Bellwether League, Inc.
Reflections of a Hughes impact on healthcare supply chain

Tom Hughes

Tom Hughes

Back in December 2020, barely a month before his scheduled retirement, Tom Hughes welcomed the opportunity to weigh in one more time – even if it possibly were the last time – about the state of the healthcare supply chain before he would embrace the next chapter in his life.

Unfortunately, three days before retiring to free agency after 16 years as Founding Executive Director of Strategic Marketplace Initiative (SMI), Hughes skipped the next chapter for the end of his novel.

Hughes, 75, died on Tuesday morning, January 26. Read Bellwether League Foundation’s official tribute online at

In 2012, Hughes was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Healthcare Supply Chain Leadership by Bellwether League Foundation.

Hughes graciously spoke with Leaders & Luminaries Executive Editor Rick Dana Barlow to reflect on his career, contributions and what he hoped to do next. Regrettably, he declined to reminisce about his beloved collectible light blue Austin Healey with whom he had to part years ago, despite his affinity for antique, classic and vintage British cars.

Tom Hughes in blue Healy

Hughes pilots his beloved Austin-Healey

L&L: What is the one thing on your career/professional to-do list that will remain there for someone else to tackle? How much does it bother you that you won’t be able to accomplish it yourself?

HUGHES: Rick, the timing of your question is right on as one of my major professional goals is ironically just now beginning to happen as a result of the pandemic – supply chain is being recognized as a strategic imperative by healthcare provider organizations across the country. I spent many hours in my professional career trying to convince senior executives of supply chain’s importance. Although it took a public health crisis, I am happy that the recognition is happening. The important question I see now – will our industry make the most of this opportunity to remain a strategic factor? And will the pending distribution of millions of sub-zero COVID-19 vaccines worldwide cause us to innovate supply chain faster or to go in reverse? Time will tell.

You once told Bellwether League that two of the industry challenges you would like to see solved in your lifetime are:

In your estimation, how far have we come to achieving either or both?

As I have already said, C-Suite recognition is happening right now, and I hope it continues. And while industry-wide data standards adoption remains a nagging, persistent challenge due to a lack of an ROI, the pandemic has also shined a new spotlight on the industry’s need for wide adoption of the GS1 system to enable inventory transparency. For example, SMI is forming a Collaboration Council of SMI members to provide input to the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) as they develop their plans for SNS 2.0! SMI will act as an educational programming conduit for SNS to guide and deliver educational content to keep all stakeholders in the healthcare industry updated on SNS developments.   

The pandemic threw Supply Chain for a loop in 2020. If you were still the Supply Chain Leader at Beth Israel Hospital, Waterbury Hospital or Tufts New England Medical Center, what would you be doing and telling your colleagues? How would you be dealing with the demands?

I hope I would act similarly to many of today’s supply chain leaders. I would be using every single tool and strategy available to ensure supply – whether it involves re-processing products, using non-traditional suppliers, whatever! And like many of today’s supply chain leaders have done, I’d quickly establish regular communication with my colleagues and customers, using multiple mediums to get accurate supply information out to everyone.  

Let’s fast forward to your consulting career at Concepts In Healthcare and later BD Healthcare Consulting & Services. How would you be advising hospital clients today?

I don’t think the message has changed that much since my consulting days. A very good supply chain operation still needs proper leadership, senior management backing, a great team, strong management systems and a clear plan to execute. I would also bring a new emphasis on establishing meaningful supplier partnerships.

How and where do you see SMI 20 years from now?

Twenty years from now?! How about two years, since right now it is hard to be certain about anything? Seriously, into the future, I expect SMI to remain healthcare’s top supply chain thought-leader organization, the place where the industry looks for leadership and innovation.  The future for SMI is very bright. The SMI team is really talented. [Executive Director] Jane Pleasants [Bellwether Class of 2015] will bring new energy, leadership and valuable perspectives, and the SMI members and the Board of Directors are so knowledgeable and experienced, and they have a strong desire to make things better.  

What do you see as some of the biggest challenges Supply Chain and SMI will face in the coming years? Why?

I think we need to first get past the pandemic before we can accurately assess what the industry’s challenges are. We have learned so much since early 2020 about our supply chains – their strengths and weaknesses. I expect one challenge may be to re-think our approach towards inventory. Our reliance on just-in-time inventory systems may have exposed us to unnecessary risk, and we will be challenged to be reconsider this strategy in light of what we have experienced. I also think a real challenge that needs to be addressed is how our industry helps new innovative products enter into the marketplace. Product innovation possibilities through new materials, technology, and science must be embraced and promoted, in my opinion.

Besides “retiring,” what is the one decision in your career you wished you didn’t have to make and why?

I really don’t look back and regret much. I’ve been so blessed and fortunate in both my professional and personal lives. But I think maybe if I had it to do all over again, perhaps I would spend less time traveling away from home so I could spend more time with my wife and family.  

What do you feel is the most important risk you took during your career and why?

Rick, you know that’s a tough question because I took a lot of risks! Starting my own company, building and then selling that company, then helping start SMI – those were all risks. But starting my own company was probably the most important risk since my family’s livelihood was at stake. Without the never-ending support of my wife Joey and my family, my career would likely have been different. I still remember getting dressed on a Monday morning prepared to announce that I was going into my own business. My wife then asked me, ‘What if your boss makes you a counter offer to stay?’ That questions caused me to stop and think for a minute. My response was to ask, ‘What is he going to do? Offer me less money to stay?’” 

What will you miss most about Supply Chain, SMI? What will you miss the least about either? Why?

I will certainly not miss all the traveling. But what I will miss the most are the people – especially learning from them. Many of my very best friends today are in this business. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by some really great supply chain professionals, some of the most incredible people over the years, people from all over the world with vast reservoirs of supply chain experience and knowledge. I will surely miss being with them, talking some good old supply chain talk! 

Based on your observations, what are some of the qualities that young supply chain managers lack and need today, and what are some of the qualities they possess in abundance?

What they need: 

What they possess in abundance:

Bottom line, I would recommend that young supply chain leaders identify an organization – such as SMI – where you establish real and meaningful connections with peers you respect in both provider and supplier organizations.

An award-winning film critic friend of mine posed a question to Charlton Heston during an exclusive interview. While Heston hated the question, I, however, loved it for its innate creativity and profundity. What’s the one question you always wanted to be asked but never were and why?

Interesting question. While I have asked many clients, ‘what would delight you when my work is done?’ I just realized that I’ve personally have never been asked that question, although I think I would like being asked that! Not sure why.

What are some of your plans for retirement? What do you hope or want to achieve next? Beyond “wake up every morning,”of course.