For Procurement Heads‘ latest Head2Head, he spoke with James Dobbin about his procurement career, some of the current challenges and a memorable encounter with Great Uncle Bulgaria.

How did you get into procurement?

It was a long time ago.

I used to work in a hospital in Chichester, I had fallen into a role there, working in what was known as an equipment library. 

I wasn’t sure about the next stage of my career so I spoke to a guy called Andrew Boxall, the Head of Procurement there.

Andrew had a role at the time, for which I was nowhere near fitting the criteria, but I had a chat with him and he had a shelf in his office with all the CIPS magazines from the last five years or so and he leant me a few.

I learnt a bit about procurement, thought it was quite good and a role came up at a place called Solent Supplies in the mid-to-late noughties and that was run by a guy called Alan Hoskins.

It was an NHS collaborative procurement place that did the buying for Portsmouth hospitals and Isle of Wight as well. 

There was a role and I went for it, I was totally underqualified apart from I had worked in a hospital and knew what they were buying. 

I got an interview, which was a surprise, went for it and it was more of a learning curve for me, but it was really interesting and thankfully Alan and his team called me up and said they were creating some junior roles and I got one of those and fell into procurement – as most people seem to do. 

It was a fantastic place, they had a breadth of really experienced people, they got you to do self-educating CIPS so I went through the qualifications there and now 15-16 years later here I am. 

Watch the Head2Head here

Fast forward to now and you are Head of Procurement at Vitality – could you give us a breakdown of the roles and how you have split the function out there?

We are the sourcing and supplier management team within Vitality, there are 10 of us and I head up that function. 

So, we have responsibility for at least £160million worth of spend but actually, when you look at some of the clinical elements we do it can go up to about £300million direct and indirect. 

We have a few offices in Stockport, London, Croydon and Bournemouth the majority of our team is in Bournemouth and then one of our teams is in London. 

We have some front-facing sourcing team members who look after different categories: clinical, marketing, IT, digital and then someone who looks after the rest – property and facilities, document management and operations and then we have a bit of a back-office as well looking after supplier risk, contract management, and the administration of that, supplier management, and our whole operations function as well. 

It is a fantastic team that does some great stuff and we are measured on certain objectives we do end-to-end so getting involved in business cases all the way through to supplier termination and everything in between. 

We work in close conjunction with the business to support supplier management and get the most value out of our suppliers and bring onboard new suppliers.

Listen to our conversation with Chris here

What are some of the challenges you and your team are currently facing?

It has been an interesting two years, firstly adapting to working from home and at the same time back in March 2020 we were really looking at all our suppliers and seeing whether they would be able to continue providing supplies to Vitality. 

We did a huge piece of work back then to look at business resiliency, making sure we had supplier contingency plans in place going forward and we did have two or three that did stop trading. 

We also had a load of others that evolved tremendously overnight. 

Vitality did as well.

Vitality offers a lot of partners and rewards to incentivise you to live healthier lives by doing steps or cycling or running. 

We used to give away cinema tickets, but that changed to movies at home, instead of going out for a coffee you get the beans delivered to your door, so things changed quite a bit.

I think from that we have been a lot hotter on contingency plans, exit plans, business continuity and resiliency and recovery.

It has been a huge focus.

Thankfully, our financial services organisation has been able to keep working, we didn’t have too much happening and then it has just been adapting to the way of working. 

Sourcing is all about engaging, doing that virtually is a bit tricky, thankfully we have an established team, established people and established relationships, but we have just got to keep that up. 

It is fine when you pass someone in a corridor and engage, that isn’t happening as much it is about having those Zooms, interactions and voice calls to keep your face out there and keep up the engagement of the team, so we are adding value at the earliest opportunity. 

We actually have engagement stats that we see each month and it has actually skyrocketed during the pandemic, which is mad as the two shouldn’t go together, but they did, which is brilliant. 

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

I think the hot topic is, and rightly so, sustainability. 

I’m sure lots of people have spoken about that so I wasn’t going to spend a huge amount of time on it, even though clearly it is hugely important and we are doing a lot with reviewing our supply chains and looking at who is putting sustainable practices in place and bringing them along with us on our journey and mission to be carbon neutral in the next few years – and then to be net-zero by 2050. 

My piece is more about shared value, we talk about it quite a lot, the shared value being that both parties get something out of it. 

For Vitality we incentivise healthier living for our customers and the customers lead healthier lives, they, therefore, claim less and we can reduce premiums.

It is that cycle. 

For sourcing and suppliers, it is about making sure that the benefits are on both sides, some may say of course there is a benefit you get a service and they get paid what more do you want? 

But you want to incentivise further and I think we have tried to put in a lot of contracts that drive performance. 

What we try and do is bonus incentivise our clients by hitting certain targets. 

There are a few of them out there in the clinical space who have been fantastic and have spoken to their customer service team to try and reduce say complaints, to improve their net promoter score that we use for feedback and look at clinical outcomes and they are doing all of these things that will then be better for them, better for the customer and better for Vitality too. 

Then they can use that to work with other customers so that is the key thing I like to do it is about making sure you have a contract that works for both parties that you both want to improve upon to deliver a better service. 

For some areas, it won’t work but for quite a few it will and that is what I am passionate about because then it keeps both parties focusing on what they can do to improve

What are the key focus areas in procurement right now?

Sustainability is a massive focus area, it is going to be hugely important, customers or the general public have significantly more focus on this than they have done before and rightly so. 

We have got large projects underway at Vitality to reduce the amount of print we have. 

There is not the requirement anymore but it means a lot of digital investment to be able to send communications digitally where possible and we have to work as a bit of an enabler there. 

That is a tricky thing – how do you incentivise a print management company to print less? 

Luckily most print management companies are not just print companies anymore, they are communications partners because they can see that the market is turning. 

I think that is key and also that continuation of the supply chain resiliency and in financial services it is not a huge issue like it is in other sectors but we do need to make sure we have that resiliency in place in case things do change in the future.

What do you look for when hiring individuals?

We have actually got two vacancies at the moment; it means we are looking for people to come on board. 

We are looking for someone with the right personality to fit with the team and even though we have been in the office and I think there is a good balance and camaraderie and I enjoy that and want someone to enjoy that too I want someone with the right level of expertise, I like to think that experience is great but I like to think you should always give people opportunities, even if they don’t have that as that is how I got into procurement. 

I always look at every CV, even if it doesn’t say sourcing or procurement at the top. Maybe not for senior roles but for a middle level or junior role I always talk to a lot of people just to find out a bit more rather than what is on paper, to see if there is something that stands out.

It may not be perfect on paper but they might have the right soft skills as it is about being a great communicator and influencing and engaging with stakeholders. 

You don’t have to be the best negotiator, but it helps, it is not the be-all and end-all it is about fairness, communication and having patience. 

You have to have a good array of soft skills and like a challenge to come on board with us.

What inspires you when it comes to being a procurement leader?

I like to make a difference; I don’t want to get to the end of the month and feel like I haven’t contributed to something. 

This is the reason why I have been at Vitality for six years and four months, the longest I have ever been in a role. 

It is always a challenge, you get involved with some massive projects that are going to change things, it is going to benefit the customer and we are heavily involved in that and I like that and it makes a difference to me. 

People are commended and rewarded for that. 

What inspires me is I love to see great leadership and I love to see people challenging the status quo and doing things differently. 

I love to learn from colleagues I have worked with some senior colleagues with who I have been able to take aspects of what they see and do and incorporate that into my own style. 

Our Chief Healthcare and Medical Officer, Ali Hasan, has been a great influence on me – he is very challenging with suppliers and third parties, but honest and positive because he wants to drive the right behaviours and performance and I have been able to incorporate some of that as well.

What has been the biggest lesson you have learnt in your career?

The one I like, which is a long time ago, we went to when I was at Solent Supplies we had an away day and it was a negotiation training course and you had to do role play, which everyone despises until you get into it and I got faced up against the Director at the time and I was the most junior person doing it and I thought you have got to be joking! 

He stood there silent the whole way through and in the five minutes he had stayed silent I had reduced my offer or whatever I was selling it for to get something out of him but in the end, he said he had done absolutely nothing and so that lesson of the power of silence I thought was absolutely amazing and it stuck with me for so long.

I think more experience is not being too quick to react to things. I think everyone is a human being, everyone is working so they can live a fantastic life outside, so take a moment and think about it and don’t be offended because it is not about you, but what can you do to help them. 

Everything gets sorted or fixed in the end. 

Who would you say has had the biggest impact on your career so far, has there been a procurement leader who has had a particular influence on you?

I’ve had some really good ones in my time I have worked in quite a few different areas, I think Alan to begin with at Solent Supplies, I think when you are in the early stages of your career it is really important to have those influences. 

I have also had a few good Managers as well, Neil Routledge, and Matthew Owen, they were fantastic at the time I was really young and they were guiding me along and giving me opportunities not holding me back and letting me make my own mistakes. 

I worked at the Office for National Statistics for a while and there was a heck of a character who worked there, a guy called Scott Howell, who was a tremendous person and would do anything for you at any time and he was brilliant and gave me additional opportunities. He was just superb. 

I don’t think I have ever met someone who is in that high a role and still would help anyone out and would always dedicate time to anyone. 

That is important, the further you go up the chain you should always be able to give time to anybody, to you it might not mean a huge amount but to them, it could mean a whole lot more. 

I miss that about being in the office and being able to pop over to someone’s desk.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in their procurement career?

I would advise them to go and speak to a few people to go and get as much information as possible and it is that opportunity to sell themselves because then they can be thought about. 

It is getting harder and harder to recruit because the market has changed and is changing daily. 

Why not use the opportunity to bring onboard someone why not use that to invest in my junior staff, in graduate and apprenticeship teams. 

I think the key is having those initial conversations to start with rather than just applying for a role. 

Reach out and have a few conversations, you don’t have to know about it all but if you have the right soft skills someone might give you a chance. 

It is very rare that you find someone who has left school and wants a procurement or sourcing job. 

Most people have fallen into it, enjoyed business or selling or buying, generally not like selling as that is why you have ended up in procurement because you want to face up against those people.

Do you think there is a space for gamification in the workplace and is that something you have ever tried?

We talk about the Vitality programme quite a lot because it is different, it is innovative it is a good way to have that gamification and, on our email, signatures we say what status we are, as you get more Vitality points you work your way up from bronze all the way to platinum. 

I’m platinum, but it has taken a lot of work to get there! 

The organisation as a whole does things to promote that, there have been runs with Execs and our CEO has got involved in that, there is a lot of encouragement to do that. 

There is also a lot of couch to 5k and stuff like that. 

In terms of living healthier lives yes, it is there. 

In terms of the gamification, it is interesting because we have all got savings targets, clearly there is a whole host of other objectives there is supplier management, outputs, contract management, and then all the projects on top. 

For some Managers of the team, it is nice to have, but I think some people are incentivised by that then you can put that into personal objectives. 

I think it is key to have team objectives that flow into team objectives and overall flow into the company’s objectives. 

It kind of brings home why we are doing this, it means this and it has this value.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I cycle, too much! 

I am a bit obsessive about it.

I have a few bikes. I do road cycling so throughout the winter training and go on Zwift which is indoor cycling and turbo training then in the summer I race. 

I am a member of Bournemouth Cycleworks and we race all around Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire and Sussex and it is brilliant. 

I am not great by any means, but that is generally what I do, we do quite a few trips as well, we are going to Belgium, it has been delayed twice it is 160 miles, and it will be nine nearly ten hours an ultra-ride.

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

Don’t shoot from the hip, is one thing that a Senior Clinical Consultant accused me of once because I went in to speak to him about a big procurement project about a whole load of slit lamps and I said he doesn’t need to spend the money as his lamps worked perfectly, not understanding the politics of it all that this guy had been fighting for a business case for years and years, had finally got approval and then some upstart procurement guy had come along and said you don’t need this. 

So just think about things, think about supporting and don’t shoot from the hip! 

Then I think it is about just taking opportunities when they came along, saying yes to things, don’t regret anything. 

If there is a role that comes up, take the opportunity, because you will get to things later on in life when you are settled and you don’t want to move.

So yes, when you’re younger, take the opportunities as they come.

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself…

I once had a disagreement with a Womble. 

I had the privilege of being on Live and Kicking – they had a football quiz and I had applied and managed to get on.

I won a couple of rounds and was invited back a couple of times.

I was able to take a friend with me and at the end, they did a pan shot of the crowd of everybody waving and Uncle Bulgaria (a person in a costume!) and there was a small girl next to us who decided to start smacking him on the back, but he took a while to turn around and the little girl had run away.

It was just me and my mate there and he gave us a massive telling off but then when the pan shot started again we just started going for Bulgaria, but it wasn’t us! 

So, yeah we had a bit of a ruckus with Uncle Bulgaria whenever that was!

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