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  • Bio: Peter Williams was Director of Group procurement, up until August 2007, at George Wimpey, the major UK house builder. Peter was responsible for co-ordinating a £1.5 billion annual spend across 30 business units in the UK. Peter was also responsible for pr

Peter Williams

Finding a direction

I’ll be honest and say I didn’t contemplate what career path I might take until my final year at university and as the end of my three years loomed I decided I needed a direction. I had limited knowledge on what was out there so I went through a process of elimination.

I knew I would find a role in the public sector too restrictive and I wanted something that would allow quick advancement and offer me early management opportunities. I also considered what skills I had – regardless of my education. I knew I was a good communicator and liked dealing with people.

Being competitive at school, I considered sales and marketing as an option. When I read up on it I decided it was a well–advanced profession and there would be thousands of people after the same roles. I then read about purchasing and something clicked.

As a profession it didn’t seem as advanced as perhaps marketing and sales, but that’s what appealed – there was more of a challenge. As I was going through this thought process I was at a friend’s party and it turned out his dad was the director of purchasing at C&A (large clothing store which no longer operates in the UK). I couldn’t help think that they were a family who ‘lived well’ – so there must be a chance to earn a good living here.

As I was interested in cars I decided to apply to Ford and MG Rover (formerly British Leyland). I was accepted for a position on the graduate development programme at MG Rover and immersed myself in the world of purchasing.

Another aspect of my attraction to Purchasing was the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS) and the opportunity to study for full membership. I was able to achieve this and add the letters MCIPS to my name. MG Rover supported me in my desire to achieve this added qualification.

The world of purchasing

It was a quick learning curve. Because the department was so large I got to move around quite a lot so it actually served as a mini–apprenticeship, which gave me a good insight and loads of different experiences.

In 1984, after six years working in the automotive industry, I decided it was time for my first move and took a position with British Airways. At the time it was the world’s biggest international airline with revenues of £9.3 million.

The airline was under the leadership of Sir Colin Marshall and the company was going through major structural and cultural change in preparation for privatisation in 1987. It was a really exciting time to be at BA and I gained change management experience very early on which I believe is crucial. Being associated with key projects is also a good way of raising your own personal profile.

My ten years at BA gave me the confidence and experience to move on and find myself my next challenge. It came in 1994 in the form of the world’s largest marketing services group, WPP. They wanted to set up their first group purchasing operation. It had 80 companies operating out of 1,300 offices in 103 countries across the world and clients included names such as Ford, Unilever and IBM.

I had a departmental budget of £1.5million and my main target was to add value to the group by leveraging spend across all the operating companies. The direct and recurring savings achieved totalled £70 million – a pretty impressive figure.

I stayed at WPP group for seven years after which it was time for my next move. I changed tack slightly at this point and went to work for QP Group, a leading international strategic sourcing consultancy. Again it was an international company and held some major clients, such as Diageo and GSK.

This was the shortest element to my career so far as I stayed just 12 months before moving to BPB a global provider of building materials. This was a Group role as with WPP and again involved me in extensive travel around the world.

What motivates you?

I have spent over 25 years in the profession and am still feeling challenged – something that comes from finding work that is continually stimulating. Everyone is different and therefore has different motivators to keep them interested. Obviously money is key, as is seeing yourself progress – but I believe you will get more out of your career if you advance through your own merits rather than just circumstances.

Another motivator for me was travel – it was something I enjoyed and wanted to be a key part of my working life, I therefore ensured that the roles I chose would enable this. There aren’t many countries in the world I have not been to.

Thinking carefully through your own motivations will certainly help you make the right decisions and ones that will keep you challenged and progressing at a rapid pace. Having a checklist of things you want from your career is a great way to keep yourself heading in the right direction.

I was once given a very valuable piece of career advice in which I was told ‘the trick is to be employable and not just employed’. By making yourself a desirable commodity to an organisation – you will always find yourself in the best possible position. Clearly this involves hard work – there are no secrets to get round that one.

Working within the purchasing profession there are certain attributes that I believe will ensure success. You will need to have a competitive edge to want to achieve your objectives in any situation, both internal and external. Deadlines are crucial and there is an ever-increasing need for wider communication; purchasing is no longer an isolated function, but must work across the whole of an organisation.

These days we are also seeing change management playing an important role within organisations and the purchasing function is no exception. The ability to do things differently, be innovative, flexible and adapt are all crucial elements to a successful purchasing professional.

The words of Charles Darwin are very apt, ‘It is not the strongest that survive, or the most intelligent. It is the ones who are the most adaptive to change.’

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