Supply Chain Management

Distribution Manager: Stepping Stone in an SCM Career

Distribution Manager: Stepping Stone in an SCM Career
Distribution managers oversee the transportation of products from a factory, farm, or production facility to where those products will be sold or consumed. That's the wide-angle view, at least. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry July 21, 2020

While not one of the highest-paid jobs in supply chain operations, distribution manager is the kind of role that often leads to bigger, better, more lucrative opportunities.

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At the end of every supply chain, there are customers. These customers can be retailers, wholesalers, other kinds of businesses, or—in the case of a company like Amazon—individuals and households. Distribution managers are the supply chain professionals responsible for getting products into the hands of those customers.

On the surface, this supply chain job sounds fairly simple. Purchasing managers buy stuff, wholesale and retail orders come in, products are shipped out: end of story. In practice, however, the final stage is surprisingly complex. Distribution managers have to be product experts, logistics experts, and extremely good at making sure may different columns on the SCM balance sheet add up.

A quick rundown of the kinds of things distribution managers need to know might include:

  • How to streamline warehouse operations
  • How to transfer perishable goods in transit when there are delays
  • The best way to ship any given product (reefer truck, air cargo, etc.)
  • The optimal timing for internal distribution activities
  • What security measures to implement when transporting valuable products
  • When to schedule shipments so products get to market when demand is highest
  • Where to warehouse inventory to decrease regional shipping times

Through it all, distribution managers have to be extremely cost-conscious, because warehousing and transportation can eat up a significant part of a business’ SCM budget. Successful distribution managers have to know a lot, do a lot, and oversee a lot.

In other words, there’s a lot more to distribution management than most people realize. In this article, we answer the question what is a distribution manager? and cover the following:

  • What does a distribution manager do?
  • Where do distribution managers typically work?
  • Is distribution manager the same job as purchasing manager?
  • How much do distribution managers earn?
  • Is this one of the higher-paying roles in SCM?
  • What kind of education does someone need to become a distribution manager?
  • What skills do successful distribution managers possess?
  • Are there certifications for distribution managers?
  • What else should someone know about this role?

What does a distribution manager do?

Distribution managers oversee the transportation of products from a factory, farm, or production facility to where those products will be sold or consumed. That’s the wide-angle view, at least.

The closeup version includes quite a bit more detail. Distribution managers are responsible for managing all the operations at warehouses and distribution centers, coordinating outgoing shipments from those facilities, and responding to any and all issues that might arise related to shipping times, shipping costs, incorrect shipments, or products damaged in transit. The day-to-day responsibilities of distribution managers include:

  • Acting as an intermediary among suppliers, warehouses, and customers
  • Checking inventory manifests against shipments
  • Collaborating with the procurement team on supplier contracts
  • Contracting with freight companies
  • Creating and modifying shipping schedules
  • Creating demand volume forecasts
  • Determining how much cargo to include in each shipment
  • Developing shipping and warehousing budgets
  • Directing distribution center operations
  • Ensuring that products are correctly stored before shipping
  • Hiring and training warehouse personnel
  • Inspecting distribution centers and warehouses
  • Inspecting trucks at companies with their own fleets
  • Inventorying incoming products
  • Monitoring facility safety and OSHA regulation compliance
  • Overseeing product transfers between distribution centers
  • Supervising the loading and unloading of packages
  • Tracking KPIs like order fill rates, on-time deliveries, damages, and quality issues
  • Tracking the progress of outgoing shipments

At smaller companies, a distribution manager can work autonomously and handle almost all the above tasks with the help of a handful of inventory and logistics specialists. A distribution manager at a large company might work closely with a supply chain manager and marketing executives and oversee a sizeable team of receiving, warehousing, and logistics professionals.

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Where do distribution managers typically work?

Distribution managers are employed by all kinds of small and large businesses that deal in products, from manufacturing firms to auto sellers to pharmaceutical companies.

Whether a distribution manager works in an office or in a warehouse often depends on the scope of a company’s logistics operations. Distribution managers working for large companies with multiple warehouse locations will usually spend more time in offices collaborating with production managers or purchasing managers. At smaller firms, distribution managers may divide their time between the office and one or more warehouses or work exclusively in the warehouse.

Is distribution manager the same job as purchasing manager?

Like a lot of functions related to supply chain operations, distribution management and procurement management overlap. Distribution managers and purchasing managers are both involved in inventory control and warehousing, albeit at different stages. Purchasing managers source products and deal with inbound inventory. Distribution managers oversee outbound inventory and transport products to wholesalers and retailers.

Distribution managers work closely with purchasing managers to find the best re-order levels and just-in-time inventory control systems for different products—a complicated task when a company works with multiple suppliers, receiving facilities, warehouses, and channel partners. Supply chains depend on purchasing managers, distribution managers, inventory specialists, and logistics managers to work together smoothly.

How much do distribution managers earn?

The answer to this question depends on a lot of factors, not the least of which being where you look. Glassdoor reports that the average distribution manager salary is about $48,000, and that top earners bring in as much as $67,000. Meanwhile, Indeed reports that the average distribution manager earns about $75,000. Then there’s Salary.com, which reports that the average distribution manager salary is about $93,000, and that the best-paid distribution managers can earn as much as $126,000 per year.

There’s no way to know for sure which site has the most accurate information because all of them rely on user-reported data. As you’ll see below, there is a lot of variation in how much distribution managers are actually paid.

Is this one of the higher-paying roles in SCM?

The frustratingly vague answer is sometimes. A distribution manager working for an energy company like BP might earn $140,000—significantly more than most people in supply chain management careers. The highest-paying sectors for distribution managers are telecommunications, energy, and aerospace-part manufacturing, where salaries over $145,000 are common. That’s higher than the average salaries for procurement managers, production managers, and transportation managers.

That said, distribution managers who end up in fields like retail and real estate management tend to earn less, which may be why salary aggregator sites like PayScale, Indeed, and Glassdoor report such different average salaries.

What kind of education does someone need to become a distribution manager?

The minimum education necessary to become a distribution manager is a bachelor’s degree plus on-the-job training. Distribution managers need to have basic skills related to management, economics, and operations, so it’s not unusual for people in this role to possess degrees in business, accounting, economics, or logistics and supply chain management.

A master’s degree can open up doors in distribution that a bachelor’s degree can’t, and while an MBA or a master’s degree in business operations can launch a career in distribution management, a Master of Science in Supply Chain Management or an MBA in Supply Chain Management is probably the best choice.

Not all supply chain master’s programs cover the same ground, however. Some, like the one at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville‘s Haslam College of Business, have a set curriculum focused almost exclusively on SCM. Distribution is addressed, but only in one course. Others allow students to create de facto distribution specializations via electives covering topics like:

  • Customer relationship management
  • Demand chain management
  • Distribution management
  • Enterprise resource planning
  • Inventory control systems
  • Inventory management
  • Logistics management
  • Operations management
  • Order fulfillment
  • Supply chain networks
  • Total quality management
  • Transportation operations
  • Warehouse operations

What skills do successful distribution managers possess?

Distribution managers do more than just get products where they need to go. This job can involve both management of personnel and inter-departmental collaboration. Strong communication skills are vital.

Distribution management has become increasingly technical, which means that distribution managers need to be comfortable interacting with various IT systems that do things like managing inventory flow, monitoring stock levels, and tracking costs. Distribution managers have to be patient problem solvers and have well-developed analytical thinking skills because they are responsible for identifying and solving logistical issues. Patience under pressure is also a must-have skill.

Finally, distribution managers need to have a broad understanding of the transportation industry and the kinds of external factors that can affect transportation timelines.

Are there certifications for distribution managers?

Many distribution managers pursue professional certifications like the Certified Professional in Distribution and Warehousing (CPDW) credential or the Certified in Logistics, Transportation and Distribution (CLTD) credential to attract the attention of hiring managers. A relatively new certification for distribution managers might offer bigger returns: the Master of Distribution Management (MDM) credential, which is granted following the completion of an intensive multi-phase training program.

Those aren’t the only certifications that can help someone in this field land better distribution manager jobs. Some distribution professionals who have their eyes on senior management positions or want to transition into other roles in supply chain management also pursue related certifications, like the Certified Supply Chain Professional (CSCP) credential. Having a single certification can increase a distribution manager’s salary by 18 percent, and having additional certifications can lead to an even bigger income boost.

What else should someone know about this role?

Distribution management is an interdisciplinary field that involves transportation, warehousing, stock control, procurement, and supply chain management. Monitoring the outbound distribution of goods (i.e., distribution operations) is only one aspect of the job. A distribution manager has to ensure that products are delivered to the right recipients at a price that makes continued operations viable.

Given that, distribution managers often launch their careers in logistics as warehouse supervisors, transportation specialists, or inventory control specialists—there are many entry-level supply chain jobs and jobs in logistics that help you become a distribution manager. On the flip side, successful distribution managers who deliver results can advance into corporate positions like logistics director or vice president of supply chain management, or open their own transportation and logistics consulting firms.

Distribution manager is a good role, but it isn’t terminal; becoming a distribution manager can lead to bigger and better things. Supply chain management is a field where lateral movement is possible and even encouraged. The more someone knows about what it takes to manufacture products and get them to market, the higher they can climb up the SCM ladder.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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