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The Big Interview with Erik Van Kampen

Erik Van Kampen is Senior Category Lead, Higher Education & Further Education at the Department for Education, for our latest Big Interview he spoke with Rupert Gaster about how he got into procurement, who has had the most influence on his career and the crucial role the procurement function played in helping the organisation face the pandemic.

How did you get into procurement?

It is quite a long boring story! 

I needed something to do after getting out of the US Airforce and I didn’t have any direction. 

I had recently moved to the UK and didn’t have a job or qualifications, so I bumbled around in a series of different jobs; driving trucks, working for a hire company in the catering industry and then got a research and development job for a passive fire protection firm for a one year contract. 

At the end of that, I went to an employment agency and they asked me if I was interested in doing a data input job at what was Mercury Communications, which was local to me, and I said yes and asked what was involved – they said: “Do you know what Excel is?” so I said yes, but had never heard of it! 

I ended up in a purchasing team, a centre-led activity network. 

At the beginning of each day there was what felt like a two-foot pile of paperwork to my left, which was full of purchase requisitions and invoice mismatches and by the end of the day, I needed to get rid of that pile! 

I started to recognise trends in those requisitions, common suppliers, services and different prices. 

So I started phoning companies to negotiate discounts or improved terms. Unknown to me I had started to develop a reputation for my proactive approach and was initially offered a six-month contract and then permanent employment so, like a lot of people I know, it was purely by accident!

What do you think makes you good at procurement?

I tend to rely more on instinct and intuition rather than having all of the data in front of me, although a good mix of both is important. 

I don’t have any preconceived ideas of what the outcome should be, I’m less worried about my technical skills and more worried about how I treat people and that I try to listen and understand. 

My dad was a blabberer and I am too, I like to think I build relationships quickly with people and establish trust. 

I love people, for me, my abilities around being honest and authentic help me do that. 

What are you most passionate about when it comes to procurement?

Doing the right thing, not just for my customer but also for the organisation. Whether that is in the private sector or the public sector more recently. 

That is all about making sure we achieve value for money for the taxpayer and we are all taxpayers at the end of the day. 

For me, I think it’s about reducing waste, improving outcomes, and also myth-busting. There are a lot of assumptions about public sector procurement; the rules, the quality of the people, etc. Some of this finds its way into the press and that is largely unfair and unfounded in my experience. 

It is about trying to create an environment for passionate, talented, collaborative procurement professionals, to do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons and aren’t afraid to challenge poor behaviours and bad practice.

For you, focus on higher education – what are the key focus areas for procurement?

Inevitably, they are policy and politically led, so it is about meeting the requirements of the government of the day really. 

Two of our current areas of focus are:

  1. Skills boot camps. This is about industry specific skills, that employers say they need and how we can make sure people can obtain those skills and go on to use them in the workplace; and
  2. Turing, the UK’s international mobility programme that is providing funding for participants from schools, colleges and universities to study and work across the globe.

What inspires you as a procurement leader?

My team, I know it sounds corny, but I genuinely mean it. 

Watching the work that other people do and seeing them grow, make mistakes, and learn. Also, to celebrate success. I also think having a leadership team or individual who is behind you 100% who lets you do what you think is the right thing. 

Yes, it is people. 

Watching the world go by is interesting. 

Also, my family to be honest – this is a bit like an Oscars speech, isn’t it! 

My wife runs a successful business and I’ve seen it grow over the years and am constantly amazed. Our children have all grown and are doing their own thing and are really passionate, which is brilliant to see. 

I apply or pack up all that learning continuously in terms of what I am like, how I do my job, and how I treat others. 

So, it is people really, that I get energy and inspiration from.

What skills do you think are essential in procurement leadership?

Technical skills are really important as you have to be credible in front of stakeholders, and you have to be credible in front of your team. 

Kind of sitting back and trying to understand your team’s challenges and really just listening, hearing what people are telling you and reading between the lines. And just being brave and being prepared to accept a degree of risk and not believing you know the answers all the time.

Who has had the most influence on you?

It covers multiple stages if I am honest. When I first started out there were a couple of guys who were buyers at Mercury, there are a lot of stories but one, in particular, that still makes me laugh: as an American, I am pretty comfortable with being direct and not afraid to say “No”. my colleagues Jonathon and Mark said, “Why use three words when you can use 10” which I thought was obviously the wrong way round! 

But what they were trying to say was when you respond to people just be clear about why you are adopting a position and help them find a way through, I had never been in the corporate world before so that was a bit weird! 

Later on, a guy called Kim Godwin, a past CPO at Barclays, and just his style, it was pretty informal and he was just a really nice guy, he had a lot of credibility both internally and externally, he was my mentor for a while and was instrumental in getting me to change the way I think. 

I had always been used to the detail of executing a deal, the cut and thrust of a negotiation, and category management. Want to know how a tender process would work, putting a contract in place, saving money – no problem. Kim helped me think about things a little differently in terms of not forgetting about the sourcing but also about leading other people, how would I approach motivating them, how would I find answers to questions and solve problems that I wouldn’t normally anticipate and/or had to deal with before.

It did make me sit back and think. 

Latterly it is different people at different times, I have worked at GSK on a systems transformation programme. I worked with a couple of really talented guys – Sam de Frates and Steven Low – who trusted me to do the right thing and they created an environment where people worked well together and complimented each other’s skillsets; a really natural collaborative environment. 

And even that, I take with me a lot to try and motivate people, tell stories and show how it is not always easy. It’s okay to say “I don’t know”, and then try to find out what the answer is or should be.

I have got a list as long as my arm of people who have impacted me in different ways and am grateful to them all!

What advice would you give someone embarking on a career in procurement?

Be brave and be authentic.

Trust yourself and your direction. 

Don’t be in a hurry.

I meet a lot of people who want to be promoted and get on to the next role. 

I sound like an old fart really but it’s important actually to understand the underlying processes, understand the reasons why, how do things work (or not) and why. 

Be curious, try different things. 

I think it is important to encourage people into the profession and create junior roles for people to develop and grow into. You can learn procurement, it’s a discipline that most people can practice with time, patience, and commitment. When you look at a lot of jobs, employers are looking for people with experience, who can hit the ground running. What happened to growing talent, investing in individuals for the future?

I am still surprised when I meet people who actually wanted to go into procurement, mainly because a lot of people I talk to ‘feel into it’. For example, I work with colleagues who are part of the Commercial Fast Stream, programme, which is like a graduate programme in the civil service. You meet these young, dynamic people and they all have their eyes on the prize, they are all very smart and motivated. That said, you still have to work with them, provide opportunities, and invest in them.

I think it is all about being yourself, don’t be afraid but be curious. That has to be one of the most important things, but also don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer.

What role has the procurement function paid in enabling the organisation to face the global pandemic?

I have been in quite a unique position really, when Covid first hit the news and impacted the world I was in the Department for Education and we were trying to think about as an organisation how we responded to the situation, to the pandemic. 

We were in lockdown, kids weren’t in school or students weren’t in uni and things like that. 

Plus, we had the underlying issues of how we were going to work, it was quite multi-faceted really.

I think our response as a team and at an organisational level was actually quite robust, despite what people may think!

We quickly made sure people felt connected and made sure we were supporting each other on a regular basis. 

We made sure we recognised the importance of mental health and wellbeing and I think we did a pretty good job of that. 

Organisationally there was a huge response in trying to get technology out to students and I was lucky enough to be involved in some of that. 

Also, remote education, trying to provide the infrastructure around hosted content and allowing people free access to those facilities. 

Latterly I got seconded to test and trace, which was kind of even more front of the house type stuff and I look back on that with nothing but pride. 

I worked with a lot of talented people across a lot of different roles. 

Whether that was working with people internally to understand their understanding of end-to-end processes or getting involved with developing a bill of materials for some of the labs (for equipment, consumables or reagents). I had never done anything like that before, it was very challenging for me personally. 

I then got involved in the service centre, so the inbound calls for booking tests and/ or outbound calls for contact tracing; one of which woke me up at 8 am on a weekend following a trip to Denmark! At the time of this interview, I am actually involved in a procurement exercise for that service.

That experience was very enlightening. It is tough sometimes when people say it didn’t make any difference, I don’t agree with that. It’s a shame that things like that are used as a political football sometimes. 

You were working with people you had never met before, it was a combination of civil servants, contractors, consultants and so it was a really supportive, honest, open environment and I worked with some really talented people. 

It was all done in the backdrop of the pandemic, so everything was always urgent and people always worked very long hours, but mental health and wellbeing were always very important there as well.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

As you know I like road cycling, unfortunately, I have not been on my bike for a long time and I am a fair-weather cyclist so I have now got it hooked up to a turbo trainer and I have just literally started using it again this week. 

I also like being outside, if I get cooped up too much, I get a bit frustrated! 

My family is the thing that motivates me the most, I don’t go out and socialise a lot I just need my family around me.

I like a glass of wine every now and then and also travelling. I am naturally curious and like to explore.

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t panic, it will be alright. 

I found my 20s quite difficult both from a career perspective and personally. 

I was always worried if I wouldn’t be successful, and I like to think I have been lucky my whole life really but I was quite impatient and always thought things weren’t good enough. 

Even now I find myself saying what do I need to do to get to the next level and now I find myself thinking, actually does that even matter?

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