“If I had to describe myself today, I’d probably say I’m an engineer who has made a transition into procurement and supply chain,” says Hilary Scott, who was senior director of supply chain at Flex, an electronics manufacturing business, before she set up herself up as an independent Supply Chain consultant last year.
Originally published March 2017
“My degree was in engineering; my first job was an engineering role with Compaq [now part of Hewlett-Packard], and had various engineering roles at Compaq , finally working as a Supplier Quality Engineer.”
After six years as an engineer, Scott decided to apply for a procurement role at SCI, an electronics manufacturer that is now part of Nasdaq-listed Sanmina. “I went for that role even though I had absolutely no experience,” she says. “I took my engineering knowledge and applied it to procurement. When they talked in the interview about negotiations, I talked about quality solutions, and how at the end of the day it’s about relationships.”
She got the job, and has never looked back. And it has taught her that there’s more to being the best supply chain professional than just the contents of your CV.
Scott advises upcoming talent against getting hung up on having the “right” skills and experience for senior jobs. “At times, there’s a big push for people to have the right experience and the right qualifications,” she says, “and I would challenge that. Experience goes a long way, but when I’m looking for supply chain talent, there are some fundamentals that I look for. People need to be self-starters, have a willingness to learn and keep on learning, being able to work by themselves rather than wait for direction, ability to prioritise and they need natural curiosity. In this role it is important to be able to keep perspective as you do not always get exactly what you want and you need to be able to manage that”
She says good communication skills are also an absolute must for working in supply chain, and adds: “Qualifications show you can learn – they don’t prove whether or not you will be a good supply chain person. The two best people I’ve ever employed to work for me were working in finance not procurement, but in terms of their drive, their motivation and their negotiation skills, they were perfect for the job.”
After winning her way in, Scott’s role at SCI required a steep learning curve, and she studied for an MBA in Business Administration at the Open University at the same time. She says it then took her a decade to learn her trade, and get to grips with the processes and procedures that drive procurement. That 10-year period included a stint as a materials director for a start-up, Universal Scientific Industrial, where she set up purchasing and planning departments from scratch and grew them to a headcount of 150, processing 100,000 orders per year and covering $150 million component spend.
She went back to SCI after two years: “My learning went through the roof doing a start-up,” she says, “because I needed to be a jack of all trades. For anyone thinking about a start-up, I’d say think carefully about your life, because a start-up is all-consuming, but the learning is fantastic.”
As a mother of three, she took a two-year career break from 2005, during which time she found the opportunity to study for a postgraduate degree in education, “In fact, I’m a qualified maths teacher!” she laughs.
In 2007, Scott joined Flextronics International, as director of strategic supply chain, and took on responsibility for setting up and implementing a supply chain for operating and delivery excellence. In 2012 she was promoted to senior director of supply chain, and in 2015 the company rebranded as Flex.
Scott says that in her career to date, she’s become passionate about working in supply chains: “Supply chain, for me, has a much better scope. Procurement organisations are either commodity or category-based, so you walk into an organisation and whilst you can shape the department and set out your 5 year plan, you are still looking after commodities or categories and the metrics that go along with that,” says Scott. “In supply chain, on the other hand, there’s this end to end approach and you manage the entire physical process.”
She explains: “If you look at my supply chain role, it was looking after specific customers who had a multitude of products, so my experience and understanding of how those products were put together, and the suppliers being used, was absolutely invaluable. It’s how you get it through the manufacturing process and out, based on their requirements, so it’s much more than procurement.”
She says she has never encountered discrimination on the basis of her gender as she has worked her way up in the industry, and cannot understand why there are so many fewer women in senior supply chain roles than there are in more junior posts on the supply side.
Her advice to women coming in is simple: “The skills you should be trying to hone are challenging the norm, improving your negotiation skills as this could be at both customer and supplier levels, being resilient and having a positive attitude. It is quite difficult at times, and you need to be able to position yourself correctly.”
The good news is that the role of the supply chain professional is getting more sophisticated, and there is an increasing separation of supply chain and procurement functions in large companies, which creates new opportunities for talent.
“It’s no longer just about getting the parts to hit your back door,” says Scott. “It’s now about everything, in terms of scope of requirements from the end customer, agreeing on the correct process for manufacturing, understanding the customers suppliers and limitations they may have, bringing in raw materials using the correct set-ups, understanding the inventory and the implications, getting parts through the processes, getting finished products out to the customer, and working with your end customers,” she says. “For me, the companies that prioritise their supply chain roles will excel in terms of controls and compliance, and that in turn will drive benefits for the bottom line.”
Certainly some industries are moving faster than others in developing their supply chain professionals, and some CEOs are more enlightened than others about properly representing the supply chain around the boardroom table.
Scott says: “A lot of company structures have supply chain reporting in through finance, but actually supply chain is just as important as finance and should be seen as a separate entity. I have seen it in practice, and sometimes supply chain gets lost in translation at that level.”
Which is precisely why she says communication/negotiation skills, resilience and the drive to succeed and learn, rather than supply-chain qualifications, are critical in the current market.