Kathryn Philips is Global VP Procurement at Ascential, a specialist information, data and analytics company.
For Procurement Heads‘ latest Big Interview, Kathryn spoke with James Dobbin about her career and the value procurement adds.
We deliver specialist information, analytics and e-commerce optimisation for the world’s leading consumer brands and their ecosystems.
Our diverse portfolio of brands drives excellence for the world’s top consumer product and services companies across product design, marketing and sales.
I am the Global VP for Procurement and my team sits at group level supporting across all areas of the business.
There are six of us globally, so not a huge number for a company with such a diverse product spectrum.
My team is organised into spend categories, facing off into all of the brands as needed and based on where the demand is.
Since I joined Ascential in 2016, the company has pivoted significantly from owning businesses with a very physical presence – either magazines or large consumer exhibitions, to be much more digitally focused.
It’s an exciting place to be.
How would you say procurement is valued in the company? Is it recognised as a leadership function?
I think through the work my team has done the value we can add is recognised: not just through driving out savings, but the benefit we can bring in advising the business and navigating commercial relationships in the broader sense beyond buying.
How did you get into procurement?
By accident, which is what I think a lot of people say about the profession!
When I was at university in Manchester doing my masters, I looked for a part-time job to earn some money and there was a logistics company that was looking for someone to do a few hours.
It turned out they were also the buying and shipping function for one of the Royal families in the middle east.
I enjoyed it so when I graduated and moved back to London I looked for any other jobs in that field and the rest is history.
What do you like about procurement?
You can be successful with soft skills.
You don’t have to be a cold, hard-faced negotiator.
I love the fact that to be successful you need a very strong network of relationships.
I like talking to people and understanding their goals for their part of the business – relationship building and being able to execute on what you learn is one of the things I love most.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in the industry?
Throughout my career before Ascential, I worked in technology procurement, which is quite male-dominated.
I did experience pushbacks on my goals and my aspirations for progression and I was at points given very loose reasoning as to why I wasn’t being given an opportunity to progress.
I was once told I hadn’t walked quickly enough to the coffee machine!
I wouldn’t tag any of the challenges to procurement as the culprit – when I have managed teams, which I have been fortunate to do for a few years now, some of my most successful roles have been where we had a female-heavy function.
How do you think we can encourage more women into the industry?
To attract a more diverse candidate pool into the industry, we need to explain more broadly what the day-to-day is and the diversity of things that you can get involved in.
It is certainly never dull.
If I hadn’t done my part-time job when I had left university I think I wouldn’t have wanted to get into procurement as I wasn’t good at maths!
If we articulate more clearly what the role means in reality, and the opportunities it can bring, more people could understand that it requires a broader commercial skill set which can lead to many different things.
Have there been any important influences in your career?
I was fortunate in the school I went to and my parents, we were always told at school that we could all do whatever it was we wanted to.
I was given that belief from quite early on in my career.
I have been given opportunities to get to where I am now by people who believed in me when I didn’t.
I am grateful that they gave me those opportunities.
Is there anything that you would have done differently in your career with the benefit of hindsight?
I think I would have walked away quicker from companies that pushed back on my aspirations sooner – I tolerated it for too long.
What skills do you consider crucial for a career in procurement?
I think this is similar to my comment earlier on listening and relationship building.
I think it is ok to not be the loud one in the room.
I have been told that I need to be more assertive or strong and when people meet me they sometimes think I am not those things because I am not loud in how I go about my work. I think don’t try and be what someone else tells you you should be.
Be confident enough in how you know you’re going to get to the outcome because people will come around and realise that you are good at your job.
People shouldn’t try and be anything that they are not.
What is your biggest achievement to date?
It was the best decision I made to take the role that I am now in.
When you placed me at the company I was the Technology Category Manager, it will be four years next January that I was promoted.
It was 100% stepping out of my comfort zone as I was in a role I enjoyed and knew how to do, it felt like I was going to lose control a bit but I imagine it is a situation that lots of people are familiar with but I am glad I pushed myself.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Cooking is something that both my husband and I enjoy doing and we have certainly had a lot of opportunities to do that in lockdown.
I did languages at university and got to live in France for a year where I taught English in primary schools.
Travelling, when possible, remains something I love.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Take opportunities when they are given to you.
If it doesn’t work out, you can always change your plans.
Make and keep strong connections with other people – they can help you so don’t try to be a solo operator.
We can all add value to each other’s lives and professions.
Enjoy it! I enjoy my job and I would encourage others to make sure they do something they enjoy as well.