Clare Harris is Client Director in the UK for Proxima.
Tell us about your role at Proxima
I manage a portfolio of clients and we provide lots of things for those clients in relation to procurement; whether that’s cost optimisation programmes, opportunity assessments or transformation programmes.
My portfolio is quite retail-focused, although I do have clients in other sectors.
Proxima has teams in Chicago and in the UK, the business has been around for about 25 years and we have approximately 250 people. I have been in the business for 15 years and have taken on quite a few roles during that time. I started out client-facing, then went into operations and was our COO for a number of years but came back to a client-facing role about three years ago.
What were the beginnings of your procurement journey?
Retail was my route into procurement, I’ve always been passionate about retail.
I remember spending many times in stores after opening hours as my dad was a store manager at BHS, so I have always been fascinated by retail operations from an on-the-ground perspective.
At eight years old we had to talk in class about our favourite hobbies, and all the boys were doing football and the girls were doing their pets – I did retailers!
I joined Asda looking for a role as a retail buyer, it was just after the Walmart acquisition, so it was a really exciting time. My role was international – I was travelling around the far East and India trying to find new sources of supply for non-food goods – things like Halloween decorations, Christmas, Easter, toys and garden furniture, lots of interesting products.
My role was to find these new sources and convince the UK team to buy direct from the factory as opposed to through the agent network, which they had been quite used to doing. It was quite a fundamental shift in how they used their supply chain. It was about trying to change how Asda did things at the time and that is what was quite interesting.
Because I worked internationally, I was able to run a few programmes trying to get Walmart buyers to buy together to get better prices, which sounds very logical but trying to convince everyone they should buy from the same suppliers was hard. I worked with some of the best retail buyers in the world and learnt a lot.
My route into procurement was really about instigating change in a business, which is what I had been doing at Walmart and then the Proxima role came up. I’ve not really looked back since then as everything I do in Proxima is about change. It’s about implementing different ways of looking at things and doing things and now that I am doing that for retail clients is a bonus for me.
Proxima was a shift in gear on the surface, but when you look at what I had been doing in that role [at Asda] and you look at what we do in Proxima, which is about helping people buy better and looking at problems from a different perspective, that was my background so it wasn’t too much of a shift.
It was a role that I joined thinking I would do it for a couple of years, but 15 years later it has been constantly challenging. It has been ever-evolving and I haven’t felt the need to go anywhere else.
I must have worked for 50 or so clients over my time in the business, so it is like having worked for all those different businesses in lots of different guises, I feel like I’ve had that many different jobs.
What are you most passionate about when it comes to procurement?
Proxima has always nurtured my curiosity and being able to find solutions to complex challenges is what I am most passionate about. Every day is different and I think it is about getting to the core of the business and getting procurement to be seen as a business enabler, not a place you go to run a process. Helping clients achieve that is the most rewarding thing and what I am passionate about.
Who has inspired you in your career?
I’m inspired by the people around me more than anything. My teams always go the extra mile, never give up when the going gets tough and pull together to achieve something when you thought it probably wasn’t achievable.
I am always struck when new people join the business and say the culture is brilliant and that everyone is willing to help. No-one is in it for themselves and that is what has inspired me more than any inspirational leader to be honest.
Are there any key traits that are important for a procurement leader?
Yes, I would say good leaders in procurement are those that give people space to grow and try new things, allowing them to fail and learn from it.
Procurement is so much more than a process, it’s about relationships, influencing, seeing an opportunity for change. Being persuasive in driving people towards that. You have to provide people with the opportunity to develop their own style and put the framework around them so that they feel supported in doing that.
Do you think there are enough opportunities out there for young females to progress in their career?
I think there are huge opportunities for men and women in the industry now, more than when I started.
I think procurement is becoming central to organisations and I think it offers a good platform for people in the sector to have a seat at the top table.
We pride ourselves on diversity at Proxima, our clients are diverse after all, so we actively take steps to create a workforce that mirrors our clients in that respect.
We are always looking for great female talent and I think there are some good opportunities out there now.
What skills and attributes do you believe help women to progress their career?
There are certain skills that all procurement professionals benefit from and some of those I think come naturally to women. High emotional intelligence is one, such as being able to go in and read a room or respond in a way that builds trust, being able to navigate conflict and being flexible to different ways of doing things.
One of the biggest skills that make people successful in this industry is being a really good communicator and also having a positive mindset and that goes a long way to success.
Do you think there is anything we can do as an industry to encourage more women to progress in this profession?
Always. In most industries I would say this is true.
I am passionate about mentoring and giving support and help to younger female talent coming into the industry and coming into Proxima. I have done that in the UK and in the US with young female graduates who I have never actually met.
I think it’s about sharing your experience and being honest with your challenges. It is not about putting yourself on a pedestal – it’s about being a sounding board and sharing.
Do you think people at university and school know about procurement as a profession?
It is getting better, but when I left university people had never heard of it.
It may have been a module that was glossed over, but now there are some good courses with a procurement focus and we’ve had some brilliant success recruiting graduates from those courses – this year is our highest graduate intake. It is becoming more of a destination role, but there is a lot more to do.
Is there any advice you would give someone looking to start out in a procurement role?
I would say to them don’t stop challenging yourselves, every day do something that you find a little scary as that is the best way to learn and grow and develop.
Also, ask questions of those around you. We always put tight support networks around individuals initially, helping them to feel confident and it’s amazing how quickly confidence can grow.
I would also say that I don’t think you necessarily need to change roles and keep moving to get stretched. At Proxima, I’ve managed to have lots of different experiences in one business.
As long as you are constantly learning sometimes it is great to stay where you are and build your experience with one company.
What do you think are the key focus areas for procurement right now?
We recently launched our Procurement in 2021 Report looking at key trends. The key things that came out of it were around sustainability, cost optimisation, innovation and business transformation and responding to the need to be agile with the Covid year we have had.
I would say that the role of procurement is really shifting as a result of the pandemic. Procurement has been critical throughout the last year and leaders are now starting to see the function as more than just cost-cutting and seeing the function as one that can really support risk management, corporate responsibility, sustainability, drivers of innovation and funders of investment.
I think this is a real moment in time for procurement to show itself as a business enabler.
What are you seeing with regards to the procurement function in the backlash to Covid?
In 2021, procurement will remain at the heart of businesses, both navigating the Covid situation, but also Brexit is now upon us as well. There is a lot of focus on supply chains and needing to be flexible and agile.
Businesses are going to need to make smart decisions in terms of where to invest. It is also important that businesses don’t baton down the hatches and become too internally focussed – it is important to keep looking forward and keep learning.
Procurement functions that are willing to innovate and transform are the ones that are going to be the most successful.
Are there any procurement trends that you are seeing off the back of its emerging role?
I would say one of the things that has come out a lot has been around employee wellbeing, given how isolated we all are and the tendency to work longer hours. We are taking this very seriously at Proxima and have things in place to make sure our employees are happy and have a manageable work-life balance. Particularly those that are new to the organisation, to make sure they feel connected to the business.
The division between work life and home life has become blurred and it’s really important for businesses to tackle this and make sure they can retain and motivate their teams.
The other focus at the moment is around sustainability and Environmental Social Governance and also how to drive that through the supply chain. I think this is especially crucial in retail as customers are starting to make choices about which brands they align themselves with, not just on the basis of cost but also on the basis of sustainability and corporate responsibility ethos. Making sure that you are selecting suppliers that are compatible with your own corporate commitments will be challenging and a challenge that procurement will be front and centre of.
What changes are you seeing for essential retailers since Covid?
It has been a difficult year!
I think 2021 will be all about trying to understand how some of those preferences have evolved in 2020 as a result of Covid and which of those are here to stay and what the new normal will be for retail.
My view is that 2020 accelerated a lot of trends that were emerging anyway. We created a report for retail leaders looking at how to grapple with these trends, for example the surge in e-commerce and the legislative commerce around Brexit.
There are lots of retailers looking at how they can become agile and flexible so that they can pivot and respond to a situation that is still unpredictable.
Technology is another theme and how [retailers] can use that to get ahead. From new payment solutions and biometrics, to emerging marketing technologies and just overall how to connect the physical and the digital retail business.
Sustainability is also key and customers are going to expect retailers to have a strong position on it and I think that is going to need a lot of attention this year.
Traditional bricks and mortar retailers will need to have a strategy for their property portfolio moving forwards – how can they adapt? I think Covid has been a bit of a reset and it is easy to lament the loss of Debenhams of these worlds, but I think Covid just accelerated the inevitable and what it has meant is that more innovative, fresh retailers will rise to the top and the future will be with those who can innovate and push the boundaries to stay fresh and relevant.
I don’t get upset when I see a retailer has gone under, I actually think it is exciting to think who is going to emerge as a result. We’ve seen lots of innovative solutions come to market over the last year and that will just keep coming.
Many procurement professionals are very divided when it comes to retail at the moment, some are looking to get out of retail and some are saying that retail is going to have to change and procurement can be a part of that. What is your view on that to anyone who is considering leaving the profession or wanting to join?
I would say it is a fascinating area to be in. From a procurement perspective it’s particularly fascinating as you’ve got a real opportunity to go along that journey of a retailer having to innovate, looking at its supply chain, looking at data from customers and how you use that data. All of those things will touch procurement, it will be influencing marketing suppliers, the property strategy and payment solutions
There are so many retail touchpoints that will be influenced by procurement and the supply chain, so for me, procurement is right at the centre of the organisation.
I never thought I would have a more interesting job than travelling around India looking at factories back in my early twenties, but some of the conversations I have now with senior individuals from big well-known companies, it is fascinating to get an insight into how it works from the inside out.
For someone like me who is passionate about retail and is a real consumer, I think it is a great career choice.