Published November 8, 2017
For Brian Dillard (BS ’92), a conversation at a National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) convention led to a decades-long career with the largest sneaker manufacturer in the world
Dillard was first exposed to the field of engineering in high school through BEAM (Buffalo Engineering Awareness for Minorities), an organization founded in 1982 to help build diversity in STEM fields. After high school, he completed the engineering science program at Erie Community College and transferred to the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at UB.
While at the university, Dillard joined the NSBE and attended one of its career fairs. “The NSBE career fairs were the largest on campus,” he says. “They provided me with exposure to huge corporations and job opportunities that wouldn’t have been available otherwise.”
At UB’s NSBE fair, he met with representatives from Motorola and subsequently did his departmental internship there during his senior year and was hired immediately after graduation. While at Motorola, Dillard designed production lines for new products. He says, “When Taurus was the number one selling car in the U.S.—every one of them had a part from my production line.”
A few years later, Dillard attended another career fair at NSBE’s national convention, which featured more than 200 national and international companies. He stopped at the Nike table to speak with their representatives and was asked to come in for an interview. He proceeded to land a job as a senior engineer and has been with the company for nearly 22 years.
During his two decades with the sneaker giant, working at their distribution hub in Memphis, TN (Nike does not manufacture their products in the U.S.), he designed and planned a 1.2 million sq. ft. distribution facility, redesigned a half-million-dollar conveyor system that doubled the product throughput needed to meet holiday demand, and developed a test regimen that ensured that Nike’s new, more sustainable packaging functioned exactly like the previous design, yet produced less waste.
He credits UB and its broad engineering curriculum with teaching him reasoning and problem solving skills. He says, “We had to do everything in industrial engineering! UB prepared me to be flexible, so I could perform a variety of different roles at Motorola and Nike.”
He has also helped improve Nike’s dot com business, specifically, the reverse logistics of returned products. Previously, if someone ordered sneakers in three different colors, and sent two pairs back, the returns would go to different facilities. Dillard and his team transformed an old, empty building on Nike’s property into what is essentially a return depot. He then redesigned the process to bring all returns to this one location, at the relatively low cost of $100,000.
When asked to provide advice for students and recent graduates, he underscores the importance of not just being an engineer, but understanding how a particular business works. “You need to understand what’s important to your company’s key accounts and end customers,” he says. “Don’t be in a vacuum. If you understand the business from a broad perspective, you’ll be a better designer.”