The Big Interview with Ana Maria Velica

For Procurement Heads‘ latest Big Interview, she spoke with David Hazeldine about her career.

When did your interest in procurement and supply chain begin?

It was back in 2004 in Romania – I am Romanian – and at the time I was working as a Marketing Assistant at British American Tobacco.

The company was going through a transformation to become the market leader in Europe and I remember being asked by the Managing Director where I saw my career evolving, my answer was very quick, I wanted to join the cool and dynamic purchasing team because I was always fascinated by the negotiations and the connectivity my colleagues had with the suppliers. 

I am an extrovert, so it was very easy for me to picture myself doing those negotiations with suppliers.

Here I am, 18 years later having led major procurement transformations in three international companies: British American Tobacco, Heineken and Nestle.

How did you engineer your career path to the point you are now at as Head of Supply Chain?

I am a true believer that hard work pays off and that giving back to teams and communities is key to building a successful career. 

I believe change is the key element in building my career, I am the type of person who is energised by change; even my family keep asking me why I change all the time. 

But, what I can say, is I always loved embracing change with courage no matter how much uncertainty the change brings.

Growth starts when we go outside of our comfort zone. 

My dream was always to work abroad and leave Romania, when I got my first job opportunity in Hamburg in Germany it was like a dream come true. 

Western European market dynamics are very different to eastern, even negotiation tactics are different. 

I had to adapt very quickly and evolve my mindset.

From Hamburg I moved to Amsterdam where the British American Tobacco regional procurement hub was set up, the company was going through a transformation and I was promoted to do the regional procurement management role, being responsible to design procurement implementation strategies for various categories.

Soon after, a great opportunity came with Heineken global procurement whose headquarters is in Amsterdam. 

They were looking for a Global Procurement Transformation Manager to lead one of their pilots and implement a procurement operating model globally. So, I embarked on that journey and joined the company in transformational times.

From Amsterdam my circumstances brought me to London in the UK, I love this metropolitan city with a very different market and consumer profile to Amsterdam. 

I remember the day I applied for the vacancy at Nestle, I was invited to fly over for the interview. 

I managed to have a successful interview with Brett Whitfield, the Head of Procurement at the time.

For four years I had the privilege to head up the commercial procurement team for UK and Ireland.

In summary, after almost 15 years of leading major transformation projects and teams internationally for three multinational companies, I got to experience procurement in its early days, when purchasing was a standalone island fighting to earn its place at the leadership table. 

Over the years, I got to experience purchasing evolving into procurement, where procurement has become a key strategic partner and can unlock value and profit for organisations.

To conclude, I am very passionate about change and that has been reflected in my career by leading global procurement transformations. 

After 15 years in procurement, I decided to broaden my expertise so that I embraced the opportunity to step into a supply chain leadership role. 

It was a challenging career change that stretched me at all levels.

How did I engineer my career path from procurement to supply chain?  

In the four years of leading supply chain, I have learned that leadership and success require time, patience and a great team. I have the courage to challenge the norm, implement empathetic leadership and speak up for what I believe in.

What do you think the biggest problems and risks are facing procurement moving forward?

We are living in very challenging times with unprecedented challenges: Brexit, a global pandemic, a worldwide logistic crisis and recently the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

All of these bring challenges to procurement and supply chain. 

Additionally, Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) is now more important than ever for business. Why is that? Because the ESG facilitates top-line growth in the long run, attracts talent, reduces cost and forges a sense of trust with consumers.

For me, when I think about supply chain risks, some of them are already real issues. 

In terms of the environment, there is a risk to companies ignoring and minimising the environmental factors, deforestation, for example, with a huge impact on packaging. 

There is an urgent call for companies to switch to greener packaging.

The risk of climate change requires changes in pollution prevention and also a reduction in the carbon footprint. Supply chain and procurement will need to reduce the number of trucks on the road and try to leverage ambient versus temperature-controlled vans and also try to increase rail transport which is less polluting.

If I move into the social challenges, there is an urgent call to action for companies to ensure equity, diversity and inclusion in workplaces. Also, to eradicate racism. 

It is uncomfortable to talk about racism but this is a true reality. To eliminate discriminatory practices in performance management is key. We have seen health and safety are so important in these pandemic times. 

Talent attraction and retention are also top on the agenda for all companies. 

The risk for the companies of not accelerating a better work-life balance is a key issue and a risk. The new reality shows that people and their wellbeing are at the heart of the business.

To conclude with the governance, we want to see a more diverse board and this is one of the key risks because surveys show that only one in 16 top management positions is held by an ethnic minority person and this needs to change. 

Business ethics are more important than ever, the recent example being the Russian invasion into Ukraine that creates risks for companies to operate in those areas of conflict, and reputational risks.

Why are you a massive advocate for E, D & I?

I have always been passionate about helping people of all backgrounds realise their potential for as long as I remember. 

In my early years of being a student, I remember teaching English to children with disabilities up to now where I give lectures to master’s students at the University of Sussex in Brighton. 

Being Romanian, I had to constantly overcome challenges due to my ethnicity, I had to be a brave advocate for equal and equitable opportunities in the workplace in all the companies I have worked for.

The pandemic has highlighted the urgency of a call to action for companies to support ethnic minority recruitment and career progression.

I read a very interesting government review called Race in Workplace Review – the UK workforce remains uncomfortable talking about race. 

This review shows that one in four minority ethnic employees reported that in 2018 they had witnessed or experienced racist harassment from management over the last two years. 

I have always been a strong advocate for the people I manage, I always advertise equity and inclusion in the workplace.

And I try to lead the team with empathy and courage. 

It is not comfortable to talk about discriminatory practices or talk about not being represented but I played my role and I made sure that underrepresented employees like me have a voice in the company.

What do you think the future of ESG and ED&I look like in conjunction with supply chain management?

I watched a LinkedIn conference recently and they were talking about the Big Resignation or the Big Reshuffle and my key takeaway was there is an urgent need for organisations to realise that people are reevaluating their choices. 

What they want, how they work and where they work. 

I believe there is a need for all companies to build a future where people come first and where people come before profit.

With the massive supply chain disruptions given by the pandemic, we need to see more women being hired in the logistic areas, because supply chain is a very technical and still male-dominated field, we need to see a more inclusive hiring process in supply chain. 

The recruitment needs to be based on skills, not on where you come from or who you know in the company.

We’ve seen a shortage of hauliers and associated issues that have led to some businesses reporting difficulties importing and exporting. 

These led to some consumers reporting not being able to find certain items in shops. 

There has been a general decline in the number of HGV drivers working in the UK over the last four years which was driven by the pandemic but also, by the working conditions post-Brexit. 

Even the UK government needs to be more inclusive.

From 2022 onwards, the retention of internal employees will only happen when they see a more transparent internal mobility and more opportunities to grow from inside the company as well as more inclusive and diverse management teams. 

If we look at how specialised supply chain is, the specialism required to perform jobs like demand planning, supply planning, employee retention and relationships are vital.

Companies need to listen to their employees and embrace inclusive hiring, they need to accelerate internal mobility and eliminate discriminatory practices in performance management, eradicate racism and adopt remote working.  

How does it feel to be in procurement and supply chain now compared to when you entered?

The short answer is very different! 

I have been doing this supply chain role for four years and so much has changed. 

Covid was a word not present in my vocabulary four years ago, I am now saying it almost daily! 

I remember that the panic-buying weeks made me really feel like my job has a purpose because I was responsible to ensure supply and get food for the nation.

The pandemic also put a lot of strain on our resources, we were working day and night at weekends, fighting for every case to get imported into the UK and that had a lot of adrenalin as well as purpose.

I am still fascinated by the capability of people to adapt to these times and the evolution of supply chain from being traditional moving into a more e-commerce supply chain.  

When I started my supply chain job the teams were quite traditional in terms of planning and forecasting processes. 

Four years down the line, the supply chain has become more collaborative and more digitalised because the pandemic has accelerated the e-commerce way of supplying consumers. 

Another important thing that has changed is working remotely as supply chain, you couldn’t have even imagined that would have happened.

Who has had the biggest influence on your career?

This is an easy reply for me, my parents had the most influence. 

I come from a family of five children so for my parents raising a big family in communist times was not easy.

The values I was brought up with were courage and discipline. 

I got the courage from my mum who always taught me to never be afraid to speak my truth and to do what is, to always stand up for my values and the people I love. 

From my father, I got the discipline and the love for supply chain. 

He was an ex-Colonel in the army and he was responsible to ensure food and munition supply to its army. 

He loved learning all his life even once he retired, he got certified in accounting. 

I learned from him to stay disciplined and working hard can lead you to make your dreams come true.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a career in procurement and influence ED&I and ESG?

I would say it is the best career that you could build! 

Enjoy the journey and always be curious, keep asking questions. 

I would say stay true to your values as this is important to create your own brand. 

Advocate equity, diversity and inclusion and help people grow. These values combined with hard work will help you build your own brand. 

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I would tell myself to be more patient, everything comes in our lives when we are ready. 

And continue to dream big!

Can you tell us an interesting fact about yourself?

I came to the realisation that I love public speaking and I love mentoring people. 

The realisation came after several years of giving lectures on diversity and inclusion, and on personal development to master’s students at the University of Sussex in Brighton. 

All of this public speaking and mentoring gave me the motivation to really wish to give a Ted Talk one day.

What do you do in your spare time?

I love giving back and doing volunteer work, this year I am volunteering my skills to mentor young kids from underprivileged families in the USA and that’s a great feeling.

I have a hobby, I love doing fitness and lifting weights; I even have an Instagram account to motivate others – I have a fitness mantra – ‘Don’t get skinny, get stronger’ because fitness helps us all get stronger physically and mentally.

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