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Rachel Lee explains why creativity is king

Rachel Lee is director of procurement at CBRE, which has recently acquired Global Workplace Solutions from Johnson Controls. She talks about her eclectic career, from selling shoes to procuring real estate services, and what she’s learned along the way.

My own training ground was not procurement at all, but a graduate scheme for the British Shoe Corporation. There I learned about sales, marketing, finance, stock management, merchandising, the lot. Next I moved into buying at Sava Centre, the UK’s first hypermarket. It was a great lesson in the complexities of retail – that is forecasting what the market will want in six months’ time and working to this kind of lead time for manufacture and marketing.

I went on to work for Telecom New Zealand and a leading FMCG healthcare company. It was here that I learned two important lessons. One, procurement is about much more than running a process to save money. Two, always visit your suppliers. It pays to see them on their premises, so don’t always settle for them coming to you. This healthcare company didn’t have a procurement function and the FD was doing it all. He’d recently procured a vitamin C supplement and thought he’d done a good job. My first task was to see if we could improve the cost per product because, being retail, margin was key. I went out and met the main suppliers, something the FD hadn’t done. There were two parties here - one supplying the vitamin C tablet and one packaging it. As I drove up to the packaging supplier, I had a worrying ‘Am I in the right place?’ kind of moment. I was shown our vitamin C being packaged, and that looked okay, but next to it I saw they were packaging rat poison powder into cardboard boxes. I shut it down immediately because if the news had got out, it would have closed down our business in a flash.

Back in the UK, I joined BAA’s central procurement team. One of my roles here was as an interface between the procurement function and the airports, being the internal customers, to make sure the airports were getting what they needed from procurement. This role highlighted that process is not always king in that we had a well-defined category management process aimed at ensuring the airports got the best out of the supply base. In reality, it resulted in well prepared category plans being developed too removed from the business and the category strategies then did nothing but sit in a drawer. It was too theoretical, too market facing. While of course it’s vital to assess and understand the external supply market, you need to be really close to your internal customers too, if you’re to understand what a business truly needs.

Norland was next; it was a lot smaller and didn’t have a professional procurement function at the time. The CEO noticed they were coming up against a lot of professional procurement people in their customers and they needed something similar in their business. One of our real successes at Norland was winning a contract with a customer who said ‘we are buying FM, which is services and people and we can’t do that on a structured tender process. We are going to run a collaborative process.’ So we worked together through a series of workshops, helping them design a bespoke process. It meant they understood us and how we would work with them. It also meant we could refer back to it once on the job. ‘Remember in the tender process, we talked about doing x, y and z?’ Let’s do that now.’

The role now is very different to when I joined. We now have around 35 people and lots of really good, experienced professionals. Therefore, my role has become much more of making sure that the right handles are being turned and the right people are in place to turn those handles.

It’s forgetting you are a procurement person, you’re a business person. Some of the best procurement people are those that have worked in another function where they were really involved in sales and marketing, customer services or operations. You can train someone on a process much easier than on relationships. I recruit for behaviours rather than skills or experience. If you have the right behaviour you can build relationships and get on with people, you can teach them how to write the tender process. We are also very involved in the sales side of the business. The sales team find out what the customer issues are and what problems they’re trying to solve. The procurement function then focuses on which suppliers are best positioned to help solve the problem and work with the supplier to develop innovative solutions. We are often uniquely placed to do this because of the collaborative way we work with our key suppliers, as we are not always churning out RFP’s.

Technology is another thing that should be more accessible. It should be us who decide what we want from technology, not the other way around. I’ve come to the conclusion there is no utopia when it comes to procurement technology. I still think the technology drives us too much as opposed to us deciding what we want from it. You’ve also got to consider how many different functions use procurement systems at a local level. Because our systems are generally not designed for non-procurement people, they find them difficult to use. But we’ve got to make our systems more usable and flexible for people in the business that make procurement decisions on a daily basis. I love procurement and procurement people but, if I’m absolutely honest, we’ve got a long way to go. As a tranche of the wider workforce, we’re a structured bunch of people who like a set process. Instead we need to be more flexible and creative in our approach. That’s if we’re going to take the many mediocre procurement functions out there and turn them into something great.

We often get too hung up on the process - or putting a process in place. It’s sometimes better when you just have to get a job done, no matter how, because you find yourselves being more inventive. This was certainly my experience when I first joined Sun Microsystems. I’d come from a role in retail buying lingerie and found myself in a high tech company without any formal training in procurement, I didn’t really know what I was doing.

But not only was it a steep learning curve for me personally, it was a fast paced company going through a massive spurt of growth. So we literally just made things up as we went. There was no time to step back and think, ‘Are we doing the right thing here?’ We just got on and did it, and it worked. I don’t think procurement has moved on as much as it could have. I think there are some really amazing examples of great procurement functions out there but, there are also a lot of mediocre ones. We have got to be less focused on the process and be more creative and flexible, this is how you get the best results.