This interview introduces Sue Brown, a procurement manager with The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit with a mission to rid the world of ocean plastic. After more than 15 years working in a corporate setting, Sue decided that was enough time working for shareholders, and it was time to give back to society.
Sue is based in the Netherlands.
- What is this interview series about?
- Some people may not even be aware this job exists. And yet, it is everywhere in our world. Can you describe what the procurement profession is?
- Why does procurement need to change?
- Why is procurement important in the transition to a circular economy and to Net Zero?
- What problems / which SDGs do procurement professionals solve?
- What do you do as a procurement professional? What does a typical week look like?
- Best thing about being a procurement executive?
- Worst thing about being a procurement executive?
- How much can someone earn as a procurement executive?
- What are the future career prospects for procurement professionals?
- How did you get into procurement?
- What kind of person would do well in procurement?
- Suggested further reading / learning for an aspiring procurement executive:
What is this interview series about?
The 21st century will inevitably be a century of change. The excesses of systems we invented throughout the Industrial Age to solve the problems of the past, amplified in the 20th century. This resulted in instability of the Earth’s climate systems, as well as of the living systems of the planet through biodiversity loss, which are known as the Climate Crisis and the Biodiversity Crisis.
Reversing these planetary crises requires changing those systems to become sustainable, ideally without reviving the pre-industrial age problems that spurred its unchecked growth to begin with, such as lower food production & availability, limited access to healthcare, and reduced quality of life due to the poverty trap. In order to do so, we need to understand which jobs must be created, and which ones must change.
This interview is intended to give some insight to people looking for employment in the landscape of the future sustainable world. It is not meant to be career advice; not all jobs explored in this series are common today, or in your location. Rather, it is to expand your mindset on new job possibilities on the horizon, and what livelihood can mean in the future. For a more detailed description of this interview series, go to the Jobs on the Horizon archive.
I asked Sue to describe to me what a career in procurement is about, and how it’s changing in response to the climate and circularity transition efforts. Here’s what she said about the traditional and new roles of procurement executives.
Some people may not even be aware this job exists. And yet, it is everywhere in our world. Can you describe what the procurement profession is?
The procurement profession is closely aligned to the supply chain profession. They’re both concerned with buying the right things from the right suppliers at the right price, and getting them to the right place at the right time. For physical goods it’s easier to visualise: Iit’s how things get from A to B, through warehouses, and to businesses.
Procurement roles focus on the first few parts of that process, which involves supplier selection, negotiation, contracting and contract management. Take a hospital for instance. Procurement is about, how much medicine do you need? Then we get a contract set up with medicine supplier X for medicine A, draft the terms & conditions, pricing. On the other hand, the supply chain profession is about moving 200 boxes of medicine A in batches of x, when, hold how many of them in warehouse, sorting out who pays for customs and import duties.
So, procurement is to supply chain, how architecture is to civil engineering?
Yes, pretty much. Or architects and the construction company.
For procurement to be a career in itself, it must be important to businesses. How does this job create value for businesses?
Whatever the business climate, procurement is critical. When times are good, it’s all about enabling growth. When times are hard, it’s all about reducing cost. At all times, it’s about reducing risks and planning ahead. Success heavily relies on robust analysis, and strong internal and external relationships.
But in terms of value, it depends on the type of company. Procurement is not as critical in banking or fintech because it doesn’t directly drive revenue. There, procurement ensures reliability, and procures services at the right price. This all contributes to creating the right environment where business takes place. They deliver risk reduction, and compliance.
On the other hand, for manufacturing industries, procurement can make or break the business. They cover things like energy supply, raw material cost, and availability. The relative importance of cost depends on margin need. Even saving half a cent per kilo of cocoa can have a huge impact. Procurement is traditionally expected to help the company beat supply chain inflation. Aside from cost, there’s also value in availability, e.g. considering lost income from missing availability due to supply issues. Procurement can provide flexibility in the supply chain; and the need to have that flexibility is increasing.
Suppliers have a huge impact on a company; therefore, it should be at the heart of product manufacturing. Car companies have been saved by procurement. Tim Cook used to be Apple’s CPO (Chief Procurement Officer)!
Why does procurement need to change?
Traditional procurement responds at face value to the answers it receives when it asks the business: What are the objectives? What specification of good or service are required, where and when? If there are options, against which criteria will they be judged?
This approach puts the procurement function into “servant” mode. This makes it complicit with embedded behaviours that perpetuate unsustainable, linear value chains. The more you have a linear supply chain, the more likely it contains few suppliers, and over-reliance on outdated suppliers, countries or economic models. On top of wastage – inputs can’t be used for many things, outputs can’t be used for anything else. For example, overspec’d plastic can’t easily be recycled to another plastic. And some things can’t be made from recycled plastic and need to be made from scratch from virgin plastic. The more generic we can be, the more likely these inputs and outputs can interchange.
If procurement professionals are going to play a role in addressing the crises the world is facing, they need to constructively challenge those answers the business gives. The easiest way to do this is to combine procurement insights into business objectives and risks, with life cycle impact analysis that includes externalities. This lens enables informed, critical assessment which can be presented to the “internal customer” in the business’ language. All this happens long before issuing a tender or a negotiation starts: if we wait until then, it’s too late.
Why is procurement important in the transition to a circular economy and to Net Zero?
The circular economy relies on outputs becoming inputs, without degradation. Given the procurement function controls the process of finding inputs, it’s criticality to enabling the circular economy can’t be overstated. The same goes for net zero, particularly upstream (note: supply side) scope 3 emissions. Again, given procurement controls the process of finding inputs, all of those pass through its hands.
The circular economy relies on outputs becoming inputs, without degradation. Given the procurement function controls the process of finding inputs, it’s criticality to enabling the circular economy can’t be overstated.
– Sue Brown
What problems / which SDGs do procurement professionals solve?
The SDGs most relevant to the procurement function are:
- SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth. Procurement sets minimum standards for, and perform assessments of, suppliers’ employment policies (e.g. on things like child labour, and anti-competition) and their employees’ conditions. These are about minimum expectations, floor-level requirements. These aspects are the most mature in the profession.
- SDG 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure. Influencing specifications and selection criteria to favour sustainability, inclusion and innovation.
- SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production. Minimising inputs, and ensuring sustainability is a ‘red thread’ throughout the sourcing process (procurement is expressly highlighted as an enabler in target 12.7!). These aspects are maturing, building on the existing concept of 40/40/20 value. This concept says that a procurement contract should deliver 40% of the value from demand factors, 40% from specification factors, and only 20% from price.
- SDG 13: Climate action. As mentioned before, all upstream scope 3 emissions pass through the procurement function’s hands.
What do you do as a procurement professional? What does a typical week look like?
The procurement profession includes a huge range of roles and associated tasks. Some are very operational; creating and approving purchase orders, for example. Others are very strategic; developing long term strategies for sourcing particular categories of goods or services.
My current role covers this whole spectrum. In a typical week, I’ll be preparing tender documents, reviewing tender responses, preparing for and executing negotiations, building or refining processes, brainstorming with engineers about future requirements and risk mitigations, ensuring suppliers are set up in our ERP (Enterprise Resource Program) system and that purchase orders are correctly issued, and reading or drafting contracts to capture and protect value.
Best thing about being a procurement executive?
One of the best things about my job is that I can exercise commercial creativity, particularly in problem solving, finding win-wins during negotiations, and developing innovative commercial models. Also, when developing strategies or negotiation positions, there is rarely a “right” answer. This means whatever recommendation I make, or position I defend, I need to support it with logical arguments, presented persuasively. It feels great when those arguments or positions are successful! I also enjoy spending lots of time engaging with suppliers. Working together on problems, creating value for both organisations, getting a new perspective, exposure to new company cultures: all this is fascinating and rewarding in equal measures.
Worst thing about being a procurement executive?
This is a hard one to answer…I love my job, and my profession. I guess the worst thing is being in the middle between the “internal customers” and the suppliers; trying to represent each party to the other while maintaining effective and positive relationships with each. It can feel like mediation sometimes, especially when the power balance is very skewed. Success here relies heavily on constant, clear, honest and sensitive communication. Something I admit can be draining as it requires high levels of emotional intelligence.
How much can someone earn as a procurement executive?
I’ve never seen a performance-related-pay structure for a procurement role like you might see for a sales role. A full time, strategic, senior category manager in a large multinational company can earn up to €150k in Europe. That’s quite rare though. In most mid-sized companies that salary would only be available to a Head of Procurement or Head of Supply Chain, or even the Chief Procurement Officer (a role very few companies have).
Mid-level procurement roles in Europe would typically be around €40-60k.
There are a lot of contract hires in the profession, as many of the activities can be time-boxed, such as capital projects and category strategy development. Those contractors typically have a lot of “in house” experience though, having worked full-time in one firm before going solo.
Experience definitely counts for a lot. Though there are professional qualifications (CIPS), most recruiters will value time-in-role over theoretical knowledge.
The main risks relate to automation and digitalisation of processes. This affects the entry-level roles, traditionally busy with manual purchase order creation, data cleansing and analysis, or management of low risk spend. The latter activity is increasingly bundled into catalogues, outsourced or offshored.
What are the future career prospects for procurement professionals?
It’s hard to answer this without being biased by my affection for the profession. No one likes to admit or foretell the end of something they love! Saying that, even if I try to be objective, I see no threats to the job in the short, medium, or long term.
Quite the opposite actually. Whether we’re operating in those rare moments of ‘business-as-usual’, or during the new normal of pandemics and geo-political and climate crises, supply chains and the procurement activities within them keep societies and their economies turning. The “chips and ships” shortages over the past couple of years brought that into mainstream understanding.
Even if you re-localise and become fully circular, you still need procurement. Medicine, defense, public infrastructure, education – all these public sector bodies rely on procurement just as much as the private sector does. We’re here to stay!
Whether we’re operating in those rare moments of ‘business-as-usual’, or during the new normal of pandemics and geo-political and climate crises, supply chains and the procurement activities keep societies and their economies turning.
– Sue Brown
How did you get into procurement?
I got into procurement by accident, really. I was applying for graduate jobs in the final year of my BSc in Management, and Shell accepted me. They offered me a role in “Contracting and Procurement”, but I had no idea what that was!
A bit of googling led me to conclude it’s just like Marketing, my degree specialism, but from the other side of the table. Buying, instead of selling. The rest is history: I’ve never left the profession despite changing employer several times.
I think a general management education has helped me. This is because procurement professionals need to interface with, and understand the objectives of, almost all functions and areas of a business: finance, operations, product development, marketing, HR, legal. However, I know many successful colleagues who have more specialised education, such as engineering or in social sciences. The key skills they all have are communication, problem solving and analytics. These are the areas I prioritise when interviewing people looking to join a procurement team. Admittedly, experience is heavily weighted in such situations. Overcoming lack of experience takes deep content knowledge and strong all-round commercial skills.
What kind of person would do well in procurement?
Someone who will enjoy procurement naturally gives attention to the details. They are able to pick up new concepts quickly, can develop and defend logical arguments, while being able to juggle project activities with ongoing daily operations and thrive on variety. But they would also be able and willing to develop, implement and operate within processes.
‘Variety within a structure’ is perhaps the key concept in that long list. Even the same job looks different every day, every month, every year thanks to differing applications. Different suppliers, different categories, different challenges. Being comfortable with that requires flexibility and resilience, and discipline to maintain the foundations of the functional skillset and process handrails.
Suggested further reading / learning for an aspiring procurement executive:
A good source for further reading is the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply. (CIPS – Leading global excellence in procurement and supply). They provide training, but also have an intelligence hub which talks to the hottest topics in the function.
If you’re more of a book reader than website browser, I can definitely recommend “Profit from the Source”. (Profit from the Source: Transforming Your Business by Putting Suppliers at the Core (hbr.org)). It’s aimed at CEOs, but that makes it easy to read(!). The case it presents for the importance of procurement is compelling.
And finally, if you want to chat to someone living in the procurement world for nearly 20 years, feel free to drop me a note on LinkedIn: Sue Brown | LinkedIn.
Climate action and working towards circularity can look like procurement!
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Environmentalist, but literate in all 17 SDGs. Promotes insightful travel & sustainable transitions with collaborative Global South worldviews.