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.

There was major “Bad Buying” fraud case in the media last week. Perhaps the most surprising element of the story was that the offences were discovered in 2013, and related to some years before that, yet the case only came to court in 2022. Did it take than long to gather evidence? Is the Crown Prosecution Service really working on that sort of timescale? It’s a concerning issue in itself.

But back to the case and I’m afraid it was a “classic” fraud, a pretty basic case of an internal decision maker colluding with suppliers in return for payment. At Southwark Crown Court, Noel Corry, a former electrical and automation manager at Coca-Cola Enterprises Ltd (CCE), pleaded guilty to five counts of corruption and was sentenced to 20 months in prison, suspended for 21 months, plus 200 hours of unpaid work.

He accepted cash bribes, free tickets to events as well as sponsorship for his local football club, Droylsden FC near Manchester. A total of £1.5m was paid by Boulting Group Limited (now trading as WABGS Limited), Tritec Systems Limited, and Electron Systems Limited. The firms that paid the bribes were also fined – the first time the Met has prosecuted firms for failing to prevent bribery. That sets an interesting and good precedent. WABGS Limited was fined £500,000 – between 2007-13 the company benefited from contracts with CCE worth over £13m. Tritec Systems and Electron Systems were each fined £70,000 plus costs. Individuals at those firms also received suspended sentences.

Part of Corry’s job  was choosing suppliers to carry out work. Over some years, he favoured certain firms in return for cash payments. He could spend up to £50K without others getting involved, so I assume he made lots of small payments or contract awards to these firms.  “The court previously heard how Corry was given bribes through payments for “bogus” contracts for Coca-Cola, in which work was never carried out, or had Coca-Cola pay more than the actual amount charged for real work and was sent the difference”, as the Shropshire Star reported.

But in 2011, the firm changed the policy and the professional procurement team started getting more involved and a more structured process was implemented (hooray!)  They started getting suspicious as some firms changed their bids late in the process, and suspected that someone on the inside was tipping off firms about competing bids. That led to discovery of evidence which eventually led to prosecution. (Tip – if you’re committing fraud, don’t have a spreadsheet on your laptop called “Slush”)!

It’s all rather sad in some sense – of course it is good that he was caught, but his wife divorced him and their son has mental health issues now, according to the reports. And Corry eventually repaid £1.7 million to CCE.  So if you are ever tempted, just remember that it probably will ruin your life.

What are the lessons here for organisations? Well, I gave 7 key anti-fraud principles in the Bad Buying book, and several are relevant to this case – proper supplier selection processes, for example. But perhaps the most pertinent is this principle (taken from the book).

“Opportunities for collusion between suppliers, and between suppliers and buyers, must be minimized – Many frauds rely on collusion between buyer (or budget holder) and seller, so reducing the opportunity of this reduces the chances of fraud. Organizations should ensure there is always more than one person involved with any major purchase and in signing- off work with suppliers. Moving staff regularly is another option, so there is less time for the relationship, and perhaps the fraudulent plans, to mature. Some organizations have a policy that no one in a decision-making buying role will  stay for more than three years in that same job role, for this very reason.

It is not just professional buyers (procurement staff) to whom this applies. Indeed, it can be stakeholders such as budget holders or service users who by the nature of what is being bought find themselves getting too close to suppliers. I once discovered that my firm’s major IT equipment supplier was sponsoring our internal IT budget holder’s expensive car- racing hobby!

It may be very innocent, but when a marketing or IT manager makes it clear they don’t want professional procurement or finance colleagues involved in ‘their’ relationship with a key supplier, that can be a warning sign that it isn’t totally innocent. Organizations should look at discouraging closeness that goes beyond the need to work well with a supplier to get a job done. This should influence the organization’s policy on hospitality, gifts and entertainment, which should be clear and should err on the side of caution”.

So well done to CCE for eventually discovering this, but a better policy would have perhaps made it less likely in the first place. And if you work for a large organisation that allows budget holders to spend thousands without anyone else being involved, I can pretty much guarantee that one or more of your colleagues is committing exactly this type of fraud at this very moment.

What is the most difficult type of procurement-related fraud to detect? In my book, Bad Buying, there are plenty of examples of different fraud, some related to dodgy invoicing, fake suppliers or invoices, purchasing card fraud and more. But perhaps the hardest to detect are around collusion between a buyer (or someone else with power “on the inside”) and a supplier, with “backhanders” being paid in return for favours or preference shown to the supplier.  

Last month a case that goes back some 10 years finally came to its conclusion. Not only did it have that sort of collusion at its heart, but it was also interesting to us because the victim was a firm well known in the procurement world – services firm Achilles, who run supplier qualification, risk and information services across industries including construction, transport, and energy.

Back in 2011, their interim head of IT, Brian Chant, led the process for choosing an IT supplier to whom Achilles would outsource significant work.  However, the firm that was successful in winning the work, with Chant’s endorsement, also paid him some £475,000, according to the evidence presented in court. As the Register website explained,

“Unknown to Achilles was the fact that Chant, of Andover in Hampshire, had quietly approached the eventual winner beforehand to hand-hold them through the procurement process – and to arrange a hefty secret margin straight into his wallet”.

Chant left Achilles and joined Hampshire Police as its head of IT in October 2014 – a post he held until his arrest in 2016. But only now has the case been resolved. It seems that the criminal activity was discovered by the tax authorities initially, who were looking at VAT claims made by the IT company relating to invoices from Chant’s consulting firm.  That led on to the criminal investigation, and finally to Chhant being sent to jail for 6 years.

What makes this type of fraud so hard to spot? Well, particularly if the contract is in a specialist area, it may be difficult for others in the buying organisation to realise that the fraudster is pushing the supplier selection decision in a particular direction. It may even be that the favoured supplier is not a bad choice (outside the corruption issue), and there may be no obvious losses to the organisation on the buy-side.  

You also don’t have the ongoing potential evidence and chance of discovery that exists if, for instance, fake invoices are being submitted for payment, or someone is spending money outside policy on a purchasing card. Unless the payments from the supplier to the crook are picked up, then it is hard to gather evidence of this sort of behaviour.

What seems odd in this case is that the supplier and the people involved at that firm have not been named or – as far as we can see – prosecuted. I’m curious how they have avoided that. It’s hard to see really how they could have thought these were legitimate payments to Chant’s firm.  It feels like other customers of that firm deserve to know its identity, apart from anything else.

So what can you do to try and avoid this sort of fraud? A strong procurement function (or even a single person for smaller firms) can help ensure that supplier selection processes are structured and as objective as possible. Involving multiple people in the analysis and the decision-making also helps, and of course, you should also ask those involved in procurement if they have any conflicts of interest. However, someone who is capable of fraud probably won’t worry about lying at that point!

Two more awards today.

UK (Private sector): The UK Water Industry

Not spending enough money (and failed regulation…)

There were a number of long-running procurement-related scandals which continued to rumble on this year, notably the investigations into the Grenfell tower disaster, and the Horizon Post Office scandal.  Both showed appalling behaviour from various suppliers along with failures on the buy-side. Procurement weakness allowed supplier failings to translate into tragic consequences for those affected by the Grenfell fire and those who lost their livelihoods or wrongly went to prison in the case of the Fujitsu / Post Office Horizon IT system. The judges were also tempted to look into the causes behind the global shortage of chips (electronic, not potato), which affected supply of all sorts of items. But they decided that was all a bit too complicated …

So the multiple winners here are the private water and sewage companies. Research by the Financial Times showed that they slashed investment in critical infrastructure by up to a fifth in the 30 years since they were privatised.  That reduction in spending came about despite bills going up 31% in real terms – and some £372 billion has been paid out in dividend payments to parent companies and investors. In 2019, only 16 per cent of England’s rivers and seas met the minimum “good or better” ecological status as defined by the EU’s water framework directive. And 2021 saw reports of raw sewage being regularly discharged straight into rivers and the sea whenever it rained hard. My friends who swim in the Thames thought it was algae coating their skin after their river swimming this autumn … 

Of course, this is a regulated industry so we might call it a joint public / private sector award as the government must share the blame for inadequate regulation and what is in effect a market failure. But this is a case where the “bad buying” failure is in not spending enough (rather than overspending). So we will hold our proverbial noses whilst awarding the water industry the Bad Buying UK (Private Sector) Award.

…….

UK (Public sector): Covid Test and Trace Programme

Incompetence in Managing Consultants

The judging panel had a difficult task in this category, with continued overspend on HS2 (and every other rail project), and more revelations about PPE expenditure. Social care is experiencing a sort of market failure, whilst the MOD Ajax armoured vehicles programme was particularly unfortunate not to win the prize given the various elements of that particular fiasco. And the panel argued long and hard about whether the crazy regulatory structure of the energy market which ended up with dozens of firms going bust might count as “bad buying”.

But ultimately, for a clear waste of money through inappropriate procurement and even worse ongoing contract management, the UK pandemic Test and Trace programme was finally declared the narrow winner.  

The programme kicked off during the first wave of Covid in early 2021, and we could understand why initially consulting resource was needed to make things happen quickly. But for 18 months now, various officials in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) have promised that the number and cost of consultants was going to be dramatically reduced. But nothing appears to have happened, as hundreds of millions have been spent with the big consulting firms.

David Williams, then the DHSC second permanent secretary, assured Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee back in January that there was a plan in place to “reduce markedly” the number of consultants from Deloitte who were working on the programme. (Williams has since become permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence – that bodes well for sorting out waste in that area!)  But at the time he claimed there were “around 900” staff from the consultancy working on Test and Trace, who he expected were costing £1,000 a day each – meaning the daily total was close to £1 million just for one firm.  Some Deloitte staff were charged at a rate of over £6 a day too.

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UKHSA which now runs NHS Test and Trace, said in July 2021 that there was a ‘very detailed ramp-down plan’ to reduce the number of contractors. But 1,230 consultants were still employed at the end of October, figures showed. At the sort of rates paid, that was still costing over £1.3 million A DAY.

This is not “consulting” in the true sense of the word. It is “warm reasonably intelligent bodies sitting at desks / at home on their laptops”. It is staff substitution, not consulting, and those people should not be costing £1000+ a day.

DHSC has had 18 months to actually recruit people on fixed term contracts at maybe £50K a year to replace the £250K a year consultants.  The profit for Deloitte partners (and indeed those of other firms who have been involved on the programme) is enormous, all based on undeserved income from the public purse. And it is not even as if the programme has been a great success … but let’s not get into that.

Despite the tough competition we are confident that this case is a worthy winner as it represents a basic old-fashioned lack of concern for spending public money with consultants – something that is far too common, unfortunately.  So the Test and Trace programme wins the Bad Buying UK (Public Sector) Award.

Look out for the final two awards tomorrow!

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 presented last week as part of an event run by CIPFA –  the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. As you can imagine, their live events are notorious for wild behaviour and partying, but this was online, luckily for me. (OK, just my little public sector accountancy joke there…) Anyway, I talked about Bad Buying, particularly in the public sector context and with a focus on corruption and fraud which I thought would most interest accountants.

One of the other speakers, Mohamed Hans, a lawyer and public procurement adviser, talked about the “typical” profile of a corporate fraudster. Most work within the organisation, and apparently, he – and more often than not it is a “he” – is most likely to be middle aged, with quite a few years of service, well-respected internally, and in a management position.

I guess that all makes sense. You need to have some authority generally to commit fraud – in the procurement space, it really helps if you are a budget holder or can sign off expenditure in some way. If you have been around a while in the organisation, you are more likely to understand the systems and processes, and how to get around them to commit your fraud. All of that points to someone of a certain age, seniority and length of service.

That fits with my personal experience. Probably the closest I came to a major case was when a senior procurement executive who had a “dotted” reporting line to me was prosecuted for a fraud where he appeared to be in league with some very unpleasant “Russian gangsters”, according to the police. My firm was not aware of the fraud but the police spotted odd transactions at the gangster end of things, which it emerged came from our villain signing invoices for non-existent furniture purchases, with the payments going to the gangsters. He was in his forties, in a senior role, and had been with the firm for at least a decade, so he fit that archetype perfectly!

Other cases in my Bad Buying book include a mid-level executive for Toys ‘R ‘ Us at Maidenhead in England. He was a  “typical middle-aged accountant to colleagues, living in a semi-detached house near Reading and driving an old Vauxhall car. But actually he lived a double life and was stealing millions from the firm, spending money on sports cars, prostitutes and even an estate in Nigeria for his secret mistresses! He was ordered to repay £3.6 million when he was finally caught, as well as being jailed in 2010 for seven years. (His jail term will increase if he doesn’t pay the money back.)

His fraud was simple. He created a fictitious toy manufacturer, a ‘supplier’ to the firm, and then made regular payments of £300,000 a month over more than two years to that account, which of course he controlled. When this was reported in the press, one reader’s comment was amusing: ‘so he spent £2.4 million on call girls and sports cars – and wasted the rest’!  But it’s not really funny; this was shareholders’ money, and sympathy is due to his wife and family, who knew nothing about it and did not benefit in any way”.

Just to show it isn’t only men, the (female) interim director of operations at Ealing Hospital NHS Trust stole more than £200K back in 2008 to pay for (among other things) horse semen, needed for her stud-farm business. She fraudulently signed off payments, which went into her own bank accounts rather than to genuine suppliers. The judge said that she was, ‘a woman of very great ability and up to this point of very high character. The difficulty and sadness of cases such as this is only people of high ability could get themselves in a position where they can defraud people and the NHS of the amount of money you took.’

However, in most cases, fraud can be prevented quite simply. The most basic advice includes that no single person should be able to “create” a new supplier, and onboarding checks must be made. Then again, no one individual should be able to authorise a payment (e.g. by signing off an invoice) to any supplier, without some sort of check from another person.  It is not unknown for two or more people to collude in frauds, but in my experience establishing that sort of basic control reduces the probability of fraud by a significant factor. Carrying out a fraud alone is one thing; asking another person to collude with you brings another level of risk for the fraudster.

And don’t assume someone couldn’t possibly be a fraudster because they are respected, have worked in the organisation for years, are senior, go to church, are kind to animals …. Criminals come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and disguises!

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.

(Two posts in a row about blood – that’s a bit weird)!

Earlier this month, Elizabeth Holmes went on trial in San Jose, California, accused of six counts of fraud.  That relates to the blood-testing firm she founded and ran, Theranos, which was claimed to use unique technology to perform a range of tests with just a small sample of blood. The claims were later revealed to be largely nonsense and in some cases the results might even have proved misleading or dangerous to the user. When one of the Theranos laboratories was inspected in Newark, California, in November 2015, the inspectors concluded that “the deficient practices of the laboratory pose immediate jeopardy to patient health and safety.”

The cautionary tale has been turned into a best-selling, award-winning and definitive book, Bad Blood by John Carreyrou and is going to be the subject of a film with Jennifer Lawrence playing Holmes.  But in real life, it seems that her defence during the trial may claim she was under the influence of her older and more experienced business partner and one-time boyfriend, Ramesh Balwani.  They may also claim that she really did believe in the product and it was others within the firm who misled her about the actual way it worked (or didn’t).

Although some experts warned from the early days of Theranos that there were questions to be answered about the product, Theranos raised hundreds of millions in investment from famous people such as Henry Kissinger and Rupert Murdoch.  Perhaps they were dazzled by this confident, smart young blonde woman, who seemed to be particularly effective at persuading older men to stump up large investments!

But as well as the investment aspect to the story, there was also a Bad Buying link to the events. Here is how I described it in my book (“Bad Buying – How organizations waste billions through failure, fraud and f*ck-ups)”.

“Buying failure comes into this because the pharmacy chain Walgreens spent $140 million with Theranos over seven years, hosting around forty blood-testing centres in their stores. They got very little benefit from that and recovered some $30 million after a lawsuit and settlement following the eventual disclosure of the issues. Amazingly, as Bad Blood reports, Walgreens’s own laboratory consultant, Kevin Hunter, had seen early on that something wasn’t right with Theranos. But the executive in charge of the programme at Walgreens said that the firm should pursue the pilot because of the risk that CVS, their big competitor, would beat them to a Theranos deal.

Again, buyers wanted to believe that something was real, even in the face of mounting evidence that it wasn’t. This relates back to comments around believing the supplier– those earlier examples weren’t demonstrating fraudulent behaviour, but the principle is similar. It is easy for a naive or gullible buyer to be sucked into believing what the supplier wants them to believe.

Suppliers will take advantage of this tendency – whether it is the relatively innocent ‘Yes, we can install this new IT system in six months’ or the more dangerous ‘This equipment will find hidden bombs’. And FOMO – the fear of missing out to the competition – is something else suppliers will use, and that can lead to bad decisions. It’s not just physical goods, either. The top consulting firm selling its latest ‘strategy toolkit’ will mention that the potential client’s biggest rival is also very interested”.

So the message is – treat claims made by suppliers about their products with caution, maybe even with a touch of cynicism if they seem unique, outlandish or truly earth-shattering! And don’t let FOMO take you into the realms of Bad Buying.

Conflicts of interest as a ethical topic has always been relevant in procurement, both public and private sector. Here is a quick quote from my book, Bad Buying.

At a local level, I’ve worked with organisations whose top management didn’t even want to put in place a clear “conflict of interest” policy. That would mean staff having to disclose any interest they (or close family / friends) have in another business that might be a supplier or a customer of the organisation for which they work. But there’s usually a reason for that hesitancy.  Where you see organisations that won’t support anti-corruption activities, then you might draw obvious conclusions”.

Conflict of interest is a key issue within the fight against procurement-related fraud and corruption. We want buyers and everyone involved in the process to select suppliers, negotiate and manage contracts without being biased because they have an external interest that affects their behaviour.

We’ve seen these issues come up a number of times over the last 18 months through the pandemic with spend on products such as PPE (personal protective equipment) being in the public eye. So some recipients of huge contracts for PPE have had links with politicians and other powerful people, which has led to suggestions that decisions were impacted by these conflicts of interest.

The standard approach when developing procurement policies and practices is to ask those involved in the process to declare any potential conflicts upfront. Somebody can then decide if that is significant, and if so, how to handle that. At the extreme, I’d suggest it might eliminate a potential supplier from consideration completely. That doesn’t happen often, but appointing a small consulting firm to do a procurement review when that firm is run by the Procurement Director’s wife might not be a good idea.

But more frequently, it is a case of making sure the person with the conflict does not play a central role in key stages of the process, such as selecting the supplier or negotiating the contract. Suppose a senior executive who has an interest in the service being purchased discloses that their sister is a senior manager in one of the bidding firms. I would not expect that firm to be disqualified, but the executive should not be involved in the key aspects of the procurement. There are potential issues of confidentiality as well as bias of course – so if the exec is going to have access to confidential information, then they need to understand that any breach will lead to disciplinary action! Or you may simply choose to keep such information away from them.

There are questions however about how far we can and should go. That came to mind with the revelations around Mathew Hancock, the UK Health Minister who resigned because he broke covid rules with his ”friend”. But another part of that report claimed that his friend’s brother runs a firm that has won NHS contracts.

Is that a worry?  If your friend’s brother is bidding for a contract with your organisation, do you need to declare that as a potential conflict of interest?  That probably depends on just how close the “friend” is. If they are in effect a partner (legally or secretly) then it probably should be declared. But frankly, I would very rarely have known what any of my friends’ siblings did for a living!  So we have to be reasonable in terms of how meaningful the risk is.

A similar argument applies to shareholdings. Most of us hold shares indirectly through pension schemes or investment funds and we may well have direct holdings too. We can’t be expected to know exactly where “our” money is invested in every case. But what about if I have just a couple of hundred pounds worth of shares held directly in a potential supplier? I’d suggest that it is sensible to declare that, but I would not necessary exclude someone from the process for that level of “conflict”. However, if it were several thousand pounds worth, or if we were considering share options in a start-up that could prove valuable one day, the position might be different.

These are tricky issues.  The key is to impress on everyone that if they are in any doubt, it is better to declare the potential conflict and let others decide how serious it is. That is much better than having to plead later on that “I didn’t realise it mattered”. 

And if you want to hear more about this and related topics, I’m speaking as part of a CIPS (Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply) webinar on July 13th, 2021, at 12.30 pm. It is all about ethics and is titled “50 shades of Procurement – an Ethical Perspective”.  It should be interesting – and it is open to CIPS members AND non-members, so anyone can book here.

(The picture shows my cycling friends enjoying an outing with me last year – no contracts were awarded!)

Have you seen the price of compost this spring? I reckon it has close to doubled – three large bags from Longacres garden centre last year cost £10 (for 180 litres). Now, you will get just 100L for the same price.

Talk to a local builder, or gardener, or fencing expert, and they will tell you of shortages in markets such as timber, cement and other basic but vital materials. In another market altogether, farmers are complaining about a lack of workers to harvest crops, and restaurants of a lack of waiting and kitchen staff. Some are having to increase wages or other benefits to attract staff.

Without going into all the causes (Brexit, pandemic, lockdown-influenced career decisions), there is one very likely outcome here – inflation. There are already some warning signs, and consumer prices in the US jumped 4.2% in the 12 months through to April, up from 2.6% in March and marking the biggest increase since September 2008.  That seemed to take inflation from warning mode into “this is actually happening”.  But many economists believe the effect will be short-term, a blip rather than anything that becomes established.

But we can’t be sure of that. One test is whether price rises for materials and commodities then drive wage inflation, which can result in the sort of inflationary spiral we have seen in the past. But in any case, it seems likely that many procurement professionals will be facing a difficult time in terms of the cost of what they are buying. And for the younger members of the procurement community, this might be the first time they have faced suppliers coming in with demands for significant, maybe double-digit price increases.  

Those of us of an earlier vintage may even remember the days of the mid-70s, during which UK retail prices doubled over about 5 years. After moderating slightly, inflation picked up again and in 1980, my first full year as a graduate trainee with Mars Confectionery, inflation hit 18%.  Great for making your pay rise look impressive, less good for buyers. Suppliers often demanded massive price increases, and buyers would go to their boss and say, “good news, I’ve negotiated a great deal – the price is only going up 10%”!

If inflation does take off, it will also put pressure on all those procurement functions that aren’t really that capable, but have had an easy time over the recent years of low inflation, when claiming “savings” has been relatively easy. However, “cost avoidance” is never a totally convincing argument and will be even harder in an inflationary world when the CFO can see real bottom line costs spiralling.

There will also be a dilemma around locking in prices. If you think inflation has further to run, this might prove to be a very good time to negotiate long-term contracts and lock-in prices now with suppliers. On the other hand, if this is a “blip”, agreeing £5 a bag for compost now might look really silly if it is back to £3 by Christmas!  There is no right or wrong answer to this – but you will need to think carefully about the right approach, which in many case means balancing risk, cost and security of supply.

So this will be a real test for many procurement people and teams. If you want to avoid inflation driven “bad buying”, then here are three quick tips. There is much more that can be done of course, but these strike me as useful and sensible whatever your situation.

  • Market and supplier research is more important than ever in this situation. Suppliers will tell you all sorts of “facts” about the market, prices and so on. You need to be as well informed as them (better, if possible) so you can respond and understand what the real situation is.
  • Think carefully about your negotiation strategy – and if negotiations get tough, go back to basics. As well as research, look carefully at your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement), try and improve it quickly if it is week, and look at the range of negotiation preparation and approaches that might work. You don’t have to accept price increases – but you need to know how you would respond if your hard-ball negotiation really ends up with the supplier walking away.
  • That includes looking beyond price – are there other benefits you can offer the supplier maybe in return for better pricing? Or if you end up accepting some price increase, can you agree some other wins for your organisation (payment terms, additional services, etc).

There is a lot more we could say, of course, but that’s a start at least and might stimulate some thinking. Meanwhile I’m redoubling my efforts to create home-made compost. (We do have no less than four large compost bins and two “heaps”)!