CPO Spotlight: Sebastien Bals 

For Procurement Heads‘ latest CPO Spotlight, Sebastien spoke with Rupert Gaster about his career, how CPOs can influence an organisation’s sustainability agenda and what key achievements he’s most proud of.

How did it feel to be recognised once again in the CIPS Power List?

It always gives a double feeling in my opinion.

I don’t think that the recognition is a personal one because I would not be in a position to be on that list and be at the forefront of thinking if it were not for the team. 

Therefore, there’s always this double connotation you have between it is great to get that recognition because if you look at the list it is amazing to be featured on there as an influencer and a forward thinker in procurement but at the same time like I said there is that my ability to do so is that I can have this many interactions within my leadership team and within the people in my proximity of UCB as well, so to a certain extent it is us feeding off this joint commitment that we have. 

It is great to be listed on there, but it also casts a shadow on all the people who are facilitating that for me.  

You are an ambassador for the Sustainable Procurement Pledge, how can CPOs influence an organisation’s sustainability agenda and make sure it is not just lip service?

This is a topic that is very close to my heart, I understand that we won’t change overnight but we should not put the bar too low either.

I have an issue with companies that plan to be carbon neutral by 2050 without putting in any intermediate milestones.

For me, instead of having net zero ambition, it’s an example of having zero ambition.

We need to acknowledge that until now we have not done enough and that most senior leaders today will no longer be in charge in 2050 so by setting such targets, in my opinion, we are once again relinquishing our responsibility to the next generation.

Although I don’t think that as a CPO we have the power to make a drastic change, I fundamentally believe we can influence the direction and lead the change. 

Through sustainable procurement, we can lead a movement and I have mentioned this to my team as well I consider that we can all make a difference.

Although we won’t create a tsunami at once, there is a ripple effect that we can create and as all these ripples come together that is when the wave will start to get bigger and drive sustainable and impactful change. 

There is this saying ‘I am only one, but I am one. I can’t do everything, but I can do something. I won’t let what I can’t do get in the way of what I can do’ – I think this is important for all of us in procurement, how small of a change or a revolution that we can make, we can make a change. 

For sure we will be faced with internal stakeholders who may not have the same level of awareness or understanding of how their choices have an impact not only on our company but also on society and the environment.

This lack of awareness then leads to resistance to change from internal stakeholders, especially when it comes down to changing non-sustainable suppliers.

It elevates once again the importance of being able to influence and continue to tell the right story to make sure we don’t compromise on our ambition.

The choices we make today will impact our tomorrow both in terms of the environment we live in as well as the communities we operate in. 

For example, if we choose deliberately to not provide employment opportunities in the communities in which we operate because we outsource everything or we choose our supply chains differently we are not contributing to the development of our communities. 

Similarly, if we care about equity and diversity, ethical business conduct or human rights but do not include any of these considerations in how we select our suppliers, we are again not contributing to the development of our communities. 

So I truly feel there is so much we can do.

At the same time, I also feel that we might be at risk if we undervalue every step we take, regardless of its size or impact.

We should never believe that our contribution can or will be ignored because it seems insufficient in the bigger scheme of things. 

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks back when I had my meeting with my sustainability mission team.

The person leading the mission confronted me with a video that starts with a couple of senior leaders writing a message to their great-grandchildren.

During the weekend following that meeting, I kept on reflecting on that experience and what I would write to my great-grandchild. 

For me this was a true eye-opener as having to write down to my great-grandchild, ‘I hope you can fix things because I could not, or I didn’t even try’ is for sure not the legacy I want to leave… 

You are also an advisory member for Procurement Leaders, what does that involve?

If you look at Procurement Leaders, we’re one of the most important and influential communities of procurement professionals who try to challenge organisations and individuals to think beyond the traditional value of procurement and create a vision of what it should evolve towards. 

What we do within the advisory board is think about these mega trends that are coming up, shortlist the ones that we believe should be watched and understood, and provide strategic direction and input to the executive board of procurement leaders to make sure they develop a thought-provoking agenda for the coming year whereby we push the procurement profession forward. 

All of us are also ambassadors of procurement and are forward-looking thinkers who want to push the profession forward. 

To realise this, we really engage in a dialogue.

For us to shape the direction in which we think the profession is going we engage with different leaders holistically about what these megatrends could imply.

As we are a diverse group in terms of industries and backgrounds, it is interesting to see that not all of us are facing the same challenges and that is interesting to see the diversity of the role of a CPO.

What drove you to a role in procurement and what can we do to help the next generation of talent see it as a great career opportunity?

I think I am still part of that generation that rolled into procurement, I had no intention to get into procurement but looking back I have never regretted that.

I started off as a trainee and the two options I had was product marketing or procurement. 

As I was a marketeer by education, I wanted to end up on the product marketing side, but my managers saw in me competencies that would sit better in a procurement role and so so I was kindly pushed in that direction.

Today I am truly grateful to the people who made that choice. 

For me, procurement is one of the only areas that is truly transversal and engaged in everything that is going on in an organisation. 

And this shows if I look at the diversity of topics in my calendar. I have meetings that go from manufacturing or development to preparing launches from a marketing point of view and the like. 

We have a such broad perspective on how companies operate and without ever fundamentally changing your role, you can tap into all these different types of experiences which means that procurement is a kind of continuous trainee programme on steroids! You have the opportunity to switch jobs daily based on your interests and your willingness to learn. 

For me, it’s also the perfect place to start your career as recent graduates.

Many people when they roll out of school, have hard skills, but they don’t know how that translates into business life. 

I, therefore, think procurement is one of those departments where you can see what corporate life is really about and where you could add the most value.

Secondly, as it is all about relationships and if you look at how important partners and suppliers are for the future success of an organisation you are really at that centre point.

You are the connector between the inside world of your company and the outside ecosystem of partners and suppliers. 

You play this pivotal role, and you have a lot of influence, but you don’t have a lot of power. 

That’s why I sometimes compare ourselves to diplomats. 

You are in the role of influencing, understanding, reevaluating and listening to different diverse perspectives, and storytelling…there are so many different activities going on all at the same time. 

The only downside, if that’s really one; is that the spotlight is rarely on you. 

If you seek to be in the spotlight and you are in need of this continuous recognition, well that is going to be hard to find in procurement. 

I also believe that future CEOs should have had throughout their career at least a stint in procurement because what we do is like a general management position.

Although in such a role you typically have the power of the P&L, in a procurement organisation it is a different type of power.

You have the power to influence! And the results don’t lie.

If you look at the successful CPOs that we have that have made it to a CEO position, it is the greatest example of someone who understood the importance of partnerships and suppliers for the strategy, it is not about being the best developer or designer, it is also understanding that part. 

I’m hopeful we will see more of those in the future. 

In your time at UCB, are there any key achievements you are most proud of?

I think the two key things that I am most proud of are, the first one is the team we have built. 

Location-wise we are based out of Belgium, and this is not known as a hub for procurement.

Also, UCB, being a medium-sized, bio-pharmaceutical company is not necessarily known in the market.

Yet, at UCB Procurement we have been able to attract and develop talent which in my opinion is top-notch. 

So, the fact that we have been able to attract these people and retain many of them I see as a key achievement. 

The second one I believe is the changes that we have made to our operating role, I think many companies are talking now about changing the procurement operating model, especially as a result of the crises, but we did so as we see this as an enabler to unlock the full potential of procurement. 

We started back in 2019 by changing our model to one which is much more future-proof and centred around the different value propositions of procurement rather than the more traditional organisational setup of procurement. 

At the start, it was challenging because people were not used to this new way of working but we’re now getting more confirmation externally because we see other companies looking at it and making similar types of changes or evolutions.

For us, this is not only a sign of what we achieved, but it has also enabled us to keep pushing forward even during times of crises and adversary.

What do you look for when hiring procurement and supply chain talent?

Again, I think due to our organisational changes as well as the evolved expectations of what value procurement is expected to deliver what you see is that we are looking for different types of talent. 

We are no longer looking only for the procurement professional who has been developed in that organisational silo for several years but we have moved to a more diversified model which is competency-based. 

For us, this means that on one hand, we have a sourcing team that ensures the core value of procurement is realized. 

Leveraging technology and outsourced partners, they’re focus is primarily on strategic sourcing and establishing relationships with, stakeholders and suppliers.

Then we have a group of real subject matter experts, some of them who have a background in procurement some who don’t, but all of them are experts within the spend area in which they operate.

Contrary to a traditional category role,  we don’t expect them to be good strategic sourcing professionals, we expect them to understand the market, built strong relationships with key players and are capable of connecting our business challenges with strategic opportunities. 

Another team within the department is made up of people with more digital, analytical or process competencies to ensure our capabilities in terms of  Process Owner, Key User and Data Stewards.

We also have people working on sustainability, for example, who didn’t even know procurement but who are passionate about sustainability and see how the influence of procurement can ensure progress. 

Although we look for a broad variety of people, several competencies are core for us.

For example, we look for great storytellers, people who can share a message and take the lead because influencing is extremely important. 

We are looking for scientists and not in the strict sense of the word but people who are curious and want to overcome bias and challenge the status quo and who always look at things differently, that for me is key. 

Again, I think we want to be surrounded by colleagues who are just committed to the greater good. Procurement is not about cost savings which is one of the metrics, but it is about influencing how a company spends its money intentionally and purposefully and so we need to have people with that mindset who try to understand the intent and purpose of what we do as an organisation. 

We want to create a better life for people living with severe diseases now and in the future but you can’t enable them to live their best lives on the one hand, when on the other hand you’re not taking care of the communities and the environment in which they live. 

So, it is making sure that we create value for patients, our colleagues, our communities, and our stakeholders. 

People with that mindset who are system thinkers are really valuable to us.

What do you think are going to be some of the procurement trends in your sector over the next 3-5 years?

I think the first is obvious, we will continue to see pressure on our supply chains coming from geo-political and economic instability as well as material shortages, so I do consider that this megatrend will continue to influence our agenda for the next couple of years. 

The second one which I believe will be front and centre for us is sustainability.

This trend is also not new but what is changing is the increased importance of the topic for governments and regulatory bodies resulting in a series of new rules and regulations which forces companies to accelerate the change. 

Like the supply chain topic, sustainability is a megatrend that for some companies was anticipated but is now forced upon all of us because of changes in our external environment. 

Digitalisation will also continue to happen and become even more relevant in the years to come. But we need to enlarge our views on digital as this is about more than implementing point solutions, to make our life easier.

Going bionic, as I call it, will be a key enabler to redefine the value we create as procurement professionals, not just how we create that value.

The fourth and last one is probably a bit more distant depending on the industry you operate in and that is the end of linear supply chains.

Most of us currently operate a linear supply chain which means that I buy something from you, apply my magic, also known as my unique value proposition to it; and then sell it for an incremental value to customers to address a specific need. 

But as the needs of our customers as well as the solution to address them become more and more complex I see us moving in a direction whereby companies are going to be much more eco-system partners rather than purely buyers and suppliers.

In such a constellation, I see us jointly developing solutions for customers and marketing them together resulting in new commercial models, redistribution of power and elevating network effects. 

As mentioned, we see this already happening in some industries, and I do see this also impacts the pharma and life sciences industry.

Often this change is not driven by traditional companies as such but rather by an external environment that requires change and an outsider’s understanding of this opportunity.

So often it’s not a change to what we do but how we do it. In our industry, I believe it’s the challenge of an ageing population, digital health and increasing cost of health care that for example will drive the change and redistribute the power in the ecosystem.

For example, instead of paying governments or insurance companies, you could argue that tomorrow you pay x USD / month to Apple to manage your health.

Contrary to physicians and payers today, they will make decisions to efficiently manage your entire health and they will decide who they will work with, and what type of technologies, solutions or other medicine you will get to ensure your overall health. 

Such a move from managing symptoms of diseases to much more holistic management of a person’s overall health is going to require companies currently working in this space to operate fundamentally differently. 

As said, this might result for example in stronger partnerships rather than traditional buyer-supplier relationships centred around profit sharing, co-development, and co-creation.

For procurement departments this represents a great opportunity as in order to be successful in such an environment, it requires strong relationship management skills, a competency not unknown to procurement.

That said, managing the relationships will be less about performance or quality management and evolve to a partnership with aim of driving top-line growth.

An evolution we still have to make…

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