Chris Bell at Basware Connect – Police Horses and Ringing Bells!

We’re still catching up on the round of autumn conferences, and one noteworthy session came from Chris Bell at the Basware Connect event in London a few weeks back.

Bell is Commercial Director for the City of London Corporation. He got into procurement through an interesting route – initially through a role helping small firms in Scotland to bid for government contracts. He then worked on the London Olympic 2012 programme, then was outsourced “delivery lead” with Accenture before he became Head of Procurement, then Commercial Director for the Corporation 3 years ago.

He came into a situation initially that didn’t have great systems infrastructure, or depth of capability, with limited strategy, process, governance, spend data… But as he said, in some ways, doing transformation from a low base is easier!  He and the team had high ambitions, although change “has to be at an achievable pace and have senior support”.

The City of London Corporation is unique. It is 800 years old, has corporate and service departments like most local authorities but also runs the city of London police, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the Barbican, and more. It has an investment fund to promote investment, and a charitable angle – and has no less than 125 elected members.  So, it is a “very complex stakeholder environment”, Bell says – yes, I think we would agree with that!

He made an interesting point about stakeholders though. If you had asked people 150 years ago what they really needed, they would have said “a faster horse”, not “a motor car”.  Procurement has a role to play in explaining to stakeholders what is possible, but it is then key to deliver what is promised.

There was much in his presentation around the whole transformation programme, and Bell reminded me of another friend of ours (and another CIPS personal award winner), George Owens, in that he obviously combines a very structured, organised approach to procurement change with personal drive, credibility and interpersonal skills. Bell talked about developing 4 key strategic pillars – operational excellence, value for money, CSR, and technology / innovation.  In the early stages, he developed a clear strategy, embedding governance, clear service targets and KPIs in the process, with procurement performance published to the business via a monthly dashboard.

“Make fast impact cashable savings to gain support from leadership” was his advice to others starting on the journey, and of course, deliver against your savings targets.  But also include other non-cost objectives – look to make a difference. For instance, in his case, that meant getting involved in sponsorship and income generation commercial activities such as offering training in specialist areas and making use of Corporation assets.

In terms of people, you “sometimes have to challenge the fabric of the organisation”, like pushing to get competitive pay levels. He has worked hard on developing the right team, which has meant some changes – “the people who are still here are committed to being the best”.

He has also tried to bring more of a “sales” feel to the team in terms of celebrating success – “we ring a bell when someone makes a saving” (OK, not so sure about that!)  But he made a great point about selling the benefits of the job when interviewing potential recruits. He tells them that the Corporation’s range of activities means they will have experiences that give them “stories you can use in interviews for the rest of your career” - like handling a requisition to buy a police horse maybe …

What’s next? There is more potential to use technology better, and he pointed out that efficiencies become more difficult after a few years. The low-hanging category management work is “done” so the team needs to find other ways to deliver value e.g. contract management. There may be opportunities to look at insourcing, which raises interesting issues around reverse TUPE for instance. He is a believer in developing negotiation skills further – “there is still a need for procurement to play the “bad cop” role at times”!

All in all, a very stimulating session, one that went very quickly, and Bell gets added to our list of “jolly impressive CPOs who really know what they are talking about”!

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  1. Stephen Dunn:

    Remarkably refreshing account of a commercially astute, innovative and hands-on leader. It would be interesting to know if Chris’s approach has been adopted – or indeed challenged – by senior roles in other corporations/boroughs.

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