"Be authentic because if you are not people find you out."
David Ford has 20 years of experience in procurement across directs and indirects; holding increasingly senior positions across multiple industries into his current role as Global Head of Procurement for Freshfields.
For Procurement Heads‘ latest Head2Head, David spoke with James Dobbin about his career, what he sees as the biggest challenges for procurement at the moment and what he looks for when hiring someone for his team.
You can listen to or watch their conversation below.
How did you get into procurement?
I imagine a lot of people answer this in a similar way, which is that is it happened by chance!
I left university with a degree in English Literature and French, which isn’t necessarily the most traditional route into procurement. I knew I wanted to do something in the commercial world but had no idea what that would be, so I got onto a graduate management scheme at a high street retailer and at the end of that I was in the sourcing department and that is where I have stayed.
Essentially buying, I have stayed because I learnt from my earliest experiences that this game is about people and relationships and ultimately you do business with people, not organisations and if you like people and have an interest in them it is the most valuable thing you can do. Ultimately, that is what has sustained me from buying t-shirts in Bangladesh to beer cans and herbs and spices and then into the broader world of indirects.
What are the roles and responsibilities the procurement function holds within your organisation and how do you split the function out?
Procurement in legal is a relatively young function, I am only the second person to do this role in the firm. The function was originally created to provide some level of contract oversight, a little bit of category management and an order desk function that was the original inception of it.
We are only about five years old, I am globally accountable but most of my spend is within Germany and the UK, the way we work is that over a certain threshold we are involved and run the process, below those thresholds we have guidance and are there to advise but we can’t do everything.
Like most procurement leaders, my challenge is to be more focused on strategic delivery, rather than tactical and we have made really good progress in that. We have a much more visible role than we had four years ago when we joined.
I would say a lot of areas of the business would see us as strategic partners, really understanding the value that we add, and then the current work is really driving up that value to move us into a much more strategic value-added role.
Using technology, driving category management into the firm and educating people is how we play it at the moment.
What are some of the challenges you are currently facing?
Everybody is going to say Covid, but I would say that if you had asked me that two months ago it was a much bigger challenge, everyone was jaded, fed up, and, as a leader, one of the challenges I find is that balance. How do you balance maintaining the drive and ambition versus the quite varied emotional states of the people you need to deliver that.
Knowing who needs that extra support and who needs almost ordering to step away from their desks. You don’t want to lose momentum, but we are conscious of how people are.
I think it is then the challenge of thinking about post-Covid, we have to be thinking about what supply chains need to look like.
How do we need them to operate?
For us especially, Covid has been frankly a springboard to accelerate the work we are doing anyway.
We have had spotlight support and investment, but once we are coming out of that how do we keep procurement’s seat where we have got it to and maintain relevance.
That is something that is constantly on my mind at the moment.
What are you most passionate about when it comes to procurement?
Three things; the ability procurement gives you to set out your strategy, work with your team to see it executed and that feeling when you reflect back on what you have done and managing to surprise and delight people along the way.
I don’t think there is anything better than that.
The second thing is I have a real belief that organisations miss out on the amount of value through their wider supplier eco-system, there is a huge amount of value when selecting the right partners.
The innovation ideas you can work on, the relationships you can build and the areas you can get into might not have been what you thought about in the beginning.
Building genuine strategic partnerships really excites me.
The third thing is people, without which the first two can’t be done.
So it is creating that environment where people are working collaboratively. I have a real sense of camaraderie, seeing people do fabulous work and giving each other recognition for what they do and taking a pride in it as a team.
What do you think are some of the key focus areas for procurement at the moment?
I think right now it is reflecting on how we want the function to come out of Covid and how we keep evolving the value propositions. As priorities start to change as the world moves away from the pandemic, what is procurement’s role in that?
Sustainability, what that means and what answers does procurement hold? We have a new leadership team in place and they are absolutely clear that sustainability is at the heart of what they want to do, which is fabulous.
I’ve been doing this job for 20 years and during the last 12 months, it has become really important. We have been working really hard on defining what we want to do in the next few years in this area.
If you aren’t talking about it and doing something about it you are missing something.
I work in a professional services organisation so the bulk of our procurement is in services rather than goods.
We have adopted a three-stranded approach, we are looking at it through an environmental lens, a society lens and an ethical lens. For each of those, we are defining what we expect of our suppliers and what we will do ourselves and that is progressing well.
We are working with a number of external agencies to help educate us. I am 42 and I need educating on some of the concepts!
This week, for the first time in my career, we are about to make a supplier selection decision where sustainability was the deciding factor.
That is pretty cool.
What do you look for when hiring somebody into your team?
I suppose I am looking for people who are genuinely passionate about applying the possibility of procurement into a business setting.
Procurement is not rocket science, there is a process.
It is people that understand the potential of procurement and who are really good people people and can work well with others.
I need folk with a track record of problem-solving, we are going to be working in a more agile manner and much more collaboratively to solve business functions and therefore you need to have a procurement supply market mindset as well as a problem-solving and people mindset.
Also, negotiation. I may be slightly old fashioned, but I believe that is our value add.
Procurement people should be really trained in it – and if it is not a natural strength, I wonder about your job in procurement, as I think it is a really important part of the role.
To be a good negotiator you need to understand that your job is to get the best outcome for your organisation and if you are doing it strategically you might need to ensure that the other side gets a good outcome as well, especially if you have to work with them for years to come.
Also, it means you are in a pressured environment that starts to feel uncomfortable and you have to be comfortable in that environment.
If you are in your comfort zone, you are not developing, you are not learning. You need to push yourself outside of your comfort zone to push forward.
What are the biggest achievements in your procurement career so far?
Things that spring to mind take two forms, I remember the first time that I told someone who worked for me that we had agreed that she was to be promoted.
It was that sense of pleasure that someone’s work had been recognised but also a responsibility that I was impacting someone’s career and all the work that she had done – I had only helped facilitate it.
On a work achievement front, it was the first time that I had followed a true strategic sourcing process, which at the end of we signed a multi-million multi-year contract. It was the first time I had done that and was a pretty special signing moment.
Undoubtedly when looking at what I have done through my career it is what I am doing now, standing up making the case for and winning investment in the team to deliver. I have to say that because it came off the back of some real wins we had made and that really raised the credibility and visibility of the team. Getting that approval was a really big day for me.
What skills would you say are essential for a procurement leader?
I think you need to be able to demonstrate that you can do the job.
It is good to be able to show that you know how to do a good cost spend analysis, that you know what a good supply market analysis looks like and that you can negotiate.
You have to be able to influence, you have to be able to communicate effectively. If you don’t have the support among your peers you are not going to be successful.
You have to be able to build a team around you and be able to help people and give them reasons to be successful.
Has there been anyone in your career who has been a big influence on you?
I don’t think I can name one in particular.
Lots of people have influenced me, from people who helped me realise early on that they had skills I didn’t.
My dad, to some extent, got me thinking about the business world and how much he cared about what he was doing, but it is also his fault I support Newcastle United!
I am also very fortunate to live with a really supportive partner who is also a psychologist and has helped me through any problems I have had and how to approach them.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Right now it is a bit of a challenge!
I have a 13-year-old son and a two and a half-year-old son they keep me busy!
I have a 65kg New Foundland dog who is lovely but quite demanding.
I have really got into fitness and have some kettlebells I like to use to keep me fit! I am also into healthy eating.
Aside from that I follow Newcastle United and enjoy cricket.
If you could give any advice to your younger self what would it be?
Be more confident in yourself. Be more aware that you have a voice and you can use it.
I spent too long thinking people had more experience and would not want to speak to me.
Be more aware of your own capability and be more willing to find the opportunity to showcase it.
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.
I’ll tell you a story, you will have gathered from this that I think strengths are important.
One strength I don’t have is DIY, my other half wanted a stairgate at the bottom of the stairs, half an hour later we have two burnt holes on the skirting board, I have burnt my arm and the stairgate is on its way back to Amazon for a refund!
Do you have a personal motto?
To thine own self be true.
I think f you can hold true to that you are in pretty good shape.
Be authentic because if you are not people find you out.