The Big Interview with Alison Howman

Procurement HeadsDavid Hazeldine caught up with Alison to hear more about her career and the major challenges she and the team have had to navigate through this pandemic.

How did you get into procurement?

I have two degrees; one is in commerce and the other is in engineering so when I finished university, I went into a logistics-type role. 

It was focused on problem-solving within the supply base. 

We found that some of the suppliers had more systemic problems, so I started to take on more commercial responsibility for those suppliers as part of problem-solving. 

I went from engineering via logistics into procurement as I started to look at the whole supply chain and how we had strong partnerships.

What are the roles and responsibilities the procurement function holds at Astellas?

We look at the longer-term strategic plan with finance and business leaders to understand the key business priorities and how we enable the business to unlock value. 

We focus on driving up the value, value to patients, and driving down the cost to do. 

Not just internally but really leveraging the competencies of external partners and the external supply base as well. 

We have three key components to the procurement organisation; the business partnering roles to engage the business at a regional and local level, the global category teams of deep category experts and the procurement excellence engine within procurement that enables delivery with the right systems and processes. 

A key role of procurement is understanding the challenges and opportunities, keeping a finger on the pulse of innovation and bringing it in.  

What are the challenges that the procurement function is facing now?

It is a newly globalised function that is growing the strategic partnering approach. 

The challenge is getting early involvement in the strategic decision-making, bringing value creation opportunities to the table and helping the business to visualise what the end-to-end delivery service model could look like. 

It is changing the perception of procurement, driving value and top-line growth rather than negotiating the price.

Which part of that process are you most passionate about?

It’s partnership and problem-solving. 

When you look at what you are trying to achieve, exploring opportunities together, the idea generation, brings insight as well as experience and a different perspective. 

That, for me, is the most exciting part. 

After that, it’s execution, when the rubber hits the roads and the benefits flow.  

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What do you look for when hiring into procurement?

The main things I look for are passion, problem-solving and the ability to be confident and credible in the eyes of stakeholders. 

Building trust and credibility with your business partners and stakeholders is key. 

Problem-solving is about understanding the challenges and opportunities with a real finger on the external market, really digging below the surface.

Equally important is learning agility, so whether it is new categories, new skills, adapting to new technology or new thinking.

Are you finding there is a shift in the message from the stakeholders to a more sustainable approach from you?


I do feel a shift towards a global community, balance and sustainability. 

Amid the heartbreaking horrors of the pandemic, pollution levels have fallen, and we know the adverse impacts of poor air quality. 

There have also been some amazing photos of ducks and deer walking down deserted streets as the world has stepped back. 

From a business perspective, I have seen a positive shift towards sustainability from an environmental perspective and a community perspective. 

With many of the global events over the last 18 months, sustainability, supplier diversity and inclusion have become regular topics of discussion. 

We are a lot more focused on sustainable sourcing, the environmental impact of what we consume as an industry and what we consume as employees. 

I am now co-leading the supplier diversity programme as we build the vision of truly sustainable procurement. 

We are also reviewing company vehicles if we need them and how do we make them more sustainable. 

What would you say is your biggest achievement in procurement so far?

When I was looking to change roles, I reflected on the time I have had in procurement and what I have delivered. 

I equated this financial delivery to impact. 

To me, enabling the business to release cash has created opportunities for investment and innovation in medicines to touch more people. 

I see my biggest achievement as the number of people whose lives have been positively impacted, or even saved, by the investments that have been made possible. 

One of the things that is consistent across all pharma companies is that there is a patient at the end of the supply chain, there is a recipient of our products. 

They are why we do what we do. 

What inspires you as a procurement leader?

I appreciate the development opportunities I have had, and I love developing people. 

I am inspired by watching team members grow and go on to do wonderful and amazing things. 

I also invest time in developing others outside work as a cub’s leader as well as mentoring young girls looking to go into engineering or stem type activities.

What advice would you give someone embarking on a career in procurement?

There are two pieces of advice I’d give. 

Go broad early in your career with a range of procurement experiences, business experiences and even international work experience. 

It’s a great time for experimentation and can bring another dimension to your procurement skillset. 

The other thing is to invest in your network on three levels. 

Invest time in the leaders and mentors that can help inspire and guide you. 

Invest time in the people around you that you can collaborate with and learn from. 

Invest in your leadership skills and how to bring the best out of others that look up to you.

What are the major challenges you and your team have had to navigate through this pandemic?

Staying connected while adjusting to a fully virtual working life has taken effort. 

For me, losing the commute has been great, though I now appreciate that it was my time to decompress and was a buffer between work and home life.  

We are all juggling different situations and creating boundaries around our working day has taken time. 

Work and home are intermingled, so my husband and kids have popped up in multiple meetings.

It is real life, and it’s ok.  

It’s not just the personal adjustments, it’s also with our suppliers.

Early in the pandemic, we saw supply chains stop, and supply chains accelerate as the pandemic spread. 

The flexibility and agility to respond and adapt with our suppliers meant a whole new level of collaboration and learning. 

True supplier partnerships and sustainable solutions have been key with companies facing challenges including cash flow. 

I watched some amazing friends and colleagues work around the clock to source PPE and to keep our food supply chains going. 

It has been inspiring. 

Have there been any major business changes since Covid?

Now I have only been here for a couple of months and I can’t’ see any changes in that time. 

If I think back to GSK there has been more consideration for the speed with which we can respond and how you source to have that agility. 

I think there has been a lot more consideration to agility of supply chains.

Is there anything you would do differently with the benefit of hindsight?

Giving people space and the flexibility to navigate through the new ways of working and work out how they can bring their best selves to work. 

Checking in with more informal chats and the coffees has been the biggest learning and that is something that I am even more focused on this time around.  

Do you see procurement stepping back down now?

I see it growing for many reasons including the financial pressures across the world. 

Procurement has raised its game in so many areas and this is a platform from which it will continue to grow. 

There has never been a more critical time for procurement and supply chain functions.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

Not much spare time, as I like to keep myself busy! 

I am a parent governor of our local school as I believe I can bring my skills and experience to support the school in delivering the best to our children. 

I have three young boys with boundless energy and cubs was a great way of channelling their energy. 

Cubs relies on volunteers and I felt it was important to contribute as well as benefit from the opportunities it presents so I became a cubs leader. 

With the boys, I spend a fair amount of time by the side of cricket, football and rugby and athletics pitches in all weathers! 

To unwind, sewing clothes has been a family tradition for generations and brings me such joy! 

I love the creative process and experimenting as I go. 

The only thing is I haven’t had anywhere to wear them! 

If you could give any advice to your younger self what would that be?

There is always a way! 

Not all the choices we must make are easy and not all the solutions are appealing. 

Although it may not be your ideal choice, there is always a way. 

My advice would be to try more pragmatism than idealism. 

Be practical and find the solution that is the most favourable or least unfavourable. 

Think about what you can do, how you can do it. 

Focus on moving forward. 

Do you have a personal motto that you live by?

No such thing as can’t! 

Always try your best and give it a go.

 What’s the best and worst that can happen? 

I love the quote, “What if I fall? Oh, but my darling What if you fly?”. 

Can you tell us an interesting fact about yourself?

As a teenager, I was an athlete and I ran for England in the relays. 

I retired from my athletics career at the tender age of 18. 

Athletics took a huge amount of commitment and it was great to have something to plough your energy and focus into. 

I loved the wins; I hated the losses and they motivated me to try harder.

It is something I have always looked back on as such an important part of my earlier years. 

It lay strong healthy foundations as well as lessons in self-discipline, focus and fun.  

I believe it is important for everyone to have something that gives them confidence and joy, for me that was athletics.

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