The Big Interview with Vernon Smith

For Procurement Heads‘ latest Big Interview, Vernon spoke with James Dobbin to share more about his procurement career.

Tell me about yourself

I grew up as the son of a military man and was fairly academic at school, but just wasn’t very interested in it.

When I was almost 16, I left school and joined the junior leaders – the junior army – as a medic, it was the only thing you could do in the junior leaders at that age.

I went off to join the army and my military career took off for almost 10 years.

It was great, I was happy and was fairly successful.

Having started in the medical corp, I transferred into the intelligence corp.

Eventually, I got injured, which brought an end to my full-time military career.

Coming out of the army was devastating as I’d never wanted to do anything else.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and never wanted it to end.

I was relatively young coming out into the world with absolutely no idea what I wanted to do.

I had been studying law in the army for something to do while I was recovering from my injury.

Being stuck in headquarters with nothing to do, it kept my mind active.

What made you choose law?

As an Officer, I represented a few soldiers at courts-martial and found it interesting.

When I came out finally, my brigade Commander owed me a favour and his brother owned a company in Peterborough, so he rang him up and said, “Do me a favour, give this guy a job while he figures out what he wants to do.”

So, I packed up my bags and went to Peterborough.

When I arrived, they asked me what I could do I told him, “I am fairly fit and can shoot straight, other than that I’m not sure, apart from I have been studying a bit of law.”

He said I could try their Procurement department and help over there while I figured out what I wanted to do and that is how I ended up in Procurement.

What do you love about Procurement?

I love winning.

I am a big fan of win-win; I just want to win more!

I love the struggle to succeed.

What I really enjoy is the ability to make an impact.

You can really make a difference if you are passionate and you dig in to get it done.

When you get home after signing that deal or achieving that change it feels good.

That’s the thing that makes you want to go in every day.

Tell us about your current role.

I am currently Head of Procurement for Customer and Operations for Virgin Atlantic.

It is a very broad role; I am responsible for a team that procure the supply chain for everything from hand cream through to baggage handling all around the globe.

I buy everything that isn’t the plane, the fuel and the technology.

If you pick the plane up and shake it, everything that falls out falls into my team’s role!

I joined Virgin as maternity cover in February 2019 and have been there since.

What is your favourite thing about the role?

I like the diversity, but what I am really enjoying at the moment is that I have had the opportunity to hire people while I have been at Virgin.

I have hired people from outside the Procurement scope, recently I have hired someone from our security team and someone else from an operations background and I am really enjoying helping them learn about Procurement and helping them develop their legal acumen.

Seeing people with subject matter expertise coming in and changing the way I view what we do is really enjoyable.

What is your biggest Procurement achievement in any of the roles you have had?

My favourite is actually a success that was delivered after I left.

It was during my time at DS Smith.

I had a fairly broad remit but one of the things I took to heart was waste management.

DS Smith had the second-largest paper mill in Europe.

One of the problems of making paper out of recycled paper is there is a lot of plastic waste.

Effectively this was just being burnt to make energy, but not very efficiently.

My day job would often be sitting in my suit talking about various different projects or challenges, nothing to do with waste management then often I would spend my Friday afternoons working with one of our suppliers looking at how we could remove more of the plastic from our waste and get more paper.

It was not unusual to see me at 5 pm on a Friday night with some of the guys from a company we were working with a pair of spanners in my hands trying to work out a way to get more plastic out of our system and used.

I was very passionate about trying to succeed in this and was not prepared to give up.

I never saw that through to completion as I moved on, but recently DS Smith was awarded for having developed a whole plan to round the concept we had been building.

I saw this in the media, and it filled me with pride.

That project took a lot of time, work and energy.

It was great to see that I had created something that kept running after I left.

That is what I would consider my greatest achievement.

What has been your favourite industry you’ve worked in?

I don’t know, I am fairly agnostic when it comes to the categorisation of Procurement.

I think what makes Procurement enjoyable is the people you are working with, your team, your stakeholders and customers.

I look for a passion to succeed.

If I’m working with people who have the same shared goal that feels good.

It doesn’t matter if it’s in financial services or waste management, it’s about having that desire to make it better and beat the competition.

If you’re not bringing competitive advantage to your employer – then what are you doing there?

For one of the projects I ran at LV, my team ran the novation process and the separation of all our contracts for the divestment of the GI business to Allianz.

More than 1,200 contracts needed separating in a space of three months and we succeeded.

We set ourselves a target of 92% and we achieved 98%.

It was hugely challenging and technical.

We built a customised process and I got the right people around me to take it on.

But all of us had a shared goal of achieving this target.

We set ourselves a goal and that drive to get it done, it was exhausting and a phenomenal challenge.

I remember sitting down with the team just before Christmas and did a little prize giving for who had achieved various little competitions we set ourselves, most contracts novated, most technical, best mistake that kind of thing it was a good day!

The LV Procurement team was awarded Team of the Year predominantly on the back of the work we had done.

What was more important was that they were proud of themselves as a team.

What challenges have you faced with Procurement?

I think the hardest thing is that Procurement is a change function.

The reality is doing the same thing will not always get the same results these days.

Simply going in and running standard RFPs isn’t really going to impact your competitive advantage and stakeholder groups don’t always understand that.

The hardest thing is bringing those stakeholders on the Procurement maturity journey.

Being able to articulate the value proposition that Procurement can bring and enthusing them with that passion for change.

Change in any business is difficult and that takes a level of tenacity and resilience.

If you want to effect change you have to be able to articulate that story.

Often Procurement professionals aren’t great storytellers – it can be very dry, and we don’t often tap into what is important to our stakeholders – this is so important to me.

The cost-cutting should come as a fall out of achieving objectives. 

At Virgin, for example, we report to a Chief Financial Officer, whose focus is on making sure our costs are managed.

Yet my number one stakeholder is the Executive Vice President for Customer whose focus is on service and value.

My job is to marry all those objectives together in a salient Procurement strategy that allows us to deliver both those things and make those people around me passionate about delivering it.

I think that is probably the biggest challenge and it makes you sometimes think that they are just not getting it.

But you go in the next morning and do it all again and keep going until you get it right.

I will keep learning, but my aim is to get that goal and I am not going to give up on it.

That is the biggest challenge the relentless goal to keep telling the story.

It gets tiring!

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would say make sure you are adaptable to change.

Don’t assume you know the answers.

Know when to pick the right battles.

Make sure you understand what the business is going to achieve and choose the right approach to get the business outcome.

If I look at some of the challenges I have taken on, I wonder if I made the right investment choice in terms of time and energy.

I would advise myself to be more selective in the projects that I would get behind and drive my energy into.

What about Procurement more generally? Are you noticing any trends?

I think Procurement has an identity crisis at the moment.

Procurement is trying desperately to move from the tactical to the strategic.

Procurement is not quite sure what its role in the modern business is and that is going to cause all sorts of challenges as our stakeholders and business partners wonder what our role is.

If we can’t articulate it ourselves how can our stakeholders understand?

I think more and more regulation is going to come out, and we are going to find that the need to understand the impact and regulation on our relationships with third parties is huge.

A lot of customer-facing service is done by a third party and that is regulated and therefore Procurement must own that relationship and monitor it correctly.

I think this is an area of focus that Procurement will see grow as we look much more at risk management and mitigation.

Data risk is a huge one, are we relying on a clause in a contract to protect us?

For example, if you’re buying technology or service with data involved, understanding the risk of a GDPR fine for a data breach is far more important than saying you are going to cut the hourly rate of the contractors.

So how do we ensure that a breach does not happen?

Am I making sure that I have the operation model right, that balance that makes sure that I have the contract right and stopping the breach from happening by developing the right operating model?

Understanding that, and understanding those risks is just as important as cost management.

At Virgin, when I look at how much of our customer interaction is done by a third party, the realisation is that Procurement has a huge impact on the competitive advantage of the business.

Our third parties are the people that deliver that.

For me, that is a huge part of what Procurement is going to need to have the skillset and foresight to manage, but also making sure that our partners and stakeholders realise that is what we are doing.

If you are a leader in procurement you have got to be able to provide advice and counsel on all of these things to your team and stakeholders.

You have to foster a culture of innovation from your suppliers and own organisation to drive competitive advantage.

What skills do you consider essential for a Procurement leader?

My job, as a Procurement leader, is to make sure my team can deliver what they need to deliver.

If I constantly try and think like that my teams will always try their best.

My job is to let them win, I have to get the right tools for the job for them and make that time and effort.

If you want to lead a team you have to make them capable of success.

You get to look good if they do their job well!

I try to do that, I try to be servant led, I don’t always succeed, but I try.

What do you think in terms of traits in individual work as a Procurement leader?

You have to lead by example.

You have to have a level of empathy but not always be sympathetic.

The ability to make a choice without the emotion driving the decision is important.

To understand when your team need you to support them and when they need you to challenge them is tough.

I don’t always get it right, I make mistakes, but you have to learn from them and make a better choice next time.

What inspires you as a Procurement leader?

My father was a massive inspiration to me.

I once went to a leading leaders conference and General Colin Powell, Jack Welsh and Martin Johnson were there.

Three passions of mine all rolled into one.

A military leader I had served under, a giant of the industry and the England rugby captain.

It was a dream event.

They all bought someone they had led with them.

Rugby player Phil Vickery said, “It is really easy to follow Martin Johnson, he could tell me to run through that wall and I would. But it would be really easy to run through that wall because there is a Martin Johnson shaped hole in it”.

The leaders who inspire me are the ones who show that integrity.

They are clear on what they are trying to achieve, and they stand by it.

They are people that I can get behind and I hope and try to follow that example.

What about your work-life balance? Is it important to you and how do you achieve it?

It is important, but I never achieve it!

I think I need to be more disciplined about switching my computer off when I am not at work.

I have learnt the value of my family life more and I enjoy that time with my family.

I think the best way you can get work-life balance within a team is not to micromanage.

I know work-life balance is important, but I am not very good at it, I’m not sure I ever will be.

Let the team manage their own timeframes and create an environment where they can come and tell you if they can’t get it done.

That comes with not allowing them to drown in the work as well.

If you have got trust within your team and they know they can come and talk to you about anything, you always have an honest conversation then work-life balance should balance itself.

Do you have any hobbies or interests?

I do a lot of military fitness still.

Rugby is a passion of mine and I coach and play it whenever I can.

I don’t have much time other than for rugby, military fitness, work and my family.

I have two boys; Charlie is 11 and Henry is 6, they are both rugby fanatics.

Being a parent is a real learning curve.

The assumption is that just because we are adults, we can be parents.

There is a whole new set of skills you have to learn there.

It’s not an easy gig!

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