The Big Interview with Karl Poulsen

Procurement Heads‘ March Big Interview features Karl Poulsen, Chief Procurement Officer at LV=, who spoke with Rupert Gaster.

How did you get into procurement?

I’ve had quite a few jobs in my career to date! After graduating from university, I first joined a retail bank ending up as a District Manager before enjoying a short period out of the 9-5 existence running campaigns for Parliament (unsuccessfully, clearly, otherwise I wouldn’t be sat here today – I’d be traversing the trails of Brexit!).

I returned to the bank after that, before being offered a role in Halifax home insurance leading its Supply Chain, and it was then that I caught the procurement bug. It was really obvious to me as soon as I was in that role how vitally important our suppliers were – they really are our brand ambassadors, delivering vital services to help our customers in their hour of need.  In the years following, I moved around within a couple of businesses, all in the banking industry, before moving to LV= about 3 and a half years ago.

What does your typical day look like?

I live in West Yorkshire and my days are spent in a variety of places – the LV= offices in Bournemouth, Croydon or wherever stakeholders happen to be, so typically I wake up in a hotel room close by.

I hit the gym first thing (it’s the only time I can be disciplined to go  – before the distractions of the day!) and then walk into the office and, I guess like any other CPO, I meet with the team and talk through various deals they’re working on, review how we are shaping the category strategy and I also have regular discussions with stakeholders.

There’s always one critical task that requires my immediate attention, and recently I’ve lost count of the number of Brexit calls I’ve had! Hopefully, that will come and go in a similar fashion to GDPR last year.

What do you love about Procurement?

I love the real commercial buzz, and that everything we do directly affects the customer. We are buying things that our customers are going to need. If you look at modern-day Financial Services organisations, the supply chain is massively fundamental to the customer.

At the very beginning of my career, in retail banking, it was the customer contact that really motivated me then and I see the importance of that now that I’m working in Procurement.

One of the things I’m always asking the team is – what are our customers going to feel about this? How are we going to introduce this service, and introduce it well?

How are we going to set ourselves ahead of the competition?

That is what procurement is today, it’s not just a boring dusty toy at the back of the shelf, it’s pivotal to how the organisation can shape itself and gain an advantage in a massively competitive market.

What makes you proud to work within Procurement at LV=?

LV= has been around for 176 years, and we were founded with a brilliant social purpose so that the ordinary folk of Victorian Liverpool could bury their loved ones with dignity.

That inspiring social purpose is something that many enterprises in the UK share today.

Together with the team, we’ve designed our Green Heart Procurement initiative, which is all about LV= putting increasing amounts of business with social enterprises. As an example of that, we launched on Valentine’s Day last year with WildHearts Group which invests its profits into microloans in the developing world. As a result of our business last year they were able to make 982 microloans.

An example of that is Betty in Kampala – she borrowed the equivalent of £40 in local currency so that she could set up a fruit and veg stall.

As a result, she has been able to send her children to school.

It’s stories like that which are so inspiring, not just for my team but for the wider business, our stakeholders, and for our members as well. Most organisations expect you to save money and get better service here at LV= Procurement is central in shaping the social purpose of our brand.

Have you observed any particular trends in Procurement?

In Financial Services the big trend that has been going on for the past few years is an increasing focus on Risk Mitigation. It’s a massively regulated industry.

Regulators are increasingly inquisitive; wanting to know what we are doing, how we are doing it, and how we demonstrate control of what we have outsourced.

It’s a bit of a sea change for people that have spent their professional procurement career in and around financial services! It’s basically a new skill set that we have had to develop in the last decade.

LV= was the first insurance company to join the Financial Services Qualification Scheme operated by Hellios, so we have systemized due diligence in place which we share with other members of FSQS – I think there are about 18 of us now; banks, building societies and other insurance companies. It’s great for the suppliers that now only have to make 1 return instead of 18, so it’s a win-win for everyone, as well as taking some of the administrative burdens away from the team which is always good.

What skills do you think are essential to be a Procurement Leader?

I look at Procurement as a people business. You have to really understand your team and your stakeholders to be successful. It’s people that make an organisation, and it’s about how you’re able to empathise and deliver your message in different ways to best reach every relevant part of the organisation. You need to be able to get everyone invested in your vision to help drive the business forward.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

My wife is an elected local councillor in West Yorkshire, and it’s the time of year I spend most weekends knocking on people’s doors delivering her impeccably produced, ethically sourced literature to the households of the Worth Valley.

I do get some time off for good behaviour so at the weekend I was lucky enough to be at Principality Stadium in Cardiff watching England sadly lose to Wales, and I have some tickets to the Calcutta Cup that I’m looking forward to!

Do you find you’re able to achieve a work-life balance?

It’s very important that I communicate to my family the expectations of my role in terms of time – when you are in a demanding position of any kind, you need to figure out how to make it work for you and the whole family. I work away a lot, including a few weeks abroad this year while we’ve worked on some bigger deals, and when I’m away from home I tend to work very late into the evenings. It may sound hard, but this frees up my time when I’m home and can focus on my family.

That’s how I achieve my work-life balance – it’s not for everyone but it works for us.  My wife works me pretty hard when she is up for election or running a campaign – it’s all about give and take!

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