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  First Thoughts

    Dan Gilmore


    Supply Chain Digest

April 19, 2024

Remembering John Hill

One of Most Influential Figures in WMS and AIDC Sectors

The logistics industry lost one of its most influential voices last week with the death of John Hill near his home of Watsonville, CA. He was 86 and had deteriorating health in recent years.

He is survived by his wife Barbara Doran and two children.

I had known John for some 25 years. In fact, I did an interview with him that formed the basis of a First Thoughts column just weeks after the inaugural issue of SCDigest in September of 2003. Unfortunately, the link to that isn’t working for reasons unclear, but I will offer an alternative below.

Gilmore Says....

John also had a passion for the materials handling industry trade group MHI, in whose service he donated thousands of hours over more than 50 years.

What do you say?

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John continued working until almost the end, serving as a consultant for St. Onge, which generously kept him on the payroll for a number of years even as his health declined, limiting his travel.

He was clearly one of the most important figures in the history of the Warehouse Management System sector, and also relatedly in the automated identification market. To that last point, he was an inaugural member of something called the AIDC 100, consisting of invited members who played key parts in the growth of bar coding, radio frequency communication and other AIDC technologies.

As an aside, the AIDC 100 is still around but has lost dozens of its original ranks.

Not many know today that John was a critical player in the early development of WMS – which led to one of the most amazing stories in the history of WMS and frankly the entire supply chain software market.

In 1985, John became CEO of one of the first WMS software companies, a Bay-area company called Logisticon. The company implemented what John always claimed was the first WMS – defined as inventory and worker management software using real-time data communications via mobile wireless terminals – at a JCPenney distribution center in Dallas around 1980. Logisticon was very much ahead of the curve.

So why didn’t it become a leader as WMS took off in the 1990s? So here is the story, as told to me by John several times. What follows is my memory of John’s story, so not every detail may be perfect. But it goes like this:

Logisticon had a customer, which I believe to be cosmetics brand Revlon. The new system was having significant problems over some weeks, and to force faster action from Logisticon, the company stopped paying the invoices.

As this went on, someone at Logisticon had the insane idea go into the system and pull the plug on the WMS, which is what happened. This shut down the customer’s DC for hours, meaning no shipping and no invoices until someone at Logisticon had the sense to turn it back on, no doubt under nuclear war from the customer.

It was too late. Revlon filed a lawsuit for huge damages against small little Logisticon, and its investors didn’t want any of that action and general risk with software, so they shut it down.

So Logisticon immediately disappeared from the WMS landscape, though a number of its alumni went on to have excellent careers for other WMS companies. In the early 1990s, I took a look at a design document for what was claimed as a breakthrough WMS based on a “Object Oriented” programming someone was trying to peddle from Logisticon’s ashes.

Again, I may not have that all exactly right, but I believe it is very close to what John told me. It is a real regret that I never (as planned) got John to tell the story on audio or video for posterity.

Post Logisticon, John, along with his friend the late David Scott started a small consulting firm called Cyprus Associates. In the 1990s, when WMS really exploded, it seemed like you could not go to a conference where John wasn’t leading a WMS presentation session, after which there would always be a line of attendees waiting to tell John they needed help and handing him business cards.

His presentations, magazine interviews, and client engagements played a huge role in the evolution of WMS industry. If you had to put faces to that evolution, they would be John Hill and our mutual friend Jim Tompkins.

John later sold Cyprus – basically meaning he sold himself – to another consulting firm called ESYNC from which he continued his one-man speaking machine. When ESYNC was sold a few years later, John made his way to St. Onge.

After doing the aforementioned interview with John in 2003, I did a follow up of sorts in 2015. I called both “John Hill Unplugged, and the 2015 version link thankfully works: John Hill "Unplugged" Part 2 - 12 Years Later

Among the topics we covered was this: Why are so many WMS implementations still very hard and painful?

John’s pointed response: "As the WMS market has grown and matured, I think frankly that the level of talent on the WMS vendors' front lines has diminished. And a number of them are subcontracting implementation to third parties. There are some good third parties out there, but some of them don't know a warehouse from an outhouse."

I think almost a decade later you will still enjoy the interview accessed at the link above.

John also had a passion for the materials handling industry trade group MHI, in whose service he donated thousands of hours over more than 50 years, serving on the Board of Directors for over 40 years.

In fact, the family requests that remembrances be made in the form of contributions to MHI’s Material Handling Industry’s Education Foundation.

John was one of those few who was friends with everyone. He had a deep, authoritative voice that commanded interest and attention. But in all our many interactions, I never saw a touch of ego.

He had a marvelous career, after graduating from Princeton, I will note, and had a big impact on the WMS and AIDC sectors.

He will be missed.

What is your reaction to the death of John Hill? What would you add? Let us know your thought at the Feedback section below.

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