Playing Dirty: Procurement Lessons From Slap Shot

A certain vendor product-type (who I know would prefer to go unnamed in this context) recently reached out to me. This was not to give me the skinny on a new solution release; no, his questioning and probing was on a far more important subject: had I seen the Paul Newman classic, Slap Shot? "No," I responded, but quickly went to Netflix and added it to the queue.

I just finished watching it. For all you sports fans out there, the flick is an absolute classic. But even those who abhor hockey -- not to mention macho competition in general -- stand to learn quite a bit from it. It even has a lesson on procurement (more on that in a minute). As plots go, this one's really quite simple: Paul Newman stars as Reggie Dunlop, a hockey player and coach of The Chiefs, a second-rate minor-league professional team whose owners are about to cut bait at the end of the season. The entire action takes place amidst the backdrop of a Pennsylvania union steel town whose primary employer, the local mill, is about to shut down.

In a bid to drive attendance and enthusiasm for this team as a last rallying cry before the scotch-swigging owner (an heiress, mind you) uses the team as a tax write-off, Newman decides to play dirty. He encourages his players not just to win, but to savage the opposition in the process. It's basically hockey the way that many of us wanted to play it, but were not allowed to (i.e., a low-blow boxing match on skates). In the end, the trick works and attendance zooms through the roof. The genius of the movie, though, is not the predictable path, but the procurement lessons it provides us.

The first, I'd argue, is to ignore appearances if there's potential gold beneath the surface that others might never realize. Part of the reason The Chiefs start winning is a "good deal" the GM gets on three "retard" Hansen brothers that Newman shuns from the start (until they slash and burn their way to victory, earning the coaches' respect in the process). Perhaps there are suppliers (and members on your team) who might not look the part of Spend Management superheroes -- and whose capabilities or resumes don't show it yet -- but who offer some degree of raw talent or capability that enables you to source them at a discount to the market.

The next lesson in the movie is to be aware of the lack of a safety net now available to us. As one member of the ragtag team remarks after a bad game, "%!@$* Chrysler plant, here I come!" This requires taking risks that we might not otherwise have available to us. After all, if you're playing in the minors and you can't cut it, it's now not quite as easy to transfer the lessons from hockey to automotive procurement (like it used to be). The final Slap Shot buy-side lesson I'll leave you with is the importance of working with what you've got and leveraging the assets of your team by providing words of encouragement, ideally with the same rink-based vocabulary of Slap Shot. Or not.

Jason Busch

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