We Spill the Cocoa Beans on Malcolm Harrison, New CEO for Crown Commercial Services

With Sally Collier off to run Ofqual, assuming the parliamentary committee likes the look of her on Wednesday, which I'm sure they will, Crown Commercial Service has appointed Malcolm Harrison as the interim CEO. We will return to look at Collier's time in the procurement world later, but today, we ask - just who is this new procurement supremo for government? (For six months, at least).

As chance would have it, we can answer that question in some detail. He and I worked together in the purchasing department of Mars Confectionery in our days as young managers way back in the last century. He worked in several commercial areas, including spending a couple of years based in Africa, doing research and market work on the cocoa crop. He was then tempted away on promotion to become head of meat buying for Pedigree Petfoods, another Mars Group firm. Now there's a job to stimulate the imagination, if not the appetite! If you meet Harrison, ask him about Chinese rabbit heads ...

Immediately, that tells you that he worked his way through the procurement hierarchy, starting as a buyer, then a manager, before he reached CPO level. He joined Bass which in time became part of brewing giant InBev, where he held senior roles in procurement, supply chain and even sales. Probably his biggest procurement role then followed, as global CPO for Nestle, an incredibly large and international job. After that, he moved into general management again, as CEO for a division of Rexam, the packaging firm. He worked on the sale of that business unit, and left Rexam having managed the sale of the business around two years ago, since when he has been "portfolio".

So he is that relatively unusual animal; a deep "procurement professional” but one who has some genuine Board-level general management experience too. That should stand him in good stead in this role. He came into government on contract last Autumn to work directly for John Manzoni, the CEO of the Civil Service and Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary, with (we understand) a brief to work out a sustainable operating model for Crown Commercial Service.

As we have reported, that organisation has had its problems since the move to centralise large chunks of central government procurement, which meant a lot of work was dumped at the door of CCS, without perhaps enough thought on exactly how it would be delivered. So Harrison has been looking at that issue; we assume he now gets the chance to put some of his thinking into action!

Unfortunately, we don't know what the thinking is as yet anyway. One of Harrison's very strong qualities is discretion - despite our history, I have noticeably failed to persuade him to tell me anything really about what he has been doing in recent months!

Apart from that, we can disclose that he is intelligent, commercially-minded but thoughtful and quite considered. He is not a man to rush into things, although he is very much a "doer" rather than a pure thinker. He is structured and likes to plan, perhaps reflecting his initial Cambridge University Engineering training, but he does expect action, and whilst I suspect he is both good with senior stakeholders and a good boss, he will certainly hold people to account for delivering what they have promised. I know I wouldn’t like to tell him that I hadn’t got around to what I said I would do …

His potential weakness is of course a lack of public sector experience - but it is not as if he is going to be running EU compliant tenders personally. He may, I suspect, get a little frustrated at times with aspects of the civil service way of doing things, but he is pretty flexible and has worked with many different cultures (going back to the African experience) so I'm sure he will adapt!

There was speculation recently that he might replace Bill Crothers as government's Chief Commercial Officer. I wasn't sure I could see him doing that somewhat ethereal role; this seems to me a better fit for his skills and interests. But I suspect he might still want to do another major, international private sector role, so my feeling is that there is no guarantee he will stay beyond the six-month interim period. On the other hand, this is a fascinating role, so he may fall in love with the quaint public sector way of doing procurement, who knows!

Anyway, as a taxpayer, an interested observer and a fellow Martian, I wish him all the very best.

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