The value of a strong procurement team

Strong procurement
In the second part of our focus on Coventry University’s procurement service, its head Mike Hanson explains how investing in his workforce has helped the university deliver 30% in savings through more efficient procurement.

Most heads of procurement that I’ve spoken to during the past year have told me that they would like to increase the size of their team. However, most also agree that it isn’t always easy persuading senior directors and leadership teams to share their vision.

But – in these uncertain economic times (how often have we heard that expression?) it’s more important than ever to have a high-performing, cost-effective workforce.

I’m absolutely clear that cost-effective does not mean understaffed. There is a big difference between being able to get by and being able to make a difference. Nowhere is that more true than in the area of procurement.

The secret of a good procurement team

When I joined Coventry University as procurement director in January 2014, my number one objective was to retain the key procurement professionals. I made it clear to the team from day one that I would be looking to support them in every way possible. I wanted them to know that they were valued and that they would be empowered.

At the inaugural Higher Education Procurement Academy (HEPA) conference I gave a presentation. The theme was the value of a strong procurement team and I included a rather flippant slide that read:

For a procurement team to function well you need two things:

  • Good people
  • Everything else

Now, to be clear, I’m not dismissing the ‘everything else’. For procurement to function well you need a clear procurement strategy, robust processes, excellent guidance documents, strong partners, supplier relationship management, collaboration and the list goes on. It’s easy to find masses of literature and debate dedicated to each of the elements referenced in the preceding sentence – and many more besides.

By getting in the right numbers, by providing support and training, and by focusing on specialist areas you can achieve great things.

It’s absolutely true that good and efficient procurement is reliant on dozens of issues. However, my point was this:

“Without the right procurement professionals in place, nothing significant can be achieved in the long term.”

For example: partnerships have to be managed, management information needs to be consistent (and understood!), internal customers have to know who to talk to, and so on. The success of the procurement function is hugely dependent on the quality of the individuals within it.

Cutting down on duplication

Internal customers are far more likely to engage with the procurement team if their main contacts are people they feel able to trust; people who can really add value. By focusing on the individuals themselves it is easy to find gaps in knowledge and to understand what drives the procurement professionals to succeed.

At Coventry, I built on the excellent work that had been undertaken by the previous procurement director. I reorganised the team so that we had five clear category leads in the areas of ITS, estates / facilities management, grant funded activity, professional services and travel. I also added support to the team to help deal with some of the less strategic and more administrative activity.

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By focusing on a category-led structure we have been able to cut down on duplication of effort. The procurement professionals have been able to research their areas. We have developed new knowledge and contacts. We have unearthed frameworks that we had not been aware of before.

I’m a big supporter of category management. The alternative — asking a procurement professional to source an item unknown to them — risks delaying the process. They will have to investigate and research. They will need to spend time with the internal customer working out – and understanding – the specification.

Support your team

By focusing on the team, by making each senior member a category lead and by supporting them with additional training and support staff, we have been able to make a real difference at Coventry.  Savings have increased significantly – up 30% from the previous year – and customer satisfaction is rising. We’re meeting with new people all the time and we’re being actively sought out as our reputation grows within the university.

To use an analogy – if you buy a new car and don’t look after it, over time it’s going to deteriorate.  You might not get the performance you want; the value will drop and your initial investment will be wasted. The same is true of your procurement team.

By getting in the right numbers, by providing support and training, and by focusing on specialist areas you can achieve great things.  And, most importantly, that success can continue for years to come.

Mike Hanson is the director of procurement at Coventry University. You can read about how the university was able to reinvest its procurement savings for the benefits of students in a blogpost by another team member, Michael Duffy.