Fernet Branca: A Cure-all For Lackluster Procurement and the Ineffective CPO Hangover

Fernet Branca

I confess that I have a mild addiction to the tune of a rather particular type of spirits that I go through at the rate of a bottle or so every few months. No, it’s not scotch. Besides Oban, I really never could get into the Highlands or Lowlands on anything but a seasonal basis, even with the foisting and cajoling of enthusiastic single-malt buddies, including my best friend.

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Rather, my favored tipple is the very un-American Fernet Branca, a truly wonderful spirit that not only centers the mind but also settles the stomach and the nerves with just a few sips. Rumor has it the Italian distilled drink — it’s strong, believe me — was once served up as medicine during prohibition in the U.S.

Against all popular medical logic, I typically enjoy a small dose of Fernet Branca before Advil when I’m feeling a little bit under the weather, and certainly long before resorting to something stronger. It’s also a wonderful go-to cure, in limited amounts, after a night of too much plonk or American IPAs way high on the ABV Richter scale — not that this occurs to me ever, mind you. Regardless, a little bit goes a long way, in a sickness, health, recovery mode or otherwise.

Or so they tell me.

Which brings me to my next point: a shot of Fernet Branca, better sipped if you can savor it, is truly bitter medicine that takes time to reveal itself. Made from dozens of herbs, it’s a taste one acquires. I liken it to moving from Brooks Brothers to Hermès to Charvet ties. You don’t just start with the best. You need to learn what the best is and why from experience, otherwise you’d have no clue what you’re tying or how to tie it. (Hint: a knot is a personal expression as much as it is the twisting of strands of silk.)

Despite its bitterness, Fernet Branca is massively complex beneath the bitter surface. The best Burgundy has nothing on its intricate and evolving layers, despite costing 25 times more per bottle in comparison. If an overpriced French pinot is like a Seven Sisters-educated HR executive — friendly, somewhat superficial, not quite as witty or clever as she came off in her youth, but so cordial it doesn’t matter — Fernet Branca is like a whip-smart CPO who learned operations on the plant level commuting back and forth to Juarez from Jersey (as in the Garden State — not the tax haven).

Or something like that.

Moreover, Fernet Branca, owing to distillation, is also consistent from bottle-to-bottle and year-to-year, unlike that pesky Burgundy — or the HR personality, for that matter, who is getting in the way of your procurement-centric services procurement strategy. But I digress. Simply put, terroir — and slow burn change management of the HR variety — is for wussies, plain and simple. There’s no replacement for the school of bitter hard knocks.

If you’ve not guessed it already, Fernet Branca is an acquired taste — like many effective CPOs who actually keep their job for more than a few years, mind you. But the lessons of Fernet Branca as applied to procurement, from a leadership role or below, are many.

To name a few: first, bitter medicine is sometimes required to make change happen quickly. Don’t sugarcoat bad news, or mask it with sweet soda, mind you, like some silly Latin Americans or Left Coast hipsters do with the drink in question. When ill, the positive effects of Fernet Branca on the stomach happen in minutes. So too can similar strong, bitter medicine change the business when everyone is on the same page and quaffing from the same transparent chalice without wiping it down or chasing it with sugary substance to clear the palate.

Second, be as direct as possible and speak the language of those around you all the time. There is no getting around the fact of what Fernet Branca tastes like. Unlike wine — where far too many people literally make up their interpretations to sound smart — Fernet Branca hits you over the head with complicated flavor. It’s not mistakable, but it is dissectible and discernable, for those that care. It's like the difference between a consulting study that hits on some obtuse metric like economic value added (EVA) and ties it back to asset use and inventory levels for a few board members who actually care, versus Hackett benchmark data or a McKinsey study for procurement and finance efficiency that you can’t mistake and half the business can act on immediately. In other words: Don’t talk in foreign Wall Street intellectual tongues. Speak the language of business — EBITDA, OBIA, etc. — and map back procurement’s impact and the bitter medicine it must sometimes deliver to both shareholder and stakeholder impact.

Third, the school of experience beats the ivory tower when it comes to driving ground floor impact. Fernet Branca is a drink that anyone — well, almost anyone — can afford. But that’s not to say they’ll like it. Like a non-commissioned officer (NCO) who has risen through the ranks and gotten her commission the hard way, going back to school when necessary, and is now running a brigade, often times the best leaders know where they've come from — and what it's like to sit in their employees’ and stakeholders’ shoes rather than having done a series of clever things and risen up through the ranks at breakneck pace. At the end of the buying day, there is no replacement for empathy and understanding what true bitter medicine will mean for everyone that has to take it. Not to mention knowing at what point that aftertaste will turn to something they actually enjoy if they’re cut from the same cloth as you.

So in summary, let’s raise a toast to the best spirit ever invented, even if it came from the country that also introduced us to the coffee break and 9 hour work week — not to mention the mafia, fascism and Fiats. (At least you can’t cheat on a real-world emissions test if the car is always in the shop, I suppose.)

Its country of origin aside, I love Fernet Branca not only for what it stands for as a drink but also how it can serve as a metaphor for effective leadership and the procurement function itself. In my now 41 years — hard to believe — I’ve learned that life, and effective procurement, is not always sweet at first. But take the time to unearth its complexities without shying away from that first impression and impact a tough program can have, and it might surprise you what’s possible if you stick with it. But most important, don’t forget to take the time to show others why they should like it the way it is, bitterness and all.

Acquired tastes are better taught than learned.

Please follow Jason Busch on Twitter @jasondbusch

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First Voice

  1. Don Hoeppner:


    Enjoyable article on spirits, leadership, experience, and frank discussions.

    Cheers and have a great weekend … and a sip on me!!!


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