The Big Interview with Stuart Macdonald

In the latest of Procurement Heads‘ Big Interview series, Stuart spoke with Rupert Gaster spoke about his career in Procurement and how the business has navigated its way through the COVID pandemic.

How did you get into Procurement?

I got into Procurement when I worked for a large multi-national retailer running shops initially and eventually my boss asked me to come into the office and help them with a project on the purchasing of goods not for resale (GNFR).

We were buying all the vans, trucks, store facilities, financial services, uniforms, everything for around 400 shops in the UK. That led to contract management, which in turn led to the Procurement of GNFR and GFR items.

Mine is the classic story of having the right contacts and knowing the right people.

If you are a people person and build the right relationships, the doors will remain open.

People will call on you, and you can call on them.

I have still got a network of hundreds of work associates and friends that are at the end of a call or email – and that is worth having especially in these troubled times in retailing.

What is it about Procurement that you feel passionate about?

I love the buying of products or services and having a target or a goal to meet or quite often exceed. 

I love to be able to get something at the right price and the right quality, it gives me a huge scope to show mine and the team’s worth.

When you compare my purchasing, which specialises in the Far East sourcing, the quality is like-for-like if not better, but the cash margin improvements are 11-12 points better than domestic.

It is often the same product in a different wrapper, but you’re making more cash.

What is your biggest career achievement?

I have never really been one to go trophy hunting.

I’ve been involved in Retail Week Awards and won accolades for environmental sustainability.

Last year Hobbycraft received an award from the Solent 250 Group for our Corporate, Environmental & Social responsibilities which was very nice. 

I was driving that project, but as always it was a team effort and we had a lot of input and support from the board of directors. 

I never really see it as just my achievement. 

I get a real buzz from seeing people in my team progress. Over the years, there have been some big wins where people have joined me, and they have progressed and developed as well as learning things together along the way.

Seeing people that I have recruited or developed and worked with blossom has been my biggest accolade. 

From the early days of my career when you take over a shop which was performing poorly, and you turn it around with the same team. The reality is that with the right attitude and the right conversation they can all blossom and some become star performers.

You need to nurture and create an environment for that to flourish. 

What skills do you consider essential for someone in a Procurement leadership role?

You have got to have detail and you have got to care about people and product. 

If you haven’t got the detail, then you’ll have a higher risk of getting ripped off by that one vendor.

It is hard to lead a team without the facts – lead from the front and bring them with you. 

But equally, not everyone is a fully rounded individual and it is important to surround yourself with people who have the skills that you and other don’t have.

If you surround yourself with people that can fill in gaps in other people’s abilities and then collectively you will achieve more. 

Are there any big lessons you’ve learnt?

Never underestimate people.

Never let salary be a restrictor to recruiting the right individual.  Under pressure, people revert to their true form, so know your team. Being honest and open is best. 

It is massively encouraging to know that the people you’ve been working with have delivered their best. 

You have also got to be adaptable; you can’t just repeat the same experience year-on-year.

You have got to grow, learn and develop and so have your colleagues. 

The people I work with are such great talented people and they will go on to become directors and leaders in other organisations and that is encouraging. 

Has the Procurement function at Hobbycraft played an enabling role in the business during the pandemic?

Definitely so, but it just comes back to this adaptability.

Everyone involved with Covid-19 has had to be adaptable and quick.

There have been some steep learning curves.

We’ve made significant contributions in the Procurement team around PPE, whether it be gloves or masks from China and ensuring they are all tested. You don’t want to fall under the trap of buying masks that aren’t fit for purpose.

We’ve also had to work with the vendors differently which has involved lots of dialogue and having joint partnership with them.

The pandemic has meant so many things have had to be done in a reactive timescale, but it’s about chipping away at them and working with vendors to get to the finished goal. We’ve all got to try and survive this Pandemic.

The biggest challenge with the Pandemic has been Supply and Demand, whether it be product or shipping or air freight availability.  But I’m pleased that we’ve had the networks to deliver. 

Negotiating with freight carriers for air and sea freight, when there is no air freight availability, this is where you rely on your network and positive attitude. 

We took an approach to be open with our vendors, and we have communicated with them are regularly every week, which is hard when you have over a 100 Far East vendors to deal with.

The open communication has been good for us both. Especially when we got the news stores could open and we then had to move to pulling order forward.

The feedback from them has been that communication from Hobbycraft has been successful for them too. 

Some of our suppliers and other customers that they work with have just shut up shop, they can’t get hold of their account managers and all communication with the vendor base stopped. Regular discussions with Hobbycraft vendors have been a success for us and is something we have carried on throughout the four months and they valued it.   – it is win-win. 

Definitely challenging times but it just a matter of working through the issues methodically and in priority order whilst always putting colleagues and customer safety first.

In addition, we’ve been able to support lots of Charities as well as the NHS and care homes with donating crafting materials as well as making PPE items.

It’s also really important that we’ve been able to offer support to our colleagues through the excellent work of the Retail Trust ensuring our colleagues Wellbeing.

What has been the most challenging aspect of the pandemic?

Like all retailers, when all shops are closed your sales are drastically reduced and that leads to inevitable conversations with supplier’s support for extended payment terms and open orders being delayed. Both very challenging indeed.

I guess it boils down to making sure relationships work and you come out the other end of the crisis with a sustainable business on both side as well as happy customers.

It’s also important that colleagues working are keep informed and up to date with changes.  Microsoft Teams has been a big benefit in keeping the total team together and seeing each other too.

People have gone above and beyond.  If you attract and recruit the best people, you get the best results. 

If you look back is there anything you would do differently with the benefit of hindsight?

Yes, I’m confident we have made the right decisions at the right time. We worked fully in line with Government guidelines, prioritising colleagues and customer safety.

I think Hobbycraft have been very agile in our decision making and quick to change when needed.

I think to work for an organisation like Hobbycraft, where there are very few layers of management, where you can contribute to many areas of the business not just your own, make it an excellent business to work in and an inclusive place to work. 

We already had in place disaster recovery plans and continuity plans and they were instrumental in putting plans in place quickly. 

Having regular conversations with people at all levels has been a big benefit.

The CEO and Directors have been fully engaged, and colleagues were involved and therefore collectively we did what was the right thing to do at the time with the information we had.

Here we are now, hopefully at the other end of this challenging situation. Every shop is open, every colleague is still employed, we have got a business that has customers returning to shops whilst maintaining our growth in online too.

Like most retailers this part of the business saw significant growth very quickly and processes needed to change rapidly to deal with the sudden uptick in customer traffic and orders.

So, it has been challenging and definitely not been easy, but it just comes back to the people again delivering exceptional results.

Recruit the best, don’t let salary be a blocker, have lots of conversations and don’t think you can’t achieve it, anything is possible.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I’ve been a very keen cyclist and have done lots of charity events within cycling.

I enjoy getting out in the New Forest,

The last three months have distilled all of that down to a few things.

More time with the family. My son lives nearby, and my daughter has moved back home from her job in central London.

My wife and I have spent time together as I save driving two hours a day to work. Plus, the fantastic weather. 

I have enjoyed spending time indoors with the family doing new home projects as well as crafting and making things. 

What advice would you give your younger self?

That is a good one.

I don’t really live life in the past with regrets, I live life looking forward but learning from the past.

I am naturally risk-averse as I like to live in detail, but I would tell my younger self to take more risks, both privately and at work. 

Push that little bit harder, drive that little bit more. 

You are just going to build bigger networks, have more enjoyment and have better wins.

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