Aileen Wilkins is Head of Procurement at The Midcounties Co-operative, one of the largest independent co-operatives in the UK.

In our latest Big Interview, Rahim Ali Ahmad spoke with Aileen about her career, the supply chain challenges she currently faces and what advice she would give to aspiring procurement leaders.

How did you get into procurement?

I actually fell into it. I started working for an air conditioning company buying spare parts and was later promoted to Contract Manager. I left the procurement sector due to a serious illness so when I was ready to go back to work part-time, I moved into the charity sector, which I loved.

When I was well enough to work full time, I started working at 99p stores as a Marketing Assistant, dealing with the new store openings and refits.

I realised we were overspending on a lot of our marketing spend, so I looked into our contracts and suppliers. The owner was so impressed with the savings and the improved quality, he then asked me to look into other categories. It sort of grew from there. I really found my niche skill so decided this was the career I wanted to pursue.

I gained my MCIPS and so I made sure I had the qualifications to prove that I had the theory behind all the supply management and the contract management and the tenders and then just moved between different companies gaining different experience in different sectors.

What are the roles and responsibilities the procurement function holds within your organisation and how do you split the function out?

We have two areas of Procurement at Midcounties. I’m in charge of the Goods Not For Resale, which are any goods or services we don’t resell to customers. We also have a commercial team that looks after the Goods For Resale. We have several diverse trading groups such as food retail, childcare nurseries, travel agents, and online travel holidays as well as Co-op utilities covering phone, broadband, and energy.

Our two biggest spends in GNFR are Property and IT, so we have dedicated Procurement Managers who are responsible for these areas. I oversee the strategic side and make sure our team are aligned with the trading groups’ future plans and our overall business strategy.

What are the challenges you and your team currently face?

The market is challenging at levels we have not seen before.

Costs are increasing at an unprecedented rate. With the advancements in technology and the speed we can now capture data, it can be harder to understand what the best information is to rely upon to gain meaningful insights. Just being reliant on data-driven insights may lead to incorrect strategic decisions being applied and it also excludes the human element in decision-making.

Automation is another key area where we are slightly behind other companies. We are still reliant on a lot of manual processes. We do have some large technology projects planned to improve our systems and processes to help us move away from legacy systems.

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

The impact we have on the environment and sustainability.

Any company can be quite wasteful and buy the goods at the time that they are needed but don’t always consider the impact when it comes to disposal. Midcounties Coop is excellent at looking at our disposal impact at the end of life for goods, where we can recycle more and reduce our impact on the environment.

Currently, we use recycled fishing nets in our floor mats and at their end of life, they change into spongy flooring used in children’s playgrounds. Our nappy waste and our hygiene waste is diverted from landfill and converted into energy.

Our food waste goes to aerobic digestion so again that is converted into energy. Our IT technology is either resold/refurbished, or it’s broken down and then reused in other areas. We’re conscious of ensuring that our impact on the planet is minimised. Currently, we are looking into ways of reducing our carbon emissions energy, usage and our use of plastic.

That’s great to hear because so often you hear about sustainability, but putting it into practice and having some real examples is great.

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

I think digital transformation is very key for procurement innovation.

How can we create efficiencies? How can we obtain added value for money? Because of the rising costs, we need to off-set these so they are not passed on to our members.

We need to look at ways of creating added value, and with the assistance of innovation, this helps us reduce our costs and ensures we remain competitive for our members. We only do three things with our profits – re-invest in the Society, share it with our members and support our communities. Therefore, it is vital to ensure we are achieving value for money.

What are your team and organisation doing regarding sustainable procurement?

Because we are a Co-op, we have been a leader in sustainable procurement and sustainability across our trading groups.

It’s one of our Cooperative values, but there are always areas for improvement. For example, stores can order their stationery online, and it can be delivered next-day delivery.

To reduce our carbon footprint, we are encouraging the stores to add the required items into their online basket but just place an order once a week. This way, they only have a delivery once a week, not every two or three days. There are always areas for improvement with sustainability. We are working on reducing our food waste by ensuring we have better forecasting and availability, so we are not disposing as much.

Tell us about your biggest achievements in your procurement career.

Being offered the job at Derby County Football and moving the departments from Paper Order Books to an electronic PO system and contract management database was a great achievement. This allowed the club to obtain visibility of the committed spend, improve the budgets and forecasting accuracy and gained meaningful insights into our category spend.

At Midcounties, we have improved our sustainability, especially around converting our hygiene waste into energy and using recycled plastic in our uniforms. I am also proud of growing the team and seeing the impact we have made across the Society.

Finally, obtaining my MCIPS Chartered status, which I maintain every year.

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

Authenticity is a key one, being honest about where improvements are needed and working on a strategy to correct them.  

Being able to show that you don’t have all the answers, or you don’t know it all, can help people relate to you. Showing that vulnerability earns trust and gets other people to build a good rapport with you.

Coaching is another key one. People do need to make mistakes to learn from those mistakes. It’s so easy to steer people on the right path all the time or give them the answer so they don’t fail. But people also need to learn from experience and have the confidence to take a risk and think outside the box. Being a coach rather than a manager is key for a leader.

My final one would be critical thinking. Procurement impacts so many different areas of a business so you need to have the ability to see how all the pieces fit together and mitigate any unintended consequences.

All these skills are essential for effective negotiation, developing your team and successfully encouraging change.

What do you look for when you’re hiring?

Somebody that can think outside the box, somebody that’s got different views to myself.

Diversity is the key one, because you think you’re doing it the right way, but if you bring somebody in with different experience, they can give you a new way of thinking or a new way of working that you’ll never would have thought of.

Somebody that’s not afraid to challenge. I’m not afraid to be challenged either because just because we’re doing it a certain way doesn’t mean it’s right. Somebody that wants to develop that wants to grow across the business, stay with the business, and look at having their career with Mid Counties.

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

I suppose, start slowly. You can do your CIPS, but it is good to get some procurement experience.

And when you are procuring or thinking of procurement, look at the whole life cycle, not just what your immediate need is, but how that’s going to impact through the procurement life cycle, and then your waste or your recyclability at the end, because we’re very good at getting our immediate needs but not thinking of the impact on the future.

What supply challenges are you facing currently?

Labour shortages, rising costs, and availability of products. For example, electric meters, when we were opening new stores, one of the chips in the meters was delayed due to COVID, so actually obtaining a physical meter in a store was difficult. It impacted our new store opening, but we got there by using refurbished meters.

Having the right people available at the right time and the constant rising costs seems to be the biggest issue. Also, knowledge is another challenge. People are moving on and taking that knowledge with them, whether it’s internally or within the supply chain.

What are you doing to overcome those problems?

So, we have a clear development path within Mid Counties to try and retain people to make sure that they can see they can grow with the company.

Internally we’re working with suppliers to look at alternative solutions. Just because we’ve always done things one way doesn’t mean that’s suitable going forward.

Understanding what’s our immediate problem, and is there an alternative solution to fixing that problem. It’s not always just about moving suppliers, that’s not the answer.

It is that working in partnership, so for example, if I take that meter situation, we could have waited for a new meter and it could have been delayed, but instead, we worked with the supplier and said, why don’t we just start refurbishing meters.

That also helps with our sustainability as we’re not discarding old meters. Instead we used the meters to plug a gap in the supply chain. Looking at future innovation is another way to solve an issue. Working in partnership with our suppliers and being more innovative with them, helps create solutions to the problems we are facing in the supply chain.

Which direction do you see your industry heading?

Definitely, more digital transformation, so more automation, whether that’s contract reviews or managing suppliers, KPIs or even fully electronic tendering.

You do still need those soft skills, so while digital transformation and automation will create efficiencies, they won’t ever replace the negotiation side, communication, or the creativity side, i.e. the soft skills that you need in procurement.

Looking ahead, we will see a growth of data analysts/data scientists, in the procurement sector to better interpret and understand automatically generated data. However, we will continually need team members with softer skills as Procurement will always involve creating partnerships between people, suppliers and your local communities

I think working with people and having that communication and those soft skills will also create the efficiencies, new products, and innovation that we can bring in and pass on to people and customers.

How will the rate of inflation affect the company’s offering, and what is the procurement function’s role in alleviating its impact?

It’s all too easy just to pass costs on to customers, which is what we’re trying not to do and that’s where procurement’s impact really comes in.

By working closely with the trading groups & suppliers, by thinking outside the box, looking at alternative solutions etc., we can lower our costs, and create more added value. Therefore, whilst our costs are rising, we are offsetting some of those, to keep that competitive price for the customers.

Many people will receive an email from a provider advising your price is going up for your Sky or Virgin, or your phone etc., because that’s the easy answer. Whereas we are looking at different methods of working and solutions, so that we can offset some of those rising costs, to keep that price set for the customer.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

I love to travel and if I can get away a couple of times a year, that’s fantastic. I love trying to go to new places, so I’m off to Asia next January for the first time and I’m really excited about that.

I read a lot of fiction. Anthony Horowitz is one of my favourite authors and Harlan Coben. So, any murder mystery, crime, or drama books I absolutely love.

I like to swim, and I also knit scarves for the homeless. If I’m watching a movie on TV, you’ll hear my little knitting needles, clicking, and clacking away while I’m creating a woolly scarf, and then every year I take them down to the homeless shelter to give to the homeless. I haven’t got to blankets yet, but I can do scarves quite quickly!

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

I would encourage my younger self to get out of my comfort zone earlier.

I don’t like being the centre of attention, so I always used to shy away from presentations or speaking up. If I could go back and change that, I would, because pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone gives you confidence that you didn’t think you had, and it also better prepares you for leadership when you’re older.

So, my advice would be to put myself more front and centre and actively seek to put myself in situations I don’t feel comfortable in.

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.

I have an invisible medical condition, so I’m artificially fed overnight by a feed. That’s one of the good things about the Co-op, they’re very supportive of people with medical conditions and invisible disabilities, which it took me a while to find out.

To be able to speak up and be confident about it is one thing people always shy away from in job interviews and talking about any extra support they would need in the role they are applying for.

With invisible disabilities increasing, it would be nice for people to be able to be more open with their employers. I think there is a lot of untapped talent in the marketplace that is not open to employers as potential candidates do not believe they will be supported.

I hope that being open about my condition will encourage others to apply for roles.

That’s kind of you to open up about your hidden disability because I think you’re right, a lot of people will try and get by without having to talk about it necessarily.  So hopefully, that will be an inspiration to some other people who share similar challenges.

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