Finding my feet
I didn’t feel I was getting anywhere at school so left when I was 16 and found my first job in a shop where I worked for six months – not sure at this stage which career path to take. In 1974 I joined what was then the Greater London Council (GLC) in the supplies department.
The department was responsible for buying all goods and services for the GLC, which included the majority of schools in London as well as many other areas of local government. I was in the motor transport division which was responsible for repairing and maintaining over 1,000 different vehicles. I had various jobs including some involving buying at a low level in the organisation but most being finance posts.
It was during this early stage in my career that I was sponsored by my organisation to start studying for the Chartered Institute of Purchasing & Supply (CIPS) qualifications. It was the only qualification that they would sponsor me for even though I had spent most of my time in finance posts.
By the time the GLC was abolished in 1986, I had reached the level of Divisional Finance Officer so I applied for a job with the London Fire Brigade – in a finance role. As I had some procurement experience from the GLC, I also continued to get very involved in procurement work.
But as my main role was in finance I decided to take accountancy qualifications through The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) and I became Head of Accounts for the Brigade. This finance qualification led to me being asked to lead a private finance initiative (PFI) project in 1997 to outsource the Brigade’s fleet of vehicles and more than 20,000 items of operational equipment.
This was the first time in the emergency services that such a project had been undertaken. PFIs are a form of public–private partnership (PPP) where there is a strictly defined legal contract for involving private companies in the provision of public services – often building and construction projects. The benefit of such schemes is that the government does not have to outlay expensive one-off payments to fund large-scale projects and the risk is technically transferred to the private sector consortium. The consortium then gets paid on a regular basis from public money depending on its performance.
Procurement in the spotlight
This was a fascinating time in my career as PFIs were very much in their infancy and involved a new way of operating and working together – it was a big learning curve for both public and the private sector organisations. Although ‘labelled’ as finance, actually the PFI project I was leading was in fact a huge procurement project and it was this that got me back into full-time procurement work. This was a major project that took three years to implement but was extremely rewarding in terms of the outcomes. It was at this time that I also successfully studied for a Masters in Business Studies – not something I would recommend doing if you wish to stay sane!
Thanks to the successful implementation of the PFI project, the London Fire Brigade realised that procurement really needed to be taken more seriously and that it was a key factor in the more effective management of costs and spend. The decision was therefore taken to set up a dedicated procurement department, which I became head of in 2001.
Never a dull moment
It was important as Head of Procurement for a large fire service, and still is in my current role, to ensure that vehicles and equipment purchased for use by firefighters at fires and rescue incidents are going to work, meet the operational needs of firefighters and are not going to cause injury either to them or members of the public.
That is in addition to ensuring that the equipment purchased does not act as a barrier to women or those from ethnic minorities joining the fire service, as well as being cost effective and meeting environmental objectives. We have to have very close relationships with those specialist suppliers who provide the kit we need to help us achieve those objectives.
Although the threat of terrorism isn’t necessarily a new concept in London, the threat has changed and we had to make sure that we were ready to cope with all possible eventualities. This meant looking at items such as specialist breathing equipment and specialist detection equipment to ensure it could deal with all types of scenarios from fires and bombs to chemical attacks.
Equipment is also needed for the monitoring of chemical weapons and even making sure mobile toilets are available for firefighters working for long periods at a major incident. These are unpleasant things to think about but we have to be prepared as much as we can.
I had an excellent team in London Fire Brigade and we were very successful in getting considerable efficiencies and savings by ensuring all departments bought off central contracts and stopping maverick spend. However it became obvious that we could only go so far in achieving savings but that even greater gains could be achieved by collaborating with other brigades in the country. There are 46 individual fire brigades in England and until recently they operated in isolation from each other in terms of purchasing.
This was the genesis of Firebuy, which was set up in April 2006 as a non-departmental public body and is working to harness the purchasing power of all fire brigades across the UK, particularly for fire service specific items such as uniforms and vehicles.
I am currently the chief executive officer for Firebuy. It is an exciting role indeed trying to pull together the requirements of 46 different brigades in the country. We also work with others such as the MOD Fire Service and with brigades in Wales and Northern Ireland to see if they want to join in with some of the procurements Firebuy has put in place.
Our aim is to pull together a national picture of what exactly is being bought and focus on where we can join together and buy more efficiently. For example we are currently progressing a procurement for water rescue equipment which is a collaborative procurement involving not only the fire service, but DEFRA, the Environment Agency, Marine Coastguard Agency and others.
This is where procurement gets particularly exciting, working together with different partners to ensure that we provide improved equipment to a number of agencies to better protect the public and save lives.
It’s a very exciting time to be involved with the fire service but also working in procurement. There is still a great deal of work to be done across the profession, especially in the area of people development. One of the biggest issues for me is the lack of professionally qualified CIPS people – this needs to change.
For people entering the profession now the opportunities are huge, but I would strongly recommend that anyone taking on a procurement role pushes to get their organisation to sponsor them to complete their professional qualifications. I didn’t make a conscious decision to enter procurement but fell into it at a time when procurement wasn’t fashionable and certainly didn’t have the standing or prominence it does now.
To be able to provide the best value to your organisation in a procurement role it is important to understand the needs and key drivers of the organisation otherwise your procurements won’t necessarily meet its needs. So in addition to obtaining a professional qualification there is a need to understand and gain general business skills and acumen – get experience of how your organisation operates wherever and whenever possible. That way you will be able to provide better procurement advice. Procurement continues to be at the forefront of government policy – there will be considerable pressure to make reductions in public expenditure to meet the deficit in public finances and the Treasury is relying on procurement to achieve much of those savings.
With the right people we will continue to push this profession forward, continuing to make it the strategic function that it needs to be to enable it to achieve real organisational benefits.