How I Left the Corporate Office to Run My Own Consultancy

Rebecca Karp

Editor’s note: This is part of a new series of personal narratives from practitioners in the field. Know someone with a procurement story to tell? Tell us in the comments below!

I started my career in the late 1980s with influences like greed-is-good Gordon Gecko of “Wall Street” and Alex P. Keaton of “Family Ties.” To me, career success was going to be an ascent up the corporate ladder to a big office, big title and big paycheck. Yes, the corporate world was the ticket, I thought. So I got a degree in marketing and followed it promptly with an MBA. Education: check.

I went to work for a multinational fresh produce company in the materials management department. I started as a purchasing associate, which was basically a buyer’s assistant. I spent a couple years moving up in the organization and learning about purchasing, transportation and inventory management. Then I realized that I needed to learn about other parts of the company.

So I looked for lateral or project-based opportunities to work in other groups like marketing, product development and IT. Check out my LinkedIn profile to see that I am not kidding. It was great. Not only was I building a broad base of business knowledge, but I was also developing the skills to engage with people at all levels and in all departments. A colleague noted that I was the person everyone wanted on their team. That was flattering but also frustrating for someone whose aspirations were to be the boss. Work experience: check.

Then I went to work in indirect sourcing in the corporate office of a very large global conglomerate. It was a tough but crucial training ground. I managed people, interacted with senior leaders, managed a volume of spend that few get to handle, and saved the company money. All that sounds like a VP in the making, right?

It is, until you factor in personality and how that affects your ability to navigate company politics. That was the thing holding me back from achieving my rightful level of greatness. I struggled to be “nice,” to be patient with the pace of the corporate culture and to couch my opinions in diplomacy so as not to offend. My insecurity led me to muzzle myself and not contribute what that organization needed.

My departure from that company left me with a bruised ego and a new job search. According to every recruiter I talked to, I had a stellar pedigree and there was no shortage of interested companies. I took time to make sure my next move was the right one.

At the same time, a former boss asked if I would be interested in helping him out on a contract basis. He was the VP of purchasing for a plastics company and needed help with indirect spend. I was free and decided to give it a go. It was my first engagement as a bona fide freelancer. That lasted five months, until I was offered a role running indirect procurement for a pharmaceutical company in a city I was keen to live in.

As I transitioned back into the corporate world, the experience of standing on my own, without a company behind me, stuck with me. I spent two and a half years at that pharma company and realized I had walked back into an environment that didn’t value the things I am good at. So I left.

At that point I decided that I wanted to work for myself as a career. I had a network of consultants that I had met during my time in corporate roles and I leaned on them for advice, contacts and my first couple of gigs. I also kept my options open for permanent corporate roles. I had recruiters tell me that I needed to make sure I was putting “real” work on my resume or I would not be taken seriously. I interviewed with companies that felt that “consulting” was a resume filler in between real jobs. Screw it. I’ll show them all.

In early 2013, a good friend of mine (who is also the best procurement consultant I know) approached me with the idea of partnering to build a consultancy. He had been successful on his own for over 10 years and was smart enough to realize we could capitalize on what I brought to the table. I had a network of people at very high levels people with budget that respected my ability and liked working with me. I had over 20 years of solid procurement and business experience. I am blunt and direct in a way that people appreciate but would never tolerate from someone on their corporate team. That’s how Sourcing Synergies in its current form was born.

This is what I have learned from this experience: there are things you are good at and there are things that you are not. I am most proud of the fact that I can make a living doing the things that I am good at. Failure is less frequent when you are working from your strengths and not always trying to overcome your “weaknesses.” Don’t kid yourself, our firm loses projects to other consultancies. But we get repeat business and referrals from people who like how we work and see the real value and hard dollars in it.

I don’t have to try to be something I am not and I am no longer chasing the big office (I have one right off my foyer!). As for the big title, does it get bigger than owning the company? And as far as big paychecks, if you listen to clients and deliver what they need, you will be remunerated.

Sometimes the things you think go terribly awry are really the things that go just right.

Fulfilling career: check.

First Voice

  1. Peter Smith:

    Great article! I know some people (including a couple of good friends) who are brilliant at running complex procurement (sourcing) programmes – the actual tendering, supplier selection, negotiating, putting the right contract Ts and Cs in place etc. Ironically, that is not perceived generally to be a “top management” activity or priority yet it is critical – and because people with skills and experience of doing it successfully are hard to find, those who are really good at it can make very good day rates. They are often people who might also be good CPOs – but they can make $200K a year, love what they do, and feel they add real value. Oh yes, and they avoid most of the office politics and the “people management” hassle!

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