As we enter 2023, what do the prospects for Bad Buying look like? No doubt, we will continue to see regular procurement and contract related fraud and corruption. It will be greeted on discovery by the CFO explaining that “it was a very sophisticated fraud”. Usually, that is simply not true.  What the CFO (or CPO) means is “our processes were rubbish and wide open to criminal exploitation, but I can’t say that because you might question why I’m paid a six or seven figure salary to manage this shambolic process”.

Talking of fraud, the long-running controversy over PPE procurement in the UK will continue in 2023, with an announcement this week that the government is going to court over the supply of gowns from supplier PPE Medpro. One paragraph in the Guardian report on this leapt out at me.

“The legal claim states that the DHSC had paid PPE Medpro the full £122m for the 25m gowns by 28 August 2020. This was before any of the gowns had been inspected in the UK, and before all the gowns had arrived. Health officials rejected the gowns after a first inspection at the NHS depot in Daventry on 11 September 2020”.

I know the situation was desperate back in 2020, but to pay the full contracted amount before inspecting the product at all – it just seems incredible that any procurement professional would agree to that. Anyway, more to come on PPE this year, no doubt with more discussion of links to politicians, dodgy suppliers and billions of wasted money.

Moving on from PPE, the public sector (in every country) will continue to struggle with complex and technologically complex procurement in areas such as Defence and major IT programmes. We can hope that the UK Ministry of Defence sorts out the long-running Ajax armoured vehicle fiasco, another programme with potentially billions of pounds on the line.  The latest comments in December during a House of Lords debate seemed a little more positive but let’s wait and see. It’s not just the UK of course. Just before Christmas, we saw reports in the German press and on the Jane’s website about some of their army’s vehicles following a major training exercise.

Germany suspended procurement of the Puma infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) on 19 December after 18 of the vehicles broke down in an exercise preparing for their first assignment to the NATO Response Force Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) in January, when Germany takes over command of the force”.

But the UK MOD seems to have issues with low tech procurement too. Recent reports suggest that the organisation still hasn’t got to grips with maintenance of military housing, a long-running example of Bad Buying on several counts. It started with a dreadful PFI programme that cost the taxpayer billions, and now the relatively new contract for looking after the homes is not delivering satisfactory outcomes for those who live there.  A contract management failure maybe?

Of course, it isn’t just the public sector that demonstrates Bad Buying, although the private sector is better at keeping failures hidden. I would argue that the professional services market (audit, consultancy, legal services) demonstrates a long-term failure of markets, procurement and buyers generally. Last month, the 100 Group, which represents the Finance Directors of some of the UK’s biggest firms, wrote to the “big four” audit firms to complain about rising fees. To which we might respond – well, you are the clients, why don’t you do something about it?

In truth, there is an oligopoly in the audit market. So the firms can get away with saying they are “investing in audit quality,” whilst in practice the extra revenue is channelled into paying their partners more and more each year – £1 million plus now in large firms. EY also increased the salaries of its junior accountants by 13% recently – nice for those people no doubt, but we all know that it is the clients who will pay for that generosity.

To some extent, legal service and strategy consulting has gone the same way – higher and higher salaries for firm’s partners in particular, whilst clients get exploited. Yet too many buyers are unwilling to use approaches that might mitigate cost increases, such as applying real competitive pressure, negotiating hard and skilfully, managing individual assignments more carefully, or looking at alternative suppliers to the top (and most expensive) firms.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with four thoughts for the New Year – maybe they could form the basis of some procurement new year resolutions for your organisation!

  • Check that you have everything in place to minimise the risk of fraud and corruption in your procurement activities. You can’t make it 100% criminal-proof, but you can make wrongdoing much more difficult by applying reasonably basic processes, systems and policies.
  • Competition is still the best mechanism invented to drive positive outcomes and outputs from suppliers and contracts. Use it well and widely.
  • Be a little cynical – well, maybe more than a little – about what suppliers promise you and the claims they make about their products and services, particularly in areas such as technology.
  • Organisations that are “good at procurement” don’t just focus on the skills and knowledge of their procurement teams – they understand that a wide range of people in the organisation need to understand their own role in the end-to-end process. They must also have the right commercial skills to play their part in procurement success.

We write pretty regularly about public sector procurement disasters, probably more than we cover private sector failures. When I was researching and writing the Bad Buying book, I found it easier to find stories about government entities than those featuring major private sector firms.

There are a number of reasons for that. Some areas of government spending – such as defence – are just very difficult and complex.  So it is a challenge in any and every country to execute that type of  procurement well. There is also the political factor, politicians who want to leave a “legacy” for instance, or who want to pursue a certain policy despite the fact that there is no procurement solution that is likely to work.

But the biggest reason is probably just the nature of government, meaning there is a higher probability that a disastrous IT system implementation will get into the public domain. So we find out about numerous tech failures in the UK public sector, going back to the DSS ICL “Benefit Card” fiasco, to the ongoing Home Office/Police Airwave failure.

So it was interesting and unusual to see a high profile private sector firm mentioned in the press recently for a significant IT problem. According to the Times, Waitrose, the upmarket supermarket chain and part of the John Lewis Group, has seen problems with stock management in recent months, which is being blamed on the implementation of a new Oracle / JDA ERP system.

But it is an odd example, because although the Times report was quite detailed, Waitrose has strenuously denied that there is a problem. So the newspaper says, “The idea is to replace the partnership’s antiquated systems with the Oracle system. But during the switchover, when the two systems have to temporarily “talk” to each other, the Oracle system has been producing incorrect numbers. Every time a new part of the system is introduced, more problems emerge… “

The report says that product availability has slipped from 3/94% to around 91%  compared to an industry average of 92%. Well, to be honest, that does not sound like a major problem, although many readers did comment on the article to back up the claim, complaining about lack of product in their local stores. Particularly cheese …

Waitrose then denied that there is a particular problem or that there are system issues, claiming that their product availability is still better than several major competitors. But one point which did make me wonder was the statement that the implementation has been ongoing for 6 years now. That does seem like a long time – even given Covid – to get a new system in place.  

Coincidentally, I heard from a friend the other day about another organisation in a very different industry (but one that will be well-known to most readers here) that has had major Oracle implementation problems this year. Now clearly many ERP implementations do succeed, or Oracle and SAP would not have grown to be two of the largest tech firms in the world. But it is also clear that things can go wrong.

I included a salutary tale in the Bad Buying book, all about FoxMeyer, a US pharma distributor. That ERP implementation appeared to set off a train of events that ended up with bankruptcy, and illustrated a number of common failings in IT disasters. The case study seemed to show defining the requirement wrongly; relying too much on external consulting-type expertise for the implementation; several suppliers sharing unclear accountability and blaming each other when things went wrong; trying to integrate different systems that did not really want to integrate; and poor programme management. We all probably recognise some of those warning signs.

So whatever the truth about Waitrose, if your organisation is planning or going through a major systems implementation, be very careful. Get the right expertise lined up, including at a minimum, some internal “intelligent client” resource even if you are using consultants for much of the work.   Be cautious, do your risk management properly, define accountabilities, never assume different systems will integrate easily (e.g. consider the data architecture), plan carefully, put the governance and reporting in place….

It is a long list, so good luck!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Unfortunately, procurement as a function has failed.  Not everywhere, not in every organisation, but across some huge and important markets, we have failed.

Reports last week in the Evening Standard – and elsewhere – lead to that unfortunate conclusion.

“UK partners at accountancy and consulting firm PwC were paid an average of more than £1 million for the first time last year. The London-based giant said consulting revenues were up by a third reflecting “exceptional clients demands to challenges and opportunities on multiple fronts”.

Group profits grew 24% to £1.4 billion in the year to end June and profit per partner averaged £920,000, up 12%. This was topped up by an average of £105,000 per partner in the firm of a distribution from the sale proceeds of PwC’s global mobility and immigration arm …”

And there are almost a thousand partners in the UK; 944 to be precise earning this huge amount. But they’re not entrepreneurs. They have not built a business, they don’t run a business and most of them are looking after relatively small teams, not the thousands of people many CEOs manage. They might create some value for clients, but I don’t think you can compare their work to being CEO of even a fairly small business, or being a business owner and entrepreneur trying to build a successful enterprise. Yet somehow, they are extracting a million each, every year, from the economy.

Fiona Czerniawska and I wrote “Buying Professional Services – How to get value from  consultants and other professional services providers” back in 2010. It remains I believe pretty much the only book focused on that specific area of procurement. Our focus was consultancy, audit and legal services, and we tried to lay out how buyers could achieve better value in these tricky markets. Procurement has a relatively short history in these spend areas – 30 years ago there was little procurement involvement in these categories even in the largest organisations. So you would hope that the more recent involvement of the profession would have helped make these markets more competitive and we would see better value for users.

But year after year, we see audit scandals, unsatisfactory consulting work, and yet the earnings of partners seems to just go up and up.  Surely, if procurement had really got to grips with these spend categories, we wouldn’t be seeing this? It is even more startling in the legal world, with Freshfields partners hitting the £2 million mark this year.

Clearly, there must be market issues here as well as questions of competence.  In the audit area, the greater regulation of that profession, put in place with good intent to raise quality, has succeeded in also raising the barriers to entry. So it has been very difficult for smaller firms to challenge the big four.

In the consulting and legal world, there are more complex factors at work. I believe that many CEOs and CFOs are happy to pay high fees and see partners earning so much, because it helps them justify their own salaries.  The executive remuneration consultants ( another highly questionable branch of the professional services world) can say to a Board, “if a PWC partner earns a million, you better pay your CEO at least that”.

Another problem is that procurement often comes up against the user of professional services who doesn’t want to see competition and just wants their favourite law or consulting firm, probably engaged on a day rate basis so the user doesn’t have to think too hard about outcomes or deliverables.   But we all know how important competition is to moderate costs; too often we still don’t see that in this world. And ongoing “contract management” of assignments is often dreadful or non-existent. How much of a partners’ earnings can be traced back to “land and expand” strategies, for instance, or projects that run on and on beyond their supposed delivery dates?

The hollowing out of businesses (and public sector bodies) over the years in the cause of efficiency is another factor. Downsizing and outsourcing has left organisations unable to resource new projects or anything out of the ordinary – so the consultants get called in.  For instance, PWC partners must be delighted to hear that the UK Tory government wants to cut civil service numbers by 25% – that will mean yet more lucrative work for them!  Which will no doubt be based on a Crown Commercial Services framework contract with consulting firms that when put in place made little attempt to drive real competition or push the firms into offering better value. 

The growing complexity of the business world is another driver, and we can’t blame the providers for that. Whether it is leading-edge technology or international patent law, organisations face more and more complexity and it is not surprising that external expertise has become more critical to success.

But even given that caveat, it seems clear that we have failed to get to grips with professional services procurement.

 Supply Management reported this week that retailer Marks and Spencer (M&S) is buying Gist, a logistics business.  Gist apparently do much of the food logistics work for M&S, but clearly all has not been well. M&S said its food supply chain “remains less efficient and, we believe, higher cost to serve than our competitors”.  Stuart Machin, the CEO, said “M&S has been tied to a higher cost legacy contract, limiting both our incentive to invest and our growth”. 

But it seems a rather strange move to buy the firm rather than perhaps;

  1. Negotiating a better deal with Gist so that performance and cost is more in line with that achieved by M&S’s competitors; and / or
  2. Finding alternative suppliers if Gist can’t or won’t meet those requirements.

I know that changing suppliers is not easy when it is clearly a large and strategically important contract. But it is not impossible.

Let’s dig into the transaction more deeply than Supply Management did. Gist is currently owned by Linde – the largest industrial gas company in the world.  But how did Linde end up as owners of a transport firm? According to Wikipedia,

“In 1969, the BOC Group acquired GL Baker, after it expressed interest in its use of liquid nitrogen in chilled containers. The company was renamed BOC Distribution Services in 1991, before being rebranded as Gist Limited ….  Gist was acquired by Linde as part of its 2006 acquisition of BOC.  Following the group’s merger with Praxair to form Linde plc, Gist continues to operate as a separate entity under Linde”.

Gist declared profits of £24.3M on 2020 revenues of £472M (2021 results are not yet published). The M&S website tells us that “M&S is acquiring the entire share capital of Gist for an initial consideration of £145m in cash. A further amount of £85m plus interest will be payable in cash from the proceeds of the intended onward disposal of freehold properties or, at the latest, on the third anniversary of completion”. 

Another £25M might be payable under certain conditions and somewhat confusingly, “M&S has the ability to retain the freehold properties should it wish to do so in which case the full amount of £110m plus interest will be payable.” So I assume the basic deal does not include the freeholds.  

The big question is how M&S got into this position in the first place. It is a pretty dramatic step to spend over £200M to get out of a logistics contract! I can’t think of a similar case. Going back to the original M&S strategy here, you can imagine why a firm might go for the “strategic partnership” option in this spend category, rather than either insourcing or using a more dynamic multiple-supplier strategy. “Playing the market” might give the buyer more competitive leverage when it comes to negotiation, but might have some less positive practical implications compared to a longer-term partnership.

But how on earth do you get into a  situation where you are apparently locked into “a higher cost legacy contract which expires in 2027”? The M&S announcement also says this.

“The Gist business being acquired generated a proforma EBITDA of c.£55m in the year ended December 2021, with the majority of profit reflecting management fees recharged to M&S under contractual arrangements, which will be eliminated upon consolidation to M&S”.

So “the majority” of Gist’s profits come from M&S.  You would think the firm would therefore be in a powerful position to re-negotiate this onerous contract?  But you can also see that Linde may not have had much interest in owning a non-core logistics business – perhaps they just said, “we’re not moving on the contract, but if you want to buy Gist, we’ll do you a good deal”.

And in the short-term, it does look like a pretty good deal, if you can pick up £55M EBITDA for £230M!  But the downsides of owning your own logistics firm need considering. Some analysts would consider it a distraction from the M&S core business – as a retailer of food,  clothing and homeware. What makes the top management think they can run a logistics business, and how much attention and time might it divert from that core business?  

Secondly, Gist may well find that other retailers do not want to use a firm owned by their retailing rival. It’s hard to see Tesco, Sainsburys or Waitrose rushing to Gist’s door.  Might M&S ownership cause an exodus of other customers, which could be an issue even if they aren’t as important as M&S itself?

I have no personal interests here, but I see this as a worrying sign. It must have been a pretty bad deal with Gist, or M&S was incapable of managing the contract to their own satisfaction.  Neither gives you much confidence in the firm’s commercial nous. I’d also worry about the distraction factor going forward. So unless M&S can explain better what they are up to, I’d put this down as a (potential) Bad Buying case study.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!