Since the new president moved into the White House, and the people of the UK voted for Brexit, the importance of the supply chain has gone up the agenda, according to Pirjo Virtanen.

Originally published March 2017

The vice president of operations at world-leading industrials company Metso says the current political situation may potentially have big implications for people in her line of work: “For the last decade we’ve been living in an open world, where we could utilise supply-sourcing possibilities from best-cost countries in a very efficient way,” says Virtanen. “But now there’s a lot of questions being raised about how open the world will be in the not-so-distant future, and whether we will see more trade barriers.”

She adds, “That will have an impact on the supply operations of all companies, and when that kind of risk factor is raised, it obviously needs to be considered at the very highest level of corporations.”

Virtanen never really intended to work in industry: she studied metallurgical engineering, became a doctor of technology in materials science, and started out in a career as a visiting scientist at the University of Oxford.

But a lightbulb moment saw her turn her back on a future in scientific research: “If you compare scientific and industrial problem solving, it’s like comparing figure skating and long-distance running, and I always preferred long-distance running,” she says. “Working in science, I felt that someone’s opinion on how well I had done something was what mattered, whereas in industry, it’s all about numbers. Regardless of who you are or what you background is, you can convince anyone by creating results.”

She began her career at Metso, a company serving the mining, aggregates and oil and gas industries, nearly 20 years ago. Metso is listed on the Nasdaq in Finland, and had sales of about €2.6 billion in 2016, selling products ranging from mining and aggregates processing equipment and systems to industrial valves and controls. Virtanen has worked her way up from foundry manager to vice president of operations, whereby she is responsible for factories and foundries around the world, as well as the global support team. She is also the site manager of one major factory location.

“It’s the possibility of making a change that matters to the company that I love about my job,” she says. “Once you know the people framework, and who is supposed to deliver what, and you know that doing the right things will take the company to a proper position in the global marketplace, and improve its ability to serve the customers, that’s really what gets you going. Knowing we can actually deliver a change so that tomorrow we will be better than we are today, that’s really motivating.”

Midway through her career, in 2009, Virtanen took a leap into the unknown when she was asked to take on the role of global vice president for health and safety at Metso. She was to stick with the job for four years, before returning to a site manager post, but she says the challenge was career-defining.

“I was a foundry manager at that stage,” she says, “And that was what I’d been hoping for – I thought that if I retired as a foundry manager I would have had a good career. But I wasn’t really very old, so when somebody approached me with a different challenge, I jumped at it. I decided to do something where nothing that I knew would help me, with absolutely no use for my metallurgical skills.”

Overseeing Health, Safety and Environmental sustainability of two-thirds of the business and some 12,000 employees, the role saw Virtanen responsible for creating a safety culture across 30 countries. She achieved great results, and learned a valuable lesson: “I realised that it’s possible to lead topics that you are not yourself an expert in,” she says. “It’s about finding the people and the knowledge within your team, selling ideas internally, and making the results measurable. I’m an engineer, so the first thing I always want to do is make sure that things are measurable so that we can show we are getting results.”

For young people entering the supply chain today, she says it’s vital not to be intimidated. “It’s not anything hard or difficult,” says Virtanen. “If there’s anybody, male or female, who feels scared to jump into a supply chain-related role, I would like them to think it’s nothing scary. It’s about general management skills really. You need to know your business, but above all you need to be a leader and manage your co-workers and your strategy. Less-experienced female engineering candidates should not expect any roadblocks to stand in the way of them taking a step upwards.”

For her part, Virtanen says gender has never been a factor in her own career progression, and whilst she appreciates that there are far more men than women in senior manufacturing and supply chain roles, she says: “There are a few women, and many of them have a solid background from one or several corporations. I feel that it’s not about gender, it’s about what you do to develop your capabilities and courage. I actually don’t think about being a woman at work – I’m a person, I’m a manager, a leader, and an engineer. Gender is really a non-issue if you know your business.”

Metso delivers machinery, spare and wear parts and service to major corporations around the world, and for those customers, the efficiency of the supply chain could not be more critical. “In mining, aggregates and other industries we provide services for, both operational managers and executives appreciate the knowledge and solutions they get from us. It includes good, timely and cost-effective supply,” she says. “We are in the business of improving material flow and keeping maintenance time down, and it is part of our service promise to deliver the parts to all continents, as planned. To live up to that, we absolutely have to have an efficient supply chain.”

While manufacturing operations, purchasing and logistics might historically have been treated as entirely separate functions, in today’s supply chain these become increasingly intertwined, she says, noting that especially procurement and manufacturing must seamlessly work together.

And in the current political climate, it is apparent that attention to supply chain issues needs to be there on company boards, she says. She loves the challenge of dynamic operational environment, and variables such as tariffs and currency changes only make business more interesting. That is why she turned her back on a career as a scientist all those years ago: “I made a good decision 20 years ago, not to stay in research” says Virtanen. “It’s really good fun to work with people and facilitate change every day.”