For Procurement Heads‘ latest Big Interview, he spoke with Will Cooke about his career and what he looks for when hiring.

How did you get into procurement?

By accident, as 99% of people probably say!

I graduated in accountancy and finance and thought that was what I was going to do but I struggled to find a role at that time. 

I ended up in a temp job with a cycle manufacturer, basically just data entry within the supply chain. That led to MRP & MPS and eventually some transactional buying

I used to still look at the finance team and look at where I was and thought it seemed way more fun – no disrespect to finance people. 

It just stuck with me. 

I started out in a temp job, but I stayed there for four years. It was a struggling business and eventually, it went under, but the lessons learned there were huge.

I use the anecdote of trying to go shopping with no money because that is how it was, you learn the hard way.

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

IBM Procurement is run by our CPO Bob Murphy in the US. 

Bob manages three things, our indirect spend, obviously, IBM remains a massive manufacturer so direct procurement and supply chain also fall under him. 

Finally, we have our customer-facing procurement practice where our BPO delivery teams sit.

I’m aligned to our procurement BPO organisation, sitting within the UKI market and acting as the bridge between customer transformation aspirations and achieving those goals

Can you tell us about IBM Consulting?

IBM Consulting is probably a lot bigger than people give credit to. 

To give you some of my favourite numbers – $424 billion worth of spend under management, 100+ clients, 80 languages in 20 countries across 40 delivery centres, 12,000 headcount and the one I always love is 3 trillion transactions feeding the data engines to create insights for procurement and category managers

What challenges are you and the organisation currently facing?

I guess from our side we are no different from everybody else. 

You have got pressures on procurement at the moment that are unprecedented, from a geopolitical standpoint, from post-pandemic operations. 

Also, the traditional challenges for procurement – cost, risk, increased regulations, ESG, and the race to automate and drive innovation. 

We are no different to anybody else in that space but we are quite far ahead.

Aside from needing to ensure our own operations are fit for purpose, IBM is “client zero” for our customer-facing offerings, meaning we have an in-house test bed wherein we learn how to address these challenges before taking these insights into our customers.

That is a great test bed to be able to figure out what works and what doesn’t. 

Do we have a silver bullet?

No, but we can make that leapfrog go faster and quicker. 

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

I would say doing it well and evangelising what procurement actually is. 

I once counted logos that I had worked with, it is about 50/60 that I have been through the front door of. 

You see all shapes and sizes and colours. 

You see good and bad and that is the thing that I find exciting. 

You can go in and see everyday brand names and know there is a really cool opportunity to do some super clever stuff. 

I love looking behind the curtain, and seeing what can be done to make some changes.

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

Cost, digitalisation, risk and resilience and people.

What do you tend to look for when hiring?

For me, it is always thinking I am going to take the experience stated on a CV as a given, I am more interested in soft skills. 

If a candidate lacks a certain skill or experience, I tend to believe it is my responsibility to close those gaps.

Just because someone has not worked in a particular industry or in the technical side of things, we can grow that experience. 

For me, it has always been how does that person act, where is that passion and curiosity for the business. 

The biggest success stories have been from candidates with that passion and curiosity who want to go through the journey. You let them go and make mistakes and take risks. 

They see more success than those who need spoon-feeding.

What are you and your organisation doing in regard to sustainable procurement?

IBM’s annual corporate environmental reporting first began in 1990 and has continued each year since.  We are committed to doing business with environmentally and socially responsible suppliers. 

With 13,000 global suppliers that is a huge undertaking. 

Of our stated 21x corporate goals for Environmental Sustainability, IBM procurement owns six.

Within our procurement practice, we’re supporting our customers to embed sustainability at the heart of their decision-making and operations. 

As an example, a few weeks ago we ran a customer innovation session around “how to drive sustainability within tail spend”.

Can you tell us about your biggest achievement?

If you look at my CV there are some big numbers on there. 

But I always find those are a bit stale without knowing what the context was. 

I kind of look at achievements in the same way, my biggest achievement is probably being the people who I have had work with me. 

Seeing those guys develop and see their careers growing is incredibly rewarding. 

When I joined one organisation there was a guy who outlined an unbelievably adverse set-up between procurement and the rest of the business. 

From day one he was discussing going into meetings with the business, saying it always ends up in a fight, it’s heated, it’s a nightmare.

When I pointed out that was no good for anyone, you could see a lightbulb go on, and this norm could be challenged. 

That one conversation changed his whole approach, and likely his trajectory within the function

What is the biggest risk you have taken?

Each move I have made has been a calculated risk and I have had the luxury to be able to do that.

For example, moving to the United States in 2012 was a massive risk. 

But we loved it and had a really good experience, family and career-wise it was excellent. 

When I joined IBM, I went from leading 200+ people to sole the contributor focused on working more closely with customers to support and shape their transformation journeys. 

That’s a very different role and requires you to challenge yourself in very different ways, but I love it.

These are the kind of risks I believe you need to take. 

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

I once read an interview with someone who described it as half technical capabilities and half therapist and I think that is it! 

It is being able to draw that broad balance between knowing your craft, you can write a contract and lead a negotiation but it is the ability to translate that into the business and be the bridge between the two. 

A criticism of procurement is we talk our own language.  

We talk in acronyms and it can be a challenge to cross over and make that connection with end users. 

I believe good leaders and operators start from the business view and work their way back into procurement, changing the way you’re working to suit your end users – as opposed to this sledgehammer of here’s a process, you didn’t do this, you didn’t tick this box.

I think it is striking that balance. 

What advice would you give to someone interested in embarking on a procurement career?

Go for it! 

It has taken me all over the world and got to peak behind the curtains at some massive organisations. 

I have worked with some unbelievably talented and smart people. 

As a career, it is a fantastic choice. 

As a piece of advice – learn to listen.  You have two ears and one mouth which should be used in that ratio. 

Soak it up, understanding the business and the people you’re dealing with it makes life a lot easier.

What are your thoughts on blockchain in procurement?

I think it was one of those things a few years ago that was seen as the next great hope. 

I still think it is relatively immature, but there are some great use cases for its use 

For example, we have delivered a really successful blockchain initiative with Home Depot in the US, around managing vendor disputes within their complex supply chain 

It provides a permanent and unchangeable record of real-time data, which suppliers and Home Depot alike utilise to manage issues as they arise, not when the invoice is overdue. 

Another example is in the contractor space. 

IBM sources contractors via an AI process which manages the entire front-end process. 

The platform takes various data sources from across IBM to predict contract labour demands six months in advance, which I’m told is 80% accurate

On the back end, all timesheet management is managed via a blockchain solution which dropped our disputed invoice levels from 7% to 1%

I think there are specific use cases when dealing with those huge levels and volumes of data that need authenticity and assurance it is correct, but it is not for everyone. 

How do you see AI and robotics affecting procurement?

Unlike blockchain, I think this one could benefit all procurement functions

In every white paper, and every LinkedIn article you see the virtues of automation. 

What we are seeing is work being simplified and automated, to move back office operations from value protection to value creation. 

We’re eliminating unnecessary work, and simplifying how work is done to change this value chain dynamic.

I think it is still in its infancy, I don’t think anybody has cracked that silver bullet of an end-to-end seamless process but it is the future of procurement operations. 

We have clients who have achieved 85% touchless transactions so far and we’re aiming to get that even higher as technology and processes develop,

How is Procure tech technology reshaping the procurement and supply chain landscape?

We’re only starting to really understand how technology can reshape the way we all work within procurement. 

We’ve moved from mega-vendors such as Oracle and SAP, and seen the growth of Coupa but now you see estimates of anything between 500 and 5,000 solutions within the procurement technology stack.

That market has seen an awful lot of investment and as the age of cheap money ends, there’s likely to be a spate of consolidation and even failures so it’s likely to remain a dynamic space. 

Aside from this risk, you don’t also have to look too hard to find dismal statistics around procurement functions failing to move solutions from POC and scale out across the business.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

I have two teenagers, so my weekends are spent ferrying them around to various sporting fixtures! 

I am a record collector, a fair weather cyclist so when the sun comes out a bit more I will dust off the bike and get out a bit more.

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

Don’t be afraid to take more risks and make those decisions and changes faster. 

Can you tell us an interesting fact about yourself?

I once drove home from a client meeting without shoes and trousers because I left them in the bin at the client site. 

It was a large water company, it was a sewage farm and we will leave it at that!

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