With millions of items shipped daily, the business of Crayola is anything but child’s play.
Enter Gary Wapinski, vice president of global logistics and enterprise improvement, who is responsible for not only Crayola’s warehousing and delivery all over the world, but how to make it more efficient. It is a role he earned by coloring outside the lines of a traditional career trajectory.
“We either make products or sell them almost all over the world,” says Wapinski ’84, business management. “And if we’re not there, we would like to be there, and are trying to figure out how to be there.”
Figuring out how to get the job done — and not shying away from a challenge — is Wapinski’s trademark. The first in his family to go to college, he grew up in St. Clair, Schulkill County, where both his father and grandfather worked in the coal mines.
Wapinski worked the mines himself in the summer, but as graduation approached, he didn’t relish the thought of spending his days in either a mine or an office cubicle.
Then in 1983, during his junior year at Bloomsburg, the Marine compound in Beirut, Lebanon, was bombed, killing 241 service personnel. “I enlisted in the Army and applied for officer’s candidate school,” he says. “This wasn’t about having a job; it was about wanting to serve and be a soldier. I wanted to test myself at that level.”
Wapinski’s Army career path led to logistics, a field he calls a modern miracle. “It’s what allows people in Anchorage, Alaska, to buy fresh tomatoes during the winter at a decent price — that is the miracle of logistics.”
But his military experience was about more than delivering tomatoes. By the end of his nearly eight-year military career, he was Captain Wapinski and in command of a forward supply company for the famed 10th Mountain Division, ensuring a roughly 2,500-strong infantry brigade had everything from food and fuel to ammunition: “Everything a unit needs to move and survive.”
He also took advantage of the Army’s distance learning program and earned a master of science degree in general administration from Central Michigan University.
“What I learned in the military about logistics and leading people was invaluable — it built on what I had learned at Bloomsburg.” But when he became a father, the military life became harder, and it was time to venture into the private sector.
His first job was with Wise Snacks, where for more than three years he managed a three-shift snack food distribution center. But with no clear path for advancement, Wapinski started looking for more.
He found it at Crayola, headquartered near Easton.
“Crayola had a job for a team manager for logistics, a first-level supervisor overseeing between 40 and 80 people,” he says.
Steadily advancing over 12 years, Wapinski ran the distribution center outside Allentown and was a team manager for manufacturing, overseeing the making of arts and crafts kits. He then returned to logistics, where he helped to outsource warehouse operations to a third party before returning to manufacturing, overseeing more than 300 workers running three shifts to produce more than 3 billion crayons a year.
Then he got the challenge that changed his career.
“I remember my boss, (Executive VP of Global Operations Peter Ruggiero), came to me and he said, ‘do you want to run the biggest project in Crayola history?’ and I said, yes, even before he told me,” Wapinski recalls. “He said ‘I can’t tell you what it is until next week.’”
The job was big indeed: Implementing software to run virtually all the systems in Crayola, from production planning, sourcing, keeping track of orders and shipments to payroll and quality management. A daunting task, but Wapinski, who jokes that he got C’s in his two Bloomsburg computer classes, didn’t hesitate.
“I would say a lot of my work ethic and confidence comes from my parents — they are very stoic people and they don’t complain, they do what has to be done,” he says. “My mom worked two jobs when I was growing up.”
“It’s also part of just wanting a challenge. When I went to the 10th Mountain Division, I told them I wanted the toughest job,” he says. “It’s been my experience that you find out even the toughest job isn’t so bad — you just apply yourself and move forward.”
Moving Crayola to the SAP business management system took 18 months, all leading up to one day when the old system was turned off and the new system came online — and worked. All done on-time and under budget, and propelling Wapinski to vice president of information solutions.
“It all comes down to leadership and the people you have,” Wapinski says of a key lesson learned in both the military and the corporate world.
“If you don’t know how to assess talent and work with people and motivate them, you’re going nowhere,” he says. “As a leader, it’s also more important to have the right questions than the answer; the people on the ground know what needs to be done and you have to make sure they have the right tools they need, and everything takes care of itself.”
Wapinski says his belief in developing talent — and his desire to give back -— is why he returns to Bloomsburg University to talk to students about business, and why he makes sure BU students are offered internships at Crayola.
“The curriculum is outstanding,” says Wapinski, a member of the Zeigler College of Business Advisory Board. He applauds BU’s new Supply Chain Management program and the school’s efforts to bring in successful alumni to talk to students.
“The interns we’ve had so far are fantastic — these Bloomsburg kids can hang with anybody,” he says. BU has a major presence at Crayola, with paint and kits plant manager Mike Polkowski ’83; corporate controller Mike Steigerwalt ’77; treasury manager Morgan Whitbread ’78 and sales analyst Heather Vinson ’02. And in the past three years, the company has hired graduates to fill two supply chain planning positions, Christopher Cascioli ’11 and Emily Fister ’10; two manufacturing team managers, Garret Werkheiser ’16 and Nick Hoffman ’16; and a sales account manager, Brianna McCormack ’17.
Today, as vice president for global logistics service and enterprise improvement, Wapinski is looking to supply Crayola’s growing markets and improve the efficiency of even the most basic processes.
As the company continues to focus on expanding markets in China and the rest of Asia, Wapinski says a primary task is deciding where to place warehouses to reduce logistics costs and be as close to customers as possible, as well as how to efficiently acquire raw materials.
In figuring out the thousands of challenges Crayola faces in making and distributing its products, he embraces a process called “continuous improvement” or the “lean method.” Developed by Toyota — Wapinski keeps a well-thumbed copy of Jeffrey Liker’s “The Toyota Way” on his desk — its central tenet is continuous improvement through organizational learning.
“It’s super-difficult and requires unbelievable tenacity to work every day and seek out problems,” he says. “You need to realize the problems are your real opportunities; we try to make problems visible and then solve them, rather than blaming people.”
Such continuous problem-solving is of particular importance as the internet continues to disrupt the status quo. Crayola’s traditional distribution concentrates on brick-and-mortar retailers, but increasingly products are purchased online. The company’s challenge, Wapinski says, is to support its retail partners while embracing the changing marketplace.
“It’s true that the only constant is change, and you can’t be like a turtle and go into your shell, or else you’ll come out and be useless,” he says. “In the Army, we always said ‘improvise, adapt and overcome.’”
It’s a lesson his wife, Kathleen, has heard him tell their three children. Their oldest son, Joseph, graduated from BU in 2015 with a degree in secondary education and is now in a doctoral program at Loyola University, Chicago. Younger son Tommy and daughter Elizabeth are attending Temple University, for economics, and tourism and hospitality, respectively.
Above all, Wapinski says, success is about making sure you have the right team. “There have been many problems where we had no idea how to solve them at first, but I never felt they were insurmountable because of the people we have here.
“When you have that cascading layer of support and know leadership above you has your back, you may not have a clue how to solve the problem, but you know you have a bunch of people who are highly motivated and will find a way,” he says. “I know if this group can’t find a way, then nobody can.”•
Jack Sherzer is a freelance writer based in Harrisburg.