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Image of Thomas Martin, Head of Procurement at Clear Channel

The Big Interview with Thomas Martin, Head of Procurement for Clear Channel

For this month's Big Interview, Sophie Cook caught up with Thomas Martin, Head of Procurement at Clear Channel, to hear about his career in Procurement.

What made you join Clear Channel? 

My previous job was a consultancy role with a company called Proxima. I was there for seven years; I loved the job and the role. 

Consulting is an exciting environment to be in, you are focused on building profit for your organisation as well as doing great Procurement. I got some amazing experience moving to different companies in different markets, but what I wanted to do was stay in one place and have more ownership on what I was building, rather than something that belonged to a client. 

Moving to Clear Channel allowed me that ownership. I had the opportunity to build the Procurement department, and think more long-term, rather than having to move on when a contract ends. 

What are the differences between a consulting role and a Procurement role? 

When you are in a consulting role, you always work for the client, but in the back of your mind, you have the best interests of your own organisation at heart, which can create conflict. 

The other big challenge is that in a consultancy world you are expected to be perfect. You have to put the hours in and travel wherever you need to travel. It is a quite intense and difficult environment, especially if you have a family. 

What made you choose Clear Channel? 

You learn a lot through consultancy and it makes you quite picky. I originally thought that if I ever left Consultancy, I would work in financial services. After a year in a major UK bank in Canary Wharf, I realised it wasn’t the environment for me. I don’t like being lost in a huge organisation. 

It took me a year to find this role. I only applied for a handful of roles and interviewed for two. I wanted to find the right role in an organisation with the right culture for me. 

Clear Channel presented me with a Procurement function that would really benefit from the latest procurement thinking and the business was looking to be taken on that journey. Clear Channel also has an amazing culture that I knew would work well with my personality and style. 

How would you describe the culture of Clear Channel in one word? 

If I was to describe the culture of Clear Channel in one word I would say genuine. 

When someone says they will do something, from the board downwards, they do it. 

Last year we were talking about mental health and wellbeing and how important it is to us as a business. The first thing we did was send all people managers on a course to help build awareness and understand of mental health. 

It’s now a 2020 business objective of ours to proactively support the mental health and wellbeing of our staff. And this is being embedded into our culture. 

When we say we want something, we do it. 

Another great aspect of Clear Channel culture is people are respected for who they are, which creates a more open and trusting environment. 

The team at the top create a very positive comfortable environment, which is nice to be in. Staff enjoy coming to work. 

What are the best things about working for Clear Channel? 

For me, one of the best things about working for Clear Channel is the opportunity to completely shape where we go as a Procurement team. To put that into context, in month two into my new role I said to my line manager, our CFO, that I don’t think our measure of success should be how much money we save each year. Focusing on savings is the wrong thing to do, because there is a difference between being measured on something and allowing it to define your direction. 

If savings is your primary measurement, it will become your primary focus. Savings should be a benefit of the work you are doing as a team, it should be one of many benefits, it shouldn’t set your direction. For a business that is very much focused on growth, the direction should be focused on achieving the objectives of the organisation. 

2019 was the first year Procurement didn’t have savings as an objective, yet the number we delivered was very similar to the previous year when we did. 

In contrast to previous years, everything we did in 2019 was focused on making the business stronger. In 2019 Clear Channel had a record-breaking year. 

Is your team moving with you in this focus? 

Yes, they have, they were also pleasantly surprised when I got rid of the savings target. 

When you are measured by savings it is a constant pressure, sometimes pressure is a good thing that helps you perform well, but it can also be a distraction from what’s important. 

My team were pleased as it has allowed them to focus on the things they thought would be most beneficial to the business. And it works. 

For an organisation that has a relatively low spend on external goods and services, driving savings year-on-year is also not sustainable in the long term. 

So how does that work? 

When I sold this idea into the board in October 2018, I had spoken to the CEO to understand what our top priorities were as a business. What I sold to the business was that every project we work on would align to these top priorities. 

Each year we have a work plan where all projects and Category Leads are aligned to a business strategy. 

For example, one of our category leads is aligned to ‘Digital Transformation’. He is focused on building the relationship with IT. In a business that is moving away from paper media, digital transformation is a core part of the journey. We have more and more digital assets all over the UK and we need to support that with the software and infrastructure that sits behind it. 

Each of my Category Leads is still linked to different areas of the business with operational responsibility for traditional procurement, but the bigger projects they undertake are always directly related to business objectives. 

How has the team changed since you’ve joined? 

I am lucky that the team is very close, and they work well together, but we were under resourced for the big goals that the company aspired to. We have grown by one headcount, which even in a growing organisation wasn’t the easiest sell. The additional head count was approved, and it has worked out fantastically well. Our newest Procurement Specialist has proved a great addition to the team. 

Why did you get into Procurement? 

I am one of those people who fell into Procurement. 

I had studied chemistry at university and when I graduated I was going travelling with friends in Asia and needed to save up. I got a temporary position processing requisitions at Southampton University Hospital Trust’s Procurement team, which was fine. 

While I was working at the trust I managed to save twice the annual savings target for full-time buyers, in just three months, and I thought that maybe this could be a good career for me. 

I went travelling and they offered me a temporary job when I came back. On returning to the trust, they got me involved in tendering, which I quite enjoyed. 

That is when I looked for a full-time job and went to work for Surrey Police in Guildford in their Procurement team. 

Was Procurement what you expected? 

I had no idea what Procurement was about. 

What I enjoyed about my time with the NHS and in a hospital environment, was getting involved in buying a lot of chemistry-related projects. It was fascinating to learn about different products and that is what captured my attention. 

The public sector is brilliant for providing variety and exposure, often with quite significant spends. 

What made you move from the public to the private sector? 

I learnt an awful lot during my temporary role at the NHS and as an FTE at Surrey Police. 

I learnt best practice and the structure of procurement process. The challenge for me at the time was that I am quite competitive as an individual and at the end of the year, I felt the rewards didn’t match my achievements. 

Moving out of the public sector was money and recognition related, but I also wanted to work in a more pressured environment. The role was for an insurance broker in the City; I had a great time and learnt a lot. I also had the opportunity to take on more managerial responsibility and had direct relationships with the c-suite. 

There was no structure whatsoever, so I was able to apply a lot of the operating practices I had picked up in the public sector. The challenge I found after a couple of years, is that the business was so profitable, the savings weren’t making a material difference. 

I moved to consultancy because I wanted to undertake a role whereby I would be important to the business that I was working for. In my mind, as a Consultant this would be simple because you are directly generating revenue; you are the product. Also, one assumes that if you are buying Procurement consultancy services, you want the outcome of that effort, so that is naturally going to be important to you. This ticked a lot of boxes for me, because I wanted the difference I made through my work to be recognised and appreciated. 

How did it feel going into consultancy? 

It felt brilliant. I was measured on my ability to achieve the client’s objectives and hit our contracted SLAs. In my first client my savings performance earned us a contracted cash bonus. 

Initially, I wasn’t heavily exposed to the revenue side of things, but as I established my career I gained more responsibility. 

When I moved into Programme Management with Proxima I was responsible for delivering contracted services to clients, but it also gave me the opportunity – because of the structure of Proxima – to shape the team according to the client’s needs and improve efficiency. When you improve operational efficiency you directly improve margins, which adds profit to the bottom line. 

With a business like Proxima, if you perform well you are very visible if you don’t perform you are out. It is a fantastic environment to be in. 

Proxima is very focused on developing staff too, which results in you constantly learning and improving. It is a great business and they are an amazing team of people. 

What challenges have you faced in your role now or previous roles? 

There are a few big challenges that I think we have as a profession. 

I think we can be guilty of trying to juggle too many balls. It is important to understand what your capacity is and not take on too much. 

There is also an industry-wide bad habit of always sticking to process. Structure is good but process for process sake can inhibit great procurement. 

The perfect example is if a stakeholder approaches you for support buying IT professional services. If you know the market and the rates you should be paying, you probably don’t need to undertake a full tender process, it’s a waste of time. 

Getting the process out of people’s heads is key. 

You need to be able to do that and be speedy. People won’t work with you if you slow them down. 

In the private sector this is quite straight forward, in the public sector that is a lot more challenging. I spent some time working in the public sector and you do have to follow processes as it is so heavily regulated. 

There are tricks, such as utilising frameworks, but it is a lot harder in the public sector than it is in the commercial sector to think outside the box. 

The second is that as a profession we are probably better at managing our relationships with customers than we are suppliers. 

There is a perception of power when it comes to a buyer, I don’t agree with that and think we all work together in partnership to achieve shared objectives. 

Suppliers will perform better if you treat them with due respect. 

Did you have to change anything when you started at Clear Channel? 

When I first started, I worked with the team to broaden their thinking a little. 

We can often push projects forward quicker by stepping outside of our traditional roles as procurement people and it is everyone’s responsibility to get us to the end goal. It can also require less effort than trying to get someone else to do it. 

In terms of changing the approach, there were Procurement Procedures in place when I started, which are still in place, but I added guidance notes about how to undertake good procurement. This is all about constant curiosity and asking questions. 

When I was at Proxima, I was taught to spend 30% of my time talking to people. This sounds like a waste of time, but you actually learn a lot. You understand what is important to people, and, in turn, how to help them. When you are new into an organization, you have to get out there and understand it. 

How have you achieved change in Clear Channel? 

To achieve change in an organization you need to sell your ideas and bring people on the journey with you. 

This February, I presented a proposal to the board that we should only buy hybrids vehicles as part of our company’s mission to be a Platform for Brands and a Platform for Good. If we start replacing all our vans with hybrids, it will cost more money but for us as a business, it is the right thing to do. 

Prior to the meeting, I had separately spoken to all board members with an interest in Fleet and gained their buy-in. Other members of the board were aware of what was coming. The proposal sailed through, because all the key decision makers were already on board. 

If you put the decision-makers’ minds at rest before you put them under pressure to make a decision, you’re more likely to come out with what you originally set out to do. 

What about Procurement outside of your team at Clear Channel? Have you seen any trends emerge over the last 12 months? 

The biggest trends I have noticed are environment-related. 

We have been speaking about sustainable Procurement and the environment for probably 15 years. 

People are setting carbon-related targets and trying to reduce plastic in their supply chains. 

From what I can see, companies are taking more care about how they work in the environment space and what they can do to reduce their impact. 

As an example, at Clear Channel we buy lots of bus shelters for local authorities. We now have a seat which is manufactured from waste plastic and is 100% recyclable, so not only does it take plastic out of the waste stream, but it can also be turned into something else afterwards. 

I think a lot of companies are focusing on the environment now and taking it seriously. 

Marketing teams are also very aware of making claims which are being tested by people. You can’t get away with saying things and not following up. 

Across the Clear Channel estate we have 20,000 paper poster sites. We have replaced all of the fluorescent tubes in those with LEDs which has cut our CO2 output in half, this is really exciting. 

We have also created a solar solution that charges a battery during the day. When day light levels fall it turn on to a low-level lighting mode, and the brightens when you walk up to the shelter. It’s simple but effective. 

Initiatives like this take time to develop but having the opportunity to do so and roll them out is very exciting. 

What inspires you as a leader? Who has influenced you? 

In terms of what inspires me, I am motivated by being able to drive change in an organisation and get recognised for that change. 

In Clear Channel, we are going through a three-year Procurement transformation programme where we are changing the way we purchase street furniture and how we manage that stock. There are a lot of spare parts moving around. 

What inspires me is the fact that we can run this project and make a huge difference to the organisation, we can reduce stock write-off and the delays caused by parts going missing. 

Being able to drive that change and have that recognised inspires me and drives me to do what I do. 

Two people have inspired me. One is Richard Gibson, who is the Global Procurement Director at Proxima. 

Richard is strong technically, he is also very strong from a consultancy perspective and he is a people-focused leader. 

He makes the most of people’s talent. 

Richard is someone you can trust and put your faith in and he gives you that trust back. 

That is the type of person I want to be. 

It is important to me that my team actively want to work for me and with me. 

The other person is Tim Murray. Tim was my Career Manager at Proxima and was responsible for my welfare. 

He became an advisor to me throughout my Proxima career, but also after that we kept in touch and I still bounce ideas off him. 

He is a very caring individual, he doesn’t just think about your career, he thinks about your family and your life outside and we have become good friends. 

What skills do you consider essential in a leadership role? 

First of all, you need to be able to listen to people and hear what they are saying, be able to contextualise that and understand how it fits into the business. 

We are a customer serving function. 

You also have to understand the business and what the impact of what you are doing is on the business. 

You have to understand where conflicts may arise, what your challenges are going to be and how you can resolve those, or at least navigate your way through them, and find a compromise that works for everyone. 

Also, as a leader, it is important to gain the trust of your team and demonstrate that you trust them and have their best interests at heart. 

With my team, they know what they are expected to do. 

As long as they achieve what they need to then we are in a good place. 

We all have lives outside of work and we need to be happy in both, they need to be synonymous with each other. It is important. 

Image linking to other Procurement blogs like the Big Interview with Thomas Martin from Clear Channel

How do you achieve work-life balance? 

For me personally, When I was younger my dad was on the board of a FTSE 100 company, I didn’t see him during the week and he was away a lot, I don’t think that is the way my daughter should grow up. 

Both my wife and I can have demanding jobs and be there to support our daughter. 

Flexible working is different for different people, and different people have different requirements. 

There is a lot of single or childless people out there that need flexibility as well. 

It is just recognising what flexibility is. 

I had clients in my consultancy days where you were expected to conform to old traditional ways of working and I don’t think that is the best way. 

When you are in a senior leadership role, you do have to have a commitment to the business which goes beyond what you would expect of your staff. I have had weeks where I’ve put my daughter to bed at 8 pm then worked late into the night. 

That is what I expect of myself, though, Clear Channel wouldn’t expect me to do that. 

Favourite books, destinations and sports? 

I swim three or four times a week, both independently and with the local swimming club, typically covering 5k per session. Exercise is a great stress reliever and it makes me feel good about myself. I also compete with myself to improve my times. 

I don’t watch any sport! Apart from the World Cup, it passes me by. Life is too busy to sit down in front of the TV. 

I do like travelling and going to new places. Last year we went to New York and the Dominican Republic for Christmas, Croatia in the summer and Sardinia in October half term. It’s a great way to spend family time without distraction! 

My mission this year is to not go to any countries I haven’t been to before. 

What advice would you give your younger self? 

One thing I wish I had done was to go and work outside of the UK with a completely different culture. 

Another is at the beginning of my career, I would have these ideas of cool things to do, and sometimes you can end up swimming against the tide. I think it is important to understand what is the right thing for the organisation but also for you. 

There is no point in achieving something that is hard to do but takes twice as long, if you can achieve something that has equal value and takes half the time. 

People won’t necessarily understand how much effort you have had to put in to achieve your projects, they will only measure you on the results. Sometimes the hard things can become easier later down the road.

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Sophie Cook