Ton Guerts at ProcureCon Europe – People and Influence Are Key

You do get the chance to hear from and meet some impressive people at events like ProcureCon Europe. One who certainly falls into that category is Ton Guerts, who has had a long career as a CPO across firms including AkzoNobel and DSM. He is now at mining and metals firm NV Bekaert SA – it is more than just a pure CPO role, as his title suggests; “Chief Purchasing Officer and Senior Vice President Supply Chain Excellence”.

He did tend to emphasise his age and experience rather a lot, which made me feel ancient as he is actually younger than me! But his session was excellent, as it focused on the procurement transformation programme he has implemented, with some particularly thought-provoking comments around people issues.

One immediate remark on that set the scene. He replaced 12 out of his 25 most senior procurement people very early in the process. They were not replaced by external hires – “we promoted or moved people internally, generally older, experienced people” he said.

However, at lunch I met a very charming 30-year-old (ish) female lawyer who was one of those promoted – so a bit of artistic licence from Mr Guerts on the age thing, we suspect! (She was very impressive anyway). But he wanted people in his key roles who were known by and could influence the business.

“Every regional purchasing director (the key business management role) is an ex sales person. If you want to influence the business, take people from the business into procurement, because it is about change management and stakeholder management”.

But there is still a role for pure procurement professionals. Category managers must be savvy; you need deep knowledge in certain categories. But the people who drive change are different – as he pointed out, “many successful CPOs in leading firms have no deep background in procurement”.

He has also actively promoted people moving out of procurement - this is something many procurement leaders could learn from, we believe. So, the lady who was the CPO for the European region is now the Chief Information Officer. The sales key account manager for Michelin, a vital customer, was previously a category manager. This has not just happened randomly, it needs planning and involvement from other senior executives. And it “builds respect for the function” when other areas see the quality of people.

The business has a strong regional focus so procurement must be aligned with that. “We provide forward reports on markets and suppliers to regional businesses; we want to be part of those businesses, with the function integrated into the business”.

As well as being a business partner internally, procurement acts as a key account manager for suppliers into the business. Those suppliers want to contribute to the business through initiatives such as sustainability and innovation. But the firm is in middle of a tough supply chain, with huge suppliers and huge customers – “so we must be smart. That can only happen if we have career paths for the best people”.

Guerts has introduced a procurement academy, with a number of education programmes and is personally involved in delivering some of the material. Capability work has included top team presentations, behavioural skills training, coaching, and a focus on personal development plans.

Culture is not disregarded either – there are differences even between the Netherland and Belgium, and diversity in the team can help to cope with the differences amongst stakeholders, suppliers and customers. “It can take time to get buy-in for what we want to do – procurement can be impatient”, he says.

Another major objective has been consolidation of the supply base. There has been concentration of spend, which needs buy-in at a high level. So, there is a steering group which meets four times a year to look at the strategic supplier landscape. “But you can’t just hit those large suppliers over the head. The Lopez model is history – it is about dependency”.

I asked a slightly mischievous question on that note – saying that Volkswagen’s recent supplier problems seem to come because they were still hitting suppliers over the head. “You have to understand what is critical, understand the suppliers cost base – this requires some skill”, he replied, very reasonably. You can’t imagine VW having such problems if Guerts had been in that CPO seat anyway – his approach (and his session) appears to be impressive and rounded.

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