Not a Wetherspoons to be honest – the picture shows my favourite pub in the world, the Strugglers Inn in Lincoln
No matter how much we like to talk about sustainability, complex strategies and supplier relationship management, procurement has some basic elements that cannot and must not be forgotten. A couple of recent cases act as a good reminder of that.
The first is a dispute between Wetherspoons, the leading UK pub chain with 843 branches, and AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer (they produce Budweiser, Beck’s, Stella, and also some beers that aren’t tasteless). In November 2021, Wetherspoons agreed to make AB InBev their lead brewer (“preferred supplier”) of mass-market lager, replacing Heineken. ‘Spoons, as it is affectionately known, sells a good range of real ales and interesting cask beers but still offers the standard products too for the less discerning drinker.
But the dispute relates to disagreement over who is going to pay to install the T-bars (the branded fittings that include the keg beer taps) in all the Wetherspoons pubs. The argument has gone to the UK high court now, to decide which company should be responsible for carrying out the works needed to fulfil a contractual requirement for pubs to display a set number of AB InBev beers on their T-bars. Wetherspoon claims that both parties believed the brewer was responsible, in line with standard industry practice. AB InBev denies this, saying the work should be subject to a sperate agreement.
For two such large and apparently professional firms to be arguing over this seems incredible really. Presumably there is a formal contract between them, and surely that would include a clear allocation of responsibility for costs associated with the change. If that was not included in the contract, then that represents both Bad Buying and Bad Selling, I would argue.
So the first of today’s two key learning points is this. A contract must detail the responsibilities that each party is expected to meet in order to uphold the legal agreement. Now in very large or complex contracts, there might be some minor details that don’t get captured up front, but in particular, any activities that have an associated cost must be clearly laid out. Otherwise, there is a high probability of arguments later, as Wetherspoons and AB InBev have discovered. I know this seems obvious, and yet there they are, in the high court.
The second case is both serious and quite amusing. Metal traders at Stratton Metals sold 24 tonnes of nickel to a German customer recently. Nickel is a valuable metal, increasingly used in batteries for electric cars, so much in demand. It is sold as briquettes, packed into 2-Tonne sacks. But when the customer took delivery and opened the sacks, they discovered that half contained worthless stones rather than nickel!
This was highly embarrassing for the London Metal Exchange (LME), which facilitated the contract and is Europe’s only remaining “open outcry” trading floor – rather than sitting in front of computer screens, traders literally shout at each other to arrive at buying and selling prices. The LME also operates through a network of 464 warehouses around the world which hold metals in stock, although LME does not own or manage these facilities. The dubious sacks were in a Rotterdam warehouse.
Nickel seems to be a bit of a favourite for dodgy dealings at the moment. Last month, Trafigura, the Singapore-based commodities firm, took a hit of $577 million to its accounts when it discovered a huge fraud involving missing cargoes of nickel – although it is not clear that is linked to this recent stones substitution. Trafigura is taking court action against Prateek Gupta, an Indian metals tycoon, over the missing metal.
Anyway, we might draw two wider procurement lessons from this. The first is very simple. Always check that you have been supplied with what you have paid for. Actually, that is not too difficult when it comes to physical metals – it is considerably more difficult when it comes to complex services, for instance. But the principle and the risk for the buyer is the same. You said you would provide this, I contracted to pay on that basis, and you have delivered something else.
Secondly, the nickel case shows that trust is still an important part of doing business. Despite the comments above about the importance of a robust contract, even a good example will not always protect you against corrupt, criminal or fraudulent behaviour. Trust does matter; so if you have a supplier you can trust, remember that is worth quite a lot. Nobody wants to find stones instead of nickel in their warehouse, literally or metaphorically.