CPO Spotlight: Ketal Patel

For Procurement Heads‘ latest CPO Spotlight, he spoke with Rupert Gaster about the various categories he has managed during his extensive career and how he and his team have shown procurement’s worth to the business during one of its busiest ever periods.

Unlike some people, my career in procurement started by pure luck.

I wanted to move to London having studied in Birmingham and lived there for a few years, a friend worked at United Biscuits and had an opening in the procurement function that he could get me an interview for. 

I went for it and got the role, so I could move to London with a job, as it was too expensive to move there without one. 

That helped me to get my foot in the door and I have never looked back. 

I started in Procurement Support, so understanding the real basics such as pricing, systems and how a company uses its data, which helped massively when I made that first step up into a European buying role. 

I then managed to get my first category which was a Christmas packaging portfolio, buying all of those Victoria Tins and Twiglets caddies and stuff like that. 

It was a great first Buyer role for me because United Biscuits was a multi-country, multi-factory organisation so I really got a lot of exposure and really enjoyed it, it taught me a lot about building strategies around categories and it was a help that it was a real focus on Christmas so there was a build-up every year to a certain period which helped to put a focus to it. 

I really enjoyed it there and stayed for around four or five years and then decided to make a change and went to probably the smallest organisation I have worked for, a company called Eat, they are a food shop, as one of their two Buyers working for the Procurement Director. 

I got exposure to a bit more of the retail side of the business and looked at packaging as before but also the food side of things. 

It was such a small organisation I would get involved in all sorts of things; I was heavily involved in opening a new store to launching new seasonal products which was brilliant fun as well. 

After that, I went to one of the biggest companies I have ever worked for at GSK. 

I saw an opportunity there for a plastics Buyer which was part of my portfolio background at United Biscuits. 

I took the role and during my notice period they sold two of their biggest brands which would have been probably 80% of my workload, which were Lucozade and Ribena to Suntory. 

I went to GSK, did about 12-15 months there with the portfolio that was left and looked at a new category I hadn’t worked on before which was paper and corrugate which was interesting as they have 90 sites globally, so they were very big categories to look after. 

But, in the end, I decided it wasn’t for me because I saw the job at Suntory that I had applied for at GSK just a year earlier, so I met them and very quickly got that role, so went over to Lucozade and Ribena Suntory looking after their plastic and packaging, again for Europe. 

I also worked on great brands in Spain and France like Orangina and Schweppes, looking at new categories as well like bottle caps and glass, I really enjoyed that role and they are a great company to work for. 

I had a global view of their packaging as well because of all the brands around the world that they owned, so working on video calls or getting to go to Tokyo, and visiting centres there was fantastic and working with the Japanese team, I really enjoyed that and then finally, this opportunity came up at Photobox, which didn’t have a procurement function at the time, they had many different factories and brands and they wanted to put a group function together. I was actually pretty happy at Suntory but I thought there are not going to be many opportunities in my career to start a function from scratch at an organisation that was already a mid-sized company, so I took that four and a half years ago and haven’t looked back since. 

It’s been a rollercoaster here, but I’ve loved it. 

What was it you inherited and what was it that bought you to your position?

When I joined it was made up of three or four brands, Photobox itself was a UK and French brand which was started in the late 90s and they had acquired brands over time, probably the most famous of which was Moonpig.

I went into that business looking at a way of bringing it all together. 

They had at the time a lot more local supply chain in each factory and the buying responsibilities inside that supply chin. 

So they were really looking at individual factories, so I straight away looked at the savings and synergies here. That was a blank slate to start with, but it was great that two of the supply chain team immediately became part of the Group Procurement team as buyers, and together we found the first few projects and synergies.

The key was to show them their worth straight away. 

We had a look at all the spend and picked the category that made the most sense to start on, it was envelopes, so it was quite a big one with a spend of more than £1 million. 

In the first project, we got the list of suppliers down from 14 to four and the spend reduced by 35%, it didn’t take long for them to give us access to more categories, and more areas as they could see the worth straight away, which is the best way of doing it, show the value, it is not just savings, it is streamlining the supplier base as well. 

That set the base nicely to show our value and helped open doors for other stakeholders to trust us with more spend categories. 

Off the back of that, they were supportive of us looking at bigger areas, moving from the packaging to the paper and the canvas frames. 

So, we did that for the first couple of years and managed to grow the team.

As a Category Lead in other bigger businesses, what did you notice the biggest difference was running the function?

As a Category Lead, you go to meetings and focus on your bit and make sure you nail it, but as the leader, you must be really switched on for every second. 

It was a bit like going from category management, in my lane knowing everything about my portfolio across the company, to having the knowledge of everything in the company my team were working on, as well as the things I was looking at personally, so that was a big change.

There was a bit more organisation needed on my part, more notes and folders and making sure I was aware of where the team needed support and where they could just push on. 

You’re not just focusing on yourself. 

I had managed people before but with people above me still. 

When you’re the one where the buck stops, with no one to ask above you, that felt like a big change to me.

What are the biggest projects you have faced over the last few years focusing on bringing these businesses together?

At the start bringing all these brands together who worked in very different ways was a natural challenge. 

One thing at Photobox is there has been a major change every year I have been there. 

We’re talking about acquiring brands, so one year our task was to fit a new brand into the company strategy which was really interesting. 

Actually, the Moonpig brand was divested as well, 18 months or so into the job, and that meant I remained on the Photobox side, which gave the function its first change in reporting.

So, the CFO became my new boss, and because of the benefit we had seen in raw material purchasing we were then able to support indirect procurement, which was great and one of the reasons I took the job as I had never really done indirect procurement before. 

That was one of the first big challenges of stepping into that area. 

For me and the team, we do a lot of on-the-job learning, which is a challenge but an interesting one for us.

How has the procurement department been affected by ‘Black Swan’ events such as the pandemic and now more recently the cost-of-living crisis and war in Ukraine, and how has the business responded? 

I think anyone who you ask what their biggest challenge of the last five years was it would be Covid, remote working was one piece of it, not being able to have that face-to-face or being in the factory which I think we all love to do when we are category leaders. 

For our business, the orders went through the roof initially! 

People were forced to be at home, and the wedding album, the holiday photos, all those things you have been meaning to do finally got done and ordered. 

The fact that you couldn’t visit people meant people were sending them gifts, so actually when Covid started around March which is normally the quieter time for this company, we had an almost Christmas-style peak during that April-May, our supply chain wasn’t set up for that initially, and that was a huge challenge for my team and making sure we could get those materials in to support all the manufacturing. 

Getting close to suppliers and understanding what could be made and when and knowing that we are not the only ones doing so, the whole market was the same. 

That was a non-stop challenge for us in the first year of the pandemic. 

I think because we were working via video calls already with colleagues in other countries, we were set up for the change to remote working, so it wasn’t difficult to get into that routine but then to actually get the information about requirements and then get the suppliers to commit to quantities of raw materials was the challenge, but my team were brilliant at that. 

And now, you have the price increases due to inflation and energy, then you had the lead time issues on shipping and freight so there is always something we need to support the business with.

We are a very seasonal business we peak from Black Friday to Christmas; it needs planning very early on in the year with suppliers but also then you need to plan early with internal stakeholders as well. 

All the price increases with global commodities, is that having a big impact right now?

Yes, all over you can probably see energy and gas going up effects everything from our factories and how you run them to raw materials that we purchase to make the products.

We are about building partnerships with our suppliers; you need them to make a fair profit

otherwise, they won’t be here in a year. Then you’ll have a bigger problem. 

It is about working with them to see how we can support them and where the pinch points are for both companies and finding a solution

It is working well but it is never going to be perfect with the price rises we’ve seen in the last 12 months. 

What are the predictions for the business in the future?

The big news for us is that this year we merged so we are no longer Photobox we are now Albelli Photobox Group so the focus this year is the integration of the two, from a procurement point of view it is fantastic. It’s a bigger organisation to work with, with more materials, and more services that we can bring together and look to make savings on. 

We are coming up to our first peak as a merged company so it will be really interesting to see how it goes and I think that is the real focus over the next 18 months, to get those two companies together, get that platform set and get ready for the next step in our growth so we can keep delighting our customers!

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