Jeremy Smith is Managing Partner at 4C Associates and recently spoke with James Dobbin about his career and what inspires him as a procurement leader.
How did you get into procurement?
I think I fell into it.
My degree was in quantity surveying which has an element of procurement in it; 20 years ago, it was just called tendering in the QS world, but I learned about the basics.
I then moved to a flat share in London and a couple of my housemates worked for a consultancy which I eventually joined. It merged with Professor Andrew Cox’s procurement consultancy, he wrote a lot of books about procurement and was a professor of procurement, that’s when I really found out what Procurement was.
I worked with Andrew for eight years and got a very academic base to my procurement understanding and also picked up a lot of it as I went through my early consulting career.
At the time I worked with Andrew he was doing the only MBA in procurement in the UK and there were very few courses educating people in the field. In the 2000s you didn’t study procurement; graduates would rotate around and it was a lottery between who decided they liked it and who got stuck in it.
What are the roles and responsibilities the procurement function holds within your organisation? How do you split the function?
I’m responding here as a procurement Consultancy, not a procurement function, so these will be different than what you probably would have got from others. We at 4C are essentially change agents who do three things, transformation, cost reduction and managed service.
Most of what we do now is split into the transformation and cost reduction pieces. What our clients want varies in those areas. If we were talking to a CPO they want processes and systems, sometimes the mature organisations want refinement, or sometimes it is starting from scratch.
The next end of it is value delivery and realistically that has mostly been cost reduction. Sometimes procurement gets a bad reputation because of a perceived addiction to cost reduction but we all know that is not the case. Yes, we like the more complex supply chain transparency and risk mitigation type of work, but if we are honest about it most customers want cost reduction and that’s what we’ve built a strong reputation in terms of delivering complex value delivery programmes.
If you go back 10 years, we did a lot of Managed Service, we had people who knew their categories, then we had the other people who were the consultants at the front end, so it gave us that blend of people which allowed us to bring in change and blend our team.
What are some of the challenges you and your team are currently facing?
In the early days of the COVID pandemic it was the drop off in demand for Consulting services. We had contracts that ran through and some that we have picked up since COVID. They are some of the ones I am most proud of. The clients were cutting their costs but we needed to fill the pipeline with opportunity and finding the people who had the need.
You had people like grocers who were surging and had too much demand, but the other end was the people whose demand fell off the cliff – it is very simple at that point, you just stop spending.
There wasn’t much need for procurement consultants at that point but since then we are doing well. Demand has picked up, but changed in the requirement, as people will understand.
As stores and supply chains re-opened it created unique challenges as you couldn’t just turn it back on now and it got quite complex.
I think people have noticed the interconnected nature of many supply chains that we rely upon, not just domestically but internationally. They are trying to support small businesses, they are saying you need this cash and so do we, let’s work together and I like the fact that procurement is not being used as a blunt instrument, it is being used as a constructive value generator to the UK PLC because if these companies go pop it is not good for the economy.
There will be some people not doing that, but that will be remembered. They will have to find another supply chain in the future.
What would you say you’re most passionate about when it comes to procurement?
It isn’t driving down cost. I know that is a necessary part of the job, but it is delivering value to clients. There are ways of doing it and if a client tells us they just want tomorrow to be cheaper than today then ok, we will do that, but we want to deliver transformational value.
We want to deliver the best overall solution to the client and that is not always about lowest cost, mostly it is about the security of supply, business continuity, collaborative relationships, innovation and all that good stuff, that is what gets a procurement professional out of bed in the morning.
We have had Consultants leave 4C, and we know it’s not just us, when we have had a run of projects that are just purely a race to the bottom on cost, and I understand why they leave, but sometimes that is what the clients want and that is what we will do.
My role now is much less delivery and is more management and sales. Developing the team is something that I enjoy the most. We give people opportunities and responsibility much quicker than many other places. We are there to support them, we don’t just let them go, it is giving them that confidence and we have got a lot of people with a lot of experience. There are 60-odd people they can go and talk to. The consultancy piece is what people struggle with, the confidence, the way of influencing people and around not always being perfect. In a line role you have got the time and the support, in procurement consultancy there is a faster pace.
You have to be right, but you don’t have to be perfect. Getting people comfortable with imperfection, but getting them accurate, is something I enjoy helping people out with and getting them over that bump. A lot of people get to manager level and this becomes an issue, it is just the consultancy mindset, you learn the processes but then when you get to the bit where you are influencing you don’t have time to be perfect.
What do you think are the key focus areas for procurement right now?
Things are changing, digitalisation is happening, whether it is as much as the tech companies would like us to believe I don’t know. But it is making some roles and activities more effective, what it is also doing is giving more data – what you do with that data is more important than getting it.
With all this going on, the automating of the more mundane tasks, and knowing what data you need and what to do with the data, the role is becoming more of a business partner role and less an administrative role. Ultimately, I think in the next five years, procurement will become more consultative, it will become more about driving data to drive insight and action.
Some of the existing activity will be spread into the business, some of it in the relationship management pieces. It has to add strategy, insight and data and automate the other stuff. I think the role will become more relationship-based and less about technical skills.
What are your team and 4C doing with regards to sustainable procurement?
Returns is another area. Some people order five or six dresses from a fashion site knowing they are only going to keep one, but that puts more vans on the roads and with those clothes there is wastage.
We were doing a lot pre-COVID. I work a lot in retail and there was a lot of conversation and action on plastic and we were getting involved quite a bit.
We were trying to work a lot on the reduction of waste to drive the sustainability, reduction of packaging and transportation. I went to a conference the week before lockdown about sustainability in retail and consumer goods. There was a lot around ethical sourcing.
What was interesting was that you have Fairtrade, and you look at that as the gold standard, but now there is a level above that.
What inspires you as a procurement leader?
It is integrating our team into the client’s team and showing them what they didn’t already know and inspiring our team to push, take responsibility and deliver while having fun.
Procurement isn’t always the sexiest of functions. It is about how much did you influence somebody today? How much did you make them change the way they think about things? That relationship and that culture between the teams.
We are there to help, it is giving them some quick wins and some lightbulb moments, but we are delivering as an integrated team. Whether that is setting them up and watching them run or convincing the cynical that we can add value, that is what inspires me and hopefully inspires the teams that I run.
The adaptability is also key, we can start from scratch, we are influencing people who are not procurement experts. It is great for our teams to learn all of that in so many different projects and sectors.
We obviously don’t want to invest in people and for them to all go off elsewhere, but obviously it happens with some, but we want them to grow with us. We do invest in our people and there is nothing that makes us prouder than giving people those skills and watching them succeed either at 4C or elsewhere, because hopefully if they enjoy their time at 4C they will employ 4C in the future.
The project I learnt the most from was one I probably hated the most. We had a client who was undermining us at all times, but we continued applying the process and stuck with it. I actually went from being a Manager to a Senior Manager on this project and most of this came from learning not to let emotion dictate the response. To use facts and process to do all of this, but it took me a long time. I came out of it learning that I kept our reputation and I kept the team motivated and the client actually said ‘fair enough’ – that was the most I was ever going to get out of them!
Some of the team are still with us, six years after that project. That is why we have learnt and we have got the process, learning from the bad bits and adapting and applying that into the next project that is what I would like to believe a client would want.
You are bringing the experience of the bad times and the knowhow of how to avoid them.
What skills do you consider essential for a procurement professional? What do you look for when employing somebody?
It is the adaptability and the ability to listen.
When I am talking to a graduate it is understanding and listening. I would like them to have done a bit of research, but it is the ability to listen and the ability to translate it as you will learn the rest through experience. You then get the other side when you have somebody with more experience. You are then looking for somebody who can hit the ground running, they have to be able to question under pressure why things are happening.
We teach the change management from there. The bit that is challenging is when you get to a more senior level. Of course, people can adapt, and there are some fantastic people but when they say they have been an internal consultant it sets off alarm bells – it is not the same.
What I look for at the senior level are empathy and active listening. It is asking questions back to me, it is putting me to the test. It is how they manage me through that process and how they structure a conversation because ultimately they are going to end up in sales. Because if someone slaps the answer in front of you, they will get a lot of resistance but if you can explain the what and the why and support it with some data and make sure it is credible.
It is so powerful watching a team that is aligned, run. If there is a barrier that means they are just pushing back against each other you never break it down. The only way to break it down is to deliver quick results. But I absolutely understand why there is resistance, change is painful and change hurts sometimes. We are showing there is another way and that this is why I know change can be painful at times, but you have to just let us in and we are held accountable to a higher standard and that is understandable.
Who has had the most influence on your procurement career?
I mentioned earlier how I ended up in procurement working with Professor Andrew Cox when the companies merged. We went from being a process efficiency company to being a procurement company. His company was very academic obviously as he was a professor and all of a sudden, he had the tools to implement change rather than just educate people. I just fell into it, then all of a sudden, I got dropped into MBA level academia, I was travelling the world training people on Andrew’s methodologies. I learnt all of that academia, I worked with him on consultancy delivery. He has written books and books and books on procurement, but sometimes he couldn’t relay his message that well. He was always right, but telling a client that was not always the best way of doing it.
When we went into consultancy he understood that what he got from me was empathy and ability to engage with clients, the clients understood that when they got him they were getting, opinion, fact data and a structure, but what they didn’t want was his communication style.
He is a top bloke and I learnt a lot from him around the foundations, theory and principles of procurement, but he was also understanding enough to know what he couldn’t do and let me get on with that. The reason I left Andrew for 4C was not that I wasn’t enjoying it, I felt like a fraud as I had never actually done any procurement, so I thought I would go to 4C who do it. I have now blended the academia with the consultancy and the practice which is what I would call the ideal blend.
What role have you and the procurement function played in enabling the company to face the pandemic?
It all changed in March for consultancies as we went from focusing on delivery and sales to where has the pipeline gone! A lot of it was knowing full well that the next two months was not about sales, it was about building relationships and that the hard sell would not be well received in that time.
We had to keep conversations going so we changed the objectives, we wanted people to try and help people for free. We did a load of work for free.
It was to build relationships, it was not about turning those conversations into sales, opportunities and leads.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
It’s all sport and family actually. Sometimes I don’t get the balance right, but I have a very understanding wife, who I met at 4C actually.
We’ve two daughters under five, so they cannot really entertain themselves a lot. The language skills and development of our two-year-old are incredible.
I play tennis, golf and captain the cricket team.
I have enjoyed working from home, but it has been stressful at times, although I have spent so much more time with the kids than I would have if I had been commuting, which has been a real positive.
Any favourite books, films or destinations?
We love Santorini. I’d encourage everyone to go, if that didn’t make it harder for us to go!
I did a lot of Himalayan trekking when I was single, you can’t really do that sort of thing with kids, but I will again when they are at university or something.
Birdsong is one of my favourite books and The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
I don’t really watch films much these days, though I used to be a member of the BFI, since having kids I have not been to the cinema.
If you could give any advice to your younger self what would it be?
I am not sure, there is a degree of understanding that other people are just humans too.
You sometimes put some people as a deity, they are not. They have earned respect and earned a role and they understand that mistakes happen, don’t make them big or cover them up.
Be humble and they will probably respect you.
Don’t make too many mistakes but don’t fear seniority, respect it.
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself…
A really nerdy fact is back when the internet first came out, I was in one of the first halls at university that hadthe internet in the rooms. It was so slow that I used to play Minesweeper while the pages were loading, and I got so good that I was able to do the expert one in less than 80 seconds! Definitely interesting! I’m always amazed how underwhelming this to everyone I tell…
The best thing is Sir Viv Richards the cricketer once took a catch off my bowling, which I am very proud of. That is a more fun one than the boring Minesweeper one.
Do you have a personal motto that you live by?
Plan for the worst and hope for the best.
If you plan and prepare, the worst never happens.
If you can keep the worst from happening life is pretty good. The planning means you can improve on it. It is probably that it is a bit negative at times, but it has held me in good stead, I am a very organised person.
Also, people are humans. Combining the preparations and planning with a bit of humbleness has held me in good stead.