The Big Interview with Giles Harper

For the latest in Procurement Heads‘ Big Interview series, he spoke with James Dobbin about how his career in procurement began and what he looks for when recruiting procurement talent.

How did you get into procurement?

I think, like most people, it wasn’t my first choice at school, but I was studying for a Business Management Degree at university, one of my core modules was procurement and supply chain and I liked it.

During the theoretical stage did a year in the industry within a supply chain team and enjoyed that and the diversity it gave me. 

I think when I looked at the roles after university I think procurement was where I wanted to be and I was lucky enough to get hired back to the company I worked for in my placement.

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

We have a centralised procurement team responsible for procuring FM services and related for all of our investment properties which total about 1,200 throughout the UK.

We are responsible for all areas of the supply chain, supplier vetting, doing the sanction checks, all tendering services, contracting at the back end and, most important to me at the moment, supplier relationship management. 

We don’t deal directly with the B2B, we have a finance team that is involved in that, but all other elements fall within our team.

How big is your team?

We have eight people working within the UK team, which is a range of Senior Procurement Managers, Procurement Managers and Coordinators.

For the benefit of the audience, how does your arm of CBRE differ from CBRE GWS?

We look after properties for investors so they use property as an asset class to get a return on, so they’re not using the property for their benefit or their direct use, whereas GWS would look after end occupiers, users who are in the building day-to-day. 

We are looking after it for investors who want to get a good return for their clients. 

So, the two needs are quite different, ultimately it is about providing the great service that keeps the tenants happy, tenants will then renew their lease or take on more space in our clients’ buildings. 

What are the challenges that you and your teams are facing at the moment?

The biggest one won’t be unique to us, it is the fact that as a service industry we are dealing with people and labour relations and the cost of living is having a huge impact. 

We are often dealing with cleaning and security staff who aren’t the highest paid at the moment, the fact that the cost of living is going up so high means that our customers are losing staff to other services. 

We’ve seen supermarkets, the likes of Amazon, paying higher and higher rates and ultimately the labour pool is reducing. 

So we are finding our service providers struggling to retain their resourcing, which then leads to performance issues. 

That is having a big effect on our business.

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

I think a key area for me and CBRE is supplier diversity. 

CBRE has made a global commitment to increase our spend with suppliers to £3 billion by 2025, which is a huge number, but we are very keen to make sure we achieve that goal. 

So, we work with several groups to identify and find the right suppliers from diverse backgrounds because the more diverse the supply chain we get different ways of thinking and improve the areas in which we operate. 

That is an area I am focused on. 

We’ve recently won an award from MSD UK for our diversity programme against great peers and we are keen to do a lot more in that space. 

When you are hiring people, what do you look for?

For me, number one is they have to have the cultural fit, it is a very fast-paced environment, and the workload is high. 

We need someone responsive and can deal with multiple problems at once. 

That is number one, fits in with the team. 

We have a huge number of stakeholders to work with and get involved with, they have got to be able to work with those. 

But we are increasingly looking for those transferable skills, so people outside of a competitor background as we found the labour pool is quite small there. 

And we are looking right across the market, so any form of procurement understanding of processes and procedures is working well with us. 

Tell us about your biggest achievement in your procurement career

The one that stands out was we undertook a transformation project in 2019, it pretty much took a year with the biggest amount of spend to come out at once, a huge project across all of our work schemes that were completed successfully at the beginning of 2020 and we all know what happened in 2020, we moved to Covid, and the decision was to continue with the mobilisation of those contracts.

So mobilising huge contracts on a remote basis using Teams and Zoom, which was all fairly new to most at CBRE and some of our supply partners. 

We got that done successfully and it was a huge project so that is one I am most proud of. 

Who has had the most influence on you and your career so far?

I think it was my very first boss in procurement, I was working for a construction company on the south coast, and I joined from university first as a year in industry placement, then they hired me back when I had finished my degree. 

Just the confidence he had in me to be able to give me direct negotiations with key suppliers and clients and client contracts within one or two months of joining as a graduate. 

I think that confidence in knowing I could go up against big companies and get a successful outcome was a big focus for me. 

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

I think the fundamentals stay the same, it is relationship driven, whatever market you are in, and I have been in property and construction for most of my career and it is quite a small pool of people that you see. 

It is vital to have those personal relationships, make sure you understand and treat your suppliers well and they will then work their hardest for you as well. 

Build relationships, ask questions, and get involved in as many projects as you can.

What do you think are the current trends and what emerging roles do you think we will see as a result?

I think certainly from what we are seeing ESG is a huge driver for so many clients. 

We are working with investors, so they are looking at what tenants want from a building it is a focus on so many levels that we need to get better at. 

It produces a huge amount of data, so it is then utilising that data and making sure that we have got an understanding of what the data is telling us and how we use it. 

I think it has been a problem in the past that you can generate a huge amount of data but if you don’t understand it in the back end, it is not a lot of use. 

I think we will see more technology focused on turning that data into usable information quickly and then we can help our clients’ decisions on space and purchases and properties they want to take on going forward.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I have three kids so I don’t have too much spare time after being a taxi driver at weekends, but I like to get outdoors, cycling, surfing, and running. 

I coach and manage kids’ football teams so that also takes up most of my weekends! 

I like detective-type books and films wise I still love Star Wars and am starting to rewatch it with my kids who are starting to understand it. 

Italy is always a favourite destination, wherever I go there it is fantastic with so much history.

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

It would be to get stuck in and pick up those challenges. 

Don’t hold back because you don’t think you can do it, go for as many projects as you can, and get that experience of categories outside of your remit. 

It is really interesting to see those different areas. 

Learning like that is something I find interesting.

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself

I manage and coach football and most of my team will tell you I am quite calm in the office but if you see me on the pitch at the weekend with a team of 15-year-old boys who have forgotten how to pass they might say something different! 

But that is something I really enjoy.

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