The Big Interview with Robert Bonnar

He is a passionate advocate of the value procurement can bring beyond savings by utilising technology, collaboration and innovation to build sustainable change.

For Procurement Heads‘ latest Big Interview he spoke with Rupert Gaster about his career and what inspires him as a procurement leader.

Can you give us a snapshot of your career?

I started off as a chemist.

When I was at GSK, there were lots of chemists in GSK procurement coincidently but not in all of the organisations I have worked at. 

The reason I moved from chemistry to more of a business function was that I got excited in chemistry about the science firstly, but secondly about the application of the science and that led me into a bit more of an understanding of how businesses worked, it led me into finance and then procurement. 

I have been in procurement for 20 years in four major industries, I started off in automotive, then pharma and consumer health care, then brewing and most recently in energy.  

I have been really lucky, all those organisations you see in my background have been global so I have worked in a lot of different locations and with a lot of different people.

I have built up my procurement experience in three different categories, strategy – building category strategy and procurement strategy, innovation and transformation, some of that by design and some of that by a happy accident.

How was it you got into procurement?

I joined the Ford graduate scheme, I thoroughly enjoyed that and was lucky enough to get in there I moved into finance, but then from there I moved into procurement, the bit that really got me excited was yes there is a lot of data and analytics but you then have to build that into stakeholder engagement, innovation and negotiation with suppliers and the bit that I really enjoyed was the opportunity to have a data-based negotiation and a practical application of it through relationships both externally and internally, that made me stick in procurement.

What are you most passionate about in procurement?

I am excited about value beyond savings, so whether that is in risk, resilience, sustainability, innovation, technology but really about that value beyond savings.

What do you think the key focus areas for procurement are going to be?

The interesting thing for me is we have got the pandemic, we have got the canal blockage, the chip crisis, we have all these unprecedented crises. 

We have gone through so many so quickly but we will always find more!

Right now, it is definitely goods and materials, risk and resilience in the supply chain is a start point. 

Actually, I think it is building on that risk and resilience, it is the visibility of the supply chain, collaboration with partners, which then enables an approach to sustainability and innovation. 

I lump in a lot into sustainability – diversity and inclusion, greenhouse gas and emission and operations. If you look at how you build a sustainable supply chain you can only do that with sustainable practices. 

That leads me to innovation, particularly innovation with suppliers and collaboration with suppliers is how you will enable a resilient supply chain and push forward your sustainable agenda. 

So for me, it is sustainability and innovation particularly enabled by tech.

What inspires you most as a leader?

Well with a slant on leader, I have been lucky enough to work for some inspiring leaders so I emulate them as much as I can. 

Pieces that I pull from that, firstly, if I look at procurement’s positioning within an organisation, enabling people to understand that procurement is about more than savings and bringing it to life, that is something I think as a leader is a key skillset. 

Also about building out a procurement team that has diversity of thought so backgrounds, agendas whatever it may be.

Really being open as that will enable you to be much more successful in building a strategy that has looked at things through different lenses and being as holistic with that as you can.

What skills do you think are essential to be a procurement leader?

I would say curiosity, the reason why is it is about openness to thought, to look at what that value is beyond savings. 

It is guiding and shaping the corporate decisions and being part of that decision making around where the organisation is going to go and understanding how procurement can enable that. 

If it is health and safety, sustainability, if it is tooling and the IT landscape – lots of times the CIO and the IT team have centralised already if you are building a centralised procurement you can buddy up and build huge value. 

Something as basic as looking at what you are going to buy if you are curious enough to get into the cost drivers. 

I saw something posted about people using AI and cost estimation. 

When I was at Ford, I was lucky enough that they had a huge cost estimation department. We were harvesting information on salaries, wages and pay scales in different regions of Poland for example. 

You can have the information on what suppliers are paying, they really invested in that curiosity and that stuck with me. 

Now I see guys posting about being able to use scanning to be able to open up electronic assemblies and use camera recognition for the components and what are they costed at and then also the next level of curiosity can tell you where it is manufactured, what do the sub-components cost, what are the wage costs so if you are curious enough it is amazing what you can unlock.

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

It is a really exciting time, I would say it is still pertinent to focus on data and data analysis, having that capability in data, in BI, those skills are what I would be looking at. 

That’s what I find really exciting now, and then spotting the trends from the data and you can do the interesting and intelligent bit on top of that.

What do you think the current trends and hot topics in procurement are and what roles will emerge as a result?

I am going to cheat a bit! 

I am going to say I already see it happening, that is the idea of the explosion of tech and focus on data really gives the opportunity for people to build a different landscape and different approaches. 

I think the roles emerging are people who are skilled in master data and BI, but also people who can build a borderline between procurement and IT roles where we can help to shape that landscape and around the integrations. 

When I first started, integration was a black box to me, now the explosion of tools means that that integration has become much more fundamental to our ability to use those tools more simply, people who can manage the integrations from within the procurement team are required to build our landscape and use a hybrid approach to taking best of breed where required and still having an enterprise solution while having best of breed tools. 

That skill set is what I am looking for rather than relying on a black box service from someone else.

What role have you and the procurement function played in enabling your organisation to face the pandemic?

At the start, we all went from travelling constantly to not at all, first off it was the enablement for people to be able to do their jobs digitally. 

Then also that enablement of procurement piece where we said how are we doing approvals, digital signatures, how are we keeping things flowing and what do we need for that?

But then also within the organisation that is in manufacturing and B2C, we have individuals that are going into the pandemic and how are we protecting them, obviously we got into the whole PPE challenge. 

Masks and PPE, the same as everybody else and that had to happen, we have built an understanding of how we can be ready for the next challenge. 

We have focussed on digital for the future and how we can enable people to be much more flexible in their ways of working.

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

I think a lot of what I have seen around government disaster planning I would say on a smaller scale for organisations as well, it is about building in the agility around responding to crisis, such that the role of procurement in crisis planning is pretty much well cemented, everyone understands that it is not as simple as turning to a catalogue supplier for masks as everyone is doing the same thing! 

For me it is playing a more central role in that crisis management planning, you are not going to be able to guess the crisis, but a lot of them may be PPE based, will be working from home-based, will be back-up and let’s say different office locations and different supply chain solutions so it is planning for those.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I have young kids so I guess it is a standard answer that takes a lot of spare time away! 

When I do get some free time I thoroughly enjoy underwater rugby, it is played frequently in Colombia, the Nordics and particularly in Germany. 

It was brought to the UK by a friend of mine, so I set up the first underwater Rugby Club in the UK in Putney in London. 

It is like water polo but with breath-holding basically.

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

I would say just go for it, I don’t have huge regrets, maybe because I am a scientist, there are no wrong results, they help you to design for the future, so yes, I would say go for it, be open be curious and really live each moment and enjoy them!

Do you have an interesting fact about yourself?

When I moved to Mexico I become the player-coach of the rugby club there. So rugby is a bit of a theme throughout my life.

Do you have a personal motto to live by?

Be open and honest, and there can be pros and cons but I still hold true to them. 

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