Originally published March 2017
“Twenty years ago, the understanding of a good purchaser was basically a dog on a chain that you let out whenever you wanted to really beat down the prices from a supplier at any costs,” says Beatrix Praeceptor, group chief procurement officer for Mondi, the global packaging and paper group.
Today, chief procurement officers (CPO) have changed beyond recognition. Praeceptor is certainly no dog on a chain: “Today, the skills needed in procurement are much more about understanding different needs, and making sure all the people that have a stake in your product or service are on board and aligned towards developing the best solution in terms of both cost and quality,” she says.
You need to have different skills than those that were called for when she took her first job as a purchaser at Philips Industries in 1990, says Praeceptor: “It’s become more volatile and more complex, so you need people on your team that can manage those complexities and bring people and relevant information together. The basic procurement skills have become standard. However, the roles have been extremely enriched by adding a need for business acumen, and an understanding of what customers want and what suppliers can bring to fulfil these needs, supporting us in being a competitive player.”
She says that shift in the requirements of procurement and supply chain professionals has created opportunities for women looking to enter the business. “Since there has been this development towards more collaboration and more understanding, it’s actually created a great chance for females to develop in supply chain and procurement roles,” says Praeceptor. “It adds to diversity in companies and wider skills and abilities including being sensitive, capturing what’s going on the other side of the table, and bringing people together and at the same time being hard on facts. From a skills point of view it’s ideal for women, bringing in different aspects compared to having no or limited diversity of leaders.”
She describes her own career as back-to-front, in that her first job was at Philips, working in purchasing. She spent eight years with the company, latterly as a project manager, and says it was there that she learned about leadership, and taking supply chain management to the next level.
She then took a career break, went to university, and became a mother to three kids. When she returned in 2001, it was to a role as logistics manager for Lafarge, the French industrial group that produces building materials. There she spent a decade, rising from logistics manager to supply chain manager, regional supply chain manager and finally vice president of supply chain management, leaving at the end of 2011.
“Then I faced a bit of a choice,” she recalls, “whether to re-locate with the family to Paris, because Lafarge was restructuring or to stay in Vienna and look for another opportunity. That’s when the offer of Mondi came up, and I ended up as procurement director, now promoted to CPO, here. That was five years ago, and I can honestly say I have enjoyed every single day since.”
The Mondi role was not an easy one to take on, says Praeceptor, as she was the third CPO in 5 years and, consequently, inherited some challenges. “I like bringing people back to shape,” she says, “setting up teams and working towards a common goal, so the last five years have been very exciting. It has all been about designing how we want to build Mondi’s procurement function, breaking it down into specific blocks, getting stakeholder buy-in, and making sure that procurement has the credibility it deserves across the organisation.”
She says she is currently at the stage of integrating procurement excellence into a more supply chain orientated approach, as this will open further opportunities to deliver innovative solutions to our customer through better management and better visibility of suppliers and their contribution to our value chain.
She loves the fact that her role is a lot about collaboration: “Procurement and supply chain have become much more collaborative, which is a bit of a response to the volatility and the fast-changing environment out there,” she says. “You have to be very careful in choosing your key supplier, and it’s really necessary to think about your mutual interests and how you can all benefit from collaboration to make sure it’s a long-lasting relationship. Changing a supplier is extremely costly and risky, so it is much better to work together to achieve cost optimisation.”
But it is not always easy to find the talented individuals that she needs for her teams, particularly on the procurement side. Praeceptor says: “It’s difficult to find good people to fill senior or mid-level procurement roles. Often people fall into procurement and continue to develop there, but rarely is it chosen on purpose. Maybe it is because there are not many universities where you can study “procurement”. Fortunately you can find an increasing number where you can study supply chain management and procurement being part of it.”
She adds, “The struggle is to find the right mix, of that pushy dog on the chain, and that service-orientated capability to manage complexity. You can usually find either pushy people who want to negotiate and drag out the last cent from the other side, or you find good relationship people. The same goes for the communication skills: As procurement professionals, you need to be able to communicate with people on the shop floor as well as with the managing director to get the buy-in for sourcing initiatives.”
Praeceptor hopes to see more women entering the supply chain going forward, because their skills are in high demand. In her department of roughly 50 people, she says about half are female and 25% of her leadership team are women.
“I think the most important thing we can do is be role models,” she says, “and really support especially young women in their career development, and deter them from giving up. What I often see is that women at a certain point start asking questions like – do I really want to make a career in this, is this really what I want to and able to do? And then when they realise they would have liked to get the promotion, it’s too late. So it’s really about encouraging and giving support, and Mondi is a great company in that regard.”
And if there were one lesson she would share, from her own career experiences? “I would say, have confidence in your own competencies, and be aware of the added value that you bring as a leader and a woman,” she says. “Very often women are surrounded by a male culture and they think that in order to catch up, they have to copy that male culture. That is both very difficult to achieve, and it’s actually jeopardising the diversity of viewpoint that they bring. So my message would be stick to your strengths, be proud of them, and have confidence in them as you progress.”
And remember, there is no need to bite.