For Procurement Heads‘ latest Big Interview he spoke to James Dobbin and shared how the organisation has managed the challenges of COVID-19, key areas the business is focusing on and what makes a good negotiator.

How did you get into Procurement?   

Probably like many people in the profession, I didn’t grow up wishing I’d end up in Procurement, but after I finished University I wanted to start my career at a big organisation which could provide me with lots of opportunities. 

I didn’t want to confine myself to just one field and wanted to explore what I enjoy doing. It was just after the 2009 recession and good jobs were hard to come by at the time, but I waited around and found a Data Manager role at Compass Group. I do like data but didn’t want a whole career based on it – but I saw Compass as somewhere that had a lot of opportunities.  

Once in Compass, I realised that they were great at excelling young people who were performing well – so it was a good decision for me.  

I spent a year or two in that role but was able to spend that time learning about other functions in the business. Initially I saw marketing as interesting as I’m quite creative. However, I’m also good at maths and have a degree in the subject, so have always enjoyed problem-solving and finding solutions – but finance seemed a little too monotonous for me. I’m quite a social person and saw procurement as an opportunity to merge my talent with numbers with my creative and social skills.  

I loved the idea of negotiating for a career. Growing up, my parents owned an antiques shop, so when they were out of the shop I used to haggle with customers. I wasn’t an Only Fools and Horses wheeler-dealer, but I learned a bit about how to negotiate.  

As soon as a Category Buyer role came about, I went for it. I was up against people with more experience, but the hiring managers liked an analogy I made in the interview and decided to take a risk on me.  

It was a big turning point in my career. 

What are the roles and responsibilities the Procurement function holds, both within your organisation and externally – and how do you split the function out?   

Under me is Procurement, Supply Planning, Demand Planning and Supply Chain Project Management. In the Procurement team we divide it into ingredients and packaging, the core business spends. There’s some involvement with indirect spend too.   

We also have stock control, purchase orders, etc – I know other businesses have that separately, but at graze they are so connected it makes sense to have that under one area.   

The Buyers roles are to meet or exceed our KPIs on COGS, OTIF, SLOBS, inventory, etc. We achieve this through tenders, supplier relationship management, cost engineering and working with marketing. They’re also heavily involved in innovation with putting forward NPD and ensuring we hit our timelines – we’re incredibly agile at graze and quick to get to market. They work with suppliers and co-packers to make us as efficient as possible and enable us to hit our gross margin targets.   

In the last year, we’ve worked extensively on sustainability initiatives, reducing the carbon footprint and decreasing the amount of plastic we use.   

What are the challenges you and your team are facing?   

There is some Brexit risk around duties and border delays, but I think we’ve prepared for it pretty well.    

I don’t think it will be anything too material that will impact our business and I don’t think we’ll have to entirely redesign anything when it does happen, though we may have to mitigate against certain risks.   

The approach we take is be prepared for the worst, but don’t make any drastic changes as anything can change.    

Inflation continues to be a challenge annually, driven by things like living wage, rent, rates, energy, etc.   

We’re trying to improve sustainability without impacting the premiumness and quality of our product, so all of those challenges combined can make it difficult to keep costs down.   

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

I do love a good negotiation! Although I don’t get to do that too much anymore as it’s all done through my team.   

Earlier in my career, I would get a real thrill, particularly when it was a large negotiation face-to-face with senior stakeholders.   

Nowadays it’s done more over the phone, or by email, which takes some of the fun away from it.   

Generally, taking something incredibly complex and breaking it down, simplifying it and turning it into something that is understood by anyone. A lot of what Procurement does can be alien to the wider business, so simplifying things can attract more people’s interest in the function.    

A lot of businesses put Procurement in a box – I think it’s a lot more than that. Procurement is a tough profession, with a lot of very intelligent communicators who are used to pressure, so putting them in more senior positions can be very beneficial.   

What is it about negotiation you like and what makes a good negotiator?   

I think being able to interact with people and see the kind of tactics people adopt, see through them and get to a point where you’ve built a great rapport and coming to a deal that works well for both parties is what I find most interesting.   

Lots of people adopt a one way approach, but for me, that’s not thinking long-term. 

Although it’s sometimes a challenge, if you can get to a point where you give them what they want, while you get what you want in return – I think that’s truly win-win.   

I think someone who can take out ego, someone who is confident, can flex their style and knows their stuff makes a successful negotiator.    

What are some of the key areas of focus for Procurement right now?   

I think a mixture of finding ways to maintain a healthy margin while supporting growth ambitions.    

Ensuring we are acting more sustainably as a business.   

Every year it gets more and more difficult to innovate, but I think Procurement is crucial in pushing innovation.   

What is graze doing about sustainable Procurement?    

We’re trying to get B Corp accreditation. B Lab, an American organisation who are now global with the vision: ‘A global economy that uses business as a force for good’ – have a framework for businesses to work to try and improve their sustainability credentials and goals. It’s a way of balancing purpose and profit. 

It’s not just about getting the accreditation for us, but also getting guidance on where we should focus our efforts to improve in what is a very complex topic.    

We’ve been doing a lot of work on removing plastic packaging, and moving towards an entirely pulp-based punnet. We’re working with people to create new pioneering technology. The challenge is achieving the same shelf life, but we are working heavily on that and hope to be plastic free one day.   

On the ingredients front, we’re trying to reduce our carbon footprint by buying more locally, avoiding unnecessary transport and reducing our waste.    

Tell us about some of your biggest achievements   

I could probably reel off many successful tenders and projects I’ve delivered but I do think a lot of that is part-and-parcel of what Procurement does.   

Last year, my team entered into the Supply Chain Excellence Awards. It was our first time entering into awards and we were up against big names. We were nominated for Demand Forecasting & Planning and Team of the Year and ended up winning Demand Forecasting & Planning. Although this is across the whole supply chain, Procurement played a bit part in winning the award as it was about reacting to huge changes in the forecast at very short notice during our key January promotional period. The way we worked with our suppliers to gain flexibility helped us with this and of course the people in my team that make it happen. So for me, building a strong team who can win awards is a big achievement.  

I think moving up the ladder quickly in a tough profession, has been my personal biggest achievement.    

How did you manage to do that so quickly?   

I think it’s not just about performing well, but about pushing yourself and making sure you grab the opportunities wherever you can.   

Compass was good at that and graze is excellent.   

Grabbing opportunities, even if they’re not Procurement-focused, shows you’re not just a Buyer and you do consider the impacts across the business and so have more to offer.    

What is the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career?   

I’m not sure there’s been a single risk, I think risks are quite subjective.   

I like taking a calculated risk – and graze is quite a risk-taking business. But the risks are well thought out with mitigations and contingencies so to me it’s not a big risk unless you keep telling yourself that.    

If you’re asking the biggest risk I’ve taken in life, I’d probably say bungee jumping 200m!   

What inspires you as a Procurement leader?   


Working with intelligent and passionate people.    

Being able to transform functions and develop people to be leaders and thrive on their own and bring their own style to things is something that inspires me.   

Turning around business performance and extracting value from areas people may not have seen the value in is also rewarding.   

I enjoy taking on things that can result in you really leaving an impression and a legacy.  

What do you consider essential to be a good Procurement leader and what do you look for when you hire?   

I think you need to be an excellent communicator, who can persuade and influence.   

Thinking on your feet and being able to unlock ideas is crucial.   

Someone with a broad range of communication is someone I would look for.    

Experience helps and I do look for that, but I think it’s more about the person you are – do you have that X-Factor? I’ve met a lot of people who have been in the profession for 30 years, who I would put below people who have only been in it for five years because of their personality and natural skillset.   

I’m not deterred by experience of course, but I don’t use it as the main barometer.    

Who has the most influence on you in your Procurement career?   

This is going to sound big-headed, but I’m going to say me.   

I’m a firm believer that you can influence your career. There are always people who can help and guide you but if you don’t focus on your career I don’t think you can be as successful as your potential.   

Early on there were people I looked up to, but then you realise you have your own style and you should hone in on that.   

What do you think are some of the current trends and hot topics in Procurement?   

Sustainability and ensuring what you change is future proof, stable and commercially viable.   

I think this will continue for decades and become more sought after.   

I think supporting innovation through better cost-engineering.    

What role have you and the Procurement function played in enabling graze to face the pandemic?   

I don’t think Procurement took too much of a hit, though we were long on some raw materials as some sales dropped – mainly in our out-of-home channel, where people weren’t on-the-go as much.   

Packaging artwork changes got delayed and as most of our ingredients are long-life we didn’t see a huge impact there.   

That said, some of our baked goods don’t have such long shelf-lives in bulk so we had to decide whether to package them up earlier or not.   

Supplier wise, no one was too badly impacted, besides one of our D2C suppliers who had to entirely shut down for four months. We worked with them to keep one shift on for a small period so there was no waste.   

On our subscription side, customers don’t decide exactly what they get – they can just rate what snacks they love, like and what they don’t want – which meant we could swap out the products with supply issues for something else the customers liked instead.   

We supported our suppliers with their cashflows and ensured we paid them early to help them out during the difficult times.   

What have been the major challenges you and your teams have navigated in the pandemic?    

Reacting to the initial sudden changes to forecast.   

We had to manage a lot of stock to ensure we didn’t waste product.   

Repackaging goods meant we could shift product from B2B to D2C – which was a small cost but meant there weren’t huge amounts of waste.   

Any remainder we donated to the NHS, which was obviously great to support.   

How has graze changed since lockdown?   

As lockdown has eased, it has made it trickier to react to short-term demands, reading how people buy into promotions differently than they normally would do.   

We’ve had to have our finger on the pulse to react to those changes.   

A lot of people are now working from home, my team have worked from home the entire time. I think now as we ease back into going to the office, things will be more restricted.   

The social buzz you get from being around your colleagues won’t be there for a while.   

I think the biggest change is for the people in our factories. They have to wear huge masks all day, ensure they are socially distanced at all times, it’s really tough and I have a massive admiration for them all.   

As a food business, we were never worried about the risk of going into financial hardship, but we saw how many businesses were and saw friends and family furloughed – graze didn’t have to take those steps, and I’m grateful for that.    

I think having a big FMCG company like Unilever owning us, really gives us extra security in these uncertain times. 

With the benefit of hindsight, would you do anything differently?   

Not much. 

It certainly wasn’t an easy period, but I think we came together to react quickly to changes and mitigate things as best as we could.  

Early on we built up extra buffers on our products in case there was a COVID outbreak in the factory. We ended up handling this quite well so the extra buffers were not needed and meant we had some excess, but, as I said, lots of it went to the NHS in the end, which is no bad thing.   

How do you see the function changing as a result of COVID?   

I think COVID has strengthened some of our processes. I don’t think overall much will change, we will continue to ensure our supply base is secure and that we have contingencies in place, maybe focusing on a few different areas of weakness as a result of COVID.   

What do you get up to in your spare time?   

I have a six-month-old baby, so I don’t get much spare time now!   

I enjoy being active and playing racquet sports.    

My wife and I are big foodies and enjoy trying out new foods and restaurants.    

Probably the most unusual dining experience we had was at a pitch-black restaurant in London. You can’t see anything, and it’s supposed to heighten your other senses. It also means you end up talking a lot louder! You don’t get told what you’re eating, so trying to work it out is quite interesting.   

I managed to guess one of the dishes, which was kangaroo – something I’d never eaten before, or since.   

I’m the kind of person that likes travelling to different places and experiencing different cultures, I especially loved going to Oman and backpacking through Vietnam.   

If you could give any advice to your younger self, what would it be?   

Although lots of people come along a journey with you on your career, only you can have your best interests at heart.    

Help yourself get to where you want to be and don’t make excuses for yourself, only you can change it.   

Do you have an interesting fact about yourself?   

I’m a bit of a maths geek and wrote an algebra book for university students.    

Do you have a personal motto, and if so, what is it?   

Not really, I find mottos a little bit cheesy as I don’t believe you can rely on one way of thinking your entire life. I think you need to be flexible to be successful, so constantly thinking one way wouldn’t be the right approach for me.   

Maybe I’ve just made up my own motto there! 

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