Marcheta Gillespie: Women in Procurement

Marcheta Gillespie

Marcheta Gillespie has worked in public procurement for nearly 25 years, starting in an entry-level buyer position with the City of Tucson and rising to become the director of the city’s procurement organization, where she oversees a staff of nearly 40 people and an annual budget that ranges from $250 million to about $450 million.

But back in the early ‘90s, as a college senior at the University of Arizona soon to graduate with a business degree, Marcheta had never heard of a “buyer.” She didn’t even know a career in procurement was possible. A conversation on campus with Wayne Casper, the procurement director for the City of Tucson at the time, about an open buyer position at the city sparked her interest in public procurement.

“I met with him and we talked pretty informally about what the profession was about,” Marcheta said. “I found that it really aligned with not only my skill set but my interests, and it really sounded like a fascinating job.”

Marcheta got the job and began working in public procurement in 1991, right as the City of Tucson was coming off a hiring freeze. She was the youngest buyer in the procurement department by about 15-20 years. She was learning a whole new area of business surrounded by people who had been doing this work for a decade or more. She was first procuring office supplies, promotional items — “the easier commodities sets,” she said. However, soon she was in charge of procuring city vehicles and then later started buying technology for the city.

Instead of feeling intimidated and overwhelmed throughout this learning curve, however, Marcheta said the department was “like a family right away.” She learned quickly procurement truly was a fascinating career.

“I can really say I loved every moment of it,” she said.

Wayne Casper, who remained Marcheta’s boss until he retired in 2007, also was incredibly helpful for her professional development and served as a mentor for her throughout the years.

“I was fortunate to start my career in working for him,” Marcheta said about Wayne. “He really encouraged me to succeed.”

Wayne said Marcheta learned the ins and outs of public procurement quickly. She also had the ideal skill set Wayne said he was looking for at the time he hired Marcheta as a buyer.

Whenever I gave Marcheta projects, she was just extremely effective and efficient,” Wayne said.

“She would get a team together and get to a solution. She had those leadership skills even before she was in leadership positions.”

Pride and Passion: Parts of Public Procurement

Marcheta has been the director of the City of Tucson’s procurement department for about three years now, the job formerly held by Wayne Casper. She has held a number of roles within the organization in the last nearly quarter of a century, moving from buyer to contract officer, to contract administrator and division manager in the late ‘90s to deputy director of the department before taking the top leadership spot in 2012. Her management positions, she said, really gave her the chance to gain a broader perspective of the roles and responsibilities of the procurement organization, which prepared her to later lead the department.

“I had been in management since 1996, but that was the opportunity to get a sense of all the program areas that procurement was responsible for,” she said.

Marcheta is extremely passionate about serving her community. Procurement services may take place more behind the curtain — or as Marcheta said, “We are the service behind those who provide the front live services” to the community — but she enjoys being able to see how her department has helped a project take shape. One such project is the Sun Link streetcar project, which was approved by the community in 2006. The now 4-mile streetcar system runs through the city, and Marcheta said the procurement department was part of the overall project.

“It was a huge project involving huge amounts of work and procurement,” she said. “I ride on that system now, and I think ‘Wow, it’s really cool to be able to say I know what it took, and I was part of what it took to put this in place.’ And, that is really no different than when you drive by a park or piece of art. I think it’s a far more visibly satisfactory return on your time when you see it invested in your community.”

This may be one of the few distinctions Marcheta sees between public and private procurement — being able to work for the community in which you live and see the end result on public land. Another distinction is working for citizens of a community and adhering to local, state and federal regulations that ensure the contracting and spending processes are transparent and remain competitive.

“In public procurement, you really make sure you are maximizing the competition and giving everyone an opportunity to compete for those dollars,” Marcheta said. “We are public stewards of the community’s money and that is something that certainly holds us accountable in perhaps a different way than a private sector procurement professional.”

But again, Marcheta views such responsibilities as a privilege, and she considers herself fortunate to have worked for Tucson for as long as she had. “Fortunate” is a word she uses often when talking about her career in public procurement. Certainly, Marcheta said she could have left the city’s procurement department and looked to pursue her career elsewhere. But she never had cause to do so. Tucson is her home and she said she continuously has had opportunity and support to continue working within the city’s procurement department. The job has always remained interesting, too.

“No two days are ever alike in this profession and that keeps it fresh and new and interesting,” she said.

Marcheta shares her stories and advocates for careers in procurement through her years of work with the National Institute of Governmental Procurement (NIGP), where she previously held the president position. Marcheta was also part of the NIGP’s process of creating the values and guiding principles of the public procurement profession, which have become a widely adopted set of standards and ethics for procurement organizations. In 2011, when Marcheta was serving as deputy director for the city’s procurement department, Tucson became the first public agency in the U.S. to adopt these principles.

There is No Ceiling

Becoming involved in the procurement profession, as Marcheta has with NIGP, is advice she also extends to other women in the field. There are many ways for women and all procurement professionals to be engaged and connect with others in the industry, she said.

“You have to get engaged because that is how you are going to continue to grow to understand what your opportunities are and not just limit yourself to what you think you know in the world you are working in,” Marcheta said.

Other advice for women in procurement: “Dream big.” Women should know they have a very strong network of colleagues in the profession who know what it takes to succeed, she added.

“I really encourage them to tap into this network and recognize that there is absolutely nothing in this field, in this profession, in this career of procurement, that would preclude you from being successful as a woman,” she said. “There is no ceiling.”

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