GeoInspirations: Dr. Lawrence Joseph - Applying Geography for Better Business

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Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features Dr. Lawrence Joseph, the manager of Market Planning for KFC U.S.

I met Lawrence Joseph through our mutual work promoting GIS in university schools of business through the AAG’s Business Geography Specialty Group and through the Applied Geography Conferences.  His expertise and his ability to explain how he applies geographic knowledge and skills in the roles that he has held in the business world have long impressed me, and it is my pleasure to bring him to the attention of the readers of Directions Magazine. 

Dr. Joseph has a very interesting job position: He is the manager of Market Planning for KFC U.S. Yes, “the” KFC, the global restaurant business! He says, “I lead a team that supplies our franchisees and development leaders with direction and insights on key locational decisions such as to where to deploy new restaurants. This helps stimulate new growth — a sign of a healthy business. Beyond building models and supplying data and analysis, a critical part of the role is to help influence those that are actually burdening the financial risk of projects. It is important to build credibility, which helps in turn to build alignment because it is easier to walk your partners through your decision logic. Having a clear plan leads to an efficient decision-making process.”

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Part of Dr. Joseph’s job duties include traveling to different markets and visiting existing and potential restaurant sites. He says that doing this “is an important part of truly understanding the dynamics of an area.” He went on to say that, “You need to get lost sometimes. A true real estate market tour does not start until you have to make your first unplanned U-turn! That’s how you learn an area. Meeting with key stakeholders while in the field is also critically important. Key decision-makers usually are not as much interested in what the software or models say, but instead what you say and how you arrived at and support your conclusions.”

Part of what I admire about Dr. Joseph is that he continues to be very active in academia, despite his many duties in the business world. He says, “I continue to cross, or perhaps blur, the lines of the practitioner and academic world. I am the current chair of the Business Geography Specialty Group of the AAG. I also continue to publish in highly respected peer-reviewed journals and attend at least a few conferences a year. I find this worth the investment of time, since it can be easy to fall into the trap of keeping up with the day to day activities in the business world. Academics inspire me and help me to continually learn and thus, innovate what I do. It allows me to build lifelong relationships with fascinating and intelligent individuals. It has also resulted in several invitations for speaking engagements and research collaborations.”

I asked Dr. Joseph to identify what convinced him to enter this field. I think his reply is fascinating, and I doubt that many other eighth graders had the kind of singular goal and vision that he had: “I loved traveling to new places when I was young. For some reason, I especially enjoyed seeing familiar brands when visiting somewhere new. I wanted to know how those locations got there. When I was in the eighth grade, we were discussing career aspirations during one particular class. I told my teacher that I wanted to be the person that traveled around and found new locations for businesses. She told me that was the work of a geographer. From that point on, I was sold. I already had my college major figured out before high school and I never wavered from it.” 

I asked Dr. Joseph to identify a person, class, or topic that most inspired him during his career. He said, “When I was a geography Ph.D. student at Arizona State University, Dr. Michael Kuby was my advisor. He suggested that I bring Dr. Richard Matthews on to my dissertation committee. Dr. Matthews was a leader at PetSmart in Real Estate Research. His background was in geography as well. He had also been a professor at the University of South Carolina. Not only did Dr. Matthews agree to be on my committee, but I also started an internship at PetSmart working under him. It later developed into a full-time analyst role. Dr. Matthews quickly became a mentor of mine. He inspired me as he approached the practical problem of where to deploy new PetSmart stores with a rigorous scientific approach while still understanding the nuance of the art that is involved. I got to see the discipline in action, while also employing many of the critical methods and models of retail site selection. He also valued field work, which along with the modeling and analysis, contributed to my understanding of the process of how to produce sound, well-formed, and analytical research. He also helped teach me how to present those results in a business setting in order to be influential to the decision-making process.”

Knowing just a few of Dr. Joseph’s many projects, I asked him of which one he was proudest of being part. He replied, “When I first started with PetSmart, the fleet of 1,000+ stores were standardized. All stores received the same assortments, regardless of location. While this made store operations more efficient, there was also an opportunity cost because of this. Waste, via product destruction, was rampant as well. Geostatistical analysis quickly revealed heavy spatial bias in the sales of particular product categories. For example, some areas of the country, and within metropolitan areas, skewed more towards either cat or dog ownership. Consider the following example: Dense urban markets had a higher proportion of cat food and litter sales than suburban and rural markets. The reason for this is that it is easier to have a cat when living in an apartment, condominium, or smaller house. It is also easier to have a smaller dog or other small pet rather than a larger dog. Conversely, sales of (larger) dog-related products skyrocketed in less dense areas, where there are bigger homes with larger lot sizes. What’s more, affluent areas tended to buy more premium products while less affluent areas skewed more towards the ubiquitous basic products, which can be found at grocery stores and mass merchandisers. This led to over-stocks and under-stocks of products in different markets. Since pet food is perishable, stores with over-stock would have to destroy the product once it expired. This would create a hole on the shelf that would need to be filled. The store would then restock the same product that did not sell previously. It was a destructive cycle of waste.”

“I was very proud to help bring these spatial data trends to light. This led to a paradigm shift where some stores began to be assorted along the lines of local demand. For example, a store in South Philadelphia was rare in that it sold more cat than dog product, despite having more than twice the floor space devoted for dog [product]. Premium products were not high sellers either. Needless to say, this store was destroying a significant amount of premium dog product and could not keep the shelves stocked for basic cat food and litter. The store was altered to allocate additional space for cat products. By doing this, we were able to increase its sales, improve operations, and decrease the overall level of product waste. This also led to better planning of new stores based on geography, allowing us to drive down the store size to optimize our position in the market. Now, we could deploy stores in markets that otherwise did not have a sufficient demand threshold for a larger store.”

Dr. Joseph had this to say about the most important thing he thinks we need to work on as the geography and GIS community: “There are a lot of individuals in key positions within organizations that are practicing geography, and many of them do not have a geography background. They are also unfamiliar with the overall community. There are some great efforts today, but I would actively engage more with business and organizational leaders. Our discipline is big and I think it is important to think big as well. Collaborations beyond our community can provide great exposure to the terrific research and innovation that is being completed. I would also stress a need to look forward and not backwards. For example, are we doing enough as a community to consider the changing world around us? In business geography for example, e-commerce has changed the game for brick and mortar retailers. New methods for location planning must be developed to represent the changing consumer demand as retailers attempt to adjust to a moving target in this omni-channel retail environment. Be ahead of this research; don’t trail behind because the need is out there now. We must be cutting edge.”

Finally, what is Dr. Joseph’s advice to the new geographer and/or geospatial professional? “Be an expert and build your reputation. This creates instant credibility, which helps differentiate you. Being able to provide confidence on what will happen in the future in an uncertain world is a powerful thing. I’d also highly recommend learning from a mentor. Find someone successful and learn from and partner with them.  I think it is better to take the time to continue to learn and improve yourself but you should always be trying to grow personally and professionally. Expose yourself to other disciplines as well so that you can develop as a leader. If you want to work in business, then you should learn the language of business as well. The same could be said for whatever route you take. Geography will take you far but make sure to become a well-rounded individual. Lastly, I would also encourage a young professional to be flexible. Be willing to travel and open to relocation. There is a lot of opportunity out there but you have to be willing to go after it.”

For Further Exploration

The Business Geography Specialty Group  

Joseph, Lawrence. 2016. The geographic exposure to lifestyles by U.S. retail chainsThe Professional Geographer 68(4): 663-673. 

Joseph, Lawrence. 2016. Modeling retail chain expansion and maturity through wave analysis. International Journal of Applied Geospatial Research 6(4): 1-26. 

Joseph, Lawrence. 2015. A Geographic Perspective on the Walmart Neighborhood Market.  Papers in Applied Geography 1(4). 



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