PROCUREMENT HEADS BLOG

The Big Interview with Rees Thomas

Rees Thomas is Head of Procurement at graze.

For Procurement Heads‘ latest Big Interview, he spoke to Rahim Ali Ahmad from our Consumer practice about his career and the procurement function’s responsibilities at graze.

How did you get into procurement?

My career has been much like many people in the industry, I fell into it. 

When I left university, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, ended up working in a hotel, and got lucky in the sense that a job opened up in the procurement function. 

I discovered I enjoyed it and worked my way up to Purchasing Manager.

I was working in Michelin-star restaurants and hotels and managed to get a role in distribution which gave me a lot more experience in global procurement and buying internationally and then eventually where I am now in manufacturing. 

It has been a varied career but very much on the whim of not having a clue what I wanted to do!

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

Procurement at graze is predominantly focused on the raw materials side of things so the biggest spend area for us is our raw materials, by which I mean packaging, ingredients, and bits around consumables as well like PPE, toiletries and those types of things. 

We’ve also however started to get more involved in the indirect side of things since I have been here, so we now support the energy and utility contracts for the business, in talks with various other functions such as IT and looking at what other areas we can lend procurement support to. 

In terms of the makeup of the team and how we are split, it is a small team there are four of us.

Myself, two Category Buyers, each is responsible for one area so we have an ingredients Category Buyer responsible for the day-to-day ingredients and they’ll negotiate tenders, and work with suppliers regarding anything ingredient related. 

Then there is someone on the packaging side of things, and finally, there is now a Procurement Executive who is responsible for data analysis and reporting the systems, making sure the buyers have the information they need so they can do their jobs and keeping our databases up to date. 

Then as Head of Procurement, I focus on the strategic long-term objectives for us and look at where else in the business we can lend support, I also tend to get stuck into the indirect side of things.

What are some of the challenges you are currently facing?

We are dealing with various things, if you look at the external market there is inflation all over the place so we are seeing large increases coming through from a lot of the supply base, so we are spending a lot of time working with our suppliers and trying to identify areas for consolidation and how we can reduce spend in those areas. 

One of the other challenges we have had is, as a function, we have moved from a very transactional function to a more strategic long-term view when it comes to procurement, so that has been a challenge, getting the business mentality away from procurement being a department that places orders to let’s involve them early on and win opportunities. 

Then it has also been about building systems that allow us to add that benefit to the business, so it has been great fun.

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

I am most passionate that it is never the same, it is constantly changing, and it gives a great opportunity for anybody to come and see different areas of the business. 

So if you are doing it right and you are partnering the way that you should be, with procurement you get to touch on everything from working closely with finance, as well as marketing, working heavily with NPD to develop and make new products. 

It is exciting you can get involved in the big picture. 

There is also an opportunity and scope to make fundamental changes which excites me.

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

There are three main areas, one is around our engagement, and how are we engaging with our supply base.

Trying to build those relationships with long-serving suppliers, we are working with several suppliers to put things such as joint business plans in place, we are looking at the way we source materials and how we work with them to source those. 

From a sustainability angle, we can then get closer to growers and farms while working with our partners in the UK for processing. 

The other element which is quite big for me is around things like digitalisation, in some ways as we are a small function but also with the nature of so much going on, how can we make things less complex and then free procurement up to add value in key areas. 

As an example, one of the things we have been doing lately is we have bought in a new planning system which gives us AI learning around ordering. 

The system suggests and automates that purchase order process to say based on what you are planning, this is what you should be ordering. 

That has freed up a lot of time which has allowed my team to go out and do the cost negotiation. 

Finally, it is around value creation for us as a business, I think getting away from that sole thing of cost or low price and making sure what we are bringing into the business adds value. 

So, are we working with the right suppliers? 

Are they progressive and forward-thinking? 

Are the types of products we are doing giving us the best yield ratios in the factories for example we are doing a lot of work around that.

What do you look for when hiring?

For me, when I am looking to hire, there are several things, one is an inquisitive nature, somebody who can show that they’re thinking about the bigger picture. 

You need to be open to other views and be able to think on your feet. 

As well as somebody who is very passionate about procurement and sees the benefit, sees it as exciting, sees the bigger piece and that it is about more than cost. 

What are you and your team doing in regard to sustainable procurement?

We are doing quite a bit, graze was actually awarded a B Corp in 2019, which looks across five main pillars around environmental, governance, and ESG, so sustainability forms quite a big part of what we do. 

When it comes to sourcing my team in particular is constantly on the lookout for suppliers who offer us the best and most sustainable options.

We have done a lot of work around how we can near shore more products, for example, we buy a lot of products out of China. 

We are in the process of looking at how we can bring those into the UK and save over 200,000 miles in terms of transport and 21 tonnes worth of carbon. 

We are working as well on understanding more about our supply chains. 

We did some work on mapping out the scope 1,2 and 3 emissions and we are now getting a much better picture of what we are doing as a function and, as a business, we are exploring the use of systems and how we can accurately track and report on that and from that being able to play around on scenarios and build different ways to do things which is exciting. 

Then finally on sustainability, we have also recently redone all of our energy contracts so everything, we are using is now 100% renewable in this current climate sustainability and renewables are key and paying a little bit more to get 100% renewable is great.

What is your biggest achievement in your procurement career?

One of the things I am most proud of is, when I came to the UK 14 years ago I got a role at a new hotel that was being built and had the opportunity to set up the whole purchasing function for that business.

It was one of my proudest moments, on opening day there was a fully functioning hotel with purchasing systems in place and all of the products we needed to make it run. 

Knowing that I had a hand in contracting, tendering, and bringing all of that together at an early stage of my career was one of my proudest moments.

What has been the best lesson you’ve learnt?

For me, it has always been, be inquisitive, don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. 

When you’re talking to a supplier there is always that feeling to just take what they say but I have learnt to get into the details and ask the questions, it helps you immensely as you can be suggesting new ideas to open up opportunities. 

It also helps significantly when it comes to the sale internally to your business.

Being able to talk confidently and with knowledge about what you are buying means you can go back to the board or senior leaders and prove and talk well about it.

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

I think things like sustainability are big, we are seeing a major push from where we were as procurement of old to where we are now. 

I think there is a lot of work around the digitalisation piece as well. 

Being able to look at systems and improve and automate, just unlocks so much opportunity. 

Then, for me, there is a piece on things like emerging topics of nutrition and health and buying sustainable long-term health products and making sure we have products that are low in salt, low in sugar and able to offer a good nutritional product to our customers.

What sustainability changes have you noticed throughout your career?

If I look at where I was when I first started 15 years ago sustainability was almost unknown, we have seen a major push over the last few years. 

Even if we look at the last three or four years at some of the work that was being done in 2019 the market has exploded, there are people out there offering more systems and more ways of tracking sustainability and I think that follows through to all of procurement. 

If we can get more products that are better for the planet from more producers it helps drive down the costs and brings it to a much more realistic level. 

I think consumers as well want brands to have sustainable credentials. 

More and more consumers want healthy products but also those that are coming from slavery-free locations with renewable sources, and I only see that getting more and more progressive as time goes on.

What keeps you enthused about procurement?

Very much along those lines, things change rapidly so I cannot sit here and ever think yesterday was like today. 

Every day has been something new, there is something new to learn and you can learn so much. 

Being able to change, one minute I can say I am learning about the supply chain of cashew nuts on the Ivory Coast and the next day I’ve learnt about tuna fishing these areas are so vast and procurement lets you touch on that and that is what keeps me going.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

I have a six-year-old son who keeps me on my toes, when I’m not working I am mostly with him. 

We go riding where we live and yeah, I ultimately spend time with him and my wife. 

During lockdown we got a springer spaniel, she is coming up to three years and the energy from her is crazy, you constantly have to be outside, but it is good fun!

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Rahim Ali Ahmad