James Ball is Associate Director at Infosys Portland, a global Procurement consultancy who are growing rapidly, with James recently joining to grow the UK footprint.
Portland is owned by Infosys the multinational information technology company that provides business consulting, information technology and outsourcing services.
For Procurement Heads‘ latest Big Interview, James spoke with James Dobbin about all things procurement – including his own procurement career, insights into Portland, current hot procurement topics and what he looks for when hiring into his team.
How did you get into procurement?
I’ve been in procurement for such a long time now. I originally got into it by accident.
I took a job at Digital, which became Compaq and Hewlett Packard, in the supply chain team, managing the inventory for the organisation.
I was actually more of an Analyst when I first started, which was a good foundation for a lot of procurement work you do later in your career.
I ended up spending 10 years in the supply chain team there and got very involved in designing warehouse inventory systems and optimising the warehouse activity at Hewlett Packard and then I moved out to join a smaller business.
I wanted to continue my career in a procurement environment, so I joined a small organisation called Mercury Health to lead their procurement.
I had been there a month and they got acquired by Care UK, which worked out very well. They gave me a really good insight as Group Procurement Manager into the healthcare industry for the next four years managing everything a hospital buys.
That was a good grounding for my journey.
I then moved to Capita [as Procurement and Operations Director], which was great in terms of overseeing their learning services division; the main remit was managing a huge array of suppliers, my team had somewhere in the region of 6,000 suppliers so that was good to learn the basics of contract management, supplier relationship management and, for me, learning how to manage a global team.
I then moved from there into procurement consultancy, which is where I have spent the last 10 years and that has been a fabulous journey.
I have worked with both UK and global organisations in every sector, in every industry.
That is what consultancy brings; the opportunity to work with lots of people in lots of areas.
So, for 25 years I have been on the journey, but like most people fell into it by accident at the beginning.
That brings us up to today at Infosys Portland, could you describe the company and the roles and responsibilities of the procurement function there?
I have seen some of Procurement Heads’ interviews and this is probably a slightly different slant as a lot of other people you interview are CPOs, I have been in a CPO role previously, but Infosys Portland is a Procurement consultancy business and we do that on a global scale, but we also have satellite regional hubs.
My role here is to essentially identify clients we can support and work with. We support them in capability and capacity gaps they may have in their organisation.
That could be operating model design, it could be sourcing activities, it could be supply chain support….the whole array of procurement subjects.
It is a slightly different angle in that in my previous life working for blue chip organisations I would have long-term strategic thinking about the organisations that I was working with and how to develop that organisation’s future.
Whereas the diversity of what we do here can see you working on projects through to full end-to-end transformations. All engagements are outcome focused.
We help the company mature from the baseline position they are at to where it ought to or wants to be.
In terms of the procurement-centric roles in the organisation, how are they set out in terms of remit and scope of the roles?
We have a variety of people within the business, including experienced people like myself who would be able to consult with an organisation to focus on their opportunities to determine what they need in the first place.
Our team is also diverse and individuals for example are very skilled, with 5-10 years of procurement experience and often longer through to experienced graduates with deep analytical expertise.
Our team experience is category, subject or industry-specific in terms of their background or they may be generalists that can cover a lot of different subjects at once across that client. All of our team are trained to bring the structured thinking expected of management consultants but in a procurement or supply chain setting.
We have roles that go from Director down to Consultant level and all of the above helps drive a culture that helps us put ourselves in our clients’ shoes.
What are some of the challenges that you are currently facing?
I would say for a consultancy business probably the major challenge you will always have is retaining talent, that is because we offer the opportunity for consultants to be involved in so many different businesses that they either might get snapped up by one of those or they find their grounding or particular subject that they want to specialise in going forward.
While consultancies tend to be a breeding ground for training people Portlanders tend to stay for a few years and we are working towards that here in our UK practice. We are working towards something special, and are working to retain our people over a long journey.
For an organisation, I would say the challenges we see for others and that I used to deal with when I was in the industry were just the multiple priorities you must deal with as a Procurement professional.
Constantly flipping between classic cost savings, and surety of supply and to new subjects like sustainable procurement and being able to bring those into the organisations as priorities.
What are you most passionate about when it comes to procurement?
What gets me out of bed is collaboration; that is why I love consultancy.
I get to meet so many people in so many industries. I also love engaging with an organisation and helping them to internally engage with their stakeholders.
It is amazing how often we go into an organisation and the project we undertake for them helps bring them together as an organisation more. That is rewarding.
The other thing over recent times is sustainable procurement, it has become more and more of a priority and is a new topic for us as professionals.
What do you think are some of the key focus areas for procurement right now?
Definitely areas like supply chain resilience, which is a big topic at the moment; we have undertaken a lot of supply chain mapping and created a lot of real-time data and if factors were to happen, what an organisation and procurement should do to counteract them. Many organisations have historically focused on classic screening risk management (traffic light systems across financial metrics, sanctions, etc.) but Covid and Ukraine have pushed this subject much further and deeper and the need to plan for today and tomorrow using multiple sources and collaborate with the business operations.
Classic cost savings, analytics, operating model design and P2P optimisation are all regular client needs of course.
Also, a lot of contract management and supplier relationship management.
Sustainable procurement is becoming not just a topic to look at but retaining within the core of the business in the same way that contract management, supplier management and cost savings are as well.
As an organisation with local knowledge but global capability, scale and tools, we also spend a lot of time supporting private and public sector organisations with designing and running procurement centres of excellence, whether setting it up to hand over or a hybrid of providing additional capacity and capability across category subjects.
From a hiring perspective, what do you look for when looking to bring people into your team?
I would say, first, the technical skills required by procurement professionals. Equally, conscientiousness is important as is the curiosity and critical thinking needed to be a good consultant.
We need people that have been there and done it and people use us because we are adding additional capability to their organisation, so they have to have a good grounding in procurement and commercial literacy.
Real-life experience and skills is needed, as a generalist and or also in a specific category.
For us it is also about cultural fit; are they suited to be a consultant? Do they “fit” with our team?
Can they communicate? Can they influence and are they able to relate to their client? Can they empathise with our clients and are they a “good person”?
We are part of a huge global organisation, and we are constantly involved in lots of global programmes and communicating with people internally within our business – so having those communication and influencing skills is critical.
What are you and your team doing with regard to sustainable procurement?
We are doing a huge amount on this.
Infosys as a business is already well ahead of its targets, we are already carbon neutral, 30 years ahead of our target, so we have a really good story to tell clients who look to us to help them with their sustainability journeys.
Most large corporates are setting sustainability goals, net zero goals, and science-based target initiatives and we have already achieved a lot of them.
So, we can talk to clients about their scope one and two journeys to reduce their emissions or any topic around ESG in terms of their organisation and what they are buying for themselves.
But what we can wrap around is the procurement expertise on scope 3 which is your supply chain.
Where organisations typically go is emissions first; 80% of that could come from your supply chain so being able to look at how you are going to engage your suppliers on education and the subject. How you are going to implement it into policies, processes, workshops, category management, upskilling your workforce into the subject and then embedding it because most procurement teams are pretty busy!
Sustainable procurement needs to have a focus on it to get it off the ground and as we have been there and done it ourselves, we can come in and educate other clients about the right fit for them as an organisation.
Tell us about your biggest achievement in procurement
I would say having overachieved on a cost-saving target at the start of my consultancy career was both critical for the organisation I was working for in terms of what it meant for that client and also what it meant for a start-up procurement consultancy.
Being able to look at a green field opportunity in a client and achieve a £1 million saving when there was a £250,000 target and achieve that in half the time frame is one I look at with great fondness.
I would say going back to sustainable procurement again there have been some really rewarding programmes we have helped companies set up and seeing what they have implemented off the back of it becoming embedded in their category management has been really rewarding, things like swapping concrete from one type to another and reducing CO2 emissions as well as significant savings in their business and helping them implement that.
Seeing environmental benefits and cost saving is rewarding.
I would say above all of those it is having mentored a lot of junior staff from their early careers coming into the industry and seeing them develop from a generalist up into Head of Procurement roles or Director roles. That is particularly rewarding.
What would you say is the biggest lesson you have learned so far in your procurement journey?
I would say not getting too insular as procurement people.
I live in this world day in and day out, it is easy to think other people think like we do or understand the way we talk about things.
I see this all the time in various organisations dealing with various people who won’t understand some of the jargon we use, or quite frankly won’t even care – and so being able to simplify, simplify, simplify and get your message across to be able to achieve what we need and want to achieve. I would probably say that.
Who would you say has had the most influence on your career and why?
I have probably learnt most technically from people who have been in my teams and junior to me but have specific knowledge of a topic.
No one person is an island, you can’t know it all so having taken lots of different lessons from people I have worked with, there is not one specific person.
There have been some inspirational leaders and some inspiring CPOs and procurement leaders I have worked for.
I would probably say it is more the teams that I have worked for and the expertise that people have had that I have taken bits from.
What advice would you give to someone who is embarking on a procurement career for the first time?
Get involved in as much as you can, all the time until you find what works for you.
Don’t be shy and see what you like, you have to go on that journey and get involved in as many things as you can. Procurement is involved in so many things across a business.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I am very busy, I have got children they keep me busy!
I manage my local under-13s football team which is quite a bind but very rewarding.
I’ve played squash for about 15 years and managed to get to a very high standard. I don’t play as much as I used to but am still an avid squash fan.
Spending time with the family.
We have just got two new kittens; the children and the kittens take up a lot of time!