The Big Interview with Helen Rolfs

Recently Helen spoke with Procurement HeadsJames Dobbin about Winch Design and her career in procurement.

We work closely with the design and finance teams to oversee the procurement of all the FF&E (which stands for furniture, fixtures and equipment) for our projects.

We’re a multi-disciplinary design studio specialising in bespoke superyacht, private aviation as well as residential and commercial architecture. The company comprises of around 110 individuals, so the procurement team makes up about a tenth of the business. There is a clear structure within the team of senior managers, managers and coordinators who all run their own projects.

The budgets we work with can range from £550k up to £20million. Our clients are global ultra-high-net-worth individuals and we are privileged to have delivered a huge breadth of projects around the world.

Has the pandemic had a big effect on the way that you operate?

When we first went into lockdown one of my priorities was addressing how we were going to continue working with our suppliers to ensure our project deadlines weren’t impacted.

The first lockdown came at a time when lots of our projects were at critical stages, yet workshops and factories were closing all over the world. We spent a lot of time risk managing to work out how best to support our suppliers whilst protecting our Clients.

I would say that the period from May to July was particularly testing, however, thankfully, most of our suppliers were able to fulfil orders with minimal delay.

What made you choose procurement as a profession?

I studied textile design at university and I really enjoyed the practical side of things but when I graduated, I realised that I didn’t want to be a designer. I went on to find a job at a fashion trend forecasting company as an assistant to the textiles editor and then a position came up at a furnishing fabric company in their procurement team. I joined them and loved it!

I enjoyed the whole process; negotiating with the suppliers, placing the orders through to seeing the product arrive and quality checking the fabrics. I learnt a lot about what procurement entails which prepared me well for joining Winch Design.

I like the challenges and varied nature of procurement – and I don’t think there are many roles within the design industry that capture all the things we do. We place and manage orders for all styles and types of furniture, lighting, rugs, accessories – the list is endless, and you need to have a keen interest in design to do that successfully. I feel very lucky to work in such an interesting environment.

A Winch Design vessel

What surprised you about procurement as a profession?

How varied it is. It can sound like quite a dry profession to other people, but in FF&E procurement the process starts with understanding the GA (general arrangement) of the project, working with the design team to understand an initial brief and then putting together a budget.

All the hard work accumulates to the point where you find yourself onboard an award-winning superyacht, private residence or jet, overseeing the installation of the FF&E.

There are so many different aspects and every day brings something different.

Do you feel you faced any barriers as a woman in the profession?

I have been fortunate as I don’t feel that I have. The Senior Leadership team at Winch Design is equally represented by men and women and I have always felt I have had equal opportunities throughout my career.

In other sectors, it is perhaps a more obvious issue but personally, I haven’t experienced it working in interior design.

How do you feel that women are represented in the profession?

In my experience there are more women than men working in FF&E procurement – this does seem to be an anomaly across procurement overall.

What skills and attributes do you feel a procurement professional needs to be successful?

Communication is really important; to be good at communicating and to be good at listening. These are essential attributes because you are taking on information from clients and colleagues and translating these into the end product.

Good negotiation skills are important – although our clients have very high expectations in terms of quality and many of our pieces are custom made, we still have a duty to get the best value for our clients.

I also think the age-old skill of multi-tasking is important because at any one time you could be juggling several projects and working with multiple suppliers. You need to constantly have your eye on a multitude of project requirements.

Is sustainable procurement high on the agenda at Winch Design?

Yes, sustainable procurement is definitely becoming a priority for us. We are looking at where our suppliers are based, where the materials are sourced from and where the products are shipping from and to.

Winch Design has launched a detailed CSR road map called ‘Life Worth Living’ which details what Winch can do for the environment and our community – it’s our sustainability strategy.

Every person in the company has been asked to contribute to definitive points within the plan to collectively help the company meet the targets that have been set.

What do you think we can do to make procurement seen as a more viable profession?

I think there is a lack of awareness, I really didn’t know what procurement was when I was at university. It wasn’t on my radar and I wonder if more needs to be done at the undergraduate level to promote procurement as a viable career for people with creative backgrounds.

I was aware of ‘buying’ and ‘merchandising’ as careers, but procurement never really came up. I think if it was made more visible at that level it would become a more attractive proposition.

I also wonder whether internships could play a greater role. We do have intern positions in the procurement team and hopefully, these inspire and encourage a career in FF&E procurement.

Who has inspired you?

My manager at the furnishing fabric company was brilliant. She was leading quite a junior team and she really encouraged us to learn all aspects of the role.

She provided guidance and reviewed our decisions rather than take them for us. At Winch Design I am continually inspired by the talented team of designers and the beautiful projects we deliver – even years later, I am still surprised and amazed by the designs that leave the studio.

Interior of one of Winch Designs fits

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced during the pandemic?

The biggest challenge I’ve had to overcome during the pandemic is having to make a more concerted effort to stay in touch with my team and colleagues.

We have weekly Zoom meetings and catch-ups (which we used to have in the office) but now it is more important to make sure that they happen and that everyone stays up to speed.

There is nothing quite like being in the office and being able to pop to someone’s desk to ask a quick question or have an impromptu project catch up.

However, the procurement process does work well with lots of aspects of remote working – so in that respect, it wasn’t too big of a shock for me or the team.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Don’t be afraid to speak up. When I first started out it was quite hard to know when to speak up and offer an opinion.

There’s a lot to be said for being respectful to those who are more senior to you, but sometimes having someone look at something with fresh eyes can offer a new perspective.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

My spare time tends to be running around after my two boys! When I can I like to travel and visit new places. Although last year was obviously much more restricted, we did manage to go to Wales which was great for the children.

What is your biggest achievement to date?

A few years ago, I joined a company in order to set up a procurement department. It was quite challenging as some of the team didn’t see what benefits this would bring to the company.

Once the department was up and running it was clear how it made the projects more streamlined and profitable and everyone was onboard – which felt like an impactful achievement.

In your opinion what is the most beautiful place on earth?

There are so many beautiful places in the world! We have been working on a project in South Africa and I was really struck by how beautiful Cape Town is.

The backdrop of mountains against the beach and sea is stunning. I also think there are some truly beautiful places in the UK.

I mentioned I went to Wales in the summer and we found lots of lovely hidden coves set beneath cliffs – we felt far more isolated than we really were.

Where would we find you on a Saturday morning at 10 am?

It is not very exciting but that would usually be at my children’s boxing class. They are far too young to spar but it’s a great way for them to keep fit!

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