Our September Big Interview features Chris Thomson, Group Procurement Director at Dairy Crest.
How did you get into Procurement?
Everyone seems to have a story about how they got into Procurement! Mine starts back when I was a factory HR manager working for H.J.Heinz. The full story is actually a combination of accident and design! More formally, I was on a leadership development programme that involved conversations about working within a different function, and how this would be helpful for longer term career development. Less formally, I was doing some HR work for one of the new Procurement Directors in the business; so I was already establishing a relationship there. Over a cup of tea, we started talking about what Procurement was and what they were trying to do. At that point, they were trying to create a Europe-wide function with a different approach to Procurement, which I found really interesting. Eventually, the two things came together and I moved into a European Buyer role looking after contract manufacturing – and that was it! I’ve been in Procurement ever since.
I did most of, what I’d call, ‘my grounding’ in Heinz – buying contract manufacturing, ingredients and packaging, starting to manage people, doing a bit around leadership and having an input into the strategy and development of the function… and following a great few years I then moved on to a company called S.C. Johnson – where I was based in Italy and then Switzerland for a while. My role was to lead their European Contract Manufacturing and Logistics procurement.
On my return to the UK I started working for Dairy Crest as a ‘Head of’, responsible for leadership of a team covering category responsibilities across supply chain and indirects. I then moved into a different area of the organisation running the milk supply chain – so managing relationships with dairy farmers and sourcing millions of litres of milk every year!
In 2015 I took the opportunity to try something a bit different and joined a procurement consulting business called State of Flux. While I was there, I was lucky enough to lead some brilliant consulting teams and work with excellent clients such as Mars Inc., SAB Miller, BMW and Serco. Finally, about 18 months ago, I landed back here at Dairy Crest in the role of Group Procurement Director!
What does a typical day at work look like for you?
Really varied! I suppose that lots of people might say that, but there are a few reasons why I think that my role in particular is so varied. As well as the ‘normal Procurement’ – buying ingredients, packaging, services and things like that – I also have a team that looks after the milk supply chain (we buy about 500 million litres of raw milk from 330 farms across Devon and Cornwall every year). We manage that right back to farm. We work with individual farmers, as well as the collective body that represents them, so that has its own challenges and opportunities. Then there’s another part of the team that runs ‘trading’, which is basically a sales organisation. It’s a business unit with a P&L, managing the sourcing and sales of all of our bulk dairy commodities; milk, cream, butter – anything like that. That’s a sizeable business in itself! If you put those things together on top of ‘normal procurement’, my day is definitely varied!
From a personal point of view, I’m an early starter. I use the time first thing in the morning to get my head together, sort out my emails and plan the day. Most of my time is actually spent listening and talking with people – that’s the vast majority of my job, and it’s often the way I explain what I do! Some people would call it stakeholder management but primarily it’s about relationship building and maintenance – whether that’s internal stakeholders, our board, farmers or suppliers.
What do you love about Procurement?
Two things spring to mind. First – Procurement is at the heart of the business. We see everything, we hear everything, but we’re also involved from end to end and I love that. It gives you so much visibility and so much potential for impact, as well as knowledge of what’s happening too. The second thing, which I suppose is linked to that, is the sheer commerciality of Procurement; the commercial impact on the business in terms of cost, cash or revenue – just that ability to make a difference from a financial perspective is something that I really value.
Is there anything that you consider challenging about your role?
I suppose what’s challenging, perhaps as for any Procurement leader at the moment, is recruiting and retaining great people. We’ve gone through quite a journey over the last 18 months since I re-joined the business. Back then we only had around half a dozen people in the Procurement team. We’ve now got 25 (including the milk and trading teams) that I mentioned earlier. We’ve experienced a real learning curve, in terms of what kind of talent we’re trying to attract and the sort of proposition we have to offer people joining us – both as Dairy Crest and as a Procurement team in particular. The market in general is very difficult and there’s lots of competition. From a leadership point of view, that’s one of the stand out challenges.
Can you tell us about your biggest achievements in your Procurement career?
A few times I’ve been lucky enough to have a blank piece of paper and business backing to be able to build and create Procurement teams. I’ve seen them develop, grow and flourish, engage with the business, become credible and deliver results. To oversee that full cycle makes me very proud! It’s very satisfying. I’m 18 months into my second stint at Dairy Crest now and during that time we’ve done some significant recruitment of people. We’ve also re-created our Procurement vision, strategy and development roadmap, and we’ve done that as collaboratively as possible involving the whole team, while at the same time working to get the right people in roles. It can be a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ situation as to how and when you do that at times! We’ve got Procurement back on the map at Dairy Crest and I get a lot of feedback, both from stakeholders and the board, that we’ve regained a lot of credibility and that’s down to the people who have decided to come and join us and be a part of it.
What inspires you as a Procurement leader?
Being part of Procurement as a function at the heart of the business, gives us the opportunity to drive and lead change. I find people who can lead through change and make things happen, while taking people along with them in a collaborative, positive and constructive way, really inspiring. Having the trust of the board and the business in terms of what we now manage is really positive. The other thing, from a personal point of view, is that I love to see others achieve, develop and grow. I’ve got to the point in my career where, yes – if I achieve something personally I get a buzz, but I get much more of a buzz if somebody else achieves it who I’ve been supporting.
What skills do you consider to be essential in Procurement?
We need to be business people. I know it’s a bit cliché but it happens to be true. If we’re going to be on the agenda driving revenue then we need to talk business language. We need to be commercial, understand the P&L’s and the key financial drivers of the business, but we also need to understand the marketing proposition. Dairy Crest is a very well branded business now and, as Procurement people sourcing goods or services for products like Cathedral City or Clover, we need to understand what those brands stand for. It’s so important that we empathise with stakeholders and earn our seat at the table.
I think you can train and develop a lot of skills around how to manage suppliers, negotiating, project management and all of those process skills that are very important – but it’s absolutely critical that Procurement people are able to build and sustain effective working relationships. Having done this for 20 years it still surprises me (I guess it shouldn’t!) how many people in our profession struggle with that – and it’s critical!
Who has had the greatest influence over your Procurement career?
I can’t call out one individual, but I can say that in terms of influence over my career from a purely practical point of view, I could go back the Procurement Director in Heinz who was partly responsible for opening the door for me to move into the profession.
I suppose rather than one person having an influence, I’ve got 3-4 comments and phrases in my head that I quite frequently call upon, that came from a number of people that I’ve worked for over the years. For example, somebody once told me to make decisions from a purely business-oriented perspective, and then implement those decisions with as much compassion as possible. I think about this whenever something is challenging me or the team. It works with supplier relationships, individual relationships with stakeholders and team members too. I’d definitely say these little nuggets of advice have had the most influence – they seem to work in lots of different contexts!
Get to know Chris Thomson
I am married with two children; Oliver is 13 and Annalie is 10, so I spend a lot of my time with them! As a family we love to travel, we’ve been to the U.S. and various places in Europe together – Canada is planned for next year. Myself, I go to the gym quite a lot, I run a little bit. I’m more of a watcher of sports than a player these days. I like to read across quite a wide range – but anything Martin Amis or David Mitchell would be a favourite.
Is it important to you to achieve work / life balance?
First of all, I believe that it’s really important that we all try to establish a sense of work / life balance, but I’d add that the definition of what that is, is very personal for each of us as individuals. We should never make assumptions of what a good work / life balance is for someone because it’s different for everybody. For me, I often start early in the mornings and I sometimes work late at night – and that’s fine with me. I always make sure that I’m dedicating my energy and passion to Dairy Crest, while making sure I have plenty of time to genuinely switch off, either with family or on my own.
Our Big Interview Series features Procurement Professionals throughout London, Hampshire & Dorset, Surrey & Sussex, Berkshire, Oxfordshire & Wiltshire. It’s an opportunity to shed some light on the specialist world of Procurement and those who work within it. If you’d like to feature in our next Big Interview, contact us on 01962 869838 or drop us an email: email@example.com