In the latest of our Big Interviews, James Dobbin spoke with Alex Jennings, Chief Procurement Officer at DS Smith, about his Procurement career and how the company has faced the challenges of COVID-19.
How did you get into Procurement?
Like many, it wasn’t planned. I did an apprenticeship and spent time in every part of the company and enjoyed my eight weeks in procurement. I was originally going to go into design and loved having a pencil in my hand, but then the pencil was replaced with a mouse and it lost the flare and creativity for me.
Procurement was something I enjoyed so I moved my apprenticeship and have never looked back. I have to say Procurement of 36 years ago is very different from the Procurement I am in today.
What are the roles and responsibilities the Procurement function holds in DS Smith?
The function has just gone through a transformation, it is designed to make sure we both offer the right service and security in the supply for the business and also that we drive value through category management.
We have category managers who are central to driving value and we have Procurement operations who sit within a region and connect our business with our strategy and our strategy with our business. They are there to deliver what we are trying to achieve against each of our categories, they are seamless in how they operate with each other.
Our final part is the Procurement enablement team, they give information to the teams to drive our risk management strategy. They are there to free up the time of the enablement teams to do the strategic part of the job for them.
What are the challenges that you and your team currently face?
The priority of our business at the moment has been to keep our people safe and Procurement is at the heart of that, making sure that we have the right PPE, and the right process in each of our locations to maintain the safety of our people. But also a big part of our role is the safety and security of supply to make sure that we keep our plants running throughout this period and we can satisfy the demand that our customers have.
I guess the final part is around agility and flexibility, we have to adjust what we do and how we do it to meet the change in demand.
What are you most passionate about when it comes to Procurement?
Challenge and change.
I want to create an environment where the team feel comfortable in challenging what we do and why we do it. I want to have an environment where it is ok to make a mistake. I want to move away from transactional Procurement relationships to one where both parties understand the value that can be bought from working together. I want suppliers feeling comfortable that they can come up with ideas that may cost us more in the product that they are supplying, but will save money elsewhere and that we have an organisation that accepts that it is not about the price of the product, it is about the total cost of the product or service or process that is relevant.
What do you think are some of the key focus areas of Procurement right now?
We are custodians of many things as procurement professionals we are required to keep all organisations and supply chains running, that is our key priority right now, no one knows what next month is going to bring and we need to manage the security of supply, this is a functional responsibility that we have.
We also have a huge moral responsibility to continue to drive environmental improvements, to meet sustainability challenges that we face as an industry as a function and as a world. There are also several moral legal requirements around things like modern-day slavery and it is our responsibility to ensure that that is eradicated from all of our supply chains and that we have a zero-tolerance in all of those areas to prevent that from happening. For us, as a function, it is down to us to work hard to eliminate that.
What are your team doing with regards to sustainable Procurement?
Our organisation is built around sustainability we are Europe’s largest cardboard and paper recyclers, and one of the leading full recycling and waste management companies. We turn recycled paper we produce into packaging solutions for our customers and partners around Europe and that circle just keeps on going.
We also publish every year, our sustainability report and we have targets set for 2025 and 2030 that we will commit to achieving as a business. Recently we reported that we have in fact achieved three of our sustainability milestones, including an 11% reduction in carbon emissions in five years.
Additionally, we have met our commitment to source 100% of its fibres responsibly, using only recycled or chain of custody certified papers. Our Procurement strategies have that it is not just about the price, it is about getting the right package that associates service, product, process and price as well as environmental challenges and the sustainability targets that we have set for the future. That is key.
What is your biggest achievement to date?
I think, first of all, I spent six years outside of Procurement in sales, sitting the other side of the table to some of the world’s best Procurement organisations and I learnt a lot in that time. IT was what prepared me, and I think that it is important that we challenge ourselves when we are developing and growing and prepare ourselves for that final seat.
I am incredibly proud of the transformation that we have gone through at DS Smith, we have challenged ourselves on processes, technology, data availability, organisational design and functional effectiveness and putting the right governance in place to mean that we are effective as an organisation.
We are creating a function that is exciting and people want to come and join and I am proud of what we have done as a leadership team to achieve that.
What inspires you as a Procurement leader?
Creativity. Challenge. Change.
These are things that excite me and certainly key parts of my strength.
I also understand what my blind spots or weaknesses are, and you must build a team around you that builds those spots. You have to recognise your weaknesses and have a blend of people in your function to enable you to have a focus on the things that excite you.
What skills do you consider to be essential to be a good Procurement leader?
You need to make sure that there is a blend, it would be a disaster if everyone in my team was like me, it would not work!
There is not a model, the blend is key. People need to be analytical, they need to have good communication skills, good relationship management skills, both internally and externally. They need to be able to look and seek and deliver on areas of opportunity.
I think creativity is really important to me and the ability to challenge the status quo.
Who has had the most influence on your Procurement career and why?
I’ve had some really good bosses and some bad bosses.
I think I have probably learned just as much from both of them, about being at the end of what is not nice. I think I probably learned the most when I was in sales. I was having to understand the brains of the Procurement professionals. Some were focused on an aggressive negotiation strategy, some were analytical, some were focused on innovation, some just wanted you to recognise that they had a brand you should respect and some more family-based businesses were focused on the relationship.
I think having been on the receiving end of all those different styles, I have learned that a blend is the most effective and appropriate framework to have as an organisation.
What advice would you give somebody at the start of their Procurement career?
Procurement today is a very different place to where it was when I joined.
It is a profession now, it is backed by the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply. They are challenging how the Government think and what legislation should look like.
It is a very different world.
There are many more opportunities, whether it is the public or private sector. You can challenge now, you can change and you can build yourself a career that is a success.
It is not about background, it is about how you build your career.
What role have you and the Procurement function played in enabling the company to face the pandemic?
We have kept our business running throughout this period. Across Europe the recycling, paper making and packaging business was deemed critical to food and pharmaceutical supply chains. What we have had to do as a Procurement function is to keep everybody safe and to make sure that we have the right equipment and processes to keep our people safe.
We have had to risk assess every one of our supply chains and keep the flow of materials into our plants running and I have to say we have done that. We have not missed a beat. We have had to manage logistics internally and externally in a world where the day to day running has changed, each day with legislation changing with border crossings changing with the technology and administration needed with red zones and quarantine.
We have had to cope with changing demand, some parts of our business have grown incredibly and we have had to cope with that.
Have there been any major challenges you and your team have had to navigate?
The major challenge has been around agility.
We have coped with fluctuations and flexibility that I think before this we would have said we can’t manage. But we have and we have kept the business and our customers running.
How has the business changed since lockdown?
It is more around having increased flexibility in our supply chain and our customer relationships. Communication has been key. We have established clear communication links internally, with our suppliers and key partners. We have had daily calls internally to manage the supply chain and that has been a challenge but it is one that we have stood up to.
I guess not being able to see each other has been a challenge, it is day 147 for me today working from home!
I was a big sceptic of video tools but we have made it work, and if you use communication during a time like this it can be an incredibly effective tool and I certainly feel as – or more – connected with my team today despite not having seen them since February.
I also think during a time like this you need leadership, and throughout our organisation, we have done that and it is something that we are incredibly proud of.
Do you think there will be any lasting impacts that COVID will have had on the organisation?
I think we have learned a lot, about ourselves and our teams. The things we have learnt are positives and we will look to keep that level of communication, of the connectedness of flexibility in our planning process, the higher level of business planning with our suppliers, customers and throughout our internal supply chain. We will keep that and we will be stronger for it.
Is there anything you would do differently with the benefit of hindsight?
We started having daily meetings as a company leadership team and that filtered down into our smaller teams and that is why we have not missed a beat.
We had just gone through a transformation and everybody had just got new roles and new responsibilities. So we used this to create the connectedness that we needed.
We stood up well and I think we are in a good place.
How do you see the Procurement function changing as a result of COVID?
I think it has challenged us on some of our thinking around the security of supply, it has challenged organisations’ thinking around a single source, but also further down the supply chain.
For example, I may have an ink supplier who has multiple pigment suppliers in India, then that doesn’t help you when you have a global lockdown and they are unable to supply. We are having to rethink some of our risk and sourcing strategies.
It is challenging the function and the industry on how we manage these things going forward.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I like to travel with my wife, my three sons are grown up and living their own lives now. Me and my wife like to eat out, we like to holiday, I like to garden. I like to spend time living a home life. That has changed during this last few months but it has been a good refresher and will take some learnings from this.
This has been effective as a tool and I do not miss the 3.45 am Monday morning pick-ups to go to the airport!
I love sport, I am a big Aston Villa fan. I am a season ticket holder with my boys.
If you could give any advice to your younger self what would it be?
The one thing I regret is not having taken my role or lived abroad. I am a lifetime gold with BA but I have never lived aboard. That is a mistake and it is something I should have corrected earlier in my career. I think I would have challenged myself a bit more when I was younger. I had children early, I had my first child at 24 and I wanted to spend their education time in the UK.
I had the opportunity to work in Brussels with Toyota, given my time again I would probably do that differently.
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.
I left school at 16 and I had nine years of night school. I did an ONC and HNC in Mechanical Engineering, MCIPS and a Business degree, but it was all in night school.
Do you have a motto that you live by?
Be better today.
Whether that is in the function, personally, socially, morally, I think it is important to look back and say ‘What am I going to do better today?’.