The Big Interview with Simon Frost

Procurement Heads‘ July edition features Simon Frost, Founder of Procurement Adventurer Ltd, who speaks to Rupert Gaster about his procurement career.

How did you get into Procurement?

My procurement journey started 20 years ago soon after I’d graduated. During my second placement on the Mars Graduate Training Scheme, I rotated into a role in Sales.

Unfortunately, during one particular negotiation with a customer, I took a real hammering from the buyer! Feeling pretty bruised, I concluded that I would be much better off on the other side of the table, on the buying side. I’m eternally grateful to that person for giving me such a hard time because this misfortune led me to my first procurement role sourcing cereals for Mars.

My passion for procurement was born and I’ve never looked back.

What does a typical day look like for you now?

My work tends to fall into a couple of key areas: my primary focus is delivering a whole range of opportunities for my clients.

These last few months have been spent wrapping up an assignment to set up the procurement team for Huel, who make specialist plant-based protein food. I’m now in the thick of conducting due diligence on a pet food company, likely to be bought by a private equity firm I partner with.

It’s important I’m always cultivating opportunities for the future.

Since my knockback at Mars, I’ve grown to love the sales and marketing aspect of running my business. The exploration of new work means I get to meet a range of brilliant businesses and people. 

Last week I was lucky enough to have coffee with someone who’s launched some of the most iconic brands of the last 30 years. 

We chewed the cud on a number of topics, particularly the vegan revolution which will be one of the most defining dynamics in the food sector for years to come.

Admin is the least fun part of running my own business – to be minimised and outsourced wherever possible!

I travel extensively with work – often it’s just a day or two over to the continent.

The big trips outside Europe can mean being away for several weeks.

Latterly I was on the North American prairies sourcing flax and oats.

States like North & South Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba weren’t previously on my ‘must-go-to’ list. How wrong I was! Huge skies and beautiful light on freshly ploughed fields were an abiding memory.

You mention that you love what you do – but what is it that you love about Procurement?

I absolutely love Procurement and I feel exceptionally fortunate to work in this space. Where to start? The first is that I’m always fascinated by the end-to-end procurement process and the different skills required at each step. I’ve been running exactly the same process for the last 15 years and whilst the process itself is simple, getting every step right is mighty tricky. 

The upstream stages require razor-sharp strategic thinking and an excellent grasp of the market dynamics. 

The downstream tends to be more about rigorous implementation. It’s so easy for a silly mistake to be made – for example, a specification not signed off could result in the wrong item being bought and might result in a significant business risk or potential financial loss.  

A supplier relationship sullied may mean a precious new innovation is offered to the competition instead.

Like so much in business, relationships matter hugely.  I’ve been fortunate to meet many fantastic people in all corners of the world – my experience is with suppliers and farmers who are passionate about their materials and products.

When I was sourcing the fruit for innocent drinks, I remember two guys in Honduras who set up a tiny lime-squeezing facility in a building not much bigger than a shipping container. Their lime juice was so zesty and to see their pioneering nature was inspiring.

Recently I was in China and I met a CEO who’d fled extreme poverty.

He’d worked his way up from scratching a living as a lorry driver to building a state-of-the-art pea protein facility. He was so interesting, and it was humbling to hear about his journey and his vision for the future.

When it comes to stakeholders, what do you feel that you have that enables you to engage an audience effectively?

I didn’t appreciate early in my career (but I definitely do now) how much relationships matter. I try to be myself, listen and understand the other person’s needs and feelings.  It’s important to have a positive and adventurous spirit – this seems to rub off on people.

Trust is important too.  I never play games and try to communicate in a clear and natural manner.

It goes without saying that my results for the client must be top-notch. 

One of my business principles is that if I don’t deliver an excellent ROI for a client, I won’t charge them a proportionate amount of my fees.  Fortunately, I’ve never had to do this yet!

Are there any aspects of Procurement that you find challenging?

The challenge for me isn’t with procurement, it’s more with running a business. You have to be self-starting and very resilient because sometimes you’ll get knockback.

Also, you have to conquer something called ‘imposter syndrome’ where in the early days you feel like you don’t have the right to be there. I felt comforted in hearing that even top-flight Olympians can suffer from this. It took a year or two but I now feel I can completely back myself and feelings of self-doubt seldom catch me out.

Balancing delivery, sales, marketing and admin can also be testing. 

It requires constant re-evaluation of what really matters and a continuous drive for efficiency.

Every day I ask myself, “how can I get the best return for my time?”

Can you tell us about your biggest career achievements to date?

I’ve delivered a number of strong results for companies that I’ve worked for as a full-time employee, but the thing I’m most proud of is establishing my own business.

Starting from scratch is tough but before I knew it, I’d secured my first client.  When you’ve unlocked a great opportunity for a client and they give positive feedback, it’s a fantastic feeling.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve set up procurement teams for two high-growth companies, first for and laterally for Huel. 

It’s a great privilege to be given a blank canvas and the trust to shape a new space. Getting everything ticking from the sourcing of their materials and services to implementing new processes and systems in a very short space of time is something I hang my hat on.

To ensure the core procurement skills are embedded in the DNA of Huel, I’ve invested considerable time in training their team and I’m confident that as I step back, they can continue on a strong trajectory.

Over the last 20 years, there has been a leap forward in systems and automated processes.  There is no doubt that this has driven efficiencies and enabled much better access to meaningful data. 

eSourcing has also given the buyer a great tool to quickly assess multiple vendors, select the right vendor and drive competition. 

However, there can be a downside to this – I sometimes find buyers haven’t been trained properly in core skills like category management, truly understanding the procurement process and supplier relationship management. And as systems aren’t always implemented and configured properly, they’re getting the best of neither.  

Cracking the basics and then complementing this with the use of well-configured systems is a great opportunity for many businesses to deliver value.

The relationship between buyer and seller has also changed. Of course, it can depend heavily on each specific market, but it was often the case that buyers felt all-powerful and they were the ones to call the shots.  

I’ve seen a shift whereby external factors such as Mother Nature, Brexit and trade wars are changing this power balance. The buyer sometimes needs to become a salesperson and pitch to be the customer of choice.

Climate change and the need to act in a responsible and sustainable manner is the third big dynamic playing out. The procurement professional must look beyond simply driving out cost.

Procurement can have such a big impact on the world and I believe that we have a moral obligation to actively drive the sustainability agenda forward.

What skills do you consider essential to be a Procurement Leader?

Sometimes procurement can be seen as little more than a support function, suited only to transactional tasks and delivering cost savings. 

This weak position can often be self-inflicted! It’s not a fun situation for a procurement team to be in.  The procurement leader must ignite the flame in their team and help them believe they can be a far greater positive force than this to deliver company-wide value: helping launch new products, driving quality and bringing online cutting-edge supplier products and services to underpin the future growth of the company.

It’s key that the leader nails the procurement basics in the team such as category management and the procurement process.

The team can then use this foundation to shift from a passive to an active voice with stakeholders and develop things like procurement-led innovation.  

What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learnt in your procurement career?

Apart from the people element which I’ve already touched on, as a procurement consultant, there are three key things:

  1. Think strategically and follow up with excellent implementation
  2. Deliver the client an amazing ROI on fees
  3. Underpin delivery with excellent training of the client’s team so that when you step-back they don’t fall off a cliff

Get to know Simon Frost

I’m fortunate to have a fantastic family who are a good balance to the inevitable stresses of running my own business.

My two daughters of 9 and 7 are particularly inquisitive at the moment and it’s lovely to see them exploring the world around them – we’re big into nature walks in the countryside which might start for us looking for insects and then result in us jumping in the nearby river!

Otherwise, I love listening to really good live music.

I’m a member of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, which attracts some amazing artists – we’re going to see Macey Gray in a few weeks’ time.

When time permits, I love a good blast on my racing bike.

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