The Big Interview with Amanda Richardson

For Procurement Heads‘ latest Big Interview, James Dobbin caught up with Amanda to hear more about her career, the culture at Atom and what skills are essential to being a good procurement leader.

How did you get into Procurement?

I think like most people I didn’t set out in my career to work in Procurement.

I left home at 16 and joined the army where I did an engineering apprenticeship, and after six years I left the army, I was in the Royal Signals and at the time people were leaving for lucrative job offers to help build the mobile networks, but the telecoms bubble burst when I left.

I went to University and did an Accounting and Finance degree, thinking that would give me a good income and a steady career. I couldn’t find a placement in an accounting firm, but I saw a commercial undergraduate position for what was formally Enron, and I thought as it was the biggest accounting crisis the world had ever seen, I would apply and get first-hand accounts of what happened.

I was in the purchasing department there and it suited my personality, the career path seemed very similar to an accountant and they asked me to come back as a commercial graduate, then I became a buyer and my career has stayed in Procurement ever since then. 

Do you think your training as an accountant has helped your career in Procurement?

I did a three-year degree so I’m not a qualified accountant but definitely. It stands out on my CV and it shows the ability to understand and analyse numbers, which is a key part of Procurement. Also understanding financial statements and how a company makes money, cashflows, overheads, EBIDTA etc. When I do due diligence on a new vendor, for example, I can understand those accounts which is really helpful. 

What skills are essential to being a good Procurement leader?

To be good at Procurement I think you need to be a strong negotiator, analytical, influential and a good communicator, talking and listening to both your internal and external customers.

To be a leader you must lead by example, you must listen to your team and your peers and consider all facts, opinions and outcomes when making a decision, so you need to be decisive as well. Your team get on with the job but come to you when there’s a problem they can’t fix or a decision above their paygrade. So you need to be a good problem solver and equally you need to be approachable.

I think you need to tailor your management style. At Atom we don’t call it that, we call it coaching, but I think you need to adapt that to specific team members.

What challenges have you encountered, if any, being a woman in the industry?

To be honest, the answer that initially comes to my mind is none. I don’t feel like I have ever been held back in my career.

However, I have worked in a couple of companies with an old school culture and an old boys’ network at the top. This hasn’t stopped me as I’ve just moved on, and in any case,  it affects all professions, not just procurement.

The only other time I have felt it could possibly be a barrier is when I have looked at working in the Middle East. I’ve never even had an interview, which has never been a problem in the UK, it could be that there are a couple of hundred applicants per job, but I can’t help but think being a female has something to do with it.

Other than that, no, I have been empowered, I have travelled extensively across Europe & Asia, on my own at times. There have been no cultural challenges either, but I think it helps that I have a lot of influence over the contract award.  As I am a big part of the decision on who to award the money to, I’ve only ever been treated with professional and mutual respect.

How do you think we can encourage more females to choose Procurement as a viable career?

This is an interesting question, I have never seen a shortage of women in Procurement, I’ve probably seen a 50:50 split at Buyer and Senior Buyer level but this starts to taper off at Purchasing Manager level.

Certainly, when recruiting there have been an equal number of male / female applicants and CVs.

However, when it comes to the very senior Procurement positions, they are nearly always occupied by men and I have only met a couple of women in such positions during my career. So, how you attract women into those roles, I honestly don’t know as I am attracted to those roles.

In my experience of talking to some women, they have chose not to step up into those roles as they’re very demanding and stressful and the more senior you get the more pressure is put on you, you get paid more money but of course the demands and expectations are increased. That said, I have spoken to a number of men who have also chosen not to step up for the same reasons. I know both men and women who have tried stepping up and have stepped back down again due to the pressure.

I don’t actually know the answer to that question because women are attracted to Procurement. Taking the step up to the more senior positions carries a lot of responsibility and accountability which impacts a business from compliance to bottom-line results to reputation as a customer and so on. Wanting to take that kind of responsibility on is inherent to a person’s character and what drives them. 

What advice would you give to a woman starting a career in Procurement?

My advice isn’t specifically for women, because the advice applies to anyone, I would say you have to be thick-skinned and you have got to be assertive but friendly.

I would say if you like routine, this isn’t for you as no two days are the same.

Often you have set tasks but something critical pops up and you must be flexible, it can be very stressful but also very rewarding.

I would say to anyone, if you want an easy life and to coast along don’t work in Procurement. 

Who inspires you?

One of my earlier managers, a guy called Francis Barnish at Siemens, it was my second role in Procurement, and he was a very inspirational leader.

He was a strong Procurement leader and an approachable guy with a lot of experience. Without ever having done low-cost country sourcing before, he packed me off to China and India negotiating multi-million-pound deals.

To have that trust and responsibility given to me early in my career was fantastic and I am very thankful to him. I learnt a lot from him.

I have had several very good strong bosses over the years, and I have learnt from all of them.

I am now in the position that I am the senior Procurement professional in the last few companies that I have been in so now I am inspired by good leadership skills and successful leaders such as Chief Executives who have successful companies and self-made billionaires.

What is your view in how women are represented across the profession?

They are represented very well in the lower ranks, but it is a well below average representation in the higher positions. I’m not sure how much of that is because women don’t want to step up or how much of it is a generational legacy that just needs time to close the gap.

It is going to take time to feed through to have the same number of experienced women applying for these positions.

Is there anything you would have done differently?

No! It’s been a rollercoaster of a journey, it’s been a wonderful career, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing.

Personally, I reflect on where things could have been better, and I learn from that.

I think to become a balanced person for personal and professional growth you need to learn from experiences and use that knowledge to perhaps do things differently in the future so no, I don’t think I would change anything.

What would you say has been your biggest achievement to date?

I reflect back to a specific negotiation – I picked up a claim.

The claim was an end of production claim that had finished early so the price quoted by the supplier was for a certain number of units, but that number hadn’t been met so they wanted to claim some of the money they had invested in the beginning.

It went on and on and took me more than a year to settle. I was sat across from some really tough negotiators and they played dirty. At times it was very adversarial.

But I calculated my moves and I stood my ground and finally got a seven-figure settlement in our favour.

We weren’t trying to be unreasonable, but I needed certain evidence that didn’t exist. What made the whole thing even more satisfying was that a couple of years later that company approached me about an employment opportunity!

It seems that you love your profession, what gets you out of bed in the morning?

I am very passionate about my career; I couldn’t be in a profession where I wasn’t.

No two days are the same and I like that. I love the variety of suppliers, contracts, goods, services, challenges and results I deal with. I love the variety of people I work with both internally and externally and I absolutely love negotiating, I love to see a result.

I have taken traditional transactional purchasing departments and turned them into strategic, money-saving value-added teams with better controls and on-time delivery. I get real satisfaction from seeing results and there is always an opportunity in Procurement to do that.

What makes a good negotiator?

Every negotiation is different, it depends on the market, the product, the company, the contract, the value and the relationships you have. You must take all of these factors and work out the best way to position yourself.  What information, tools and options do you have to help you get what you want? Equally what do they have that may make them reject your desired outcome?

I think the ability to know that every negotiation is different, to have a plan, to discuss that plan with the internal stakeholders, to execute that strategy and be prepared to change it depending on what moves the other party makes. All of that is a skill.

You need to fully understand where you sit in the market, do you have incredible purchasing power based on spend, or are you niche? What makes you an attractive customer? The more attractive to the supplier, the better the deal and the better the service. Equally what is the supplier’s position in the market? Are you 50% of their turnover or 0.5% ? All this kind of information helps decide your negotiation strategy and will influence the result.

Rapport is key where the relationship is of strategic importance. Sometimes we are only as good as our suppliers, so working well together is critical and suppliers will generally go the extra mile where there is a strong relationship and that includes during negotiations on service issues and commercial clauses.

I could go on about this subject! I’ve just covered some of the key things.

Do you find it harder to negotiate in this day and age where people hide behind emails?

No, I find it harder doing everything through video calls as I am a big believer in face-to-face negotiation. But an email can sometimes help as it gives me time to consider my reply and of course provides a documented record of what has been discussed and agreed.

But I do miss that face-to-face, I have not met any of my current vendors before in person, so we are negotiating big contracts without the foundations of those critical relationships which I have found to be stronger when meeting in person.

Face-to-face is always my favourite way to negotiate, especially big contracts as you can see body language which can tell us a lot more than any words can. Equally, it can help allay any concerns the vendor might have.

What is the culture like at Atom bank?

Cultures are from the top down; I have worked in some very old-fashioned cultures and it can be stifling.

Then I came to Atom and it is just the most refreshing, wonderful culture, you can be yourself. They make sure that when people are interviewed it isn’t just about the skill to do the job, but whether or not their personality is a fit for Atom bank. If it isn’t then they don’t progress to the next stage.

And it works, the atmosphere… I can’t describe it. It is a really really good company to work for.

What makes a good culture?

You have to be able to be yourself. If you have to go to work and put a mask on, it’s draining.

Everyone at Atom has a voice and there is open-mindedness throughout. We don’t have our values plastered on the walls like some companies do because the values are intrinsic to the people they recruit.

Doing a good job and getting results goes without saying. There is a desire to get results and if you can do that just by being yourself then that is a unique culture to work in. People feel empowered and respected and are treated as the individuals they are without feeling like they have to conform to old-fashioned ideals of how people should behave in an office and what they should wear, etc.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

My children are 17 and 18 so no longer want to do anything with me!

I have been a career woman and a single mum for so long, that my world has been about work and children.

Now I have a lot more spare time so I love to get out in the countryside and go hiking. I go to the gym; I love to travel, and I am a foodie! Going to the pub, comedy clubs, that sort of thing. 

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Probably none as I don’t think she would have listened! I have always been staunchly independent and have carved my own path and made my own decisions from a very young age. I never really wanted to conform which meant ignoring most people when I was younger.

As a single mum with two kids and a very progressive career, how have you managed the time?

It has been incredibly difficult.

I was asked about my biggest achievement in my Atom interview. I said, “To be honest it has been balancing being a single mum and my career for the past thirteen years as it’s been very difficult”. I was interviewed by three women and I admitted I wouldn’t have answered with that if I was sat opposite three men. They loved my honesty.

I travelled a lot for work and I often had to ask my mum to drive 200 miles to look after the kids. Even the everyday stuff like getting them to and from childminders was so tiring after a long and busy day in the office and it was relentless. I just used to keep going, I had no choice.

One of the things that kept me going was that mine was the only income into the house and I loved my job.

I used to think of my long-haul flights as a break!

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself…

I was a weapons instructor when I was in the army!

Have any of the traits you picked up in the army transferred into your Procurement career?

One of the biggest ones that spring to mind is that you are taught from day one about teamwork. The results a team can achieve are much greater than working in isolation.

My ability to talk to everyone at all levels, cut through the crap and make quick decisions.

Assertiveness definitely helps as sometimes you are under a lot of pressure and you have to prioritise and communicate effectively. Also, resilience, in the army you have to be resilient and although it’s a very different kind of pressure, being resilient helps deal with pressure.

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