I’m a buyer. Not a magician

The featureless stare of my manager. It conveys a mixture of disappointment, unhappiness and it’s my cue to prepare for an interrogation.

What do you mean there’s a cost increase? Have they taken into account our growth?”  “Yes”

Have you told them to view their efficiencies?”  “Yes”

I’m not taking currency collapse as an excuse”  “I know”

Have they reviewed every aspect of their own supply chain”  “Yes”

Well, tell them we aren’t accepting the increase”  “I already have”

Generally speaking, these are fair questions, and are in every good buyer’s repertoire. And believe it or not, whenever faced with the prospect of a cost increase, the account manager is feeling just as bad at having to deliver the news, as you are having to accept it. Probably.

But, there does come a point when the ammunition is exhausted and all you’re left with is begging for a better cost.

My manager, Mr. Price, is a director of the business and an ex-supermarket buyer. Hard nosed, straight talking, never afraid of having a fight with a supplier. Cost is paramount, and any hint of a better deal elsewhere is sniffed out like a rabid bloodhound.

Expensive shirts, expensive watch, expensive car, the outer image conveys someone who values the finer things, and is, partly, a bit of an act to show suppliers who’s in charge. In meeting mode, he is exactly how you would imagine a buyer to behave – blunt, scathing and unsympathetic.

I recall a time recently when faced with a price hike from a long term supplier, Mr. Price simply ended the meeting by bluntly telling them to “put someone else’s price up to offset the increase; I don’t care how you do it, I am not taking it”

One downside to this style is, unfortunately, when you have to tell him bad news – You then play the part of the supplier and bear a full onslaught of inquisition. On occasion, the ‘shit sandwich’ approach to unpalatable bulletins has to be deployed.

Good news (the bread)! Bad news (the shit). Good news(bread)! I think I read somewhere that Gordon Brown’s staff used to use this technique with regularity.

My approach is slightly more empathetic. I come from a different background, starting my career with wholesale purchasing and then project procurement, where building relationships with suppliers is very important.

When involved in large scale construction projects, one is always pulling in favours, changing delivery dates, changing product specifications and battling with architects and designers. Price starts to lose its relevance (although still important of course) and simply completing projects on time becomes the focus.

Although slowly, especially with the current economic challenges, my attitude is becoming more and more convergent with Mr. Price. I simply don’t have the time or budget to have conversations which start with “Well, we all know it’s tough trading out there…”

Having said that, the reality is that sometimes there really is nothing to be had, and little choice but to accept higher costs.

I guess the overall point of today’s musings is that no matter what approach a buying team has, mine, or Mr. Price’s, the current economic climate, one of the effects of Brexit, is unfortunately going to mean higher prices for everybody.

Our currency is shockingly weak and eventually leaving the single market will mean higher importation costs. Thats without even pondering the effects that staff at the lower, but important, end of the salary spectrum are going to have to be paid higher to ensure supermarket shelves are stacked, restaurant tables are cleared and hotel rooms are cleaned. The European free movers, starting their UK careers aren’t going to be here to take up those roles.

So, who’s going to pay for all this? All of us.

So when you’re wondering why you’re paying what you’re paying for your ready meals at home, your pizzas on date night out and your dirty weekend away, just think of the efforts the procurement teams across the country are still making to let you pay as little as possible…

And I always try and let our suppliers provide this with, at least, a half smile on their face.

LP

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Buy. Buy. Sell. Buy.

Buyer. Purchasing executive. Supply chain manager. Procurement officer. Direct. In-Direct. FMCG. Wholesale. Retail.

The list of words, and their associated adjectives, is endless to describe a profession, which myself and many others share. But, in short, I am paid to spend the company’s money on stuff.  Lots of stuff. And lots of money as well. Last year my department spent, give or take a mill, about £60 million. That, in the words of Danny Dyer, is severe readies.

Yet, to those not in the game, I sometimes struggle to describe what I do and justify why I do it. Why would you need a procurement team?  Surely you don’t need a dedicated department just to choose the supplier with the cheapest cost?  Isn’t your job just a  networking circus of being entertained and buying things from your favourite people?  Life must be one big shopping trip – I love shopping, you have my dream job!

Well, no.. well, sometimes yes.. but mainly no.

I recall my first trip abroad as a junior buyer. I had recently been promoted from purchasing administrator to trainee buyer after somehow convincing the owner of the business (whom I shall refer to as Mr. Cheese) that I was worth a shot. Despite the fact that he decimated a once thriving wholesale business through petulance, micro-management, terrible people skills and wasting money on frivolous court cases and pathetic pet projects with no hope of making money, he DID give me the chance to learn a skill that I now use to earn the family’s bread.

Mr. Cheese was notorious for doing things on the cheap and of course my first away trip was no exception. Germany was the destination, and naturally my expectations were of being wined and dined by high flying salesmen whilst bagging numerous 6 figure deals and then returning to the office to rapturous applause from my stay at home colleagues, welcoming back the buying team from their dangerous mission abroad.

We stayed in a hotel that looked like a glass Egyptian pyramid – a pretty stupid design in my opinion, because you just end up with fewer and fewer rooms per floor the further up the lift you go. And, due to the sloping shape, there were no curtains.. just electronic blinds that were activated by pressing an annoyingly hard to find switch. In the morning, a young blonde girl, part of our sales team, was telling us that she liked the ‘oneway glass’ because she could get undressed whilst looking out at the view. Nope – no oneway glass – she just didn’t find the blind switch.

The fair that we were attending was where all the big cheeses came from all over the world to showcase their products with meetings and deals happening in the little backrooms behind the glitzy facades.

On the first day, I was told to attend my first meeting, basically as ‘purchasing bitch’. My colleague, Mr. Drip, would be leading the meeting. He had been there 20 years, and had basically spent his entire adult life doing the same thing day after day, buying the same products, talking to the same people, and had pretty much all available life sucked out of him by the vast sinking ship of a business that was collapsing around him. If something bad was going to going to happen, it would always happen to Mr. Drip.  Late trains, medical ailments, work place disasters (and later) redundancy – it always seemed to involve Mr. Drip.

Anyway, I entered the meeting room, and I use the word room in the loosest possible sense. It was separated from the main thoroughfare by a curtain, and consisted of three wooden chairs and a small round table with little room for anything else. In the middle of the table was an ashtray, which was full, and sat on the other side of the table was a man who looked like he’d had a harder life than Keith Richards. He was smoking and continued to smoke throughout the duration of the meeting.

I sat in this hotbox and I listened and I said absolutely nothing as this German mafia-esque caricature spelt out his demands on which to do business. In fact Mr. Drip said very little as well. A bit of nodding and a few words of acknowledgement and finally simple acceptance of the deal on the table! No negotiation, no offer to use his family yacht and certainly no glitz, glamour or any satisfaction of doing some shopping! The only excitement of note during that trip was that we caught our sales director coming out of a knocking shop in the red light district

So, why would you read a blog on someones profession I hear you ask yourself? Well, have you always wondered where your things come from? Why you pay what you pay for things? Or maybe its just interesting to hear a few stories from a job that isn’t your own.

LP