Welcome everyone and yes, it is time for the inaugural Bad Buying Award Ceremony – virtual of course.  Over the next three days we will announce the six winners of these prestigious awards, given to those who have demonstrated truly Bad Buying.

Our definition of Bad Buying incorporates a number of different but linked topics. Obviously, it includes failure in procurement (poor performance on the buying side of the table). It can also relate to a contract that goes badly wrong because of supplier performance, failure or fraud that is not properly managed or mitigated by the buyer, client or customer. Or it can be a more general fraud linked to the procurement process, such as fake invoice scams or corrupt collusion between buyers and sellers.

So today, we will start with our two international awards.  

International (Private Sector): Kraft Heinz

Awarded for Creative Use of Supplier Contracts

Food giant Kraft Heinz (KH) was charged by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with mis-stating its accounts following the merger of Kraft and Heinz in 2015. The firms said the deal would deliver cost savings of $1.5bn a year, and procurement savings-related targets were set for staff. But after 2017, savings proved hard to find,  As the SEC said, management “pushed procurement division employees to come up with ideas to generate additional immediate, same-year savings”.

The dodgy accounting practices were then based around manipulation of supplier-related payments. For instance, buyers negotiated “prebates” (!!) – a sugar supplier gave KH $2 million up front in return for a 3-year contract, with the agreement that the money would be recovered by the supplier through the contract. Or  suppliers might reduce prices in the short term in return for a longer-term increase. These schemes when recorded as current-year “savings” and added immediate profit, rather than being accounted for properly.

Kraft Heinz had to restate its accounts, correcting a total of $208m in wrongly-recognised cost savings. The CPO, Klaus Hoffman and the COO Eduardo Pelleissone were accused of violating anti-fraud provisions, failure to provide accurate information to accountants and violating accounting controls.

Without admitting or denying the allegations, in September Pelleissone agreed to pay a civil penalty of $300,000.  Rather than addressing risks after being made aware of issues, “he pressured the procurement division to deliver unrealistic savings targets”. Hofmann agreed to pay $100,000 and was barred from serving as director or officer of a public company for five years. KH agreed to a penalty of $62m, also without admitting or denying the findings.

This was a very interesting and unusual case, which demonstrated approaches that the judging panel had not previously seen in their many years of procurement service. Given that creative application of supplier negotiation and contractual mechanisms, this was a very worthy winner of the Bad Buying International (Private Sector) Award.

………

International (Public sector): Balfour Beatty Plc

Awarded for Over-invoicing of US Defence Clients

In December 2021, the US housing management subsidiary of UK engineering and services firm Balfour Beatty agreed to pay fines and restitution of $65 million after admitting over-charging US defence clients for some years. Under the terms of the plea agreement, Balfour Beatty Communities agreed to make the payment  after a federal investigation into its scheme to claim performance bonuses by submitting false information to various clients. 

The issues came to light when living conditions at US Air Force bases were found to be unsatisfactory. The company’s homes did not meet fire safety codes and had mould, rodents, pests, radon gas, and other defects. An investigation then found that the firm maintained two sets of maintenance records at some bases. One included the issues of mould, asbestos, and leaks that were not promptly fixed, whilst the other showed fake quick repairs that allowed the company to claim contractual bonuses from the Pentagon.  As always in these cases, the company blamed a few rogue individuals who have presumably now left.  It also appears that the firm is still engaged on the contract which seems a little surprising.

In cases like this, it is arguably not so much “bad buying” as a “bad supplier”. However, where the issue runs for some time, it usually indicates a failure of contract management, as well as bad behaviour by the supplier. At least the client did eventually identify the issue and take action – but it is an interesting case study in supplier behaviour, and on that basis, Balfour Beatty and its affected clients win the Bad Buying International (Public Sector) Award.

Two more prize winners tomorrow!

I got a phone call a couple of weeks ago from a BBC Northern Ireland producer, who wanted to interview me for a programme about procurement of PPE (personal protective equipment) during the pandemic first wave last year.

I did a few smilar media appearances last year on Zoom, so said “yes – when do you want to do it”?

“When can you come into London so we can film you?”, he asked.

So not Zoom, but real life! Which was how I came to be filmed in a Pall Mall hotel meeting room – just me and a charming cameraman, whose wife works in procurement, strangely enough.  The interviewer asked the questions remotely via Facetime on a phone perched on a tripod a few feet in front of me which was rather strange.  I spent 45 minutes on the interview and another 15 being filmed “reading papers”… all for about one minute of screen time! And why they have to show those close-ups where you can verify my need for a better skin-care regime, I really don’t know.

The end result was a very good Spotlight documentary, broadcast first in Northern Ireland but shown on the BBC News Channel several times this week. It is the story of how a confectionery firm in Antrim, Clandeboye Agencies, landed orders worth over £100 million for PPE, and the confusion over whether the products supplied were actually fit for purpose. Were they “gowns” or “aprons”? And what did that  mean for the safety of those using the equipment?  

The journalists also tracked down some of the stock that was never used in the NHS and found it could be bought now for a fraction of the price paid originally by the government. It’s well worth 25 minutes of your time, although if you have followed the PPE story there won’t be much to surprise you, I suspect, other than that public availability of stock at cut prices now.

I have written several articles previously about PPE, so I won’t go through all the issues again. I did explain on camera that huge price rises were not unexpected when demand suddenly went up ten-fold or more. But just to re-state the problems, these are the broad topics I would be looking at if I ever do write the Bad Buying Book of PPE!

  1. The NHS stockpile of PPE provided to be unsuitable for Covid, and was very badly managed in terms of stock control, expiry dates, easy accessibility… etc.
  2. The early forecasts for PPE demand proved to be way out, which led to major over-buying – which is why we ended up with containers sitting around for months, suppliers being paid to NOT deliver, stock sold off cheaply, etc.
  3. Whilst the situation was desperately urgent, more attention and effort should have gone into getting the specifications right before hundreds of millions of pounds was wasted on equipment that proved unfit for purpose.
  4. Proper due diligence took a while to set up, so some early contracts went to firms who should not really have been considered as suppliers.
  5. The “VIP route” should have been much more transparent, and firms with an existing track record of PPE supply should have gone to the top of the list for consideration rather than those recommended by an MP, senior  civil servant etc.
  6. Buyers should have insisted on getting a breakdown of costs to avoid profiteering by middlemen and agents.

Anyway, you can see the programme here on iPlayer for the next 11 months.

So the eastern arm of the high-speed rail programme HS2 from London up to Leeds, has been cancelled. Well, what a surprise. The biggest money pit dug in the UK for a long, long time has become too deep even for this spendthrift government. As Construction News reported,

“The eastern leg of HS2 phase 2b between Birmingham and Leeds has been scrapped by the government as part of its Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) for the Midlands and the North. The cost-cutting on HS2, which the government estimates will save around £18bn, was unveiled … by transport secretary Grant Shapps alongside pledges to upgrade local and intercity rail links in the regions. The £96bn investment package will cut journey times between many towns and cities, and increase the capacity of the rail network, Shapps said”.

I wrote here and here about HS2, with some thoughts on why huge programmes fail and how it sometimes seems that everyone involved with such programmes has an incentive to mislead the public – and often some of the decision makers – about the true costs. 

Most of the press commentary about the recent decision has focused on the “betrayal” of the north of England and what this means to the Prime Ministers supposed “levelling up” agenda, which is aimed at spreading wealth from the south of England to the north.  But surely a bigger question is whether the rest of HS2 should be going ahead, given the costs and a business case that look weaker and weaker as time goes by.  I pointed out a year ago that the initial business case was, in effect, a fiddle or a fix, designed to justify the programme.  As I said then:

“The business case for HS2 was always highly questionable. It relied on ascribing a value to the extra 20 minutes or so the passengers would have because of their somewhat faster journey from London to Birmingham. It assumed that the journey time was “wasted” from a benefit point of view, which is clearly not true (have they never heard of smartphones or laptops?), and also assumed that passengers wouldn’t use the extra 20 minutes by staying in bed a little longer!”

Now the new issue of Private Eye magazine has pointed out that the initial business case also made it clear that the whole programme would only offer value for money if it was all completed. The full benefits of “Northern Powerhouse Rail”, some of which is still going ahead, were also conditional on the HS2 leg to Leeds.

Private Eye also points out that economic growth in the UK has been slower than the figures used in the 2015 business case, which reduces the return further. And of course, the pandemic has driven a major drop in rail usage, and it is far from clear at the moment whether pre-Covid traffic levels will return, given what appears to be a seismic change in working habits and the growth of hybrid home /office working patterns. 

So we are now in the crazy situation where the government is subsidising existing rail companies and lines by billons a year because of the lower levels of usage, whilst spending £60+ billion on the western arm of HS2. Think what that money could do to improve the creaking railway system in the north of England, the trans-Pennine routes, commuter services into Manchester, Liverpool or Leeds, getting Sunderland connected properly… I am not anti-rail, I should say, but I do not believe HS2 is a good use of public money in such huge quantities.

I also have doubts about the HS2 programme’s ability to avoid Bad Buying in terms of how it spends money with suppliers, but that’s another issue altogether!

In the current issue of Private Eye magazine  – only on sale for another few days so hurry if you want to buy it – there is a special 8 page supplement titled “Profits of Doom”, covering the “bad buying” that went on in UK government around the pandemic, principally PPE (personal protective equipment), but also test kits and the track and trace programme.

Several procurement leaders get a mention, including Gareth Rhys Williams, Government’s Chief Commercial Officer, and Steve Oldfield and Ed James at the Department of Health.  I suspect there are others who actually had more to do with the PPE procurement waste but have escaped that attention …

If you have followed these stories in the media and on this website to some extent, much of the Private Eye report won’t be new to you.  But putting it all together does increase the sense of anger that most of us will feel about the vast sums of money extracted from the British taxpayer by certain firms and individuals, in return for very little effort. According to the magazine, one firm, Primer Design Ltd, went from a profit of £1.3m a year before Covid to making £178.2 million in the first Covid period.

Individuals did well too. Andrew Mills, who had been an adviser to government himself, made £32.4 million for doing very little as a middleman for Ayanda Capital, whose bosses also made tens of millions on PPE supply. Even the consulting firms raked in the cash working on various covid related tasks including the pretty useless track and trace programme, with Deloitte partners making record earnings of around £1 million each last year.

It is clear that cost really didn’t matter when the PPE shortage was at its worst last year, and to some extent that is understandable.  There is still some mystery about the demand forecasts that led to chronic over-ordering; that factor alone cost the taxpayer billions, but there has been little real insight into what went wrong there.

But why the procurement teams didn’t at least try and examine the margins made by the middlemen and agents, I don’t know. If the buyers had insisted on seeing a price breakdown, or set a maximum mark-up over factory gate prices, would Andrew Mills and others really have walked away from the deal?  They won the contracts in the first place because of their political connections that got them onto the “VIP route”, which gave priority to their supply proposals, so it is hard to see that they could have instantly taken their offer to another country.

Instead, they were allowed to make tens or hundreds of millions in profit by exploiting the naivety of the procurement operation, which seemed to focus almost entirely on just buying as much stuff as possible. Then we have the Randox contracts for test kits and analysis, where the picture is even murkier. Member of Parliament Owen Patterson was paid as an adviser by that diagnostics firm, and records of calls between him, the firm and health Minister Lord Bethell, have been “lost” apparently.  Randox was given £600 million worth of contracts without any tendering or competitive process. And it won a testing contract worth £133m, just days before government officials confirmed it did not actually have enough equipment to deliver the work, according to documents now released.

It would be good to think that some of those who profited from the pandemic and in effect took advantage of the taxpayer might lose friends because of their actions. But the culture in the financial world and “the city” is such that I suspect they will be celebrated as great examples of entrepreneurial spirit, exploiting a situation (and their connections) cleverly to make money.

Even if there wasn’t overt brown-paper-envelopes-type corruption here (or none that has been discovered yet, at least), sometimes it is just very easy to hate capitalism!

How do you go about incentivising suppliers within a contract to perform in the manner you REALLY want them to?

The complications tend to come in contracts for services, rather than goods. Where you can write a specification that clearly defines the item you are buying, then it is enough “incentivisation” usually to say “supply that precise thing and you will get paid”.

But if you are buying a service, particular a more complex service, such as consultancy, outsourced customer handling, software development, or even facilities management, then making sure the supplier acts in the way you really want them to can be challenging.

An example of this has been much discussed in recent weeks in the UK media.  Our GPs, the “family doctors” who are the first line of contact for most medical problems, moved most of their consultations online when the pandemic struck last year. Now they are being criticised for not getting back to in-person appointments quickly enough, and generally for making it difficult for patients to get appointments at all. But GPs are actually private contractors. Many people in the UK see them as part of the National Health Service, which they are operationally, but they actually work for the NHS under what is in effect a contract for services. They are suppliers.

In reality, there are a number of factors driving this appointments problem. This is a very stressful job, and the proportion of women working as GPs has grown dramatically in recent years. So for both their own health and for work-life balance reasons, more GPs are working part-time, so the capacity of the system is arguably not high enough. There is also a backlog of medical problems that weren’t sorted out during the worst of the pandemic, so there is more demand on the system than ever.

But certain newspapers, and the Minister for Health, Sajid Javid, have decided that there is capital to be made by blaming the doctors themselves for being “lazy”.  Aside from the issue of whether the buyer (Javid) should be having a go at a “key supplier” (the doctors) in public, there is much  discussion around how GPs are paid and incentivised. 

An article in the Daily Mail recently suggested that instead of being paid in the main based on how many people are on the GP’s “list”, they should be paid based on how many appointments they actually carry out.

It may be time to move from a bulk payment per patient to a per appointment funding structure, to encourage doctors to actually see patients as quickly as possible”.  That was the quote from Matthew Lesh, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute (the free-market-promoting thinktank),  who from his LinkedIn profile would seem to be a very bright young man. Yet it doesn’t take too long to see the incentivisation flaw in his argument.

A per-appointment system would encourage less scrupulous doctors to pack in as many appointments as possible. Currently most people only get ten minutes or so with the GP, but that could be squeezed further if some doctors were tempted by a direct increase in revenue from that approach. And for doctors with a conscience, who want to take the time necessary to get a diagnosis right, you are placing their ethics into direct conflict with their bank balance.

Now that’s not to say that the payment by list size is necessarily the best option., and there is no simple, magic solution here.  Arriving at an appropriate mechanism is challenging; for instance, the same size list of patients in socially and economically deprived Blackpool might generate a lot more work than the same in Wokingham. And of course throughput has to be balanced with the rigour of the doctor’s work. But we might imagine a set of KPIs (key performance indicators) which might be combined in some way to drive GP payments.

In any case, this all reinforces that getting incentivisation right is tricky. That applies whether we are talking about an outsourced customer service call centre, roads maintenance contracts (see examples of both of these services going wrong in the Bad Buying book) or getting our front-line doctors to contribute in the best possible way to the health of the nation. So beware simplistic solutions.

Another UK pandemic-related supplier appointed in haste without competition (and perhaps without proper due diligence) appears to have failed in performance terms.

Immensa Health Clinic is being investigated scrutiny after the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) found at least 43,000 people may have been given a “false negative” Covid test result.  That has serious consequences – if those people carried on working and mixing with others, when they were actually suffering with Covid, they may have passed on the virus to others.

That has led to operations at the firm’s privately run laboratory in Wolverhampton being suspended.  The NHS test and trace operation said about 400,000 samples had been processed by that lab, most of which will have been negative results, but around 43,000 people, mainly in the south of England, may have been given incorrect negative PCR test results between 8 September and 12 October. It doesn’t appear to be the kits but rather the analysis at fault – a people problem rather than an equipment issue, by the sound of it.

Immensa was only founded in May 2020 by Andrea Riposati, a former management consultant and owner of a DNA testing company. He is also the founder of Dante Labs, which is under investigation in the UK by the Competition and Markets Authority over its PCR travel tests.  But within three months of Immensa’s birth, it won a £119m PCR testing contract awarded by the Department of Health (DHSC).  That was awarded without being put out to tender, like so many contracts we have seen though the pandemic, some genuinely urgent and others less so.

Back in January this year, the Sun on Sunday newspaper found that workers at the Wolverhampton lab appeared to be sleeping, fighting, playing football and drinking whilst “working”.  (Pretty much like life in the civil service, really). The government said then it would speak to Immensa as it took “evidence of misconduct extremely seriously”.  Despite this, Immensa won another contract for £50 million in July.

We haven’t seen any suggestion of corruption, officials or politicians on the make, or Immensa doing anything dodgy. But again, there will be reasonable questions asked about lack of competition, lack of robust contract management, and why even after the warning signs, further work was given to the firm.

Which brings me on to the recent report, Coronavirus: Lessons learned to date, from the UK parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee, and elected members from all parties.  The report is rightly very positive about the vaccine procurement programme.

The procurement model deployed by the Vaccine Taskforce of making decisions at risk, outside conventional procurement procedures, proved highly effective. Lessons from this success should be applied to other areas of Government procurement.

I’m in agreement with looking at useful lessons learnt, but we can’t be naïve about this. This quote about the way vaccines were bought also comes from the report.

Dominic Cummings said: “Patrick Vallance and his team were saying that the actual expected return on this was so high that even if it does turn out to be wasted billions, it is still a good gamble in the end.”

This is absolutely true, and highlights the key issue of risk and reward.  The fact is, there are very few other purchases by government where the balance is similar to the vaccine example. Getting vaccines faster certainly saved thousands of lives and (possibly) billions of pounds in government expenditure.  But taking risks in procurement of other goods or services just does not have the same potential.  Who would seriously place orders for five different armoured vehicles, IT systems or management consultancy firms just in the hope that one or two of them worked out well?

There may well be learnings around how the vaccine team was run, but talk of getting rid of procurement process, rules and so on is unwise and will lead to waste and, unfortunately, to more fraud and corruption. More transparency would help alleviate some of those risks (see my paper for Reform here), but I suspect some of those in favour of radical procurement change are thinking more of the millions they, their chums and associates can extract from the public purse.    

There was a cri de coeur from Matthew Parris in  today’s Times newspaper (behind the paywall). He was concerned about the British public’s expectations that the government could sort out all and any of our problems. As he put it;

“Even we lucky British will sometimes encounter shortages and gluts. Is it now the government’s business to smooth them out for us? Increasingly, that is the assumption”.

We’ve seen in recent weeks issues with supply of food to supermarkets (although I can’t say I have noticed much of a problem), stories that Nando’s were short of chicken, then we’ve had genuine shortages of carbon dioxide and a petrol “crisis” caused mainly by politicians telling us there wasn’t a crisis. Parris sees this expectation that the government should solve every problem as a slide leftwards politically. He is a believer in the free market, which is why he originally became a Conservative supporter and MP, and thinks the government should stand back more often.

I believed in the free market, in Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, and the quiet, patient but unstoppable power of price in regulating demand and stimulating supply. I believed that if you’re short of applicants for a job you raise the wage. I laughed at government attempts to control prices as a way of keeping down inflation. I knew you couldn’t buck the market”.

I also share his fondness for free markets. However, the problem is that very few markets are truly “free” in the theoretical sense and certainly few function perfectly. Indeed, that is something most procurement people understand from their own bitter experience. For instance, a perfect free market is open to new entrants, and indeed it is easy for existing players to withdraw. It is unregulated except perhaps for fundamental criminal laws (don’t poison people with your beer or sell cars with no brakes).

But for a number of reasons, it feels like fewer and fewer markets really are anywhere near perfect or free. Take the shortage of lorry drivers – something that is hitting the UK particularly badly, but is an issue elsewhere in Europe too. (It does appear however that Brexit is a contributing factor in the UK, according to the industry expert view).

In a truly free market, thousands of people would be rushing to change jobs to earn the £50K per year plus now on offer for driving trucks. But we insist that new drivers (not unreasonably, I should say) go through extensive testing. That is a time and cost related barrier to entry. We have restricted free movement of people into the UK post Brexit, closing another “free market” option.

In other areas, the government has attempted to create dynamic new markets, but it is not as easy as it seems. Take the domestic energy market. We have seen plenty of new market entrants, but with increasing regulation and price control from the government, it has moved far away from the vision of a truly free market. That whole market is now unwinding and collapsing with the increase in wholesale gas prices. (There is also what feels like an increasing tendency for con artists and scammers to get involved in these quasi-markets – maybe that is a topic for another day, but it feels like the UK is becoming steadily more susceptible to business-related fraud and corruption).

And during the pandemic, the government “interference” in how markets operate was even more extensive. The government stopped tests for new lorry drivers because of social distancing rules, for instance. We might understand why that was the case, but it has been a contributing factor towards the current shortage.

Indeed, coming back to Parris and his complaint, the government has “interfered” so much in our lives during the pandemic, I think increasingly people do feel that the government can and should sort out every problem.  Those in charge told us where we could go for a walk and who we could visit, so why not expect that they can guarantee my Nando’s will be available and make sure there are enough lorry drivers to go round? That might not be an appropriate view, but I suspect it is quite prevalent.

What does all this mean for procurement professionals? Aside from many now operating in fire-fighting mode, simply focusing on securing immediate supply into their own organisations, it points out the importance of truly understanding how your own key supply markets work. Are they genuinely free markets that respond quickly to changes in demand, with new entrants, innovation and dynamism? Or are they controlled or restricted in some way – by government or by other barriers to entry (it wasn’t regulation that led to Facebook’s domination of its market, for instance).  

The pandemic shock has highlighted vulnerabilities in supply chains and exposed markets that already had inherent issues and weaknesses. So to avoid “bad buying”, understanding how your key markets really operate must be a priority.

Last year, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) hit the headlines when shortages threatened the lives of health workers and patients in the early months of the pandemic. That demonstrated how a spend category that was traditionally seen as low risk and suitable for “leverage” type approaches to procurement could become highly strategic, critical and even politically sensitive.

We now have another example with a similar change in perception for what seems like a pretty standard item, a simple ”commodity” even.  GPs (“family doctors”) in the UK National Health Service have been told to stop performing most blood tests until mid-September. Hospitals have also been instructed to cut their number of tests by 25%, all due to a shortage of blood tubes (sometimes known as sample bottles).

NHS England wrote to doctors and hospital leaders, telling them that “the supply position remains constrained and is forecasted to become even more constrained over the coming weeks.  While it is anticipated that the position will improve from the middle of September, overall supply is likely to remain challenging for a significant period.”  That is thought to mean months rather than weeks.

The shortage has arisen apparently because Becton Dickinson (BD), the main supplier of blood collection tubes to the health service, just has not been able to keep up with demand.

This is obviously a hugely concerning issue. Blood tests help determine whether patients have particular conditions or illnesses, provide warning signs and monitor overall health. A reduction in capacity here will almost certainly cost lives. 

So what has caused this problem? There appears to have been an increase in demand, perhaps because of the pent-up health issues now being exposed as people go back to doctors surgeries after avoiding them for many months because of COVID. But the company also said it was facing issues transporting the tubes, for example, challenges at the UK border. That has been picked up by some as an example of post-Brexit supply chain issues around customs, tariffs and so on, issues that are affecting many businesses.

But with our Bad Buying perspective, might this also be a case where the procurement strategy is partly to blame for the problem?  Is BD the only supplier of this product?  That seems unlikely, but it is possible that the NHS has taken an aggregation and leverage approach to this item, as it did to many others, including PPE prior to the pandemic. Is BD a sole supplier because they offered a great deal for the whole NHS volume?

Maybe that is not the case, but you do wonder why other suppliers are not being mentioned, although the NHS has said new providers will come on stream soon. But it may be this is another example of over-aggregation creating unhealthy dependence on one supplier.  It doesn’t even always add to better prices, too. Here is a short extract from Bad Buying (the book) where I talk about the risks of supplier dependence and how it is created by poorly considered procurement approaches.

“Buyers aggressively aggregate their own spend, believing they’ll get better deals if they offer bigger contracts – until in some industries only the largest can meet your needs. Buyers might insist that suppliers must service every office or factory across the US, or Europe. Smaller firms and start-ups, which often offer real innovation, flexibility and service, are shut out of the market.

Buyers assume economies of scale, that ‘bigger is better ‘and bigger deals mean lower prices. But that is not necessarily true; the price curve may flatten after a certain volume, with further increases in volume not generating any further price reduction. There are even cases where you see dis-economies of scale– the buyer pays more as the they spend more…”

In this case, it would be fascinating to know just how the NHS has ended up with shortages of such a fundamental item. But in the meantime, just hope that you don’t need a blood test anytime soon!

I still don’t know if there will be a “Bad Buying Returns” book or perhaps an updated edition of the first volume, but the stories keep on coming in terms of case studies for potential inclusion.  The latest at least has an element of humour, which is a change from most of the pandemic-related bad buying we’ve seen over the last 18 months. It is, of course, the “Marble Arch Mound”.

Westminster council commissioned a mound or small hill to be built in London, at Marble Arch. It was to be a tourist and visitor attraction, designed to get people back into the West End of London and to shop in Oxford Street. The temporary 25-metre-high artificial hill, built on the corner of Oxford Street and Hyde Park, was supposed to be aesthetically beautiful and a great viewing point over London.  

The marketing drawings showed quite sizeable trees and shrubs covering its contours. However, when it opened a couple of weeks ago, there was dismay from visitors, who were annoyed at paying at least £4.50 for what one described as “London’s worst attraction”.  Instead of beautiful greenery, early visitors were greeted with sights of rubble, building works and scaffolding from the viewing platform, which was covered in brown turf. A tidy row of wheelie bins was arranged at its foot.

This episode seems to illustrate several of the drivers of “bad buying” that I discuss in the book. There is the tendency for politicians to like “vanity projects” – spending money where a business case in weak, but the politicians feel that they are creating a “legacy” or something that will make them more popular. Our Prime Minister Boris Johnson is of course a past exponent of this, with his ridiculous Garden Bridge (let’s blame actress Joanna Lumley as well for that), which wasted over £50 million and also saw some truly appalling procurement. There was also the costly Thames Cable Car and his crackpot ideas for a floating airport and a tunnel (or was it a bridge?) between Scotland and Ireland. 

In the case of the Mound, there seems to have been an arrogant attitude from a few council leaders who pushed the scheme through. There was no real consultation, and it was apparently not voted on by all councillors. That attitude again is often a precursor to bad decisions – witness my local council wasting millions on badly timed property purchases in Camberley, with decisions made by a small cabal without involving most of the elected representatives, let alone taxpayers.

But there also seems to have been a failure in more prosaic terms here around the specifications for the Mound, and tying down the cost of the construction. In May, the council reported the total build and operating costs would be £3.3m and £2m would be recouped largely through ticket sales to visitors. But now, costs are expected to be at least £6m, and it is not clear as yet exactly why that is the case. Amid all the light-hearted comments about the fiasco, the council’s deputy leader, Melvyn Caplan, has resigned and the political ramifications are growing.

However, the Mound is now free to visit, and ironically it has become busy as visitors flock to see if it is really as bad as the reports suggest … and let’s face it, Madame Tussauds still rakes in the cash so perhaps there is hope for the Mound after all.

Returning to the Greensill supply chain finance (SCF) scandal, the excellent BBC Panorama programme earlier this month dug further into the affair, including the role of ex-Prime Minster David Cameron.  It is well worth watching and gives a clear explanation of how the Greensill business model “worked” and eventually unwound. Panorama exposed how deeply involved Cameron was with the Greensill business, and says that he allegedly made $10 million for two and a half years of part-time work with the firm.

Cameron told Panorama he knew nothing about the dodgier aspects of Greensill, but if he didn’t know quite how flaky Greensill’s business model was, then he was naïve, as well as greedy. If he did know, and Panorama suggests he was aware of some of the key issues, then maybe he will end up in court alongside others who I’m pretty convinced will end up there. 

At the core of Greensill’s model was the ability to attract finance by claiming that his SCF loans were low risk because they were based on issued invoices that would be paid by the customer. Some of Greensill’s finance came from the bank in Germany that the firm owned – Panorama suggested that up to £2.5 billion might be lost from that source.  Greensill also raised vast amounts of cash via bonds issued through Credit Suisse – some $10 billion. Again that was presented to investors as very low risk, as loans were backed by invoices, so the cost of raising that money was low for Greensill.

It now transpires that some of the “invoices” that money was advanced against were not invoices at all in the way that any procurement or finance person (or frankly any sensible person) would recognise.  Rather, they were just vague expectations or hypothetical transactions concernign future income from customers of the firms to whom Greensill was lending money.  The Gupta steel firms in particular raised huge amounts of money from Greensill on the basis that they would at some point sell “some stuff” to “some companies”! The BBC suggests that other invoices were simply fake.

So this was totally unsecured lending to firms such as those in the Gupta group, rather than lending backed by real transactions and future income flows.  And guess what – much of the money Greensill lent is now not being repaid.

Lex Greensill told Panorama that he “did not mislead any investor, depositor or customer”. He said the predicted sales were “future receivables which are commonplace in the financial services market”. The loans were based on future trade that was likely to occur from current customers.  In fact, even this wasn’t true, as firms who were listed as “current customers” simply weren’t, according to Panorama.  Greensill then explained they didn’t even have to be current customers. He made all the right disclosures to Credit Suisse, he says ….

But back to the statement that this approach – lending money on predicted future invoices – is commonplace. It is not. Supply Chain Finance technology is covered well by Spend Matters and whilst it wasn’t my personal core area of interest, I met enough players in that market over my years editing Spend Matters to know that it was almost always based on actual invoices.

There were firms that were looking to base financing on invoices that had been received by the buyer but not yet approved, or invoices that would be issued in the future but were for agreed work (e.g. stage payments), with the buyer irrevocably committing to pay.  But even those approaches were seen as somewhat risky and daring because of the lending risk (what if the buyer didn’t approve the invoice?)

Nobody I ever spoke to was talking about payment against some totally imaginary future invoices, whether identified with current customers or not. So Greensill is talking nonsense when he suggests that lending against future receivables is some sort of common practice. But then he always talked a lot of nonsense.

On a related note, the Boardman “Review into the development and use of supply chain finance (and associated schemes) in governmentcame out last month.  It looks into how Greensill worked within government and the access he had to senior civil servants and ministers. I’m still getting to grips with that, so I may be back to this issue again.