David Atkinson – our first Procurement Provocateur

We explained yesterday about our new series of interviews. I'm delighted to say our first victim - I mean subject - is David Atkinson of Four Pillars Consulting, an ex Rolls Royce procurement leader and now influential as a educator, trainer, thinker, writer and adviser.

When did you decide procurement was for you?

I started out on a career in Marketing, believe it or not, and joined what was Northern Rock thinking it was the first step into a ultimately glamorous career in advertising.  However, I took a sharp turn in applying for a job at Black & Decker that had a salary pretty much twice what I was on at the time. I remember being offered the job and telling my Mum that I had no idea what it was but it started with “ex” and that I was taking it anyway. The job was as an ‘expeditor’ of course, placing and chasing orders into the factory.

I quickly realised I liked it and seemed to be quite good at it, and very soon I was promoted to buyer and that took me into strategic sourcing work - as an early adopter really - and began to enthusiastically immerse myself in the theory and practice of it. What I liked in particular was you could see the benefits of what you were doing more quickly in procurement than you could in marketing.

Who has been the biggest influence on your career?

If I can be greedy, I’d like to nominate three great influencers on my career. I left school at 16 and went straight into a job rather than university, working for Tyne & Wear Passenger Transport Executive.  I worked for the marketing manager Dick Wood and he spotted potential in me and encouraged me to go off to what was then Newcastle Poly and further education in my early twenties. He and his wife even helped me when money was tight - I spent some happy times doing decorating jobs for them to help keep me solvent!

When I did my MBA at Birmingham in the '90s I was incredibly lucky to be taught by the likes of Lamming, Cousins, Hughes and of course Professor Andrew Cox. All provided superb teaching and ideas but it was Cox that, with his research into power, that really helped me make sense of the work of business and relationship management.

Finally, I’d like to mention Michael Simmons who, as an external consultant, worked with me at Rolls Royce and really got me thinking about my leadership and the process of strategy development. That led on to what I do now and how my interests have developed beyond procurement.

How did you become a successful professional?

I was lucky to be given early experience - like big negotiations at one of the pioneering procurement organisations Black & Decker. And, as I've always been intellectually curious, I deliberately sought out an opportunity to work in automotive, as the sector had the reputation for having the most mature practices in procurement and supply chain. I also learnt in both the Auto and (especially the) Aero sectors how vital it is to work with suppliers post contract to secure value - and how to do that even if you didn't negotiate the contract yourself initially. That experience of having to work diligently and creatively with suppliers you’re locked into for many years, took me on to my continually deepening interest in supplier relationship management (SRM).

What advice would you give a young procurement professional?

Chase experience, not the pound or the dollar! Do as many interesting things as you can as soon as possible. Take a long-term view of your career - think about your next job and the one after that. For example, I wanted to work in automotive because I was looking ahead to the role after that, and that experience has proven to be a very useful currency throughout the second half of my career.

Why should organisations care about procurement?

It still remains the greatest untapped opportunity in 21st century business for most organisations. For instance, contract and supplier management provides huge opportunities but procurement people are all too often defeatist about their chances of influencing that whole space. I also think we're still seeing CEOs who rose through business at a time when procurement wasn't perceived as that important; it’s a blind spot and so they're still not supporting procurement enough. Maybe that will gradually change with a new generation of CEOs. I certainly hope so. Those organisations that continue not to ‘get it’ will ultimately be the losers.

Where is procurement going?

In the UK, I think the loss of manufacturing industry has really hit procurement – like it or not, it was such an effective proving ground for procurement, many of the 'great and the good' in the profession earned their spurs in those industries, where procurement was business critical. Not all sectors are created the same: there are some fantastically talented people in procurement in our service industries, but I fear they’re not exposed to real cutting-edge practices that some sectors have no option than to get to grips with.

Where are the 'thinkers' now in procurement? In the '90s we had a number of pioneering researchers and academics (some mentioned above) that really pushed the boundaries and a number of enthusiastic experimenters (I like to think I’m one) who put in practice their new ideas. SRM is a prime example of what emerged from that period. So I do worry about the profession. Transactional P2P activities are increasingly being delegated to users, and users or budget holders will take the lead at least for the some of the most critical contract and supplier management activities. So procurement has to carve out a new role. My personal view is that procurement teams in the future will be smaller, and will act in more of a consulting role within their organisations.  Those that embrace the need to develop consulting skills, in addition to the very necessary cutting-edge technical procurement skills, are going to have the edge. I have no doubt about that.

Thanks to David Atkinson, and you can read a sample of his own writing here, as he looks at a number of issues within one excellent article - from Pfizer / AstraZeneca to our Andrew Cox debate.

Voices (3)

  1. David Atkinson:

    A little joshing from an old friend Keith McMahon there.

    Sadly, Keith recently died. He was a fine man and an old school entreprenurial buyer.

  2. Trevor Black:

    My kind of procurement person! Focused on the key objectives and not tarnished with the trendy and meaningless gobbledy-gook that has damaged the profession in recent years.

  3. Keith McMahon:

    Hey Dave, you never told me you were an expidter .
    Anyway if you keep making all these handicapped purchasing departments to efficient how am I going to continue to start multi-million dollar businesses based on other organizations lack of inertia

    You and I are now officially in competition

    Keith 4 x multimillion dollar start-ups and counting

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