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One of the major benefits for anyone looking at a career in purchasing is the huge variety it offers, from different sectors to the type of role on offer. Nearly every sector from finance to manufacturing, retail and construction will have a purchasing and supply chain and will need either one expert or an expert team in place to manage it.

The pressures and demands of every purchasing job will vary between sectors, and now is a great time to be in purchasing when value and cost considerations are at their highest. Some of the core skills needed to work in purchasing will not differ between each sector but no two jobs will ever be the same. Each sector has its own specific issues and goals, whether sustainable, ethical, or profit-motivated, and will need different kinds of specialists in place.

Job titles

The purchasing profession has a whole range of different job titles depending on the elements required for each post. Most companies will have a ‘model’ that works best for them, but here are some of the job titles that you may come across:

  • Procurement officer
  • Buyer
  • Supply chain manager
  • Supplier relationship manager
  • Contract manager
  • Category buyer
  • Purchasing manager
  • E-procurement manager
  • Assistant buyer

Most of these job titles will have similar roles and responsibilities, but the business goals and strategies will be dictated by the sector they’re in, whether public, private, or not-for-profit.

Most purchasers will need to be skilled in contract management, and managing a supply chain can be an integral part of a purchaser’s job without the supply chain manager title. It’s always worth checking the job description carefully, as the same job titles, may have a different focus on tasks.

Purchaser/buyer/procurement officer

A purchaser has to develop good relationships with their suppliers, which means good ‘soft skills’ such as communication. Successful working relationships often bring added benefits such as new ideas to business or innovative ways of approaching old problems

Negotiation is also a key skill to have, as these relationships will not always be easy. The supplier wants to make money, and the buyer wants to save it. Getting close and gaining a full understanding of the products and services a company needs will make the process easier. Knowledge is power. So, being able to think laterally is a key skill along with managing the finances.

Supply chain

Graduates working in a supply chain role may find themselves working in operations, distribution, logistics and warehousing.

These departments are different from a pure purchasing function, as they tend to involve managing the depots and making sure the flow of goods come in on time Often processes may need updating, new systems and procedures need implementing to keep operations running smoothly and effectively.

A well-functioning supply chain is essential to the smooth running of any organisation.

One of the attractions of a career in purchasing and supply management is the variety. The diverse range of sectors and industries means that a purchaser might be buying anything from manufacturing components, to helicopters, to travel or marketing services.

What different sectors can offer

Charity

For charities and other not-for-profit organisations keeping overheads and purchasing costs down to a minimum is a priority. So, it’s even more important to source goods at the best possible price, while retaining quality and taking advantage of special deals and offers. This process can take time and it is not always easy to find suitable and interested suppliers.

This is a really challenging role with the pressures charities face, especially when many charities subscribe to sustainable and ethical practices.

Case study: St Mungo’s
“Work in the charity sector relies on you using your own initiative much more. You have to be flexible, adaptable and able to provide solutions. As resources are tight, you have to work smarter and more effectively so as not to waste any time or money.”I don’t have the luxury of a secretary or even much administration support – it’s all hands on deck so prioritising workload is crucial. Everyday is different, dealing with long-term objectives hand in hand with the short-term issues that arise on an ongoing basis.”The other thing to remember in a charity is that many people are volunteers and they may not be as commercially aware as perhaps those working in a blue chip organisation.”But the benefits are worth it – the job security is better and you’re not solely focused on achieving commercial targets. This job is both worthwhile and challenging which is the beauty of it. I know I’m working for a worthy cause and putting something back, especially as good purchasing is really adding value.”Steve Fabian, Purchasing Manager, St Mungo’s Community Housing Association.

Local government

The public sector offers massive scope in the type of purchasing you may get involved with. The challenge to get value for money is now more important than ever with the public deficit cuts reaching across all services. On a local government level, a purchaser may find themselves buying for schools, involved in construction projects, buying IT equipment, or even contributing to social work.

The public sector has seen a large amount of change in recent years and operates within a variety of legislative boundaries and initiatives. Buying decisions are constrained by regulations from the EU and national government. It must never be forgotten that the money spent is taxpayers’ money so all buying decisions are under close scrutiny.

Case study: Portsmouth City Council
“Local government spend in the region of £40 billion a year on the goods and services it provides. An increasing public demand for quality services and value for money has meant ‘efficiency’ has been put at the top of the agenda – after all this is taxpayers money we’re spending.”Expectations from public services have increased considerably over the last 5 years and with the growing demand for value for money, public procurement is at the sharp end of providing cost efficient Public Services”The impact of local government procurement is all around us – it effects everyone. From the bricks used to build schools and the recruitment of the teachers within them or the standard of residential care in nursing homes, the local gym and leisure pool or even having your bins emptied each week – procurement has a key part to play and can effect the quality of peoples day to day lives, that’s why it’s so rewarding.”Local government procurement is such a dynamic and vibrant environment to work in and there has never been a better time to consider this as a career choice. There is a skills gap in local authorities for good procurement professionals so the opportunities are fantastic – now’s the time to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in.”David Pointon, Head of Procurement, Portsmouth City Council

Police buying

Also within the public sector, all police forces will have dedicated teams of purchasers buying a whole array of items from uniforms, batons, catering services for the staff canteen, right the way through to high speed cars or even helicopters.

Case study: Greater Manchester Police
“Over the past ten years procurement in the Police Service has moved from conducting more traditional contracting to a cutting edge procurement environment. The strong use of IT, in ordering, tendering, project management for contracting and a move into a strongly strategic perspective is evidence of this.”Being line manager for a team of procurement people, contracts management, and data analysts, part of my time is in leading this team. The non pay related spend for GMP is £70 million per year, and although part of these contracts constituting this spend are developed through activities within the section, large contracts are developed by cross functional teams.”My team and I provide assistance and guidance, on procurement best practice, including conformity with the EU directives, so as to develop best value, whilst other functional specialists contribute their technical expertise about the commodity being procured.”Collaboration in police procurement is very widespread, with the forces being divided into regions with representatives of the procurement officers (such as myself) joining together to develop contracts, share information and discuss procurement matters. There is also collaboration at a national level.”The culture in police procurement is one of continual challenges; of keeping abreast of the changing face of procurement, whilst dealing with the rapid requirements of a modern force. It is intensely professional with a heavy emphasis on training. If you like challenges, are technically knowledgeable, and have strong interpersonal skills – then police procurement could be for you!”Stuart Norman, Principal Procurement Officer, Greater Manchester Police

Construction

Again, the choice and scope for a purchaser working in the construction field is huge. Construction firms may get involved in building new houses, office blocks, tourist attractions, building new roads, bridges or even bigger, more demanding projects such as the channel tunnel or the Olympics village.

This is a highly specialised field and needs close working relationships between the purchasing teams, the engineers, the architects and the site project managers.

Equipment being sourced has to meet the stringent specification and requirements of the project. To complicate things further, needs and requirements may change as the project progresses.

That’s the challenge and the excitement. Buyers also make sure products are received on time as any delays or issues in the supply chain will impact on the final project deadline.

Retail buying

Another specialist area of purchasing is retail which is different again because the bought-in goods go direct to the end user or customer. For example, buying wine for a major supermarket chain, may involve purchasing the bottled and labelled product, or the contents for own-brand labelling. A buyer for a clothes retailer, may buy the buttons or zips, or the complete item.

Case study: M&S
“Whether you know it as Marks & Spencer or M&S, we are a household name and one that cannot fail to deliver in service and quality to our customers – or our brand and reputation will be very quickly damaged. I head up teams of buyers and category managers mainly in the non-chilled area of food – so that covers a wide range of bakery goods, wines, drinks, canned groceries, confectionary, crisps and snacks, right through to flowers and plants – very diverse!“M&S has a very broad spectrum of products and services so our procurement people get a great deal of variety as they move across different departments, buying different things across different industries. Each category has its own dynamics – a good example being our ‘celebration’ category.“I currently have a team of buyers looking at this year’s Christmas food range in terms of cakes, etc; it’s currently Easter, but these things have to be planned well in advance to make sure we have the right product, the right look and design and obviously make sure there will be the right amount on the shelves at the right time!”The packaging and design must be thought through so it fits with how the store is planning to look for the festive season – this means cross working with other teams at M&S.”Team effort is crucial for this role – we work alongside product developers, technologists and the retail team planning their stores – we all integrate together, planning design and messaging with procurement becoming an active participant in the whole creative process. The secret is all in the planning.”Some things are often a little harder to be so well planned for. My bakery and bread team are currently looking at hot cross buns for the fast approaching Easter weekend. Many things can affect the supply on such a product such as the weather and temperature, it has to be managed on a day-to-day basis – it’s much more an immediate item and has to be managed by reacting quickly.“We have to be very close to what’s going on day-to-day across the country as anything from the weather to food fashions or even TV ads can have an impact on what we buy day-to-day.“Of course M&S is 100% own label products – we control all the products that have our brand name associated with it, but we don’t make our own products so supplier relationships are so important for M&S. We have to nurture those relationships, always keeping a commercial mind, but working together as effectively as possible – it’s a very interesting world!”Ian Bentley, Marks & Spencer Trading Executive

Get yourself out there

The list of different sectors is endless and nearly every role and every job will be different. The answer is to go out and investigate the choices out there and what you’ll really love to do.

About the Author

  • About Liz Lees: Liz Lees is Head of Public Relations for the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply

Liz Lees

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