The Big Interview with Vicky Hinchliffe

For Procurement Heads’ latest Big Interview, Vicky spoke with Gemma Burman about her procurement career and procurement’s role within Cadent.

How did you get into procurement?

When I finished my qualification in business studies, I joined a laser company as an administration assistant and part of that role was buying stationery and coordinating travel arrangements. 

This was always done via old paper copies of catalogues, but the business introduced a new digital system and because I seem to pick up processes quickly, the procurement team asked if I wanted to join the team.

That’s really it and from there, I’ve never looked back!

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

Cadent is the UK’s largest gas distribution company. 

We’ve got about 1,700 suppliers to support us in our delivery.

As a utility company, from a procurement perspective, we must follow the utilities contracts regulations which ensures we’re quite structured in our approach. 

Our three key areas are sourcing, transactional procurement, and supplier assurance.

We have a team of 30 professionals across three category teams, Operations, Fleet and Hydrogen and IT and Corporate Services.

What are the challenges you and your team currently face?

I think there are probably four key challenges that we’re facing into at the moment. 

Firstly, inflation but also market aspects including capacity and competence in the construction industry that continues to be a focus.

We are continually exploring smarter ways of working and this is now even more important, particularly in the construction industry.

We’ve got several suppliers who are finding it really tough at the moment, in terms of trying to balance those cost pressures. 

The latest figure I saw was a 16 per cent increase in company insolvency between March 22 and March 23, so we’re battling that challenge across the construction industry. 

It’s not just about negotiating better supplier costs, , it’s also about how we work smarter with contractors so that we can both benefit.

Another challenge is supplier growth and robust plans across sustainability, diversity and cybersecurity.

Organisations are all on very different stages of the journey at the moment. 

I see our role as providing the resources to effectively deliver those broader elements to support the overall development of the market. 

That is critical to us over the next two to three years, we’re going to be really pushing that to enable us to hit some of our diverse challenges, such as achieving net zero targets.

Furthermore, data and technology, along with the implementation of AI are vital in providing important insights into our role in procurement.

We’ve got lots of data and there’s lots of information out there, but how do we make it meaningful and bring in some AI to allow us to make good decisions around that.

Finally, and you’ll be very familiar with this one, it is important to have expert resources and the market is still ‘hot’ in terms of procurement professionals moving around.

It’s not just about salary, it’s about making sure that people are understanding the company ethos, how we work, hybrid working, if we’re a sustainable company from both an ethical and personal impact position as well.

In terms of key focus areas for procurement right now, what would you say they are?

I think these are reflected in the four points I’ve talked about that we’re facing. 

We’re all on a different part of that journey and we’re all starting at a different point, but actually, we all want to do the same thing in terms of being able to look at cost pressures, making sure suppliers are diverse and able to deliver what we need.

From a data and technology perspective, expertise is growing, and it will continue to advance. It’s not just across procurement but across the full commercial landscape.

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

Delivering value through procurement. 

It’s key to make sure that we understand what we’re trying to get out of procurement, it provides far more than simply commercial value. 

I’m passionate about making sure that we hit our sustainability targets, we drive strong value for the company in terms of our objectives and outputs. 

We’ve got areas that we’re working on now to achieve that broader sense of value.

What do you look for when you’re hiring?

Personally, I like to see someone who’s curious, because that curiosity brings out a different side of people. 

It shows somebody wants to learn and understand, and I think that’s important for a procurement professional. 

I also like to see people who can positively challenge. It’s great understanding the systems and the procurement processes but being able to positively challenge and make a difference, that’s also key.

What are you and your team doing regarding sustainable procurement?

We’ve recently held our first big sustainability conference setting out Cadent’s key challenges in this area.

It remains important that we demonstrate to suppliers where we are on our journey in hitting our targets and where we would like our suppliers to also get to. It’s also key to work collaboratively to achieve some of those goals. 

This then positions us in a great place to achieving our net zero strategy which we’re supporting the government on in terms of that 2050 challenge date.

What about your biggest achievements in your procurement career?

I think my biggest achievement is recently securing the position of Director of Procurement. 

I’ve been doing this role for about six months now, so that’s probably my biggest achievement. 

I like to introduce things that are new and innovative in procurement, such as different ways of working and challenging the status quo, thinking in a different way.

And, what is the biggest risk you’ve taken?

From a career perspective, the biggest risk was probably moving out of procurement. 

I completed almost two years in a wider commercial role, stepping outside of the procurement arena.  

It was a worthwhile experience because I think you see procurement from a different perspective. 

Coming back into procurement, I can now see how other colleagues see the team rather than just having one view. 

It was a risk, but it was definitely worth doing.

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

People skills are probably first and foremost for me. 

It’s having the right team and being able to develop people. 

I’m keen on bringing people in and being able to develop them through their career pathway. 

Leadership, giving direction and people understanding where we’re trying to go as a procurement team, are key. Also, being clear, on the challenges and making sure that everybody is aware of what they are, not just from a colleague perspective but also from a supplier perspective.

And obviously an understanding of procurement helps!

What supply challenges are you currently facing?

There are probably two key ones for us. 

Some of our long lead materials, things like steel line pipe bends and fittings are on potentially 18 months to two years lead time and at the end of last year, we were getting quoted pretty much on 24-hour fixed prices.

Previously, we’d have probably two months’ worth of holding a price, but it went down to 24 hours and it was a challenge getting manufacturers to agree that they would put us into their pipeline of activity.

We have done quite a bit in terms of how to address that. 

We’ve looked at alternative manufacturing solutions. 

We’ve looked at changing some products to support this shift. 

But as we’re a utility industry, everything must go through a testing process and it’s quite a long lead time in terms of changing some of those standards and specifications. 

They’re going through rigorous testing now, and we hope that we’ll see a difference later this year.

Are you doing anything else to overcome those challenges?

We’ve got some other products where we’ve got costs on commodity products that are going up, some of them by 45%, in the last 12 months. 

We are doing some negotiation on those, but it’s difficult because those suppliers are going through their own challenges, and we don’t want to put them into a place where they will end up insolvent.  

We want to work with them, in different ways. For example, in our pipe networks, we are looking at reducing waste. If we can use less, this has a benefit, both on the sustainable and environmental side of things, as well as on the cost of the pipes.

Which direction do you see your industry heading?

We are a gas distributor, our pipes carry natural gas now and we’re currently exploring using our network to provide more environmentally friendly options.

We support the government’s plans to get to net zero by 2050, which means we’re backing the introduction of hydrogen as a low-carbon alternative.

Procurement can really help with bringing that forward by utilising some of our existing supply chains. 

Some of it we can adapt through our suppliers, we can work with them and some of it gives us an opportunity to bring new suppliers in from a wider oil and gas background as well.

What would you say you’ll be able to capitalise on within procurement? 

We can really utilise our engineering expertise at Cadent and as a procurement team, to be able to shape the future – which will involve exploring new innovations, is exciting. However, it will be important to also look at what we’ve learned over the years, through being a natural gas distribution company and to be clear about what we can achieve with carbon-friendly options.

How will the rate of inflation affect the companies offering and what is the procurement function’s role in alleviating its impact?

I think one of the key things that we can do is connecting innovation and practical ideas to the right parts of the company. 

We get a lot of suppliers contacting us with different ideas and some of them we can take forwards straightaway.

There’s a real focus on working together with the wider company to be able to gain some of those benefits back.

What do you like doing in your spare time? 

I love North Wales. As a family, we go there as often as we can. 

Being in among the mountains and the greenery, it’s just so different from being at home. 

I like to do that as often as possible.

We also love a good Netflix series. We just watched The Last Kingdom and we thought the film finished it up amazingly.

Also, we’re quite a Star Wars family, so we’ve got lots of Star Wars memorabilia.

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

Probably don’t doubt yourself and understand a bit more about Imposter Syndrome early on in my career.

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.

I love Formula One and I’ve been to four different racetracks to watch it.

I’ve been to Monza, Barcelona, Silverstone and Donnington.

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