CPO Spotlight: Ann Ackerson

Could you tell us a bit about your background?

I have been a supply chain professional for 37 years, quite precisely!

I describe it as closer to four decades than three decades, and a good chunk of that has had a heavy focus on procurement.

I really do view myself as a supply chain professional, having worked in roles as wide-ranging as transportation and logistics, import/export, material planning, procurement, leading supply and demand teams, and material distribution across nine different industries in both services and manufacturing businesses over the course of my career.

I have had a glimpse of quite a wide range of different industries, which has really kept it interesting and challenging over the course of those 37 years.

A little about myself personally is that I grew up in the middle of the United States as a child of two public school teachers – so I would say pretty humble origins.

I started working when I was 13, so I had to get a work permit to do it.

I was a janitor, and from that point on, I had part-time or full-time jobs in the summer to help pay for my schooling.

I worked all through university.

I even did road construction working for the Department of Transportation one summer, not doing logistics but on a survey crew.

All of that helped form who I am. I was really motivated to graduate from university and to go into a field with great opportunities.

I feel like that has been the case.

I had an internship the last summer before my senior year and then immediately started working.

I have been fortunate enough to realise there is far more that is similar to supply chain in all these industries than is different.

I am also able to recognise that not everything is as important in one industry as the other.

It is which levers do you want to pull in order to deliver the outcome that the business needs.

You were named in Procurement Magazine’s top 100 women in Procurement list, how did it feel to be recognised?

I have mixed feelings!

On one hand, it is very flattering, and I hope it brings light to the great team at BAE Systems, but I don’t do this work for the spotlight or the glory.

People that choose supply chain love challenges, and love to be about making a difference, so to be recognised is great, but to me, it is always around what we can do next.

I do say if you choose this field, you have to be a bit of a masochist.

Even when you do something well – take a pause and enjoy that – but then it becomes about how we can make it better.

Again, I am appreciative of the recognition, but for me, it is all about the team.

We have a lot of folks who are really focused on fulfilling our mission of protecting those who protect us.

What are the biggest procurement challenges facing BAE Systems currently and how, as CPO, do you help mitigate these challenges?

I think for our industry, and it is likely true for many industries right now, is the growing cyber threat to our supply chain.

We are continuing to see a significant uptick in cyber breaches.

It is making sure we do everything we can do to support the security within our supply chain. We deal with highly sensitive data.

We also deal with a percentage of small to medium enterprises.

They are small, disadvantaged, diverse businesses.

So, while we as a company have robust tools in place, not all of our suppliers are equally positioned.

That is clearly an area that is top of my list.

The inflation we have seen over the last few years is the highest it has been in decades, so that continues to be a challenge.

Even though things are improving, it is still a very challenging environment.

I think the supply chain security – the whole continuity of supply – we know that the geopolitical environment has definitely changed the dynamics in the marketplace over the last few years.

We do have certain limitations with some of our customers about where we can source goods.

But we also, from a continuity of supply perspective, need to be thinking around what if supply from certain countries is no longer flowing? Are we prepared? Do we have suppliers approved?

We know that in addition to the geopolitical and continuity of supply, it is just the fragility of our small and medium-sized enterprises and the growing regulations of our customers.

Our major markets are the US, UK, Saudi Arabia, and Australia, and some of our customers, particularly on the defence side, are really starting to increase the regulations or the draft regulations relative to security provisions as well as other matters.

As a prime, our ability to respond to that is one thing, but when you get down into your tier two, three, or four, some of these are very small businesses.

Do they have the same resources to be able to navigate that environment?

Or do we run the risk that we will lose capable innovative suppliers from the defence industrial base, which is to me very concerning.

What are the biggest changes that you have seen within the function over the course of your career?

When I first got out of university, there were very few women in my programme.

I think it wasn’t even called supply chain then – what I was studying was transportation logistics or operations.

It was more tactical or transactional.

People didn’t have a seat at the table who were doing this kind of work because it was buried very deep in the organisation. It has evolved tremendously.

Obviously, the pandemic was tragic in so many ways and was so disruptive to people, but it brought to the forefront what we in supply chain have known for a long time: how critically important this work is to supporting any of our businesses.

For most of my career if people asked me what I did and I said supply chain, they would look at me as if I had grown a second head.

What does that mean? Now try to get it out of the news!

We now see supply chain or procurement leaders have a space at the table.

That was not the case 30 years ago.

We now see more people with supply chain backgrounds taking board positions, whereas before it was very much, CEO, CFO, and HR. I think now you’ll see more supply chain leaders with board seats.

I also think on new product development – for a long time, it would have been marketing and manufacturing, but now you see supply chain up front in development.

I believe now supply chain partners with your technology teams or engineering.

That partnership can be key for how companies attract new customers and how you deliver on your commitment to your customers and shareholders.

So, it has been a sea change, if you will, over the course of those 37 years.

It could not have been more gratifying for me as a career supply chain person to see it now get the attention it deserves.

With defence customers globally looking to build their resilience and to address the increasing threat of cyber security breaches, how much of an opportunity does procurement highlight their value?

I don’t think you can overstate the opportunity frankly. It is huge.

I think this is our time to say, let’s put our money where our mouth is.

Let’s do exactly what we know we can do through great partnerships and collaborative working relationships with our critical and strategic suppliers.

I think it is incumbent on all of us to make sure we are taking advantage of this trying time to reposition for the benefit of the function, but also more importantly, for the benefit of the business and the stakeholder community.

It should never be about the function first.

It is always around what are we doing to help the business better achieve its objectives.

Now we have got this environment where we can more clearly demonstrate what that is in a tangible way.

If you would listen to earnings releases across many companies in defence over the last 24 months, you have heard supply chain over and over.

At BAE Systems, we faced challenges like all, but we were able to navigate that fairly successfully because of the work that the supply chain team did partnering with the business.

To me, that opportunity continues going forward.

What skills would you consider integral to being a successful CPO?

We do an annual succession planning process, and one of the things I am asked is to identify skills that would make someone successful in this role.  

For me, it’s about courage – bringing the courage to do what is right and say what needs to be said. And inspiration and adaptability – we need to be able to inspire our teams around the vision as far as where we want to go and then be adaptable when business priorities change.

As we have seen and I think any CPO would tell you, we have all had to be very adaptable over the last three years.

Collaboration is also very important, particularly the team aspect – leading and developing very inclusive and diverse teams. It is beautiful to see the evolution of the diversity in the function – what it looked like 37 years ago compared to what it looks like today.

We have portions of our business where nearly half of our employees in the procurement space are women.

We don’t enjoy the same level of diversity in the supply chain in total, but I think that the diversity window continues to evolve.

For everyone that wants to be a part of supply chain, there is a home here if you are curious, willing to work hard, and don’t shy away from problems.

You clearly put importance on academia, how much do you think it has helped you reach your current level?

I feel that all of my qualifications helped open doors for me at different points of my career.

In fact, there was a point prior to me getting my Master of Business Administration (MBA) that I was very active in what is now the Association for Supply Chain Management.

I had a certification through that, and I was very active on the regional board for that body in the late 80s and early 90s.

I felt that my engagement in that was a continued investment in my personal development.

It was a way to differentiate myself from the next person. In your early career when you don’t have the experience base to rely on, you always have to be thinking about what differentiates you versus the next person.

I have always felt that my engagement with professional bodies for continuing those certification routes was one way that differentiated me.

When I think about getting my MBA, I think quite honestly, they can be even more powerful for folks with technical undergrad degrees. I had a business undergrad degree and an MBA.

What it really did was help me think at a different level. It helped me be prepared for more executive-level conversations.

It also sent a message to my company who sponsored me and to future employers about my commitment to grow and about what it would take for me to be ready to take on assignments of greater responsibility.

It absolutely played a role, but in the end, you need to show up and demonstrate your dedication to do the work every day.  It is not just about your pedigree of education.

What recommendations would you have for somebody thinking about getting into a Procurement or supply chain career?

I think it is curiosity.

I think for those of us in procurement or supply chain, you have an opportunity to work across the whole company.

Being curious and asking questions.

Back in my early career, it could be quite transactional.

The ideal candidate is someone who is curious, challenges things, and is willing to run towards a problem. The best one will anticipate what the risks are and get out in front of the problems.

In the end, you have got to really be thinking about what those problems are and how we then put the right steps in place to mitigate them.

I would also encourage people to have different and diverse experiences.

When we think about supply chain and folks coming into the function, I enjoy people who have had some different experiences.

They don’t have to have only done procurement or planning.

My daughter is 25, and one of the things I have encouraged her to do is try some different roles in the areas that interest her so she can get a feel for what she does and doesn’t like.

Also, it builds your base of experiences that will broaden your perspective as your career progresses. It stops people getting pigeonholed into one area.

Getting a diverse base of experience is really helpful.

It doesn’t mean you have to keep changing companies.

You can get a chance with different roles within a company.

Every single one will help you to be a better leader, as you will know it is not always as easy as it may look from one single chair.

It also gives you understanding and empathy for your colleagues when you are trying to collaboratively solve a problem for the company.

Finally, what are your priorities for the next five years at BAE Systems?

We have a five-year strategic plan, and it now encompasses all of supply chain.

We have four pillars, and the first is strategy.

It is all around how we widen the aperture beyond procurement to include supply chain. How do we build a common taxonomy in a complex and global company.

We find we use the same terms that sometimes have different meanings, so we want that taxonomy.

The second pillar is modernisation.

This is around how we become more efficient and effective in doing our core work.

How do we improve the employee experience relative to how they do their work every day.

We know we have five generations in the workforce. We need to modernise for our folks coming in today, who grew up in an entirely digital world, and then you have folks at the other end of that who may be far more tolerant to do things in a bit more of a manual way.

The third pillar is competitiveness.

This is where we are working on embedding sustainability into the supply chain.

How do we get more visibility to our sub-tiers and really just sort of the core table stakes of delivering value, improved quality, and on-time delivery.

The final pillar, but not the least important, is our team and talent.

This is around how are we building a more capable team. We have got a collaboration programme that is now global.

We are building a job architecture where people can see wherever they sit in the company, and providing a career ladder that would help them gain better visibility on what they need to do to develop for future roles.

We are also working with some of our colleagues across the business to develop cross-functional rotations so we can get some folks, for example, from programme management who may want to go and do a stint in supply chain.

Similarly, we may have some folks who want to dip their toe in another area, so we are walking the talk to allow people to get different experiences. We are proud of the work we’ve been doing to lay out a plan and sharing that with the team.

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