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Student Experience: Juan Varela, MBA

By Steve Smith

The information presented here is true and accurate as of the date of publication. DeVry’s programmatic offerings and their accreditations are subject to change. Please refer to the current academic catalog for details.
May 10, 2023

9 min read

California’s Inland Empire region is one of the largest and busiest shipping hubs in the United States. At the convergence of several highways and rail lines 60 miles inland from Los Angeles, some of the nation’s largest manufacturers and retailers operate major distribution facilities. In fact, an estimated 40% of the nation’s consumer goods are shipped through this region. This is where Juan Varela began his career and where, with a drive to succeed and the unwavering support of his family, he continues to evolve. 

Having worked in shipping, receiving, warehousing, security and operations for two of the world’s largest retailers, Juan is a veteran of the retail supply chain scene. After 11 years with Target, he joined Walmart in 2020 as an Inbound Area Manager and supported the team that helped the retailer open another high-tech consolidation center in Lebanon, Pennsylvania in 2022. In his most recent role, Operations Manager at Walmart’s Imports Distribution Center (IDC) in Eastvale, California, about a 30-minute drive from his home in Fontana, Juan oversees the receiving side of the company’s import network. 

Supply Chain Management in Juan’s World

You might think of supply chain management (SCM) as a function that applies exclusively to manufacturing, like the sourcing, gathering, stocking and assembly of components that make up everything from giant industrial machines to consumer goods, including cars, electronics, toys and sporting goods. But Juan’s story demonstrates how major retailers like Walmart and Target are also heavily invested in the tactics and technologies of SCM to efficiently deliver thousands of products to hundreds of stores. “In my world, so many things depend on managing the supply chain intelligently and efficiently so we can meet our customers’ needs while maintaining profitability,” Juan says, “even when we’re facing unexpected challenges.”  

According to Juan, the growth of Walmart’s IDC in Eastvale is mainly the result of their acquisition of 4 other distribution centers that were previously used by other companies. On this 67.7-acre campus that comprises 2.95 million square feet of freight consolidation facilities, 916 full-time associates contribute to a well-orchestrated and perpetually moving blend of strategic planning and automation. 

Juan describes Walmart’s IDC as a middleman in the distribution chain, saving the company millions in annual distribution costs. Shipping containers of material from Walmart’s vendors arriving at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are unloaded here. Cases from those containers are stored and consolidated to full trailers heading out to 6 Walmart Regional Distribution Centers (RDCs) in California, Arizona, Utah and Oregon. Once processed there, the material is shipped to the 780 Walmart stores serviced by those RDCs.

Putting His DeVry Education to the Test

Juan earned two degrees here at DeVry and our Keller Graduate School of Management: a Bachelor’s Degree in Technical Management with a concentration in Global Supply Chain Management in 2021 and an MBA in 2023. Both have helped him manage major disruptions in the past few years that significantly impacted Walmart’s supply chains and put every bit of his SCM experience and education to the test. 

First, the COVID-19 pandemic ground many manufacturing and distribution systems to a halt. Then, just as the supply chains were beginning to recover in the summer of 2022, a dispute between the railroads and their labor unions caused a pile up of containers at Los Angeles, Long Beach and other ports. During this time, it was estimated that some $31 billion in trade was either waiting in ports or stuck off the coast of the United States. Juan and his colleagues found themselves having to think quickly and creatively to find a solution while striving to meet profitability goals and deliver items to store shelves when customers needed them. 

“You have a situation where containers are coming in that have been on the ocean for months. In the meantime, the same companies are trying to send new freight, and that freight may be getting here sooner. You are trying to push out the new volume, but you have to store the old volume,” he says, “so what do you do? Liquidate? Donate to charities? That’s where we have to get very creative about what to do with these items that aren’t turning over because of this unprecedented disruption.”

The disruption in Walmart’s supply chain threatened to do more than just keep store shelves empty. It had a major effect on the people who worked there. Juan described how, when no volume was coming in during the pandemic, he and his colleagues had to reach out to their network to schedule shifts in a way that got their associates the hours they needed to keep paying their bills. To Juan, it was both refreshing and gratifying to experience the strategic and employee-centric approach Walmart’s senior leadership took. To him, the retailer’s dedication to its associates is one of the things keeping him working there, and that the company culture is like no other he’s experienced.

Why DeVry?

Juan’s career journey has been fueled by his ambition to move up and put himself in a position to be considered the stand-out candidate for any job. He describes education as a “bridge to his success,” and his need for it to achieve that upward mobility became clear when, while working at Target several years ago, Juan applied for a position at Amazon another company that maintains a major presence in the area. He was told that, without a degree, his chances of moving up to management level were slim. Rather than dwelling on the rejection, he decided to explore the possibility of pursuing formal education in the field where he already had so much hands-on experience. 

While navigating a busy schedule full of work and family commitments, Juan began researching degree programs that specialized in SCM, enabled him to learn at his own pace and didn’t require commuting to a campus. For Juan, DeVry checked all the boxes. His next step was to meet with one of our Academic Advisors. “The advisor talked me through the curriculum. He said, ‘Here’s what it looks like, here’s what you’ll be studying, here’s the pace at which you’ll be learning.’ That made my decision easy because it answered so many of the questions I had,” Juan explains. His tuition, while not paid for by his employer, was made more affordable by tuition savings that he qualified for through a partnership between DeVry and Walmart.  

While working through his degree programs, Juan says he began to understand many of the issues and trends modern supply chains function with and what drives metrics, such as potential improvements to operations and the reduction of waste at each phase of the chain.

As Real as it Gets

A capstone course is a requirement for many graduate degree programs. In the typical capstone, a project, such as a final paper or portfolio, is required to demonstrate competency in a student’s area of study. Juan recalls his DeVry MBA capstone as being particularly challenging. It was a real-world supply chain simulation where each of the students, working in groups of 4 or 5, acted as a senior-level executive at a fictional computer chip company. In the scenario, weekly decisions were made regarding production goals and inventory levels based on constantly fluctuating market conditions. 

Juan describes the MBA capstone simulation as being “as real as it gets,” presenting the students with real-world quandaries like: Do we target a high-end market or develop a cheaper product for the lower end of the market? Do we add automation or have employees work more overtime to increase production? How will each of these moves impact our bottom line? 

“During the capstone, I was able to see things from the perspective of my general manager at Walmart and gain a better understanding of the process – and the financial impact – of that senior-level decision making, “Juan says, “I think the DeVry coursework prepared me well for the capstone. It allowed me to put things together.”

Juan credits the DeVry team, including his instructors and career counselors with being supportive. “The instructors have always been available for questions and they were very resourceful,” he says, ”I initially did not plan on pursuing my MBA after completing my bachelor’s program but my Student Support Advisor talked to me about his experience and how an MBA helped him in his career.”  Reflecting on how his advisor’s encouragement helped him see that earning his MBA was attainable, Juan decided to move forward. “The MBA program gave me more insight into what I should expect in the real world of supply chain and exposed me to a higher level of thinking,” he continues, “allowing me to make more thoughtful, value-added business decisions based on data.”

Juan has recommended DeVry to friends and family members, including a close friend who was interested in pursuing a marketing career. That friend has now completed DeVry bachelor’s and master’s degrees with specializations in marketing, and Juan happily reports that he’s doing quite well.

Supported by His Family

Juan’s gratitude for the way his family has supported him throughout his education journey is palpable. “My beautiful wife Paola has been a huge reason why I was able to finish my bachelor’s and MBA programs. She sacrificed her wants and needs to support me while I was in school. She has consistently given me words of encouragement throughout my education and reminded me of my end goal and how it would all pay off, not only for me, but for our family.”

Juan remembers taking his laptop to family events and on vacations so that he could work on course projects, and how even his young daughters understood there were times when he couldn’t play with them until after his homework was finished. Juan’s parents and 3 younger brothers have also been supportive, checking on his progress, asking him regularly about his coursework and encouraging him to stick with the program.

Now that Juan has completed his education, he’ll have more time to enjoy fishing and hiking with Paola and daughters Breanna (9) and Juliana (5) in the recreation areas of California’s Mammoth Lakes region. Many of the good times they share are documented on Juan’s “Daddy and Daughters Fishing” YouTube channel. Realizing how precious these family times are, Juan’s been recording as much video as he can with the ultimate goal of sharing a collage of photos and videos – however potentially embarrassing for them – on each of his daughters’ wedding days.

Always Moving Up

Having been tested by some of the biggest challenges in supply chain management in recent years, Juan is approaching the next chapter of his career with well-earned confidence. To him, the future looks bright and the glass is always half-full. He wants to continue moving up, and that shows in his enthusiasm and eagerness to share his journey with anyone interested in pursuing a SCM career.

Pursue Your Career in Global Supply Chain Management with DeVry

If you want to prepare to pursue a career in the fast-paced world of global supply chain management, we can help. Our Bachelor’s Degree with a Specialization in Global Supply Chain Management can help you explore cultural, political and economic conditions of foreign markets and better understand the logistics at all stages of the global supply chain. This bachelor’s degree specialization can be earned 100% online, helping you to balance your commitment to education with work, family and other elements of your busy life.  

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