For Procurement Heads‘ latest Head2Head, he spoke with James Dobbin about his career, what advice he would give people setting out on a career in procurement and which star he refused entry to Wimbledon!
You can watch, listen to or read the full conversation below.
How did you get into Procurement?
One of the things that amazes me is when people make an apology about stumbling into Procurement and making it a career. I actually wanted to do it from the get-go.
I was very lucky because I had someone that inspired me and he worked for JCB and he took me for a tour around the factory when I was 16/17 and I thought it was so interesting how they unify the components so you can build these things. We started talking about the supply chain and I thought that was a place I would like to put my career.
I muddled through A-Levels and was able to get into a degree course at Coventry University, I did a couple of placements, worked at Rover Cars, Massey Ferguson and Rolls Royce Aerospace in procurement and supply chain. It was an area that fascinated me, so that’s what I did out of university.
Through the course of my career, I graduated through several procurement roles.
I find it one of the most important parts of a business, its ability to run the supply chain, buying product and services that you ultimately sell to the customers.
That is, in a nutshell, my journey. I then did a masters degree at Birmingham University and I had always been in procurement at that point, then I went to go and work at T-Mobile.
Procurement and supply chain is a bit of an interchangeable term because in my mind supply chain is about getting the goods and services and shipping them to customers, some people use it to describe the process.
After my master’s degree, I persuaded T-Mobile to let me run their handset supply chain, which was the first time I’d had a big operational role, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
I have always done this up and down of procurement or deep supply chain, I did that at Pearson most recently, then took a bit of time out and did some advisory work then landed at Kantar in April last year.
What was it about your early exposure to procurement that made you think you would like to do it?
I could see from a very early age that if you are building things then that is entirely dependent on the quality of the things arriving in a timely way.
Then the process of being able to synchronise that into manufacturing, then the ability to get it out the door and into the hands of the customers.
If you think of the ecosystem, you need to do all of those things, you need great suppliers, great planning and forecasting, and you need a great supply chain.
My interest in that hit a point when supply chain and procurement started to have a lot more prominence in a lot of businesses.
I think over the past 30 years of my career, we saw enormous outsourcing of the thing that companies used to produce and manufacture for themselves or they started to move offshore.
My career came as there was an enormous change in the supply chain.
I turned 50 last year and as I see here in the final part of my career there is a similar change, as we have an enormous environmental agenda and supply chain security to think about and then naturally we have the fall out of the Covid crisis, which I think we will see a lot of suppliers at risk as they will struggle to get back to where they were, there will be a lot for work for business to respond to those challenges going forward.
I started my career with enormous change and I think I will end it with enormous change too.
As you have worked in both procurement and supply chain do you have a preference and how would you describe them as different business units?
I have enjoyed both, to be honest.
I have been very fortunate to get involved in both at certain times in my career.
The bigger point I would make is that I think the skills between both disciplines are very interchangeable, as what they both come down to is the relationships you build.
The relationships you build with suppliers and the relationships you build with the internal stakeholders, it is about understanding the universe of the supply chain that you are operating in and then finally it is thinking about how you can leverage the technology we have these days to transform the operating performance.
We have seen enormous technological advances in terms of the supply chain if you think about how we used to buy things and now how a large chunk of us is just buying stuff online and getting it delivered.
The power of data analytics is changing the way we think about the procurement process as well.
We can automate large parts of transactional procurement and use the capabilities that we have to build relationships with stakeholders to help them build the best relationships with suppliers that they can.
Could you give us an overview of Kantar and how your procurement function fits in?
Kantar is a data science business really, we provide brands around the world with insights about what customers are thinking about their brands and what the consumer sentiment is about certain categories of spend and how you are portrayed in the marketplace.
A lot of companies are leaning in at the moment because they want to understand how consumer sentiment has changed and where are people focusing their consumable dollars.
One example I like to give is the category of hygiene, for a long time that was considered a category of grocery spend that was in commoditisation, but in 12 months it has become one of the hottest categories of spend and you are seeing a big reinvention of how that category is developed.
Large parts of how we collate the data is what I call analogue and that is now moving more digital which means our business is on a big path to transform its technology, its operating processes, its infrastructure estate and how it goes to market.
I would like to think that procurement has a big part to play in that.
We left the WPP family in 2019 and last year was the first full year we were a stand-alone business.
What I have been doing is setting up our own stand-alone procurement organisation with three-part, categories of expertise we want to purchase and leverage, regions – making sure we can source those categories to support the local market and then a whole capability around enablement.
I inherited two teams and we are going to go to a team of 30-40 people.
What are some of the challenges your team are facing at the moment?
On the Covid one, I think it has been in a couple of ways, concern and worry and optimism and I think one of the big leadership challenges is keeping people-centred and focused on what it is they need to do.
Making sure they feel supported both physically and pressure wise.
The second thing is, of course, driving a transformation remotely is a challenge.
It’s not just about building relationships with the team it is about building relationships with stakeholders, where normally you would meet them face-to-face and build empathy and relationships, which has all been done very remotely.
Another thing is Identifying the areas and savings of opportunity we can go after is also another significant piece of work.
What are you most passionate about when it comes to procurement?
Number one is that if you asked several grads where they would like to go with their career, they might say finance or marketing, procurement is still a poor relative.
I think despite the prominence it has been given over the last few years it doesn’t get the marketing it deserves as being a career you want to join.
Secondly, on the topic of the diversity of inclusion, I think it is still the case that a large number of procurement professionals are male and I don’t think we have done enough compared to other professions in terms of broadening the depths of the diversity. I think more delicately racial diversity as well there are not many people of an ethnic minority in procurement.
I think we have got an enormous amount of work to do to set ourselves up as a destination career that young energetic people want to get into.
Secondly, I think the same holds true in terms of the people moving horizontally across their career.
We should be encouraging people to move in and out of different functions into our universe so they get a better understanding of what it is that we do.
They’re the key things that I want to focus on over the next few years as I drive the transformation here at Kantar.
Are there any further areas that you think procurement as a function needs to focus on?
In the course of 30 years as a function, we have been very successful at reducing year-over-year the costs of the things that we buy and sell.
I can’t help but think that that opportunity to take costs down is slowly coming to an end because in truth it was very dependant on exploiting China and low-cost sourcing in China and to some degree in India.
Covid has taught us that actually, you do need things a little bit closer.
I think there is going to be a whole reinvention of the supply chain and the ecosystem to support our businesses over the next several years as we adjust the posture relative to the macro challenges around trade wars, security and the lessons we have learned through the pandemic.
What do you look for when hiring somebody?
Not the same version of me that’s for sure!
One of the things you learn in your career is to encourage and be receptive enough as a leader to build a bunch of people who will challenge you and question some of the things that are being done.
I think that was a learning thing in my career very early on as a line manager I would have wanted people to see things exactly as I saw them, but as you get more experienced you understand that actually having a couple of people that are prepared to challenge is in fact really important.
I look for people that are different and have wide experience, energy, enthusiasm and a willingness to get involved and be part of something special that we are building at Kantar.
What are you doing in terms of sustainability?
We have two parts, first is how you think about our carbon footprint, we have two things, office buildings and data centres, our travel has gone down a lot as you can imagine over the last 18 months and one of the other things that we won’t see is anything like the level of corporate travel that we have seen historically.
We are about to start a big audit into our carbon footprint and look at ways that we can reduce that and measure the effect.
We are wondering how you measure the effect of people working from home as well as that has an energy effect to it as well.
What would you say is your biggest achievement in your career so far?
Probably the biggest success is the fact that I have been able to make it to CPO, I still amaze myself that I have been able to make it to that, to be honest.
At T-Mobile, we were the first major network to offer next day delivery on telesales going back 15 years.
At the time it was remarkable, there were not many companies that we’re able to do that.
When I worked for Vodafone in Romania we sourced low-cost handsets in China and it allowed us to grow the population of people who used Vodafone in Romania as the handsets were low cost.
For those people that know the Vodafone procurement company was something that I was involved in, I was a very junior part of figuring out how that operating model could work, I spent a couple of years in Luxembourg. It was very enjoyable.
Did you have any mentors?
There are a couple of well-known people, Detlef Schultz, Ninian Wilson, Tim Williams, Liliana Solomon, these were always people I was very fortunate to get to learn from and understand their point of view and see how they did things.
If I could be so bold as to offer one piece of advice, it is to make sure you have the opportunity to get exposed to good leaders because you really learn a tonne of stuff.
How they deal with issues and how they resolve things. That is very important to me, when I worked at T-Mobile I worked with Liliana Soloman, a very audacious Finance Director that had the courage and drove enormous change.
I saw how she interacted and learning from good business leaders is key.
What do you think makes a good procurement leader?
Definitely, someone who can engage with the business.
I don’t think you have to be the best negotiator, there are always better negotiators out there and you can build negotiators in your team.
One of the most important things is being able to engage with business stakeholders up and down the business and being able to understand what it is they want and what it is they need from you.
What advice would you offer somebody about to embark on a career in procurement?
Throw yourself into everything.
I started my career as a Scheduler, which is the bottom rung of the ladder, but you learn where everything goes wrong!
Throw yourself into roles where you are going to learn about the business.
Don’t worry about where your career is going, I always had concerns about whether I was progressing enough, but what served me better was not whether my career was moving but was I learning new stuff, picking up new skills and experiencing new capabilities and getting involved in new projects, your career will then take care of itself.
What do you think about people wanting to progress too quickly?
I don’t think there is a definitive point of view there, I think you can get into a mindset that says your career isn’t moving in the trajectory that you want.
I don’t think longevity is the issue these days, I think it was what you are contributing and what you are leaving behind as a legacy.
Remind yourself that you do need to give back it is not just about what you want it is about you contributing to help those businesses move forward as well.
What do you like to get up to in your spare time?
Well as a father of four children I’m sure you can imagine what the majority of my efforts are, but I have got a fair list of interesting history books, I am a big historian buff that’s what I enjoy and I certainly hope that before my time is up one of my big ambitions is to get a history degree, that is part of my retirement plan.
If you could give any advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Enjoy the journey.
I think as we said, to anybody who is listening to this I have tried to move up the ladder focusing on what the next thing was and what the next thing was I didn’t necessarily take the moment to enjoy what I was doing.
Have you got an interesting fact you can share?
I once stopped Boris Becker from getting into Wimbledon when I was a security guard there because he didn’t have his player ID card.
I am very proud of the fact that I followed the letter to the law as instructed by my boss at the time, but it did mean I spent the rest of my time guarding the rubbish trucks!
We also lived in Romania for a few years and Romania has a film studio complex and we were travelling back to the UK for the weekend, I bumped into somebody at the airport and thought it was someone I knew from school, the guy replied in an American accent and it turned out to be Woody Harrelson!
Do you have a personal motto that you live by?
One that I learnt from Guy Lawrence at Vodafone – he is now the CEO at Chelsea – who said, “Simplicity is the very art of sophistication”.
I think we all know supply chains and procurement can be very complicated stuff to convey and if you can really boil it down into a way that people can really get it that is half the battle.