Super Supply Chain: Stark Industries vs. Wayne Enterprises

Fighting crime? Easy. Optimizing supply chain? Now that takes super powers.

Robert Downey Jr. and Christian Bale
Robert Downey Jr. (L) and Christian Bale. L: Mike Marsland/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images; R: Bobby Bank/WireImage/Getty Images

When I say, “Billionaire industrialist masked superhero crime-fighter,” who comes to mind? The answer to that Rorschach inkblot depends on whether you prefer your “billionaire industrialist masked superhero crime-fighters” insecure or your “billionaire industrialist masked superhero crime-fighters” very insecure. It’s one thing to pretend to be a playboy, so that it provides a plausible cover for your super-identity.

It’s quite another thing to believe that you’re a playboy (when the rest of us see the façade you’ve created because you think you can never live up to your father’s legacy). So, how do you compare Tony and Bruce? How do you best judge one against the other? There’s only one definitive way to settle this, of course: by letting the supply chains of their respective corporations do the talking.

Stark Industries and Wayne Enterprises are family businesses inherited by these sons of fortune. Both companies are or were heavily invested in the defense industry. Both companies transitioned to sustainable energy as a means to assuage the guilt of their present namesakes. Stark Industries, even though it was listed on the NYSE in 2008’s Iron Man, feels like it’s run like a vanity project, subject to Tony’s whims. Wayne Enterprises went public as a subplot in 2003’s Batman Begins (in which Bruce managed to gobble up most of the IPO in a move that was “a bit technical” but which gave him back controlling ownership).

How do the two companies stack up in a mano-a-mano supply chain stand-off? Let’s start at the top:

Supply Chain Leadership

Tony turned the CEO reins over to Pepper Potts, his girlfriend and erstwhile assistant. When Bruce regained control of Wayne Enterprises, he put Lucius Fox, a former board member and executive, at the helm.

Lucius’ experience in product development and his keen eye for detail likely give him the edge in cost of goods analysis and compliance issues like Sarbanes-Oxley and conflict minerals. But Pepper worked her way up the ranks and clearly knows how to focus her company on customer delivery (S.H.I.E.L.D. has yet to complain about a Helicarrier being on back order) and manage complex bills of materials (those Helicarriers don’t build themselves – not yet).

Edge: Stark Industries (But it’s a close call. Lucius is doing the right things in protecting his company’s margin, but Pepper wins out with her overall strategic leadership. Your small business could do worse than to emulate the transactional attention to detail and forward-thinking execution of these two leaders.)

Sourcing

Before spending his nights on Gotham’s rooftops as the Dark Knight, Bruce went on a global walkabout to understand the criminal mind. What did we learn from his travels? That Wayne Enterprises uses low-cost manufacturing locations! Those "Made In China" boxes that Bruce stole belonged to Wayne Enterprises, which means that Wayne Enterprises sources finished goods or components or both from LCM’s.

Edge: Wayne Enterprises (LCM’s aren’t always the answer and it’s important that small businesses, especially, look at the total cost of goods before making a commitment to offshoring its manufacturing sources.

Longer shipping lead times can mean holding more inventory. Cost of quality can also play a role in the decision to go to an LCM.)

Freight

Did Wayne Enterprises put that microwave emitter on an airplane to fly it to Gotham? No! They used ocean freight! They planned their delivery lead times correctly and allowed for the 6-8 week ocean transit time. Cost savings meets customer delivery. Of course, their risk mitigation team failed to consider that the League of Shadows would hijack their inventory and use it to weaponize Gotham’s water supply. Holy C-TPAT Certification!

Edge: Wayne Enterprises (While slower freight is typically more cost effective, it isn’t always the solution. If you’re moving small items – like precision ballbearings – or light but large items – like Styrofoam cups, it may be more cost effective to ship by air.)

Inventory

It’s hard to knock Stark Industry from an inventory management perspective. It’s not that they’re so good at it – it’s just that Wayne Enterprises appears to be so bad at it. Wayne Industries has an entire department called “Archives” whose sole function appears to be to house excess and obsolete inventory. And slow-moving/obsolete inventory isn’t even Wayne Enterprises’ biggest inventory headache. Their inventory control is horrible. When a single employee (granted, his name is on the building) is known for his pilferage (or, rather, he’s known for what he does once he pilfers the company’s body armor, utility harnesses, and grappling guns), you know you have inventory accountability exposure.

Edge: Stark Industries (You and your small business should employee regular cycle counts and physical inventories to avoid the inventory issues plaguing Wayne Enterprises. If your company owner starts talking about base jumping, you may want to start by cycle counting your memory cloth inventory.)

Customer Focus/Service

S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to be quite happy with the products that Stark Industries manufactures and delivers. You never see piles of Nick Fury’s anti-aircraft missiles laying around Stark Industries. But with just a quick glance into Wayne Enterprises’ basement, you’ll find body armor that their customer found too expensive, an aircraft that their customer didn’t end up buying and the Tumbler. The Tumbler is why Wayne Enterprises loses in this category. According to Lucius, it was built as a bridging vehicle but they couldn’t get the bridge to work. What??? That’s like Apple saying they built the iPhone but they couldn’t get the phone to work. The customer asked for a bridging vehicle and Wayne Enterprises delivered a very heavy car. In fact, the toys that Bruce gets to play with are all products that Wayne Enterprises built that didn’t meet their customers’ expectations. In contrast, Stark Industries’ customers (whether they’re the US government or some sketchy foreign organization) order and re-order Stark products while Tony develops his own fancy toys.

Edge: Stark Industries (Understanding your customers’ expectations – price, quality and performance – and delivering them, that’s how you’ll know your small business’ supply chain works.)

Intangibles

Wayne Enterprises started with civil projects – city trains, water utility – and transitioned into defense projects, whereas Stark had been involved in developing next gen technology since its WWII era flying car prototype. Stark’s decades-long experience in the industry may explain why Stark seems to win many of the RFQ’s that Wayne likely loses out on. And, now that both companies have made the foray into sustainable energy, you can see similar records of success in a new industry. Wayne Enterprises spent its entire R&D budget on a fusion project that it shelved, while Stark Industries has built at least one completely self-sustaining green skyscraper.

Edge: Stark Industries (Stark Industries understands its customers and the market landscape – an important lesson for any business, large or small.)

Results: Stark Industries, 4. Wayne Enterprises, 2.