The Big Interview with Rebecca Howard

For Procurement Heads‘ latest Big Interview, Rebecca spoke to Will Cooke about her career, SRM and sustainable procurement.

How did you get into procurement?

I got into procurement through a graduate procurement programme at British Airways in 1997. 

Even at that point blue chip corporations recognised the value of procurement and understood that when you’ve got substantial third-party spend, it’s important to use strategic sourcing approaches.

As a Buyer at British Airways, I bought a range of different categories from engineering spares to airport services. 

I completed my MCIPS there and then moved into consulting. 

I joined KPMG in their supply chain practice and spend the next 16 years on consulting assignments in a smaller firm. 

In 2020, I moved back into corporate life as Head Of Supplier Relationship Management with Coventry Building Society.

What are the roles and responsibilities, the procurement or SRM function holds within your organisation?

At Coventry Building Society, we have a procurement and SRM team that splits into different focus areas. 

Teams that look after sourcing both for our technology and our business services. 

We have teams that look after risk and excellence because in financial services we need to demonstrate to our regulators that we have appropriate controls in procurement and supplier management.

I look after our supplier relationship management team which is focused on post-contract supplier relationships. 

So, before we’ve signed the agreement, my team ensures that we’ve got the correct service level agreements in place with suppliers that we subsequently performance manage. 

On our large change programmes, my contract managers track the deliverables with suppliers and ensure that our colleagues understand their dependencies, to make sure that suppliers deliver what they need to do.

In the event of performance challenge or escalation, my team works with business colleagues to work through corrective action plans with suppliers. 

We’re constantly problem-solving and seeking continuous improvement as we devised a way of reporting supplier relationship management benefits using 10 sources of business value.

My team has regular governance meetings with our suppliers where we cover third-party risk management topics, performance, value and sustainability.

I wrote the organisation’s sustainable procurement strategy and we’ve made huge strides in how we source, contract and contract manage for environmental, social and governance improvement.

And what are some of the main challenges that you and your team are currently facing?

Like many procurement teams, we recognise that we have a special role to play in a challenging economic environment. 

We need cost efficiency internally and cost-effectiveness with our suppliers externally.

Yet this is at a time when many suppliers are looking to renegotiate commercial arrangements due to supply disruption or pass on inflationary pricing increases because they’re dealing with higher wages and bills. 

So, there’s a big challenge to reconsider demand and specifications.

Our organisation has adopted agile ways of working. 

Therefore, speed and dynamism in procurement, making sure we can turn things around quickly, is essential. 

That can be tough in a regulated environment where we have a due diligence process to complete before we can do business with suppliers. 

So, we’re constantly balancing that tension between the necessary rigour and the fast turnaround that our colleagues expect.

Data gathering and reporting around sustainable procurement can be challenging as there aren’t always globally consistent standards for disclosure. We’re working with our suppliers closely to ensure that we get consistency when we’re capturing information about how they approach environmental reporting.

I find it so important to show the ways in which our suppliers give us value such as cost improvement, business insights, training, capacity benefit, reducing risk, and improved customer experience. 

These are the things that really matter to our business stakeholders.

How do you think the current economic situation is impacting procurement and SRM?

Yeah, I think it’s creating a huge draw on procurement in a positive way.

To look for cost benefit and different ways of doing things, which is great.

It’s a chance for buyers to do their job and look for efficiencies across the total supply chain. 

You know the purchase price, but we’re also looking to see if we are buying at the right point in the supply chain and assessing the whole life cost.

Some of the challenges that we face in the economy are partly driven by supply chain disruption. The pandemic is one part of a series of destabilising events that include Brexit, the war in Ukraine, the energy and cost of living crises, and continued lockdowns in China. 

All these mean that access to some of those critical raw materials and skills is restricted. And so, our procurement and supplier management professionals are constantly looking for new ways of doing things, whether that’s changing and challenging specifications, looking for new sources or strengthening existing relationships.

I think that’s part of the reason why we’re constantly looking at developing talent and skills like problem-solving, the ability to scan markets and make data-based decisions.

When I put my sustainable procurement hat on, the economic challenges also encourage me to look much more closely at our supply chains. 

What we’re seeing in terms of a cost-of-living crisis is just as true for our suppliers who are experiencing cost concerns, wage inflation, and looking to pass on some of their supply chain price increases.

I need to ensure that supply chain ethics are closely attended to. Are suppliers paying a living wage to their employees and ensuring that their employees have good working standards? 

That they’re not working excessive hours, and they’re not on zero-hours contracts. 

The customers to the society (our members), ask us what we are doing to ensure that we have responsible supply chains.

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

You’ve probably heard me mention it several times now: sustainable procurement. 

When I joined the society two years ago, this just wasn’t on the society’s agenda, but environmental, social and governance responsibility has become relevant to every function now. 

ESG impacts investor sentiment and so all firms know it is not just an ethical issue, it is a financial issue.

I have ensured that sustainable procurement is baked into our sourcing process right at the requirements stage with supplier due diligence at pre-qualification and at the tender stage. 

We’ve got a new life cycle cost model which asks suppliers about carbon impact, particularly for high-risk sustainability categories, things like IT, hardware uniforms, and waste management. 

Our qualification of suppliers considers their approach to community engagement, employee experience and diversity and inclusion.

Our suppliers are contributing to our whole community agenda. 

For example, some suppliers offer workplace visits so that young people from the society’s partner schools in Coventry can visit technology and professional services workplaces and speak to their teams. 

For students this can encourage aspiration, and they can practice interview skills. 

It’s fantastic that our suppliers want to get involved.

I care massively about our local and small suppliers. 

16% of our spend is with local firms and we’re working to get all our small businesses paid in 30 days or less. 

We want to join the UK Prompt Payment Code and demonstrate our commitment to supporting small and micro firms.

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

Reliable supply is number one because of disruption to supply chains.

Managing supplier risk and resilience is a massive issue across every organisation, ensuring we don’t have single points of failure and maintain robust exit plans so we know what we will do in the event of a stressed or a planned exit.

And, of course, ensuring that we’ve got excellent quality relationships. 

It’s part of the reason why earlier in November my team hosted a supplier awards event. It was the first time we’ve done it and I secured executive support because of the high impact our suppliers have. 

It was a really great way to recognise our suppliers, to thank them for the amazing efforts they went to throughout the pandemic and reward organisations that share our values. 

The supplier awards event was hugely appreciated by the suppliers and the stakeholders involved. Investing in supplier relationships is important so we can keep putting our members first.

Finally, improved supplier visibility is key, so we understand our suppliers’ organisations better, where there are risks down the supply chain and what exceptional capabilities they can bring when targeted.

What do you look for when you’re hiring?

I’m always looking for great commercial instincts. 

At the society we love internal mobility and I’m just as likely to hire candidates from other functions who are new to procurement but have had some deep commercial skills in other environments, and then we can develop their technical skills as they transition to their new role.

I look for curiosity, people who are fascinated about how businesses work, about what motivates suppliers, about what are the levers that keep suppliers loyal to us. 

I hire those who can incentivise others to go above and beyond, particularly if there are urgent situations like a technology outage.

I seek out those who care about the customer, look out for their colleagues’ wellbeing, and want to do the right thing as people.

I hire those with evidence of devising their own initiatives. 

My team is empowered to figure out where we need to invest more effort to achieve higher value. 

So personal drive and ownership are the main things I’m looking for.

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

I mentioned how sustainable procurement is now fundamental to our sourcing process and that will help us on a lot over the coming years when we’re aiming to become ISO20400 accredited for sustainable procurement. 

We’ve made great inroads this year. 100% of our key suppliers agree to our new Supplier Code of Conduct that features our deep commitment to four of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

When I wrote the Supplier Code of Conduct, I featured our commitment to diversity and inclusion throughout the supply chain. 

We’ve had a big focus on supply diversity this year and as an organization, we want to work with more firms that are owned and managed by underrepresented groups. 

My team hosted a diverse supplier event earlier this year and invited potential suppliers in the areas we are targeting – firms owned by women, by people in the LGBTQ+ community, by minority ethnic groups, by disabled people and by veterans. 

Some of our current suppliers kindly came to share their experiences with the audience, they are great role models. 

We were over the moon to be CIPS Awards finalists this year for Outstanding Diversity in Procurement Teams.

We want to provide better access to tender opportunities for diverse suppliers. 

We’re trialling the Kaleida platform and really excited about how it connects diverse firms with corporate procurement people. 

Diverse suppliers help us access to communities that we wouldn’t normally be exposed to and that gives us new ideas and new ways that we can support our members.

We’ve increased the maximum possible weighting criteria in tenders for sustainable procurement from 20% to 30%. 

We still absolutely focus on cost, quality service, the solution, innovation, and technical ability. 

Sustainable procurement is a way that our suppliers demonstrate their alignment to our purposeful approach to business.

Suppliers can now tell us all the effort they are making, whether it’s a small local business that’s doing litter picking or supporting a local football team or reading with primary school children. 

We might also evaluate a multinational firm that is already net carbon zero or have a science-based target. They’re all bringing us some great ideas about how we can proceed on our journey.

We’ll be looking next year to renew our CIPS Ethics kite mark and continue our partnership with EcoVadis, the sustainability ratings provider. 

About 65% of our key suppliers are now EcoVadis rated so we can provide that reassurance to our colleagues that we’ve got a robust supply chain.

Finally, we’re all refreshing our modern slavery and human trafficking knowledge with new training.

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

I think procurement leaders need to be ambassadors for all supply chain issues. 

We have huge leverage; spending billions, and we need to spend it responsibly. 

We need to tell internal and external stakeholders why we’re doing what we’re doing, the value that we’re bringing, the impact that we’re having on communities, and how the choices made in procurement impact all life.

What I find so exciting about being a procurement leader is that I’m able to collaborate with very engaged partners to help address social mobility in the UK and support struggling communities.

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

I learned to take risks in my career by moving into and out of a consulting role. 

As a consultant, I had many multinational clients and was working on things like transformation programs, procurement academies, and systems change. 

I found working on multiple programmes in different countries meant I had to think on my feet, and present multiple options to adapt to different cultures.

When I returned to a corporate environment, I was able to use those skills to get to know my suppliers and team quickly. 

I set up a Procurement Academy within the team that’s now accredited by the International Federation of Purchasing and Supply Management (IFPSM). I have found accreditations like this and CIPS Procurement Excellence Certification helps gain more credibility with stakeholders.

And what advice would you give to someone who’s embarking on a procurement career?

I’d advise procurement professionals starting out to visit outside the organisation. 

I think that’s one of the wonderful privileges in procurement, that we look inside to our colleagues, but we look outside suppliers in many different industries.

Visit suppliers’ premises, listen and speak at events, and network with other professionals.  

Get market insights from suppliers, read analysts’ reports, read suppliers’ profit and loss accounts and work out all the key ratios as well as reading the commentary. 

That tells us about what suppliers are talking to their stakeholders about, what their investors care about, what their plans are for the future, and what they think their risks are.

Join networks.

I’ve enjoyed being welcomed into the Purchase to Pay community and am honoured to be an Accounts Payable Association Top 100 UK Influencer.

I’m also part of different groups and committees within Coventry Building Society like our Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Group and ESG Steering Group. 

I worked with a group of African and Caribbean colleagues to set up a Black network, which I find really rewarding.

I think all of those different interests build a really rounded career. Just keep looking in lots of different places for inspiration.

What do you think are the current procurement trends or hot topics and what emerging roles do you think we’ll see as a result?

I think increasingly for all procurement people, we’re having to report not only on our traditional metrics of savings and value add. 

We’re contributing a lot more to the kind of metrics that are being reported externally such as suppliers’ carbon for Net Zero scope 3 commitments.

The Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) means closer working with the Finance function and Legal function to report against a set of international standards for ESG.

Procurement is having to get much more rigorous in terms of the auditability of the numbers that we’re signing up to, and so the category manager needs to become more data literate.

This could mean more work for analysts to sure that we’ve got good data feeding into analytics tools and using quality information to make those decisions.

For those of us working in the digital space, category professionals will need to be more knowledgeable about cost-effective ways to deploy enabling technologies like cloud.

How do you see AI and robotics affecting procurement?

AI is transforming modern business and helping procurement professionals supercharge our decision-making for sourcing, relationship and contracting strategies. Data and analytics tooling means that we can be a lot more dynamic in writing and updating our 3, 5, and 10-year strategies when the external environment is fluid.

Economic shocks and global security changes mean we need a constant feed of data to help us be very responsive on how we’re switching our procurement approach, based on agreed algorithms. 

We must understand the implications of the changes and not do harm in the process. I’m excited about how AI is contributing to improving the purchase-to-pay process, speeding up supplier payments and identifying potential fraud.

So what do you like doing in your spare time?

I have a 10-year-old son and I enjoy family time. We love theme parks, cycling, and exploring. 

You’ll find us in the New Forest cycling or enjoying the UK coast. 

I enjoy 1980s action movies as well, so you can always persuade me to watch Die Hard, The Terminator or Predator for a second or third time.

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

Linger a little longer on the things you enjoy.

Take time in your career to pause and think: What am I enjoying? What am I not? What am I good at? What am I not? What things matter to me?

What feedback am I getting?

There’s a lot to be said for playing to your strengths.

Slow down, observe, and listen. Then you can learn more about yourself and your passions. And not be so guided by what other people think you should be doing or where you should be in your career at a certain age.

Be conscious of those things you want to improve, and what you want for your personal development. 

But follow your dreams.

Finally, could you tell us an interesting fact about yourself?

Because of my long consulting career, I had the chance to work in more than 30 countries. 

I saw the world from many different perspectives and worked with people with entirely different lifestyles and sets of values.

I’m curious about what motivates people, why they enjoy things, why they do things a certain way, and why things are important to them or not important to them. I really appreciated that. It’s developed my compassion and my intuition.

Mid-negotiation, it’s not enough for me to think about what the position is of each party. I want to know what’s behind that. Is that a personal issue, or is it a business issue? Is there another agenda I don’t know about? 

People are fascinating to me.

Sign-up for job alerts.

By entering your email you agree to receive job alerts and marketing communications from Procurement Heads. No spam. Unsubscribe anytime. See Privacy Policy.

Scroll to Top