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Top faculty honor has ASU professor flying high

Thomas Choi is recognized as a 2024 Regents Professor for his expertise in supply chain management

Thomas Choi in sunglasses, smiling with arms folded, standing in front of building reading "W. P. Carey School of Business."

Newly named Regents Professor Thomas Choi is an expert in supply chain management in the W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU. Photo by Armand Saavedra/ASU

February 22, 2024

Arizona State University Professor Thomas Choi considers the complex aspects of supply chain networks and often sounds like a philosophy teacher.

Take this analogy, for example: Choi likens the V-shaped patterns of migrating birds in flight to the principles of a supply chain network.

“Supply chains emerge much the same way,” said Choi, the AT&T Professor of the W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU. “Each node or company follows their local rules that in the end create a pattern that works together to bring a product or service to the marketplace.”

These days, Choi is flying high. Not only is he globally recognized as an expert in his field, but he’s also one of ASU’s top scholars and a recently named Regents Professor for 2024.

When he was summoned by ASU President Michael Crow last November, Choi said with a smile that he felt like a child being called to the principal’s office.

“I got an email from President Crow’s office telling me he wanted to see me,” Choi recalled. “My first thought was, ‘Am I in trouble?’ Then when I got there, I saw a few other professors in his office. Then I thought, ‘Well, if I’m in trouble, I’m not alone.’ Then we were told.”

Moving beyond those initial moments of suspense, Choi said he is happy and honored by the designation.

Learn about the 2024 Regents Professors

Shakespeare expert Jonathan Bate.

Biocultural anthropologist Alexandra Brewis.

Space exploration leader Meenakshi Wadhwa.

“I am happy for myself, but at the same time I’m happy for my field,” Choi said. “We are a young field and just starting to emerge. To see supply chain management next to English, anthropology and planetary science is a real honor.”

Choi joins three others as Regents Professors for 2024. The highest faculty honor, the title is conferred on full professors who have made remarkable achievements that have received national attention and international renown. Less than 3% of all ASU faculty carry the distinction.

“Tom is an absolute standout scholar, and his research revolutionized our understanding of supply networks,” said W. P. Carey Dean Ohad Kadan. “He was able to provide new insights into complex issues such as supplier selection, supplier-buyer relationships, and the costs and risks associated with choosing suppliers. His innovations and conceptual contributions have changed the supply chain discipline and transformed the practice of supply chain management in companies around the world.”   

Video by Academic Enterprise Communications

Finding a niche

As a researcher of supply chain management, Choi studies the upstream side of supply chains, in which a buying company interfaces with many suppliers organized into various networks. Choi’s publication record makes him among the world’s most prolific scholars in supply chain management.

Choi is also co-director of the Complex Adaptive Supply Networks Research Accelerator (CASN-RA), an international research group of scholars interested in supply networks.

His list of accomplishments and life in academia is nothing he could have conceived as a boy.

Growing up in Busan, South Korea, Choi’s father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother served as an aide in the church. As the eldest of three children, Choi was held as the standard and expected to be responsible for the other two siblings.

“In my family, if the middle child made a mistake, I got punished as the eldest,” Choi said, laughing. “If the youngest makes a mistake, all three got punished. That’s just the way it was.”

The family moved to the San Fernando Valley in Southern California when Choi was a teenager. When college rolled around, he majored in geophysics at the University of California, Berkeley, and graduated in 1980.

From there, he was hired by a consulting firm in San Francisco, where he worked in the oil and gas industry for several years. He also started a small printing and graphic design business with his brother but felt depleted after a few years.

“Being a small business owner was very stressful,” Choi said. “We were doing well but suffered from cash flow problems because we had to make payments right away to our vendors and to our landlord on a specified date, but the customers put us on a 30-day net, which often stretched out to 40 or 50 days. We worked hard day and night but found it difficult to stay above water with our cash flow.”

Rather than turn entirely away from this business practice, Choi wanted to study why this was the norm, given that it had the potential to devastate smaller entrepreneurs. In 1998, he tried his hand at academia. That year, he enrolled at the University of Michigan to pursue his PhD in industrial and operations engineering.

It was there Choi found his calling, studying the causes and effects of supply chain management.

“I found academia to be very enjoyable after the stresses of being in business for myself,” Choi said. “The passion for teaching came easy to me after years of teaching in Sunday School. I could influence how people looked at the world, and that was exciting for me.”

Mentoring comes full circle

Choi also knew that to succeed, he had to find a mentor. He discovered one in Chan Hahn, a giant in supply chain management when he landed his first teaching job at Bowling Green State University in Ohio in 1993.

“I had lunch with Dr. Hahn every day, and he would pontificate and teach me,” said Choi, who now does the same for others. “He would teach me, ‘Thomas, being a scholar means this,’ and I would soak it all up. Most of all, he emphasized that being an academic or scholar requires teaching, research and public service. You need a balance across all three, and I have tried to do that.”

Hahn confirmed Choi heeded his advice.

“He (Choi) was one of the few former colleagues who listened to my preaching, I guess, and became really good at all three,” said Hahn, who retired in 2000 and is an emeritus professor at Bowling Green State University. “To see him succeed has been very satisfying to me.”

Emerging as a rising star in the field, Choi was snapped up by the W. P. Carey School's supply chain management department in 1998. Because the field was still relativelyThe term supply chain management was first coined in 1982. young, Choi was free to explore and innovate, writing practitioner books, publishing articles and taking visiting positions at other universities around the globe.

He was quickly recognized as a leader in the field after co-writing “Supply Networks and Complex Adaptive Systems: Control Versus Emergence,” a seminal scholarly paper with ASU Professor Kevin Dooley and another colleague. The 2001 paper framed supply chain networks as a complex adaptive system, compared to migrating birds.

“We began noticing that many young scholars in our field took that paper as a starting point for their PhD dissertations,” said Choi, who has been cited nearly 25,000 times according to Google Scholar and has been named a Highly Cited Researcher by Clarivate’s Web of Science.

Choi is also an innovator and pioneer.

Choi co-founded the Complex Adaptive Supply Networks Research Accelerator in 2009, a biannual meeting of 140 international scholars and thought leaders from institutions that conduct academic research in supply networks.

The goal has been to stay ahead of industry trends. They have written numerous articles and presented at national and international conferences.

Alexandra Brintrup, a professor in digital manufacturing at the University of Cambridge in England, said at the last CASN-RA meeting in Arizona she was able to work with thought leaders in complexity and supply chains from technical and social science backgrounds.

“We kickstarted a conversation around how AI might impact the efficiency of these networks,” Brintrup said. “I would not have been able to find the right people to conduct this study without CASN-RA.”

One former student said Choi is not only a distinguished scholar but also a transparent human willing to help others.

“Dr. Choi is one of the most selfless people I know,” said Mei Li, an associate professor of supply chain management at the University of Oklahoma and a former PhD student under Choi at ASU.

“He’s very willing to use his social network to help not just his students but everyone. There are people in academia and the industry who have a secret of giving them an advantage; they keep it or don’t share it. Not Dr. Choi.

“He’s a good scholar, mentor and just a good person in general.”

That would be a feather in anyone’s cap.

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