For our latest Head2Head, James Dobbin, who heads up our Financial & Professional Services offering, spoke with Alexei Burns, Head of Procurement at Castle Trust Bank.
Alexei has experience across several sectors in procurement leadership positions including utilities, travel and financial services. A proven track record of leading transformation, developing teams and driving procurement’s value proposition forward with technology and data-centric approach.
You can read, watch or listen to their conversation below.
How did you get into procurement?
I was working as an engineer in the unified communication space and there was an element of data management that was needed in that role in the way that the organisation was laid out.
For me, it was a novelty at first but then I found it tremendously rewarding when we were coming to activities or conversations that were beneficial for both parties, I found that a fulfilling way to spend my time.
That then eventually organically grew as the organisation changed and developed, through some acquisitions we effectively concluded that a procurement function in itself was something that we needed to have as a company.
I was lucky enough to be in that position where I was already starting to go down that road and it snowballed from there.
So, that is my way into procurement and I think that is probably quite common, I think it is always going to be the case that people fall into it, purely because of the lack of direct learning pathways.
Listen to our Head2Head with Alexei here
Are there any successes at this point in your career that you are particularly proud of?
If I think about successes that I am proud of I think if you’re part of a procurement team, you have a lot of bigger wins and you’re on the procurement bus and you’re moving in the direction of the team, but I think as a leader, or someone accountable for the function, there is a realisation that you are never going to win it on your own.
Actually, for me, defining a purpose or a mission statement is excellent, but the success I am most proud of is seeing my team buy into that and own that themselves and watching the seed grow and grow and evolve into something different to what it started as.
I think from a success perspective that is something that I am most proud of, seeing someone buy into the strategy and then take ownership of it and be proud of it.
Fast-forwarding to your current role, how has it been heading up a greenfield procurement function in a fintech challenger bank? How has that journey been?
It has been fast-paced and it has been exciting but actually, it has been really good in the sense that procurement‘s role is well understood by the bank and actually if you think of the core domains that procurement plays fundamentally they are understood by the bank and we have a lot of advocates within the firm who understand the value that procurement can bring.
I think that is fantastic.
It is then a case of really building on top of that and underpinning it with a strategy that makes sense, both in terms of a people perspective, then a process and technology perspective, but also making sure that we are allowing the business to grow at the speed in which it needs to grow.
So, there are two parts to it I suppose, there is the functional strategy and how we move procurement forward, and then there’s the piece around actually facilitating the business to move at the pace they want to move.
It has been a really interesting five months; we have made some great progress we are looking to expand on over the coming year.
What is it like reporting into technology?
Interestingly so we report to the CTOO, but then there is the operational element as well.
We are very technology-centric as a bank, we are pushing the boundaries in the fintech space.
I think technology is a massive enabler of that, so being at the heart of that is fantastic but then being in the leadership from a technology perspective is good as well because we are close to the action and it allows us to make sure we are delivering value in all the right areas.
From a personal perspective, it is really interesting, historically I have worked in organisations where I have sat in different places, whether that be finance, operations, or HR, so to sit in the space that I am at, is another lens through which to look at things through, so I find that interesting and something I haven’t done before.
What aspects of your role do you enjoy and equally what aspects do you find challenging?
Something that I have a disdain for then love for in equal measures would be the cyclical nature of procurement, I think probably of business, in general, I think it is a concept that scales up and scales down.
We might think of a stakeholder, a category or a business requirement that there is a beginning, a middle or an end to. Then we think about our supply base, and the contracts that we have within our supply base and the contracts within that, everything is cyclical right so you might have a contract that is one or three or five years, and the challenge is you have got to try and marry those things to make sure that within that contract life cycle you can fulfil all of those business requirements.
The contract scales, if you think about functional strategies, you might have a functional strategy that is on paper, two or three or even five years on paper and you might have a technology strategy that complements that.
That is cyclical, but people don’t necessarily work in the same way. If you have a management team that signs off on a strategy and implement that and it is a three-year exercise and if that management team is phased out or changes over one-two years you have a challenge as you have a cycle that is midway through and you can get opportunity risk in equal measure.
That is something I love and find challenging, you are always working within these cycles and you are trying to find the sweet spot to operate within.
Sometimes everything comes together and it is sweet symphony at a time.
What does a typical working day look like for you?
I mean I think there is a typical working day at the moment and that is because we are being very deliberate in how structured we are being.
We have got several initiatives in flight that are a strategy and we must be measuring ourselves against our progress regularly at the moment.
So, for me a typical day would be that team check-in, to look across our initiatives, what are our key activities of that day what blockers we have that might cause an issue with what we are trying to deliver.
Then I think there is a piece daily around our supply base and nurturing them.
We have grown rapidly as n organisation and as a part of that we have built a lot of relationships with suppliers but where we are at the moment is that we need to nurture our supply base.
We need to understand our supply base and have the right kind of communications with them so that is something on a day-to-day basis I am spending some time on.
Then I guess there are two parts to it, there is the piece for myself from a functional ownership perspective trying to push the envelope for procurement and talk about what we can offer to the organisation.
We are still in this embryonic stage where we have a real opportunity to land ourselves quite far up in terms of where we sit.
I guess finally there is the piece around the bank as a whole, I am lucky enough to sit on the senior management team of the bank and there are a lot of responsibilities that come with that, part of my day will be spent on really trying to progress the company more widely.
A typical day is quite structured at the moment and that is paying dividends in some of the progress we have made in a short space of time.
What future trends do you see in procurement?
I think it is something that people have talked about for a long time, we talk about procurement’s value proposition and we talk about the core skills and capabilities that are needed with a procurement function.
We have been through this journey to move to a more digitally-led, strategic advisor that has a whole host of exciting and intelligent capabilities that can deliver value to the organisation, if I think where we are now, I think procurement is becoming more technology-centric.
It is less anecdotal now and it is more that we are seeing that on a day-to-day basis. We can see now all sorts of examples where procurement has stepped up to the mark from a technology perspective then as part of that they have evolved and adapted as a function when the technology first came about around traditional procurement teams and they would wrestle with that tech to try and make it work for them, but I think as time has moved on it has allowed the team to restructure and build teams with technology in mind.
If you think about the way and the movement in which cycles tend to work, technology has become more mature and we see teams that are rebuilt around technology rather than technology being laid no existing teams.
What that has meant is there are different types of people who have made up the procurement team. The Business Analyst role is a really good example and a good indicator that they are probably using technology differently from how it was being used five years ago.
Technology is creating capacity and capabilities which is effectively driving procurement’s value proposition further forwards we can talk about examples through Covid and supply chain disruption and technology is a massive enabler for procurement.
They have that core capability and it is much easier to move much faster no because we are all more digitally native and more susceptible to living more digitally.
Do you see blockchain playing a big part in the future of procurement?
I do, I think blockchain is a big topic of conversation there are lots of different layers to it.
There are lots of different layers to the blockchain uses and how it is used within an organisation.
It won’t just necessarily be about how blockchain is used within procurement it will be about how blockchain is used within an organisation and therefore the role that procurement has to play within that organisation, and how they then have to interact with that blockchain.
Blockchain will be fundamental I imagine over the next 10-15 years we will see even more of the expediential rate at which technology has been adopted by organisations and therefore we will see procurement and other functions having to adapt quite quickly to the use of blockchain.
I could have some very interesting debates about what the role of procurement will look like in 10-15 years and actually how businesses are going to operate.
It is really interesting, I think it is probably one of the reasons why I have been very keen to try and experience procurement in different ways across different industries and sizes of an organisation to see and feel how procurement is from an end-to-end perspective to try and gauge what does this mean and where might we end up and how procurement might play a different role in different types of organisations as things like blockchain mature.
What piece of advice would you give your younger self?
It would be something I tell myself; it is two ears and one mouth.
We have two ears for a reason, I think I spent quite a long time talking when really, I could have listened more.
If you are sitting in a room with five people and you are the last to talk you have the benefit of those four people that you can use to challenge your thinking or back up the idea or notion that you had to begin with.
My one piece of advice would be to listen more and talk less.