There are a number of very common procurement frauds; well covered of course in the Bad Buying book.  “Inside jobs” based around a corrupt employee take a number of forms but often consist of someone internal diverting spend to fake companies that they control or have a stake in, or to companies that are paying them a bribe. Fraud from outsiders often means submission of fake invoices, or diverting invoice payments away from genuine suppliers to the fraudster.  However, most frauds could be prevented by some sensible and standard policies and processes.   

So having collected examples of fraud and corruption in a fairly serious manner for over a decade now, it is rare for me to see a new variant. But a recent case in the US was quite unusual, in that it was based on buyer impersonation, which we don’t see very often. I’m sure it has happened before, but this was certainly not a common or garden case. Indeed, it was quite impressive in a way, with the fraudster showing impressive attention to detail, and a good understanding of how procurement works. And the failing was not actually with procurement policy or people; it was the suppliers who were conned and whose processes let them down.

Fatade Idowu Olamilekan,  a citizen of Nigeria, was extradited from Nigeria to the US (with good cooperation between the authorities in each county) and recently sentenced to five years in prison in the US in connection with a scheme to fraudulently obtain and attempt to obtain millions of dollars.

From 2018 to 2020 he obtained details of various procurement executives in the US government sector. In particular, during the pandemic, he impersonated the Chief Procurement Officer of New York State to fraudulently obtain medical equipment, including defibrillators.  He set up email addresses that were as close as possible to the correct ones for the relevant people and organisations. He then contacted suppliers, principally those already working with New York, and said he was looking for quotes for items.

After they submitted quotes, he told the suppliers that they had been successful and won the contract, and issued them with fake purchase orders (POs). The goods were to be delivered to warehouses that he nominated, and from there he shipped them to locations in the UK, Australia and Nigeria.  The payment terms on the POs was 30 days, which is pretty standard, so didn’t raise any alarms. But of course that gave him 30 days to move the goods somewhere else once they were delivered, before the supplier started looking for their money. Presumably, when their cash didn’t arrive, the supplying firm eventually got through to the real buyer, who would then explain that they knew nothing about this order.

All very clever, although getting goods rather than direct cash via a fraud leaves you with the problem of disposing of the stolen goods. Criminals rarely get anything like the real value of their ill-gotten gains (so the bloke in the pub trying to flog me a laptop said).  So that’s a downside of this type of activity. 

Whilst this wasn’t really a very hi-tech fraud, it does raise some interesting questions as we move into the AI world.  A single phone call from the supplier and conversation with a real procurement manager from New York would have put an end to this within minutes.  So as transactions and even sourcing processes become more and more automated, you can imagine a situation where a clever fraudster uses a fake AI bot to place orders, which will then be processed by the suppliers’ AI powered bots. How long would it be before the supplier bot realises it has been conned?

This is not something I’ve thought about too much, but as we enter the ChatGPT era, there’s going to be a whole new world of Bad Buying fraud and corruption to think about and look out for!

The consultancy group PwC was hit recently with a £7.5m fine over a string of errors while auditing the engineering company Babcock’s accounts, including creating a false record of documents for a sensitive government contract.

In one case, there was no evidence that PwC’s audit team had actually bothered to review a 30-year-contract worth up to £3bn, and in another, the team (none of whom spoke French) had failed to check a €640m (£570m) contract written entirely in French.  There was no evidence PwC tried to translate the documents to confirm the terms of the deal.  PwC’s auditors were also found to have “created a false record” of the audit evidence they had actually gathered in relation to a sensitive government contract.

Yet profit per partner for PWC last year was £920K  Are audit partners in the big firms really worth best part of a million a year? They are not entrepreneurs who have built a business, or indeed CEOs running a major organisation. And it’s not just PWC – KPMG was fined £14.4 million last year for its failings in the audit of Carillion, the construction firm that went bust in 2017. Second-tier firm Grant Thornton messed up over the Patisserie Valerie audit, after the firm collapsed because of alleged internal fraud in 2019.

Meanwhile in the US, Ernst & Young LLP (EY) EY got a massive $100 million fine from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and agreed to various measures to address ethical issues. The firm was charged for “cheating by its audit professionals on exams required to obtain and maintain Certified Public Accountant (CPA) licenses, and for withholding evidence of this misconduct from the SEC’s Enforcement Division during the Division’s investigation of the matter.”

What is wrong with auditors?  You would think in a well-functioning market, firms that behaved like this would fail and be replaced by better players.   But this is an oligopoly, and the barriers to entry are huge, and perhaps insurmountable. Ironically, the more rules and governance imposed by governments on auditors, then the harder it is for new market entrants to break in – we haven’t seen a significant new player really during my entire working life. The “switching costs” are high for clients too, and the big firms build very close relationships with senior corporate executives which helps to reduce the chance of competition.

The end result is that clients are paying too much, and often not getting good work in return. Although professional procurement involvement in buying these services has increased somewhat in recent years, frankly that does not seem to have had much impact. 

Close to home for me, the Surrey Heath Council accounts for 2019/20 are still in draft form and have not been signed off by the auditor, BDO.  In an election leaflet pushed through our door the other day, the ruling Conservatives say this – “FACT: Our accounts are ready but our auditors BDO continue to miss deadlines (including for Lib Dem councils). We are working hard to find new auditors and increase transparency”.

At least the draft accounts report is available for public inspection, which reveals that the author does not know how to use apostrophes  (“the Council has managed to deliver substantial saving’s on interest payable …)

But if this delay is down to the auditors, surely this is gross incompetence and mismanagement from BDO?  Is this not worthy of a wider barring of the firm from public sector work?  Or (I know this is hard to believe), might a political party be publishing misleading information? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question – but seriously, if auditors are incapable of getting a council’s accounts signed off three years after the end of the year in question, then they shouldn’t be doing this sort of work at all.

After a couple of weeks featuring the travails of the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply, let us return to the day-to-day world of Bad Buying.

Looking through a list of recent procurement-related frauds, there were the usual “fake invoice” incidents, still probably the most common way to extract money from an organisation. In most cases, it is an insider driving that, setting up fake companies and signing off payments themselves, but sometimes there may be external help too.

But then I spotted an interesting example of a type of fraud that is rarely reported. It involves a firm (or individual) submitting false information to a buyer and winning a contract on the basis of that information.  Now we might ask whether it is unusual to see this because it rarely happens – or because the perpetrators just don’t get caught!

In this case, Raymond White (who has used several other names during his long and not particularly illustrious criminal career) defrauded the US government by “submitting fraudulent documents and false information about himself, his company’s business, and his company’s finances in order to obtain a $4.8 million contract to build a munitions load crew training facility at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland”.

He also obtained a bond guarantee from the United States Small Business Administration in connection with the same contract, and just for good measure, he committed identity theft by using another person’s signature and Social Security number (presumably to avoid using his own name, as he was a known criminal!)

For his company, Kochendorfer Group USA Inc., to bid for the contract he submitted fake bank statements, accounting firm reports from a “firm” he had invented, and false financial statements. They showed the firm had plenty of cash when really it had almost nothing.  We shouldn’t laugh but some of it borders on the absurd – he also submitted a “false resume and firm dossier, which described fictitious construction jobs and provided fake references.  White claimed, among other things, that he had overseen the construction of a World Cup soccer stadium in Brazil from 2012 to 2014 when in fact, he  was in federal prison during that time frame, serving a prison term on a prior fraud conviction”.

I mean, if you’re going to lie, you might as well go big – not a local housing development but a World Cup stadium! Anyway, he won the contract but fortunately, the client (the National Guard) discovered the fraud before any work actually took place. White pleaded guilty, not surprisingly, and he will be sentenced in May.

If you are reading this and thinking, “this couldn’t happen here”,  then presumably you always check financial statements and take up supplier references, whether that is talking to another customer of the firm involved or indeed an employer or client if it is an individual contractor. Well done. But it doesn’t always happen.

A few years ago, I advised a firm that was challenging a procurement decision made by a very large UK government central department. Basically, another bidder had told lies in their bid and had won the contract. That bidder had provided a reference that would have exposed a lie – IF the Department has taken up that reference. There were other aspects of the bid that were dodgy and would have been exposed if the buyer had made a call or two. For instance, the bidder claimed that they were strong in certain regions of the UK when they clearly weren’t

When my client challenged this, the Department had an interesting response. They said that they were not required by procurement regulations to pursue references, or indeed that they had any obligation to check that anything a bidder said in their proposal was accurate and true! Now technically that might be correct, but we suggested to the Department that a judge might well make the assumption that a reasonably competent buyer had a duty to do some basic work around bid veracity! The Department went away to think about it, no doubt consulted their lawyers… and then re-ran the competition.

Obviously, buyers don’t always have time to check out every single detail of a bid and all the surrounding information and intelligence about the potential suppliers. But we are responsible for at least assuring ourselves that when someone claims to have built a football stadium in Brazil, they actually did, rather than being in jail at that time.  

In part 1, we started discussing the presentation from Zac Trotter of the US Department of Justice at the recent NPI conference in Atlanta. He’s an attorney who specializes in searching out, investigating and prosecuting cases of supplier collusion (what a fascinating job!)

We talked about the types of collusion in part 1, but here are Trotter’s thoughts on what makes a market, product or sector susceptible to collusion. These factors will increase the likelihood of such supplier behaviour.

  • Few sellers – that makes it easier for suppliers to get together and fix the market.
  • Limited number of qualified bidders – there may be markets with many suppliers but if only a few are qualified perhaps to bid for particular government work, that will make it easy for them to collude.
  • Difficult for new competitors to enter the market – new suppliers are less likely to be part of existing collusion and can break the stranglehold of the conspiracy.
  • Few substitute products – if buyers can’t easily switch, they may have to accept higher pricing or limited competition.
  • Standardized products – if the buyer is content with products from all the firms involved, it is easier for suppliers to rig bids or allocate business between them.
  • Repetitive or regularly scheduled purchases – again, this helps suppliers allocate work and plan an effective conspiracy.
  • Rush or emergency work – this type of work is likely to be awarded via a less rigorous procurement process, and it is also easier for a supplier to “no bid” without raising suspicions, which can help to allocate work around the colluding firms.

After we published part 1, there were some interesting comments on LinkedIn from readers. One suggested that detecting collusion might turn out to be a practical and productive use for AI. We might imagine how AI could analyse a large quantity of data around responses to tenders and look for evidence of suspiciously high bidding, bids with similar wording, or other suspicious patterns of behaviour from suppliers that might indicate potential collusion.

Clearly, you would need a lot of information available to be analysed – so maybe it is something that would apply more perhaps to a government that could interrogate tenders from many different buying organisations rather than it being feasible for an individual business. But an interesting thought.  

Finally, here is a short case study taken from the Bad Buying book, which illustrates the type of market that can be open to collusion and fraud of this nature. Incidentally, six years on from the European commission imposing fines, the truck cartel described here is still facing huge claims from buyers of trucks. Damages in the billions of euros are likely to be awarded when the case finally goes through the courts.

“Which markets are most vulnerable? It’s clear that it is easier to set up, control and sustain a cartel in markets with a relatively small number of players. But geography also comes into play here. The construction market in most countries includes many firms, yet that sector has seen cartels thrive on a limited geographical basis or in a specialist sub- market, where the number of players is smaller.

One cartel in a relatively tight market was formed by six huge European truck manufacturers. Daimler, MAN, Volvo / Renault, DAF, Iveco and Scania are facing billion-dollar damages claims from their customers, mainly logistics and transportation firms, for illegal price- fixing.

By April 2019 more than 7,000 transport companies from twenty-six countries had filed more than 300 claims in the German courts. That follows fines of €2.9 billion on four truck manufacturers imposed by the European Commission in 2016/17.  The Commission found that between 1997 and 2011 the truck manufacturers exchanged information about prices, price increases and when new emission technology would be launched. They also passed on associated costs to their customers”.

So don’t assume that your organisation could not possibly be experiencing supplier collusion – as Trotter said, it happens in a wide range of different industries, from manufacturing to financial services, from airlines to construction. Keep an eye out for suspicious supplier behaviour, in bidding (or not bidding), pricing or sub-contracting.  If you’re in the US, you have the Department of Justice to support you; the European Commission plays a role in the EU, and the Competition and Markets Authority is the body to speak to in the UK.

At the National Procurement Institute conference in Atlanta earlier this month, delegates (public sector, mainly from US cities) heard an interesting presentation from Zac Trotter, a Trial Attorney from the Antitrust Division at the US Department of Justice. He stressed that his comments were not representative of the Department, which I guess he has to say, but he gave a very clear and engaging explanation of his fascinating area of expertise – fighting against supplier collusion. His focus was on the mechanics of collusion, with additional comments on how procurement professionals can look out for it.

Competition is key to getting value for money, he said, something we can all agree with. But collusion does happen, and because of its secretive nature, can go on for years, or even decades, without being discovered. And public procurement is a big target for fraud of this sort because of the amounts of money involved. As a US judge recently said, “Like bears to honey, white collar fraudsters are drawn to billion-dollar federal programmes”!

In US law, the Sherman Act of 1890 (Section 1) defines the attributes of the collusion offence as:

  • Agreement or conspiracy to restrain trade (that is subject to interpretation and clarification as it is a very broad definition)
  • Participants knowingly joined – and intended to agree (as conspirators)
  • Interstate or foreign commerce (a “technical” provision)
  • Statute of limitations is 5 years

Prosecutors need to establish agreement between two or more people for a case. Interestingly, juries are more inclined to convict if there is evidence that conspirators knew what they were doing is wrong. But there doesn’t always need to be “hard” documented agreement to collude. A “course of conduct” can show guilt – for instance, if one firm always bids low, whilst two bid high but become sub-contractors to the winner. If that keeps happening, it might provide strong circumstantial evidence for prosecution. For buyers, consistent high bidding from the same firm should be a “red flag” for procurement – why would the firm bother if they keep losing, unless there was something else in it for them?

The three types of collusive behaviour were described by Trotter as;

  1. Allocation agreements
  2. Bid rigging agreements
  3. Price fixing agreements

Allocation agreements mean suppliers colluding to “divide the pie” in a particular manner. That might be based on splitting business by markets,  geography, customer (big, small), or products. Watch out for when a supplier doesn’t bid when you might expect them to. (e.g. they bid for a men’s uniform contract but not for  women’s uniforms). Or perhaps a competitor pulls out of a market for no obvious reason.

Bid rigging – here, suppliers raise the price of products or services above a true “market” value, effectively setting an artificial price. There may also be pre-determined winners and losers of contracts. Bid rotation is a technique where suppliers agree to a defined pattern of different firms winning work, or divided up in other ways (clearly, this is linked to the ”allocation” technique). Then we see “cover bids”, where suppliers submit deliberately expensive bids to make it look like there is competition, or “bid suppression”, where suppliers refuse to bid in order to reduce competition. So buyers should watch out for firms saying, “we’re too busy to bid”.

Price fixing – means the customer has no genuine way to negotiate, as firms fix or otherwise determine the price at which products are sold. That might mean coordinating price increases, or setting price floors, or a new surcharge that everyone in the industry implements together.  

There are big penalties now in the US for this behaviour. Participants can go to jail and there are potentially very large fines. Penalties of up to $100m have been imposed fairly recently on sectors  from canned tuna to cancer treatments. The courts can also award “restitutions” to those affected, suppliers can be barred from government contracts and there have been civil lawsuits too. Nevertheless, collusion continues in many industries.

(Part 2 to follow)

Tony Blevins was sacked as Apple’s VP of procurement recently. He was at a car event in Pebble Beach with his Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren when he was approached by TikTok creator Daniel Mac, who asks the owners of expensive cars what they do for a living. Blevins answered “ ‘I have rich cars, play golf and fondle big-breasted women, but I take weekends and major holidays off. Also, if you’re interested, I got a hell of a dental plan.’ 

That’s an approximate quote from the 1981 comedy movie, Arthur, where Dudley Moore says ‘I race cars, play tennis and fondle women, but I have weekends off and I am my own boss.’  So it wasn’t an original comment, which doesn’t really excuse him – also, if you are going to say something some might consider offensive, at least make sure its funny!

Anyway, the video hit the Internet, staff at the firm complained to Apple HR, and he went. He apologised, telling Bloomberg, “I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by my mistaken attempt at humor”.  

Blevins reported to either the CEO Tim Cook or COO Jeff Williams. He was known as the Blevinator and had a reputation as a fearsome, tough negotiator, with stories of his tactics reported in the press – including getting FedEx to hand-deliver his rejection of a price proposal to their rival, UPS!  To be fair, some of his tactics seem pretty smart. Running what was in effect a real-life reverse auction by going from supplier to supplier in their hotel rooms, negotiating to drive down price on glass for the new Apple office seems a reasonable approach to me. He also rotated staff every couple of years to avoid them forming close relationships with suppliers – again, many firms do that and to some extent it is not a bad idea from a complacency or indeed corruption poot of view.

But we might wonder why Apple needed to take such a tough line with suppliers given their very healthy profit margins. The simplest answer is – because they can. Power is still the basis of commercial relationships, as Professor Andrew Cox always told us. Where Apple hold that power, why wouldn’t they use it with their suppliers? We could argue however that sacrificing a little margin in order to develop stronger relationships with key suppliers would be worth it in the longer run. And if Blevins tough negotiation actually drove suppliers out of business or out of Apple’s supply base, then it certainly wasn’t sensible.

So there are three reasons why Apple might have got rid of the Blevinator. The most obvious is the (arguably) offensive nature of his comment, and perhaps what it might indicate about his general attitude. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has spoken about the need to get more women into tech roles so his CPO making such comments is not the best support for that objective.

The second might be that Apple wants to move away from the old-fashioned leveraged approach to procurement and become more collaborative, working in a more harmonious manner with suppliers. Blevins might have stood in the way of that, representing as he did that previous tough approach.

And finally, in many firms, a CPO driving a supercar might ring some alarms. I remember a Ministry of Defence procurement official in the UK years ago who earned maybe £60K a year (in current terms), yet lived in a multi-million pound mansion in the Thames Valley. Surprisingly, no-one asked the key question – where did he get the money from? The answer of course was “bribes paid by suppliers”.

Now I’m not accusing Blevins of anything of that nature – I’m sure he earned plenty from Apple. Finding the odd half-million for his car wasn’t a problem for him given his likely stock options. But perhaps driving that sort of car just isn’t the sort of image a CPO should project.  And a supplier might well think, “Apple can afford to pay me a bit more for my product if its VPs are driving supercars!”

Anyway, this is a “Bad Buyer” story rather than bad buying, but fascinating, nonetheless. And if you want to learn more about it, do listen to Kelly Barner’s excellent podcast on this topic at Supply Chain Now  – it’s a very enjoyable, informative and interesting 20 minutes during which time she goes into more detail on Apple’s approach to suppliers – and how that might be changing.

One of the major case studies in my Bad Buying book is all about Fat Leonard, (Leonard Glenn Francis), the 300lb (136kg) Malaysian businessman who bribed large swathes of the US Navy in the Pacific. In return for giving his firm work providing various services to ships in port, he provided cash, extensive hospitality, lavish dinners and favourite prostitutes to American naval staff.

That included procurement professionals and officers right up to Admiral level, some of whom are now going to jail. Even when whistle-blowers tried to alert senior naval staff, they hit a problem – the folk who received their allegations were being paid by Leonard too! It was one of the most extensive examples of endemic procurement-related corruption ever seen in modern times. As the BBC reported:

Prosecutors say he overcharged the navy to the tune of $35m (£30m) and plied officers with cash, gourmet meals, cigars, rare liquor and sex parties in luxury hotels…. Dozens of US naval officers have also been implicated. Four have been convicted so far and at least 27 other contractors and officials have pleaded guilty to accepting bribes.

Last weekend I was preparing for the US National Procurement Institute conference next month in Atlanta. The NPI is government-sector focused, so Fat Leonard is one of my stories for the “Bad Buying” session I’m running.  I googled him just to check on a couple of facts. To my surprise, there were dozens of brand new news items about him. And that is because he had skipped bail and disappeared!

He admitted bribery and corruption back in 2015 and had been co-operating with prosecutors, helping to convict a range of naval staff in recent time.  His own sentencing was coming up soon, but he was allowed to be detained at home in San Diego because he had been in poor health, including suffering from kidney cancer.

But on 4 September, police went to his house after they detected “problems” with the GPS ankle bracelet that he was supposed to wear. The problem was that it had been cut off, and Leonard had disappeared.  “Upon arrival they noticed that nobody was home,” US Marshal spokesman Omar Castillo told reporters at the time, demonstrating incredible powers of detection.  Neighbours mentioned seeing removal vans at the house over recent weeks – you would think someone might have worked out something was going on?

Anyway, a global Interpol warrant has been out for his arrest since then, and yesterday (Wednesday 21st September), the 57-year-old was arrested at Simón Bolívar de Maiquetía airport near Caracas by Venezuelan authorities.  Interpol says he entered the country from Mexico via a stopover in Cuba. Quite the tour of central America… But now he is due to be extradited back to the US, where we might assume his sentence will be harsher because of his escape attempt.

Questions remain about how many more naval staff will end up in court, and the other question is who will play Leonard in the inevitable film of his escapades? Orson Wells or Marlon Brando in their later years would have been perfect. Maybe Antonio Banderas in a fat suit?

But to finish on a serious note, there are relevant learnings for any organisation when we look at the Fat Leonard case. The US Navy processes for awarding and monitoring the contracts in question were clearly flawed, and whistleblowing must be managed properly. As I said in Bad Buying case study:

If organizations don’t make it easy for honest people to expose what is going on, and have a failsafe route for concerns to be reported and acted upon, then there is a real danger that  corruption will become more and more embedded, as in this case. Other learnings around the buying process, monitoring of supplier pricing and billing are key; but whistle-blower protection is a relatively cheap and easy way of reducing the chance of shocking events like this.”

You may have read about the recent UK hospital trust tender that hit the media because of its questions about diversity and transgender issues. It turned out that the questions should not have been included in the document; it was human error rather than anything else.

I recently got involved with another National Health Service tender – we’re talking about a “collaborative buying” framework here, potentially worth hundreds of millions.  A consulting firm I’ve worked with over the years asked me to look at the tender documents, because they could not work out how on earth the buyer could possibly differentiate between the various bidders. Basically, there were no evaluation questions that actually asked the bidders to explain their core technical capability!

I read it and agreed that is was a very odd document.  No selection outcome could possibly have stood up to legal challenge, for a start. Luckily, I knew a senior procurement person in the buying organisation, so I called and explained the issue. A few days later, the tender was pulled. Pure human error again.

I was reminded of these cases during an Oxford POGO session last week. (POGO is a very worthwhile knowledge sharing club – more details here). The topic was capability in public procurement, and there were a number of interesting speakers. But it was Steve Schooner, Professor of Government Procurement Law at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, USA, who brought up the issue of writing tender documents.

Too often that was seen as a pretty unimportant task, but he said (quite correctly) that is a key skill if you want to get the best potential suppliers, the best proposals and ultimately the best outcomes from your procurement and suppliers.

He also said that “no-one should be allowed to write a public sector tender document until they have sat supplier side and responded to a tender”!

I think that is a great idea and maybe should be a core training activity for developing public procurement professionals. Over the last decade or more, I’ve occasionally supported clients who were responding to (usually public sector) tenders. It has given me a lot of insight into what good procurement practice looks like – and more depressingly, what bad practice looks like. I’ve also worked buy-side of course and tried to help buyers to get it right! It is not always easy, but it is always important.

As well as the contribution of this stage in the process in terms of final outcomes, there is another factor to consider. The tender documents you issue are probably the most direct and often the most widely-read manifestation of your procurement function’s competence.  

You can claim to be a world-class team, you can win lots of awards, but if potential suppliers read your tender and think “what a load of old rubbish this is”, then more than anything that will be what informs their view of you. The same often applies with internal stakeholders. If there are non-procurement colleagues involved in a procurement process, and they see that the procurement professional doesn’t know how to produce good material, or (even worse) the stakeholder starts to get calls from frustrated potential suppliers, then this is very bad news for your internal reputation.

Going back to the beginning, I spoke to a senior person involved in the “controversial” case of the diversity questions. We’ve learnt two things, he said. Firstly, we need more and better training for all our staff who are involved in producing tender documents. And secondly, “we need better quality assurance before material goes out of the door”.

Often top procurement executives feel they are too busy to read tender documents, or that it is  a low-value task for someone of their seniority, skills and experience. Below their pay grade, as it were. But if that is your view, just remember – a lousy tender document has the potential to trash your team’s reputation more widely and faster than just about anything else.   

Quite a few stories of procurement and supply chain failure we hear (and quite a few of those included in my Bad Buying book) have at least an element of humour about them. KFC running out of chicken wasn’t very funny for the senior management there, and the customer who phoned the police to complain that he couldn’t get his fried chicken obviously took it seriously.  But for most of us, we probably had a chuckle. Government failings are annoying when it is taxpayers’ hard earned money being wasted; but it is rare to see a case of supply chain failure that actually has the potential to cost the lives of babies.

But that is the situation in the USA, where shortages of formula milk for infants is threatening the health or even the survival of very young children. But why is this happening, in one of the wealthiest, most technically advanced nations in the world, where capitalism has over the decades brought a high standard of living (in global terms) and abundant supply of almost everything and anything to its people?

It is a complicated situation, and I’m only giving an overview here. The shortages appear to be driven to a considerable extent by manufacturing plant shut-downs, driven in part by quality issues identified by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA (food and drugs administration).  As Sky News reported, “Abbott Laboratories was forced to shut its site in Sturgis, Michigan and recall a number of its powdered formula products after four babies who had been given formula developed bacterial infections”.  No firm link has been proven but the Michigan factory has been closed for weeks.

Even when the factory re-opens, it will take 8 – 10 weeks to get product back on the shelves, the company says. And once shortages emerge, panic buying inevitably exacerbates the situation, and there may be a bit of a baby boom going on in the US too. The U.S. government also has pretty rigid trade policies, making most formula imported from Europe illegal to buy in the United States. Tariffs act as another deterrent.  Maybe that is genuinely for health reasons; or maybe it is at least in part a nice bit of protectionism to suit the manufacturers.

But from a procurement point of view, this market concentration and the inflexibility of government-funded schemes for lower income people have contributed to the problem. Two companies – Abbott and Reckitt Benckiser – dominate the industry with about 80% national market share.  Nestlé, which sells under its Gerber brand, controls another 10%.

Part of the reason for these firms’ success is that they are the only makers approved by the US government to provide baby formula through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, which supports low-income families. It appears that most States, who fund these schemes, have negotiated deals with just one provider.

The Guardian reports; “ Nearly half of baby formula in the US is bought under the Wic program, aimed at helping low-income women, infants and children. States give exclusive contract rights for this formula to one company under a bidding process. Abbott provides formula to about half of the babies receiving Wic benefits. When these products disappeared, families were left scrambling to find alternatives”.

This has driven what has proved to be an unhealthy level of market concentration, as it also seems that production is also pretty concentrated within firms in terms of the number of production plants. Now procurement can’t always control market dynamics; but could government as well as buyers (in retail chains for instance) have done more to encourage new suppliers and a more competitive market?

So the old principle of consolidation, aggregation and leverage that procurement has lived by for decades has been driving behaviour here. But once shortages kick-in, recipients of the WIC benefit have been unable to find the approved supplier’s product, leaving them in a desperate state – and an example of the unintended consequences of what must have seemed like a sensible procurement strategy. The U.S. House of Representatives has now passed bills to try and address the shortage. One would waive certain requirements that limit brands and quantities of formula recipients of the special supplemental nutrition for women, infants, and children can purchase, according to CBS News.

Again, supply chain and procurement risk and resilience has not been considered as it should have been here, with cost driving the decisions. We’ve seen over the years so many examples where procurement behaviour has driven dependence on a few suppliers – or even just one (there’s an interesting example featuring VW cars in the book, for instance). It rarely ends well. So next time someone says, “we should rationalise our supply base and dramatically reduce the number of suppliers”, do remember that strategy can have benefits, but also caries risks. Be aware of that and develop the strategy accordingly.

Back to the highly concerning baby milk story. I’m sure more will emerge, and if you want a fuller explanation, I can recommend Kelly Barner’s excellent podcast here, in which she goes into more detail in terms of what has been going on.

Two fraud cases in a row here … but a new (for me) angle today.

Procurement related fraud and corruption has interested me for many years, long before I started collecting case studies specifically to include in my Bad Buying book. So it is unusual to see a new type of fraud, but I came across a US case recently that was somewhat different to any I‘ve seen before.

At the heart of it, the scam is that an organisation ends up paying for goods that are not really needed (or maybe aren’t even delivered).  An internal budget holder creating their own company, setting it up as a supplier, then creating and authorising invoices and payments to themselves is the typical case. But here, it was more complex, as the fraud was against the US publicly-funded Medicare system.

At a federal court in Brooklyn Elemer Raffai, an orthopedic surgeon, was charged last month with health care fraud in connection with a $10 million scheme. He allegedly submitted false and fraudulent claims to Medicare and Medicare Part D plans. Raffai was arrested and was due to make his initial court appearance in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York.

“In exchange for kickbacks from telemedicine companies, Dr. Raffai allegedly submitted millions of dollars in false and fraudulent claims to Medicare on behalf of beneficiaries without even examining them or based on conversations on the phone that lasted less than three minutes,” stated United States Attorney (Breon) Peace.

Dr. Raffai purported to practice “telemedicine” (phone or Zoom I assume) with the AffordADoc Network and other telemedicine companies. He was paid approximately $25 or $30 per patient consultation.  Between July 2016 and June 2017, he allegedly signed prescriptions and order forms for medical equipment, including orthotic braces, that were not medically necessary, simply based on a short phone call. Some $10 million in false and fraudulent claims were made to Medicare for that equipment and Medicare paid more than $4 million on those claims.

Presumably the “patients” were in on the alledged scam as well, and were recompensed for making the call to the doctor and playing their role in the process. And (again presumably) it was the manufacturers or sales agents for this equipment who were the masterminds behind it all. They received funding from Medicare for goods that either weren’t needed by the “patients”, or perhaps that equipment was never actually supplied. That isn’t clear from the information made public so far.  We might also hope that those firms have been or will be charged with fraud, as well as the doctor.

This type of fraud where different parties are colluding can be very difficult to detect – think of the famous Sainsburys potato example, which went on for years and was only detected in the end by the supplier’s external auditor. The buyer worked with a potato supplier that charged the firm over the odds, which funded bribes to the buyer. But one positive for those trying to fight fraud is that the more people are involved, the more likely it is that someone involved will “crack” and expose what is going on.  I wonder if that is what happened in this Medicare case, where many people must have known what was happening?

Another positive is that technology will increasingly be called into play to fight fraud. AI (artificial intelligence) can look at huge amounts of data, and perhaps in this case could have worked out that this doctor had a prescribing pattern that was out of line with his contemporaries.  I know organisations are using tools to examine payment records and look for anomalies; for instance, someone who always places orders with a value just below the threshold for further approvals.

Anyway, this is an interesting case and we will keep an eye on it to see what happens to Doctor Raffai.