Sarah Millard does not find it easy to hire the right talent to work in marketing procurement. As regional procurement director for Coca-Cola Asia Pacific, with a focus on marketing and opex expenditure, she says the demands of working in such a specialised industry and the need for strong all round talent can make it hard to recruit.

Originally published March 2017

“Finding the right talent is difficult,” she says, “And I personally think it’s particularly difficult in Asia Pacific. I’m currently in Japan working with our local team and I would say this is one of the hardest markets to recruit in.”

She adds, “Procurement, and more specifically marketing procurement, is a specialised industry with critical core skills required, beyond buying in a traditional supply chain environment. We want to find talent with strong business acumen that can support us to deliver better commercial deals and drive value, but critically we want them to do it collaboratively in a way that supports marketing and commercial business objectives, growing awareness and loyalty to our brands and driving consumption and revenue growth.”

Such a combination of skills is not always easy to find, particularly in a part of the world where many graduates move into more traditional roles, such as accounting, law or medicine – “Not too many people set out to have a career in procurement,” says Millard.

Millard began working in procurement in 1989, when she joined British Airways in London. At the time she didn’t know what she wanted to do, but was attracted by the opportunity to work at the airline. Once she found her passion for procurement, she stayed for 14 years, seven of those based in Hong Kong, starting as a junior expeditor in avionics and rising to global inflight services procurement senior manager.

“Some of the best training I received was with British Airways,” says Millard. “They invested heavily in their people and it showed in results. It was the early days of professional strategic procurement development, and they were definitely one of the leaders in procurement at that time.”

After a two-year career break to spend time with family, she spent several years in consulting, before moving to Coca-Cola in Shanghai in 2008, as Business Unit procurement director. Today, she supports five business units in Asia and multiple functions across global and corporate departments, and says she is particularly interested in marketing and how it can help drive company sales and revenue growth.

Millard says: “What I love about procurement is the variety in the role and knowing that we can add real value to the business. You can be working with agencies and suppliers and have an external focus on the business, and at the same time you can be working with many different functions inside the company using that external 3rd party knowledge to drive cost & quality management. We are doing business with finance, legal, marketing, commercial and identifying their business requirements… for me that’s fascinating, because I love that broad business perspective.”

Millard set up the Coca-Cola Asia Pacific marketing procurement team in 2014, and has been recruiting over the last two and half years. It is finding the calibre of talent able to deal with that variety, and keep up with the pressures of an FMCG environment requiring immediate delivery that is so challenging. For Millard, overcoming the hurdles just requires a bit of thinking outside the box: “We have had to be creative over the years and recruit from different industries and functions, such as digital, creative agencies, sales functions, management consultants and finance,” she says. “Then we provide rigorous training in procurement skills, thereby creating an individual with strong subject matter expertise that can influence and drive greater partnerships with our business. But I do think we still have a lot of work ahead of us.”

She says she has not faced a challenge finding female talent for her teams, though she does see that it becomes harder for women as they progress up the management ladder to balance all aspects of life to a level that women feel satisfied with, which she argues is a feature of many industries, and not just procurement. She went on to highlight that female talent is often well suited to Marketing Procurement as they possess ability to form collaborative relationships quickly, she also added that her female colleagues are extremely diligent and hard working with the skills to multi task across many projects in a fast moving business.

Millard also commented that there is a need for companies to improve their focus on diversity and women’s empowerment, highlighting that Coca-Cola had developed many such programs including Women’s Link and Women’s Leadership Council which are global initiatives to help The Coca-Cola Company meet its 2020 Vision related to increasing the presence of women in key leadership positions. These Initiatives include multiple programs around the world aimed at creating true diversity and advancing women in the workplace.

Now that her team is in place, her role is moving in to a new era. Millard says: “Now we are moving into a phase where we need to be strong business partners and not just traditional procurement. We are working very closely with our finance and marketing directors looking at how we procurement can support zero based budget development, helping marketing through improved budget planning, supporting them with fact based data from strategic sourcing output, and driving for greater analytics and ROI management to support decision making.”

She says the role of the supply chain professional is constantly changing, but it is critical that procurement experts be relevant to the business, and learn to influence and support business decisions collaboratively.

“We also need to embrace technology,” says Millard. “I live in China, where I can buy a cup of coffee with my mobile phone (WeChat wallet) and shop for absolutely anything online just by showing a photograph of what I want (Taobao). In procurement, we need to embrace these changes and push for greater use of technology.”

She points to a number of other things that procurement professionals will need to focus on if they’re to have the necessary skills going forward. These include improved analytics and market insights to support business planning; greater understanding of the end consumer and what drives the business; and the ability to creatively reduce inefficient processes and low-value work.

Millard also believes procurement managers should be thinking more innovatively: “Whether it’s working with a creative agency or with a manufacturer, we need to be supporting more innovation,” she says. “That also means building more flexibility into our relationships, to ensure we can move faster. And we need to be brave, and drive greater change management across the business.”

By doing so, Millard believes supply chain professionals will continue to gain influence in the boardroom. “I think we live in challenging times that will be ongoing, and productivity, of which procurement is one part, is high on a CEO’s agenda. That means CEO direct interface with a CPO, either by being on the leadership team or being a consultant adviser to the leadership team, either way it is becoming the norm as it should be,” she says.

But influence is not just about the boardroom, she says, but about the wider business, where she says procurement is also gaining credibility. “Critically, we are being asked to be partners in the business,” she says. “Subject to building the right capability and core skills, our role has the potential to move into being strong business consultants, to enable our marketing and sales teams to deliver results.”

Finding the right talent is essential, but with a brand like Coca-Cola behind her, and a penchant for creativity, one gets the feeling Millard will overcome those challenges.