, but there’s patterns that artificial intelligence are identifying. I’ll use the three shirt example. If you go through and you place an order for three shirts, there are some companies right now that will go through and, instead of allowing that transaction to go through, artificial intelligence can identify that that sale has a high likelihood of having a return going through. So, they might have a chatbot reach out and say, “Hey, we noticed that you bought these three things. Have you seen our size chart?” You could do augmented reality and load your face onto clothes to see how it looks like before it goes through.

So, these patterns of fraud detection – determining where bad guys are at – or, on the positive application, figuring out ones where customers are trying to do the right thing to buy, but they might be having challenges with the comfort level of, “How is it going to look and how is it going to function?” And instead of talking to 100 out of 100 people that are buying from you, artificial intelligence and machine learning are helping identify and communicate to customers whose buying behaviors are indicative of the likelihood of a return.

Oliver Hedgepeth: How do you measure success in reverse logistics? That’s kind of a broad question. You’ve talked about some things, but how would you, if I said I get you in a classroom, “How do you measure success in reverse logistics, Rich?” How would you answer that now?

Rich Bulger: And I would say that every company has their own different desired outcomes. But, one of my epiphanies going through and working for different companies at different points of the supply chain are there’s four key desired outcomes that companies have when they go through and are considering how to handle returns. The first one is sales enablement, just like Montgomery Ward. How do you build programs that will give people the confidence to buy from you? What is the customer promise and what is the customer journey? How do you make it easy to interact? How do you communicate? The reason why companies have return programs is because they want to sell things. So, sales enablement is one desired outcome.

The second one is cost management and return prevention. How do you go through and drive down unwanted returns? If you sell 100 things and 10 come back, how can you reduce the 10 that you don’t want to return to five? And how do you do it at the lowest cost possible?

The third desired outcome is green logistics. This is one that started taking root about 20 years ago and is accelerated right now with the Millennial and Gen Z generation that are making conscious purchasing decisions on the environmental footprint. How do you conduct your operation to minimize environmental harm?

The fourth is circular economy, which introduces a concept that is different than the “Necessary evil, all returns are bad,” to actually trying to go through and strategically increase returns through trade-in programs that allow you to make money on the same thing more than one time. Through product as a service. Rent the Runway. The number one taxi cab company in the world is Uber, and they have no cars. The number one real estate hotel company is Airbnb, and they have no real estate. There’s a company, ACS in the UK that are getting returns from premier brands, and renting them out for weeks or months at a time, and reusing the same garment more than one time to drive economic benefits, and also reduce the impact of fast fashion.

So, this whole circular economy about revenue and promoting use is an outcome. And some companies, these four different goals compliment. Some, they conflict, like a green logistics initiative to try to go through and introduce electronic vehicles conflicts with the cost management desire of running a lean reverse logistics operation. Driving up returns for a circular economy drives up cost in reverse logistics. There’s a fear that reusing products could cannibalize on new sales, so sometimes, circular economy conflicts with sales, and sometimes they complement.

But, Oliver, my best measure of a successful circular economy is by tracking the amount of product that goes from reverse logistics back into forward logistics. When something goes from the point of use back to a reverse center, and then gets sent back to the next customer, to me, the most successful circular economy is measure their success rate in getting the product from the hands of customer one into the hands of the next customer, two, 3, 4, 5, 6. So for me, I love getting the value and the sustainability aspect of promoting reuse over recycling, and you measure that by tracking: Can it go forward to reverse, back to forward?

Oliver Hedgepeth: With all this knowledge you’ve got, you should write a book. In fact, by golly gee, I happen to see a notice here. You have written a book. Tell me about this book you’ve written and why you wrote this book? This is going to be a fun thing.

Rich Bulger: Yeah, when I was going through and I was taking the reverse logistics master’s degree program at American Public University, the course was written in 2013 from a lot of research that was done in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

And there was one book that was written, called “Going Backwards: Reverse Logistics Trends and Practices.” It was written by Dr. Rogers and Dr. Lembke. And, it was written with the mindset going backwards was all returns, going back to the place that it was sold, with the mentality that returns were a necessary evil. And there was a lot of really good best practices and descriptions of what return reasons were, and how to correlate customer behavior with building better products. But the whole concept was: drive down returns. Little bits of concepts with green logistics.

But when the book was written, that was before 9/11, that was before MySpace, Facebook, TikTok, any form of social media took off. Phones were still in people’s houses connected to the walls, and they were just starting to go more mobile, but smartphones weren’t a thing. Certainly no artificial intelligence or machine learning. Amazon wasn’t selling what they were selling. So, the sales behavior and the correlating return behavior, with the thought process being a necessary evil, was what was done in the late ’90s. If you Google books right now on reverse logistics, this is going to be one of the top books that you found. And I haven’t found another good one that was written to this level.

So, as I was going through my course, I got into a class with the professor that I was talking about things that I had learned in reverse logistics. I built a $1.6 billion a year program at Verizon, buying and selling things that people no longer wanted. I turned Cisco’s global reverse logistics from operating at a cost, how much does it cost to operate the facility, to giving more benefit back to the company through reverse logistics products than it costs to operate my entire global reverse logistics footprint by going through and taking things that were never opened, keeping them in new condition, and reselling them or building efficient take-back programs, monetized trade-in programs. So, I was doing all this stuff and I was talking about circular economy, which became a term in 2013, and I started getting points taken off, because the things that I was talking about weren’t in the book.

So, when I was getting points taken off for not reading what was done in the late ’90s, early 2000s, I went through and I bought this book used on eBay, because that’s what I do. It was inscribed to someone else. I read it, I reached out to the authors. I started talking to them about, “Have you thought about modernizing this book? Because the industry needs something like this.” And 25 years after it was written, Dr. Rogers and Dr. Lembke are doing other great things. And writing a book, I can tell you is an endeavor, hard to start, hard to research, but I had an advantage of having decades of reverse logistics training materials in my head. PowerPoints that I’ve created, problems that I’ve solved. My time at American Public University forced me to write things down.

And I was, actually, Oliver, taking classes strategically, where I’d take a technology class when I was trying to figure out how I wanted to architect my reverse logistics warehouse management system for my company, RecirQ, now. I used the best practices class to write the business plan for my company.

I would take the eight-week classes, research real-world problems that I was trying to solve to make sure I built them good, and then, over time, I had all of these stories and all of these illustrations that I had to just put in order and create a book. Tony Sciarrotta from the Reverse Logistics Association has been talking about getting another book done for a while. And after I was getting close to pursuing my master’s, he said, “Rich, would you like to go through and put them in order and write a book that the RLA will sponsor?” And then I had this need where I wanted to go through and provide something to people who had to grow up in the space and give them something that would take some of the pain and burden away from having to figure it out by trying to teach the things I had to learn the hard way.

Why do you need the data clear something? What are all these industry R2 ISO certifications? How does product move from one side, from a customer, to value generation? Because everyone would look at their own part of the supply chain, but very few people had the knowledge of how to zoom out and look at everything together. So, I wanted to write something that I could give back, help modernize the curriculums, help advocate for more reverse logistics programs to be created by universities.

Oliver, outside of APU, I don’t know of a single college that is offering a degree in return management, but it’s a huge part of the circular economy. It’s a huge part of modern sales logistics. No one knows how to do it. And I haven’t even seen a class, a course in a supply chain degree, outside of APU, focuses solely on reverse logistics. It’s a paragraph. It might be a section of a section. But this problem is so big and so complicated that it needs concerted documentation to teach people not just what it is, but how do you do it?

Oliver Hedgepeth: Now, this is very exciting, because I know Rogers, I’ve read the book, I’ve met him before, talked to him many times. I’ve gone to several Reverse Logistics Association meetings held in Las Vegas, and committee meetings I’ve been on for the years, last year’s. But I really agree it was time to update it. But I really appreciate you doing this book. I mean, this is very exciting.

Golly gee, you’ve gone through experience, decades of experience. You’ve got your education now, you’ve written, I think the book that the RLA, reverse logistics are probably going to show everybody. And I’m looking forward to reading it. I’m really looking forward to seeing what’s going on. And I can see parts of that book going into new courses. Who knows, you might wind up being a teacher one day. My goodness.

Rich Bulger: I’m a kid from Missouri. I barely graduated high school. I drove trucks in the military. I got my degrees from online colleges. I don’t pontificate that I’m the smartest person in any room that I’m in. But what I’m hoping that this book does is start a conversation. I want people to disagree with what I’ve put in. I want people to challenge. And my hope is that through the friendship that you and I have, the partnership with the Reverse Logistics Association, as fast as technology is changing right now, I think this book needs to be a living document that is updated every few years to stay up-to-date with the latest trends and best practices. So, this book is just the first step and something that I hope evolves into a truly impactful tool that the next generation of supply chain leaders can lean on to learn how to harness reverse logistics as the competitive weapon that it is.

Oliver Hedgepeth: I’m going to take a little leap here. Your book is really going to be one of those hallmark moments, like AI is a hallmark moment right now, as we’re trying to figure out how to deal with it. We’re still trying to figure out how to deal with the reverse logistics in a changing world. What’s next for you?

Rich Bulger: Right now, I run a company called RecirQ. To go through, my company is pronounced RecirQ, R-E-C-I-R-Q. Short for Recirculate, which is an industry term that I use to try to promote the attractive qualities about getting the product from the hands of the first customer into the hands of the second customer. The Q is symbolic of a circular journey for a product with a line that comes off the Q, being an off-ramp. If a product isn’t economically viable to continue to reuse, well then you should responsibly recycle it.

“Recirculate” is a buzzword that I used in the corporate boardrooms, when eyes were glazing over talking about returns. And I get very excited and passionate about it, because it’s right for the environment, but it’s also very smart business. So, I learned how to go through and drive growth through returns management. So, I used “recirculate” to try to make reverse logistics attractive. The company I have right now, we have over 155 employees. We’re based out of Miami, Florida. We’ve been growing leaps and bounds, sizable tens of millions of year-over-year growth right now. I’m looking to make sure that my team is the best-trained team it could be.

We started matching used supply with used demand by purchasing lots of returned products, cleaning them, appropriately grading them, and getting them to different parts of the world. My company’s moved into a few logistical contracts. So now, we’re processing return services for some major retailers. And I believe that the book focus and attention that is going through government-forced internalization, forced legislation, as well as over 40% of all Fortune 500 companies have set sustainability targets and they’re changing the way that people shop.

I’m anticipating that I’m going to get some pretty interesting phone calls from companies that are trying to figure out how they need to go through and set up their reverse logistics. How do you grade your things? How do you test your things? What types of teams do you need? What types of partners should you create? And what I’m hoping my company will eventually turn into is not just one that will go through and buy and sell, but one that will help partner with companies to find solutions for their organization to match used supply with used demand for economic and sustainability reasons.

So, I’d love to one day teach. At the end of the day, I’m the son of a teacher. My biggest passion is pouring knowledge into my children. I want them to be stronger, faster, in a better situation than I was. And, if I can use, this time that I have to create resources that they could use when it’s their turn to step up and lead. I’m more than halfway through my professional life. But my ideal scenario would be to give back at the end of the day. And this book is a way that I can give back now.

Oliver Hedgepeth: All right, my golly. I hate to conclude this session. But Rich, I really want to thank you very much for joining me today in this really exciting topic of reverse logistics. You made it exciting. Any last words you’d like to leave to our listeners out there?

Rich Bulger: To my fellow soldiers, to your family and friends at American Public University, I thank you for coming through spending some time. Most people aren’t interested in returns, but when you really peel back the onion, you find that it’s so much more than just putting something in a box and having it go back.

And if we truly want to make the world a better place tomorrow than it is today, we’ve got to change the way people buy. We got to change the way that people sell. We’ve got to focus on promoting reuse over recycling whenever possible and never wasting. And, in order to do that, it involves training and education. So, the fact that you’re here listening, I’m thankful for that.

I’m looking forward to the friends I’m going to make through the next steps of this process. And, Oliver, to you, my friend, I want to thank you for pushing me into the scenario to where I could go through and make this journey, because I remember calling you and talking to you after that random conference call meeting where I was intrigued about a company that had the courage to create a reverse logistics program. And I appreciate you holding my hand through the application process and making sure that I got plugged in. It took me three and a half years to get it done. I want to thank you for pushing me to take that step.

Oliver Hedgepeth: My pleasure. And I’ve been really thrilled to see your progress along the way and your business and the education aspects.

For our listeners, we’ve got some exciting podcasts coming up. We’re going to talk about artificial intelligence and reverse logistics again, I am fairly sure. And, Rich, I can see that it’s going to be a conversation that’s going to continue. So, listeners, thank you very much for tuning in to Rich and myself on this very important topic. Thank you very much.

Oliver Hedgepeth

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor in the Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business. He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management, and Government Contracting. Dr. Hedgepeth was also Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.

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