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.

The UK National Health Service is one of the largest organisations in the world in terms of number of employees and its running cost. Whilst it is a single organisation in some senses, really it is made up of thousands of smaller organisations, many with considerable levels of autonomy. Even when we think about hospital trusts, each still has its own Board and is set up as an independent entity from a legal perspective, although that is slowly changing with the introduction of the regional Integrated Care System model.

So it is not surprising that over the years, there has always been tension in procurement between the urge to centralise and control more from “the top” (whatever structures might be defined in that way) against the desire for local autonomy and power.  Now no-one would argue for total centralisation (everything needed by every hospital bought from a huge central office somewhere) or total decentralisation (every doctor or hospital negotiating its own deals for pharmaceuticals!)

But getting the balance right has proved difficult. For instance, Ministers persist in claiming “the centre” did a good job in terms of pandemic PPE procurement. But the truth is that pre-pandemic central procurement strategy proved inadequate, and local action was needed to maintain supply in many hospitals. And whilst once the pandemic was underway some central activity was necessary, mandated central buying cost the UK billions in waste and super-profits for suppliers.

The new Chief Commercial Officer for the NHS, Jacqui Rock, who sits in NHS England HQ, recently launched a Central Commercial function for the NHS. A key strand of that is a technology initiative that is designed to help the manage procurement better across the system. The aim is to have a more common approach to procurement, and to start enabling better access to spend data across the whole network. That is a very sensible aim – gathering data does not mean in itself a more central approach to category strategies, and however you want to approach procurement, having good data is essential.

The mechanism for achieving this has raised some eyebrows though. Via Crown Commercial Services, all trusts, integrated care boards and other NHS entities can now use a software platform provided by Atamis, with CCS funding that to the tune of £13 million over three years (it is not clear if CCS has actually “pre-bought” licences here, which could be a risk in itself).

Atamis is a procurement and tendering platform with spend analysis functions as well as tools for managing programmes, tenders, contracts, and supplier relationships. It was chosen for use by NHS England and the central Department two years ago, although NHS Supply Chain chose software firm Jaggaer for their similar requirements.However ,this new contract with Atamis was put in place using the government’s Digital Marketplace, a set of frameworks that gives the public sector access to thousands of suppliers. And it appears that no competitive process was used to choose Atamis. They were simply awarded the contract. Now there are rules (laws) about when you can award a contract in that manner without seeking proposals from other firms also listed in the Marketplace. And I cannot see in this case how a “single tender” can be justified, when there are other firms on the framework who provide similar products and indeed supply many Trusts already.

I should say that I have no axe to grind with Atamis or their product. When I worked at Spend Matters, I had contact with the founder of Atamis and liked him and the business. But the firm was sold to a Canadian software company last year, and the NHS could represent a considerable proportion of their business.  There are also questions about what happens once the 3-year CCS funding ends, dependence (the Atamis product is built on the Salesforce platform) and “lock-in” to Atamis.

When the initiative was announced, there were a whole host of interesting comments from readers of the HSJ (Health Service Journal). This extract from one probably encapsulates much of the content.

“Why has the centre decided to create a monopoly situation, by endorsing, promoting and funding this only provider for, say contracts management? What happens to other providers with better value solutions? Should UK Tech Plc pack up and shut shop? Are these other solution providers now out of the whole NHS market? Why”? 

For me, the most fundamental question is whether it was legal and commercially appropriate to award the contract to Atamis without competition. (There are “business issues” too of course). The new central function should set a good example, and surely competition is the most fundamental principle of good procurement. But given the way the contract was let, I would not be surprised if we see challenges to that process from other suppliers who are clearly at a competitive disadvantage now, with Atamis being available “free”.  

The fraud section in my new book was great fun to write. I know you can’t and shouldn’t call fraud “fun” in any sense, but the case studies I researched were interesting, and often quite astonishing.

In one case I saw personally (which I couldn’t mention in any detail in the book) we discovered a fairly senior colleague, who everybody thought was a lovely, capable person, was actually involved in approving six-figure invoices from a fake supplier. The police thought this “firm” was probably linked to the “Russian mafia”, and we only found out about the fraud when the police discovered this gang was receiving large payments from my firm (and told us)!

Anyway, buying-related frauds can involve just internal staff, as in the case of fiddling your expenses or using the company charge card wrongly, or can be purely externally driven, as in the case of many “invoice misdirection” cases, or might involve both internal and external players. That third category is perhaps the most common and includes classic frauds such as overpayments to suppliers or biased supplier selection in return for bribes or inducements to the buyer.

But technology, artificial intelligence in particular, is helping to pick up some frauds through its ability to analyse huge amounts of data and spot trends, patterns, inconsistencies and oddities. I remember a presentation from two or three years back which talked about using AI to search through corporate payments or approvals. The idea was that you might find for instance a budget holder who always submitted an invoice for approval or payment on a Friday afternoon, when it might be scrutinised less carefully! Or someone who always makes purchases with a value of £9,999 if the cut-off for approval is £10K.

But more recently, I learnt of another interesting approach. In this case, the AI focus is on emails and documents that flow within the organisation and to external third parties. It has been developed by a firm called FACT360, which is led by Paddy Lawton, who founded, ran and then sold spend analytics software firm Spend360 to Coupa in 2017. I spoke to Lawton and fellow director Andy Slater to get a quick overview of what they’re up to.

Of their three core products, AI Forensics  is most relevant to buying-related fraud work. It analyses documents and emails and produces a network “map” of who is talking to who within an organisation and across organisational boundaries, including to suppliers, for instance. It generates insights from that communication flows as well as from the content of the messages themselves.

So for example, if you apply the analysis to Enron’s data, before that firm’s crash and disgrace, you can see that one particular person was at the centre of a major web of communication within the firm, even though he wasn’t apparently very senior. It turned out he controlled one of the technology “marketplaces” that enabled Enron to falsely claim to be making money on transactions. This analysis of what FACT360 calls “prestige” can tell you a lot about what is going on within an organisation, and who is really important or powerful. 

“And there are subtle changes in communication behaviour that occur and can be detected when actors plan and engage in covert activity” according to Slater.

One of the interesting corruption cases in my Bad Buying book tells the story of the Sainsbury’s supermarket potato buyer, who conspired over some years with a major supplier to pay over the odds for potatoes in return for bribes. Might Fact360 artificial intelligence have picked this up?  Probably, says Slater. It is likely that emails between the main players would have been more frequent than for other similar suppliers, or show different patterns in terms of timing or even use of language. There might have been more obvious clues in the content too.

Of course, knowing that your email trail could be used in his way might discourage fraudsters from using that medium, but there is always going to be some record of contact, unless the participants are using real secret service tactics! And the beauty of these emerging AI technologies such as FACT360 is that the user doesn’t need to know or define what they are looking for – the system will highlight where it finds potential “unknown unknowns”, as Donald Rumsfeld famously put it. 

We’re still at the early stages of understanding just how AI is gong to affect our lives, and it may be that some implications will not be positive for many of us. But using it to detect and deter fraud and corruption in our organisations – and reduce Bad Buying – must be one of the more positive aspects of this fascinating technology.

A ”Ministerial Direction” sounds like a very dry and boring aspect of civil service bureaucracy, but that is far from the case. It happens when a government Minister in the UK (an elected politician) insists that their most senior civil servant (the “Perm Sec”) takes an action that the civil servant believes is against the principles of good value for the taxpayer.

Or, as the Institute of Government puts it, “Ministerial directions are formal instructions from ministers telling their department to proceed with a spending proposal, despite an objection from their permanent secretary”.

They are unusual; through the nineties and noughties, a couple a year was the average. There were more around the banking crisis, and we have seen a not unexpected flood of directions in recent months around Covid-related issues. But often, they are not really reflecting a genuine disagreement between the Minister and the mandarin. It is more that the spending can’t definitely be seen as good value, so the permanent secretary has to seek the direction to protect themselves, even if they are wholeheartedly in agreement with the Minister in terms of the actual action.

Much of the Covid spending in areas such as the furlough scheme for instance may prove to be poor value ultimately, and cannot be clearly justified upfront; but I suspect civil servants were right behind the Chancellor and fully supportive of the actions he took.

However, very occasionally you get a direction which reflects a real disagreement, where the Perm Sec is basically saying “I think this is a waste of money and I am doing it because you are forcing me to, you idiot”. Put in nicer words of course. And one such case came to light this week, relating to the UK investment in proposed purchase of OneWeb, a (bankrupt) start-up company whose ambition is to provide global broadband. $500m in equity investment is being considered to co-finance the purchase of OneWeb from US Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.

Perm Sec at the Business Department, Sam Beckett, says in her letter to Alok Sharma, the Minister, that while in one scenario “we could get a 20 per cent return, the central case is marginal and there are significant downside risks, including that venture capital investments of this sort can fail, with the consequence that all the value of the equity can be lost”.

There is more in terms of the issues, and Beckett does recognise that this could prove to be an opportunity for the UK, but she feels this would be an unusual investment for a public body, and you have to wonder why it would be attractive for the UK government if it is not to other more experienced investors!

Is this Bad Buying though? Well, you could argue that we won’t know that until we see if OneWeb succeeds or fails. But actually, good decision making is NOT really related to outcomes.  If I make the decision to stand out on the golf course in a thunderstorm with my umbrella up, and I stay dry and don’t get hit by lightning, that does not make it a good decision. It was a bad decision, because based on the facts available at the time it was made, it was the wrong choice (assuming that staying alive is high on my priority list).  You might argue it was successful in terms of outcome, but it wasn’t right at the key moment.

Sharma’s reply says that “I have been informed that even with substantial haircuts to OneWeb’s base case financial projections the investment would have a positive return”. But other experts have suggested that the chances of success here are pretty low. One attraction of the investment is to provide an alternative space system for GPS services to the EU’s Galileo system (the UK is leaving the EU of course). But some believe the OneWeb satellites are not fit for that purpose (follow the link for more techie debate!)

The Guardian talked to Dr Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester, who said “the fundamental starting point is, yes, we’ve bought the wrong satellites.” (This from Forbes is a pretty balanced view of the technology issues if you want to get into more detailed pros and cons).

That Bowen comment sounds like “getting the specification wrong”, which is literally chapter one in my new book, Bad Buying, out in October.  A good spec as any procurement professional knows is an essential starting point to a successful contract.  So, whilst I don’t understand all the aspects of this, it looks like this is the wrong decision based on risk and opportunity.

It may of course turn out to be a successful decision in terms of outcome – but that still won’t mean it was the right decision, if the facts at this stage suggest a high probability that the UK taxpayer will lose out. And on that basis, we nominate it indeed as an example of Bad Buying.