It’s a tall order to come in and completely transform the procurement function within an iconic global company.
But Kelly Irwin didn’t beat around the bush when she started as Head of Procurement at the Australian subsidiary of Swiss group at Holcim (which has since merged with the French group LaFarge) five years ago.
The company, which is a leading supplier of aggregates, concrete and concrete pipe and products, had plenty of room for improvement. In fact, the company’s procurement department was mostly handling complaints, rather than handling strategic buying for their future.
The 20+ year procurement industry veteran soon realised the magnitude of the role, so set about implementing improved systems and processes for the procurement function. The first step was to establish a centralised purchasing model, then build a talented procurement team to support her role.
“It was a very dysfunctional team that had little direction, that wasn’t aligned with the company’s strategic directions,” Irwin says.
Building an Effective Team
Today, Irwin heads of a team of 34 people and manages a mind-boggling AUD $900 million budget. She has implemented and centralised structure and processes within the procurement function. She has previously worked in procurement for Qantas and building firm Boral, though this role with Holcim Australia is her first where the procurement buck stops with her.
With those changes bedded down, her remit is again broadening, and she will now handle all buying across New Zealand for the company, with a recent trip across ‘the Ditch‘ to establish processes there.
Not only this, Irwin has developed a highly effective procurement team, which has been awarded the Internal Customer Excellence Award for Holcim Australia for three years in a row.
Her approach has transformed the procurement function for the company, with her team has an 80 per cent engagement score, which was the highest in Holcim Australia in 2015.
Irwin has strong capabilities in building effective working relationships with teams, development of Procurement strategy, management of supplier and keyholder expectations, highly developed negotiating skills, contract management, risk management and compliance expertise and operational experience through the implementation of change initiatives and process improvements.
Irwin was also recently awarded the CIPS Procurement and Supply Chain Management Professional of the Year.
Building Individual Engagement
Irwin keeps staff informed on all aspects of the business, has an open door policy, and doesn’t mind being contacted after hours.
“I recently read that people play harder when they know the score. This is something Holcim Procurement do well. Not only do we have clear goals, (quantitative, savings targets), but we have the measurement tools the accountability element to keep score on how we are tracking.
“I believe this shared goal, as well as individual accountability to reach this goal builds individuals’ commitment to team uniformity direction, and overall engagement,” she says.
To emphasise her point, she recalled talking to someone in procurement who had major issues trying to speak to the head of the department. This was slowing down their ability to tackle their own role.
“This person would need to book a meeting with their superior two or three weeks ahead, and it was usually a walking appointment as he was always in between meetings. I honestly don’t know how someone can be that busy, that they’re practically unavailable for their own staff. You’ve got to make sure your staff feel engaged and supported, and that you’re a team.”
Nearly 70 per cent of her team is degree qualified, though that wasn’t a prerequisite when she entered the industry more than two decades ago.
“I always look to hire people that complement the skills we have, and find people who have talents in areas we need to improve in.
‘Be Inquisitive Problem Solvers’
Like so many working in procurement, it was never a deliberate decision to follow this career path.
Irwin deferred university and entered the workforce before stumbling into a procurement role, with the sound of buying things for a living appealing to her. She’s since completed a number of qualifications, certificates and management courses that support her role.
“Procurement is one of those professions that you’ll excel in as long as you’ve got the right soft skills.”
Irwin describes herself on being approachable, down to earth and honest. And she doesn’t take herself too seriously.
“Though depending on where you’re standing, that can be a bit rough as well,” she admits.
Procurement professionals need to be inquisitive problem solvers with strong communication skills, she says.
“While your superiors might be great at what they do, with all due respect, they don’t necessarily know more than you about your function within the business. Realising that you could well have a far better idea of the best approach than other senior people within your business can be professionally liberating.”
As far as the future goes, Irwin says the procurement function has an increasingly broadening remit.
“Procurement was entrenched in a brown cardigan mentality in the past, but that’s changing, and we’re now a business function that’s well respected across the globe.”
Kelly Irwin is one of the leading Australian professionals to speak at the second annual Women in Procurement 2016 event, which inspires leadership, advances careers and drives innovation in procurement, and supply chain function and practice. The event will be held in Melbourne in 21-23 March. Book your ticket here.