Spend Friends podcast: Walgreens’ CPO Jim Townsend says unchartered territory expected to last for another 5 years

Spend Matters and CIPS

It’s a “VUCA” world and we’re all just living in it.

That stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. And if that describes your procurement department’s planning for the next year or five, you’re not alone, said Jim Townsend, the Chief Procurement Officer of Walgreens Boots Alliance.

Townsend was the latest guest on Spend Friends, a monthly video podcast hosted by Bill Michels, the VP of Operations — Americas at the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply (CIPS) USA, and Pierre Mitchell, Spend Matters’ Chief Research Officer. Its goal is to focus on all procurement matters under the sun, like spend management, supply chains and other topics.

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Townsend, as the procurement leader of the multibillion dollar pharmaceutical retail brand, joined the podcast to discuss lessons learned from the pandemic and shared where procurement could be headed in the post-Covid world.

“Right now, recognize that the next five years are unlikely to be like the previous five years,” Townsend said. “We are facing an environment where the market conditions are going to be different. Where the challenges placed on procurement organizations are going to be different as well. And what you have to ask yourselves is, ‘How do you want to step into that space? How do you want to lead through that space?’”

In the beginning of the pandemic, Townsend was focused on keeping Walgreens pharmacies open and their employees safe. He said the procurement team had identified some potential risks, but no one expected a pandemic to hit.

Because of that, Townsend says, “Plans are useless, but planning is essential.”

Townsend described the procurement adjustments to the pandemic as a three-wave approach. The first step focused on continuing to source and trade key goods like PPE. Secondly, Townsend had to conduct difficult conversations around cost-cutting and minimizing losses. The third step focused on segmenting risk.

Also along the way, the priorities of Walgreens’ stores changed. In the beginning, Walgreens had to source new PPE products and meet changing consumer demand for different goods. Then, the company adjusted to becoming a COVID-19 testing site. Finally, the biggest push has been to administer roughly 50 million vaccines to the general public.

Michels said many procurement departments can empathize with Townsend in needing to overhaul their priorities and processes. Michels wondered what the ultimate lesson is that Townsend will take away from the Covid pandemic.

For Townsend, what essentially had to be an overhaul of procurement plans ended up being a great lesson in leadership. He said it’s hard to manage such an extensive supply chain program, but with the right team, it can be a sustainable and remarkable feat.

“Getting really close with the stakeholder is key,” Townsend said. “Having a viewpoint, as well. All too often, procurement teams view themselves as a support function. Whereas in actual fact, we should be in the conversation. If people aren’t opening the doors for us, we should just open the door and walk through it ourselves. We have a very valid viewpoint.”

Spend Friends will return June 8 for more intriguing procurement discussions! Register here to attend the next live Zoom session. And listen to the sixth episode featuring Jim Townsend below!

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