In our latest Big Interview, Gemma Burman spoke with Laura Daniel, Head of Procurement at Great Western Railway, about her career in Procurement and what challenges she and other procurement professionals are currently facing.

How did you get into procurement?

Like most people, I didn’t choose procurement. I think it chose me.

I started my career at nPower, a large utility company, worked there for more than 10 years and was lucky enough (when I look back) to be coached and mentored right from day one by some very experienced Procurement Professionals.

I started as an administrator in a procurement team and from there, my interest in contracts, sourcing and suppliers grew and grew.

I was always very interested in IT Procurement, which became my area of specialism, and I’ve continued to use it throughout my career. It still seems to be an area many procurement professionals haven’t had much exposure to.

In the early days of my career, a wise manager encouraged me to ‘go and cut my teeth’ in an indirect team, which was absolutely the right thing to do. Exposure to a wide variety of categories set me up well for my career development.

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

At Great Western, we are predominantly a strategic sourcing-orientated team.

We’ve got a fairly small team, but we’re fortunate to be a part of a larger group. We’ve got procurement colleagues in ‘Group’ and other sister train operating companies and are actively pursuing a very collaborative approach to the way we work. 

In our team, the focus is on regulated tendering (we’re subject to UCR regulations) and alongside that, we aim to be a trusted partner to the business to make sure that they’ve got what they need in terms of tools and guidance to manage their suppliers and generally be as self-sufficient as possible, certainly with the lower spend activity.

And what are the challenges you and your team currently face?

For me, the challenge has remained the same in almost all of the roles I’ve done – getting stakeholders to value and nurture the supplier relationships they’ve already got.

There remains a perception that suppliers are ‘cowboys’, that they’re out to somehow ‘get us’. 99.9% of the time they’re not out to get us, they’re trying to do the right thing, so I’m keen we help the business see that for what it is and get the value from it by treating them fairly and building more trusting relationships.

I think ‘supplier relationship management’ is a topic that continues to grow in importance and awareness and a key skill for Procurement professionals is interpersonal skills and relationship management.

Quite a large part of what we do may benefit from AI over time, its very process-driven, and like with so many jobs, building and maintaining relationships to really unlock value is where I see the profession changing.

So potentially more of a business partnering type role perhaps?

What do you look for when you’re hiring?

For me, it’s a balance of technical competence along with the future potential of that individual and balance within the team.

I’m a real believer in both individual strengths and the collective strength when combined in a team.

If a team is made up of people, all with very similar strengths we miss out on the benefit diversity would otherwise bring – and what a boring world that would be!  Having a healthy balance for me is really important.

A ‘can do’ mindset as well is always a winner!

What are you and what are your team and organisation doing with regard to sustainable procurement?

We’ve had some real focus in this area recently and made good progress.

We’ve undertaken the ISO20400 assessment twice now, with support from Action Sustainability, about 18 months apart, which has really helped to shape our sustainable procurement strategy and we’ve made some real inroads into bringing our sustainable strategy to life.

We’re working with the business to incorporate our sustainability commitments into specifications rather than treating them as an arbitrary ‘add-on’ which we hope will bring real change.

Having made the move into the rail industry when you joined Great Western Railway, what challenges have you faced?

I joined during lockdown, which was a challenge in itself.

Working from home five days a week, not meeting my team or my line manager for a number of months was hard!

There is lots of change and unrest at the moment in rail which is well-publicised but in my opinion there’s a huge opportunity for procurement and supply chain teams to collaborate and help drive efficiency.

Change can be hard to implement though and it hasn’t been the way of working until now. I honestly believe we need to learn from others across both public and private sectors to see how it can be done and understand how it could apply to our sector.

And what are you most passionate about when it comes to procurement?

Oh my goodness, where do I start?

When I talk most passionately about procurement, it’s always about supplier relationships. About just how integral they are to any business, which sadly so often goes unrecognised.

Like I said before, building that trust, recognising who the strategic partners are for any business, working collaboratively, working on continuous improvement and just really, truly getting to understand one another. To any organisation, this should be a strategic priority.

Although I’m passionate about all aspects of procurement, that is the thing that gets me most animated, along with the belief that there is still way too much jargon in the profession.  It’s viewed as a dark art, and that really is 100% within our gift to change.

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

People skills, through and through. I care deeply about the people that work for me and have high standards for the work we do.

Beyond my immediate team, exceptional stakeholder relationship and communication skills are also key.

Procurement is typically in a unique position within an organisation, we communicate across all levels and teams. It’s a privileged position to be in.

What has been the best lesson you’ve learned in procurement?

Another great question.

A key lesson is that detail matters, but we’re often an under-resourced team and under pressure to deliver quickly, satisfying multiple expectations and deadlines.

In that context, we have to make pretty quick judgement calls. I would say on a repeat basis, whilst also being able to read the small print and understand it (and its potential consequences) fully.

I’ve learned that it’s the thing that seems to be truest no matter the sector or the project. Whatever you’re doing within procurement at the time, understanding the detail quickly has served me well over and over.

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

Do it.

I’ve never looked back, I absolutely love working in procurement.

If you have questions, reach out to someone who already works in a procurement or supply chain role and ask them how they got into it and what they love most about it – you’ll soon discover whether it sounds like something that’s right for you or not but it is a broad profession so don’t just speak to one person or one sector.

What supply challenges are you currently facing?

We’ve had issues sourcing microchips for a long time and a number of other products and materials, the same as many organisations, particularly post-COVID.

Really, our biggest issue at the moment is inflation. It’s an issue, it’s a risk and it touches almost everything.

It’s making suppliers more cautious about the work that they do and don’t do.

Another reason why I believe Supplier relationships are more important than ever, to really understand what’s going on in their world you need to have built a trusting relationship with them, so they’re willing to open up and you’re more likely to see the signs if things start to dip.

And what are you doing to overcome those issues?

Expanding our supplier relationship program to more formally segment our supply base, category planning and rationalising suppliers where it’s appropriate so that we can then focus our efforts on those strategic partners.

It’s healthy to have a spread of strategic versus tactical, but what’s not healthy is then spending the same, little, amount of time with everybody.

We need to focus our conversation and support in the right area. I think that’s the right thing to do, and just stay aware, read stuff, find out as much as you can about what’s going on in a particular sector and keep your eyes and ears open.

Which direction do you see your industry heading?

The UK Rail industry needs reform if we’re to find the efficiencies needed to remain competitive.

As with any industry, Procurement has a pivotal role to play and I do believe that collaboration is the way forward for Procurement functions within rail.

The travelling passengers, our customers, deserve the very best service and for us to do that we have to minimise costs. There are no two ways about it, we have an opportunity to work with our supply chain to do that, but we’ll have to do it in a more innovative and collaborative way than we are now.

I think the next few years will be very interesting for rail.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

I have two young children, so have very little spare time!

So apart from enjoying watching them enjoy life, I am developing a passion for gardening, my little escape to go and potter around and water some plants. Nurturing things and being in nature is very rewarding.

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

Stop and smell the roses. Take a few deep breaths.

Slow down a little bit and not take life quite so seriously. It’s taken me some time to realise that you can be driven as an individual and have moments to relax and enjoy life at the same time.

That’s great advice, and finally, tell us an interesting fact about yourself.

My interesting fact is that, along with a cat, 2 gerbils and a fish, we also have two chickens in our house called Betty and Hetty. We got them during lockdown, and I have to say, you cannot beat a fresh egg on toast. There’s nothing like it!

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