The Big Interview with Niki Harvey

She spoke to Procurement Heads about her career and how the company has faced the challenges of the pandemic.

How did you get into Procurement?

I got into it by accident, in my early 20s I saw myself working in a sales or customer service role. I had been travelling and when I got back I needed a job and the first one I got was as a supply chain analyst in an automotive company. My boss at the time encouraged me to choose a supply chain specialism and train towards it, he recommended purchasing and encouraged me to study for my CIPS and my career progressed from there.

Within ASSA ABLOY what are the roles and responsibilities that the procurement function holds and how do you split your function out?

Procurement is a very strategic function at ASSA ABLOY. We follow a category management structure but we also have a clear business unit alignment. My team is made up of six Direct Material Buyers and two Indirect Buyers with support from a Procurement Facilitator and a VA/VE Manager. We are responsible for all spend across the UK group. We have clear KPIs on cost development and efficiency, supplier development and performance – measured on both delivery and quality. We work closely with cross-functional teams on NPI and continuous product innovation. It is about securing cost efficiency in everything we do. 

What are the main challenges that you and your team are currently facing?

We are a really cohesive team, so adjusting to working remotely has been a real test for us. The Covid situation has given us challenges like no other, it has proved that complexity is a real Achilles heel and agility in your supply chain is key to reacting to change. With Brexit around the corner and more uncertainty coming there are further challenges ahead that we are currently planning for. We have got key people in operations, part of whose role is to come together and work out how we are going to deal with Brexit. While only a relatively small proportion of our spend is from the EU, things like port delays will cause us issues that we are preparing for.

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

I think most Buyers are motivated by getting the deal done and really feeling like you have got a win-win deal. Building and managing strong and trusting relationships with suppliers is really important to me. The way that we work with the business units, to be part of those teams makes me really proud. There are challenges around the perception of procurement where we are sometimes seen as the function that raises the order, places it and chases it, when that is not the case. We are much more strategic than that. The importance of procurement as a function is really growing. 

What do you think are the key focus areas in procurement right now?

We are really focused on four main pillars. 

Sustainability, quality, cost and delivery are what we build everything around. It is key for us to achieve cost efficiency through de-complexing and leverage and really driving spend through a preferred supplier base.

What is your organisation doing regarding sustainable Procurement?

We have a global sustainability programme to which we are all committed and we take it very seriously. As a function, procurement plays a big part in that, ensuring our supply chain partners are ethical and responsible. We are also responsible for ensuring that our suppliers get a fair price and are paid on time so that they can remain successful businesses and partners to us. Each of my team will take the time to build that relationship that is based on trust and collaboration.

What is your biggest achievement in your procurement career?

Gaining my CIPS and my Master’s degree were both big achievements. Also, being chosen to present procurement strategy at the ASSA ABLOY UK conference was a big compliment. Navigating procurement through the post-Brexit vote era was a big achievement too. I have been involved in countless cost-saving initiatives over my career and have had to travel thousands of miles to achieve that. Each of those successful projects makes me proud of both my department and the organisation. I have been instrumental in managing the relationships with some pretty tricky suppliers over the years. 

More recently, getting through the Covid shutdown with my entire team on furlough and managing the whole thing while staying connected with my team through an unprecedented situation was extremely challenging. I’m proud of how we have come through that. We took advantage of technology and we had a daily call to support each other. It was important to know that it wasn’t just professionally it was affecting people it was personally too. I made sure that the team felt secure and informed, that was my responsibility.

What is the biggest risk that you have taken?

Moving from being part of my team to managing my team has been the biggest risk. I love my job and my team, but there was a shift in the dynamic and managing that change with more pressure falling on my shoulders was not always easy. My peers had to learn to trust me again in my new position and it is working really well now.

What skills do you consider essential to be a procurement leader?

Creativity, attention to detail, commercial awareness, staying calm under pressure and the ability to be able to analyse a lot of information but be able to draw from that simple and effective conclusions quickly. Flexibility to work to deadlines and being able to communicate across both functions and cultures. Teamwork is key. You need to be able to work with people across all levels of the business. When I am hiring, aside from the appropriate professional experience, I look for individuals with tenacity, resilience, integrity and I need likeable characters who are articulate and happy to push themselves. We do like to have fun when the circumstances allow. You need to be able to take banter!

What has been the best lesson you have learnt?

I learnt really quickly that preparation is key to a successful negotiation. Remain positive but know your best and worst acceptable outcomes and have a walk-away point. Articulate your side clearly. Surround yourself with a strong team and trust them to do what they are employed to do. If they don’t do it, then deal with it appropriately.

What advice would you give to someone embarking on a procurement career?

Try to focus on total cost rather than the single purchase price. You do that by being analytical and knowing the whole supply chain from end to end. Educate yourself and become commercially aware. Communication and collaboration are key, respect the seller, don’t waste people’s time, be courteous and polite it goes a long long way. Never forget that we are all there for the same end goal, always behave with integrity.

What are the current trends and hot topics and what roles in procurement do you think we will see emerging as a result?

I think supply chain sustainability has become really important in recent years. We have seen a shift in focus on supplier development to incorporate sustainability. We must make sure in procurement that this is replicated across the supply chain. We have personnel based in Asia whose job it is to see continuous improvement in this area. 

I think there has been a shift in the focus from purchasing to a centralised and strategic process of procurement. Sourcing, negotiating terms, developing long term relationships and measuring the effects of this on the bottom line. I think more and more we will start to see the function individually represented at board level. When you consider Procurement spend and its impact on the P&L, the importance to the organisation shouldn’t be underestimated. 

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

It started for me a long time before the UK lockdown. We faced challenges from our Chinese supply chain from January 2020. We had a several weeks gap in our supplies and just as we were starting to recover from those challenges, our own restrictions began. I provided support for parts of our business that supply critical infrastructure, the government and hospitals and so on. We have got a team of people who formed a Covid committee which I am a part of. We closed the majority of the UK operations during the main lockdown which led to order cancellations and deferments that needed managing within the supply chain. 

Following the return to work in May, and the uplift in demand, this then became support for expediting stock that we did need. We also had to make sure we had adequate supplies of PPE so we could reopen under covid secure status. 

The rapid change in demand was our biggest challenge amid the uncertainty of it all.

How has the business changes since lockdown?

We have had to review and amend our working practices as we have had lots of people working from home. It has become a lot more family-friendly. We have allowed employees to continue working from home and we still have plenty of the workforce doing so. We have had to adapt our negotiating style so that is suits more written styles where you would normally sit face to face.

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

I think there will be a much bigger focus on supply chain, agility and reduced complexity. I think there will be more consideration of shorter supply chains and a supply chain that is closer to home. 

What challenges have you faced as a woman in the industry?

On a positive note, I don’t feel that I have ever been purposefully discriminated against for being female. I do however think that there is an unconscious bias that more senior decision making roles are held by men. I think it can be especially true across other cultures which can be a challenge. On countless occasions, it has been assumed that I am a man. Particularly with new suppliers, and that is a shame. A quick correction has never caused me any problems. I just think it is a shame that the automatic assumption is that I am a Mr.

How can we encourage more women to choose procurement as a viable career?

Spotlight exercises like this are really important to showcase the profession. Part of the problem is that people don’t know the roles are out there, I don’t think people realise what it involves. I think it is important to make roles as flexible as possible to fit around family and life in general and that doesn’t have to apply only to women.

What advice would you give to a woman starting out in the profession?

First of all, believe in yourself, work hard, get qualified to set yourself apart from the rest. It is a competitive industry but it is very rewarding to be instrumental in getting a deal done. You don’t have to be an expert in each category but you do have to listen and learn. Take inspiration from other women in the profession and just be the best version of yourself.

Who has been your inspiration throughout your career?

The boss who encouraged me to get into procurement was obviously instrumental. I have worked for some excellent leaders and managers. My current team really inspire me. We have worked together for a long time. I was a Strategic Buyer within the team for seven years before I earned this promotion. I am now leading the team I was once part of which makes me really proud. There has been a lot of change in the team and the way they have pulled together and adapted and their commitment is really inspiring. 

What is your view on the way that women are represented across the profession?

I was really surprised at the low number of women in senior roles, I really hope that changes in the future. I think that it is an unconscious assumption that women hold the more junior roles but I think that then can lead to an imposter feeling for women when it comes to more senior roles, they don’t feel like they belong at a senior level despite their abilities. I think that needs to change across the business spectrum and women leading the way is the biggest contributor to that.

Is there anything you would have done differently during your career?

Not particularly, there are always things you would change with the benefit of hindsight but these are the lessons you learn without those you won’t progress. I have always been very committed and ambitious and with age, I have become more confident and comfortable in my skin. If I could talk to my younger self I would tell her not to fear failure.

What does your company’s sustainability programme look like?

We have a global programme where overall group targets are reviewed and set over five year time periods. Each site with more than 10 employees has to do reported sustainability metrics over the year. Focus is on reducing energy intensity and carbon footprint over the next 5 years.

What are the sustainability challenges your company is facing and how is procurement helping to navigate those challenges?

From a practical perspective, we have goods imported from Asia so that brings travel and pollution burdens. Many of our products have surface coatings to meet durability so the process involved in that could potentially be environmentally damaging if not correctly controlled. We make sure our supply chain meet set criteria and every supplier has to comply with a sustainability audit and code of conduct.

How do you engage with key stakeholders regarding sustainability?

Engagement is through the supply of products themselves. We take time to explain the positive impacts our products can have. We have held networking events. Sustainability case studies and best practice examples are shared internally and externally using appropriate forms of media. Our contracts with specialist waste contractors are also mutually beneficial.

How has the move to more sustainable practice impacted the business?

Overall very positively as it supports team members. Stakeholders resources are required to support the approach but these are distributed through team member roles and different functions. The projects the business has undertaken have relied on the wider team working together on sustainability, which has been very positive – everyone working and pulling together.

What are your visions for sustainability?

I think we would like to look at the circular economy where resources that we are consuming are offset through our improvements. That is really our end goal so things like harvesting more water effectively and things like that. Some site may look to generate their own power and consider more localised supply chains.

How does sustainability fit with the hiring process?

Our sustainability model is explained to all potential employees at the interview and throughout the onboarding process. Within the main factories we have centralised sustainability information areas that detail all of our progress and targets and all the associated benefits, we have full employee engagement in that. I think people who had existing roles in health and safety and environment have developed into championing sustainability, in procurement, we do have officers who are going out and doing sustainability audits at suppliers.

What keeps you enthused about Procurement?

The strategic and cross-functional nature of procurement is what keeps me enthused. The way that no two days are the same and your day can be upended, and the fact that you require flexibility and composure. Being able to see how we contribute to the overall success of the organisation in various areas including product quality as well as financial, is really rewarding. 

What does diversity and inclusion mean to you?

For me, it means equal opportunities for all regardless of gender, race, sexual preference, age and so on. As an example, I was very well looked after when I returned from maternity leave, my needs as an individual were well balanced with those of the organisation. I was able to return part-time and increase my hours gradually. At the same time the company supported my ambitions to progress, they sponsored my Master’s degree at the same time as increasing my hours. That made me feel like I wasn’t being put at a disadvantage for taking that time off. 

What are ASSA ABLOY’s most important values?

ASSA ABLOY has a very strong set of core values which everyone is made aware of and they are around empowerment, innovation and integrity. Fundamentally the company strives to ensure that employees have the tools, and the trust to do the job that they are employed to do. That we have the courage to innovate and to change and above all, we have strong morals and stand up for what is right. 

What value does diversity bring to the procurement team and the organisation as a whole?

To be fair it is central to my life as a whole, to be honest, I love a good debate and challenging my own views by getting different insights and opinions. Professionally I think a diverse team adds incredible value. We have a diverse range of ages and backgrounds within my team. This means we have several different viewpoints around the table at any one time. There is always more than one way of looking at a project, objective or KPI. This is invaluable.

How does ASSA ABLOY’s hiring process align with its D&I goals?

All vacancies are advertised internally and externally regardless of the position, in line with policy. That allows for development and progression from everyone in the company. We welcome applications from all parts of the community. We decide who to interview based on the skills outlined in the CVs received regardless of background and we always give fair and constructive feedback to everyone who has interviewed.

How do you think diversity and inclusion contribute to achieving the business goals?

Having a strong and diverse workforce is critical to delivering the company’s goals. Particularly around innovation and integrity, we really strive to be somewhere that people want to come and work and where they strive to come and do their best each day.

What role does procurement play in diversity and inclusion?

We ensure our supply partners operate in the same diversity and inclusion principles that we do. It would be catastrophic for us to work with companies that don’t stand up to our high standards. We take seriously our role to help suppliers achieve these standards as well. For example, our Asia sourcing office will support by visiting and auditing factories and if we do find that standards aren’t where we want them to be we don’t just walk away, we help those suppliers to develop and improve.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

I love sports and fitness, I am currently doing a fitness programme that sees me training five times a week! I run regularly and have done numerous half marathons. I am a big fan of football and rugby. I love live music. I am a massive fan of travel and anything from camping to flying off somewhere. Spending time with my family is very important to me.

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

Don’t fear failure and don’t let that hold you back. Everyone gets things wrong the trick is to use that to learn and do better next time.

Tell me an interesting fact about yourself…

I once did a 15,000ft parachute jump, I was 23 then and I would not do it again!

Do you have a personal motto that you live by?

Not a motto as such, but integrity is so important I have no time for dishonesty or spite.

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