Procurement Integrity Breach – A Sure-fire Way to Get Fired

The following story is true; no names or companies will be mentioned.

“Hello, Rebecca. Great to hear from you this morning. What can I do for you today?” I said to my direct report on my cell phone.

“We have a situation that needs your attention.” Her voice foretold that this was one to pay extra attention to.

“What’s up?”

“I just got a call from corporate security. They are investigating three people in our company, two in our organization, for fraud and embezzlement of a supplier.” I was really sitting up tall now and turned away from the computer completely with a pen and piece of paper. “Please, go on.”

The details were still a bit sketchy but pointed to a serious breach of our business conduct guidelines. Security needed our support to do the full investigation. It was a no-brainer and we both agreed to proceed at full speed. I called my boss to provide what we knew and that I’d keep him aware.

The day had taken a turn for the worse. I was shaken by the reality that our people, our trusted procurement professionals, were being implicated for fraudulent behavior towards our suppliers. Is there anything worse than cheating your suppliers as a procurement professional?

 

The Most Fundamental Attribute of Procurement – Honesty & Integrity

The supplier-procurement relationship is the cornerstone of the engagement between two companies doing commerce with one another. A formal supplier relationship management process is the tool for managing collaborative relationships with suppliers to achieve the required business objectives and overall supply chain strategy. The most fundamental attribute of this relationship is a foundation of honesty and integrity between the two parties.

Suppliers engage with procurement in negotiations continually, sometimes formally during periodic pricing reviews, during requests for quotes, when issues arise that need to be addressed, and more. Both parties are always pushing for the best position they can achieve. To make this work, both sides must have the baseline assumption that each are being open and honest with one another.

Without honesty and integrity between the two organizations, the relationship will never achieve what it is capable of for both sides.

 

Reality Check – The Breakdown 

The story began to unfold. It was a lot worse than we imagined.

At the time, we were introducing new products on a regular basis. Several of the commodity categories were relatively new and suppliers were vying for key positions in our approved supplier list. The procurement team had the challenge of keeping supply available at the right price, quantity, quality, and performance in a highly competitive and dynamic period. Additionally, they had to continue looking forward for the next-best products. This meant a close relationship with engineering to evaluate and qualify the products and suppliers.

This is where it got out of hand.

The three people representing our company were working with one supplier that was very close to getting onto our approved list. If the supplier succeeded, their revenue might be a couple of million dollars per year and an opportunity to grow further with us.

The supplier was very hungry for our business. The procurement and engineering teams knew this. Somewhere along the line it broke down and segued to an unacceptable point – fraudulent behavior and attempting to embezzle the supplier. They crossed a line that sealed their fate with our company and broke every code of business ethics in the industry.

The three forced the supplier to hold “business meetings” at seedy establishments, take them out to extravagant and expensive dinners, and requested money / stock grants to elevate the supplier’s position on the qualification list if they played along. It went way too far and, thankfully, the supplier called our ethics hotline.

 

Conclusion

As the investigation proceeded, the choice was very clear. Rebecca and I stayed in close touch throughout. My boss told me he’d support our decision once we made it. It did not take us long at all once the final report came out. We decided that the perpetrators would be fired immediately. As it turned out, one of the procurement professionals had recently left, so the other two people were released.

It was our only choice. We knew that and it was quite an easy decision to make.

We knew that the credibility of our organization and the company would be irreparably harmed if we chose any other course of action.

What would happen if the word got out to other suppliers? How fast would the relationships we had worked so hard to develop with our supply base disintegrate? How much would our access to new technology be disrupted? The implications of any other choice were too great.

It was the the most difficult situation I’ve experienced with a supplier. It was also a decision that still resonates to this day.

 

Ethical Procurement Links

Please read the Institute of Supply Management’s Ethics and Business Conduct or Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply’s and National Institute of Governmental Purchasing’s Ethical Procurement code.

 

What are your thoughts about this subject? Have you ever experienced this blatant of a situation in a supplier-procurement engagement?

 

ciao…mam

Michael Massetti is an Executive Partner with Gartner who really does enjoy being a supply chain professional! Seriously. All opinions are my own.

 

Other articles by Michael

6 Essential Attributes of Strategic Supplier Partnerships

Though the phrase partnership is often used, what really constitutes a strategic supplier partnership?

In a previous article about supplier management, I suggested that the more a supplier tells you that they are strategic, the less they really are. Strategic is a term that is often overused. Whether the phrase refers to sourcing, procurement, relationships, or other matters, its use is prevalent.

The notion of partnerships is equally ubiquitous and similarly both mis- and over-used. This article will identify a taxonomy for a strategic partnership between two parties.

What are the essential attributes of a true partnership between a supplier and their customer/partner? Let’s start with a simple framework for the stratification of a supply base and then explore the attributes of the partnership segment.

Based on my earlier post about supplier relationship management, I introduced a three-tiered model for segmenting and managing suppliers.

  1. Strategic Partner – strategic, long-term relationship
  2. Preferred Supplier – operational, on-going relationship
  3. Approved Supplier (aka, Vendor) – tactical, transactional relationship

Vendor is the most commonly used term to define the entire spectrum of suppliers. A vendor is the most tactical of suppliers. They supply goods and/or services that are readily available, are commodities, and price rules.

A preferred supplier has a longer-term, more intimate relationship with the customer. This category of supplier earns the right to sell through a disciplined evaluation and selection process (RFP or RFQ). The relationship between the preferred supplier and customer is deeper than that of the vendor level. Supplier performance measurements are tracked and are the cornerstone of the longer term relationship.

The strategic partner is the most far-reaching relationship of all three levels. Of course, not all strategic suppliers become partners. The strategic partner occupies the elite position at the top of the supply base hierarchy. Partnerships develop over time with conscientious effort on both sides of the relationship. There must be a multi-faceted commitment between the companies to establish the requisite foundation for the relationship to be mutually productive and valuable. Strategic partners may be the fewest in number but they are the most critical to the success of the buying organization. Ideally, both parties have this perspective.

The baseline metrics for performance of a partner are the same operational parameters used for other suppliers. The partnership relationship compels the need for additional attributes to be evaluated between the two companies, including the relationship itself. This enhanced scope is crucial because both companies have significant financial and strategic business ties. This commands a more holistic set of criteria to assess the total partnership.

 

Defining a Strategic Partnership

Let’s introduce the following traits to categorize the multiple facets of a strategic partnership: vision, strategy, investment, planning and management systems, communications, risk, and reward. This forms the expanded domain for developing and maintaining a strong and viable partnership. In fact, each facet must also be “shared” between the parties to truly reflect the nature of this more intimate relationship.

Let’s look at each component in more detail.

 

Shared Vision & Strategy

The most fundamental aspect of a relationship between two companies is the vision both have for their businesses. These visions of what it takes to be successful in their respective markets must align or overlap to ensure that the partnership can develop and remain strong. The relationship must embrace the strategic plans of each entity or it will suffer under the stress of everyday business.

One example is in the world of out-sourced software development. For a relationship between two partners to be viable and value-generating, there must be a clear understanding about intellectual property ownership, market exclusivity, and more. If the partner who performs the work on behalf of the customer attempts to parlay the work they are paid to do into their own market entry, it would undermine the relationship completely. The shared vision and strategy in this example is one where access to valuable intellectual skills is required by one party to be successful and offered by another. From the other vantage point, skills to complement the core investment by the buyer are essential for market success.

Shared Investment

There is money to be spent to bring new products or capabilities to market. Success will be contingent upon appropriate resource allocation and investment by all involved. This does not mean that the investment amounts are necessarily equal. The financial value received by both companies in this engagement may not be equal either. Regardless, it does require both parties to support the vision, strategy, and plans with the appropriate level of investment in human and financial resources and the commitment to stay the course.

Shared Planning & Management Systems

With both companies approaching their joint activities with alignment at the vision and strategy level, the detailed plans must also be congruent. Plans establish the resources involved, the milestones for the key activities, and responsibilities of both parties. Planning has to be mutual and both parties need to be actively involved and vested with the entire plan. Falling short here will set up misaligned expectations and when issues do surface, the ability to easily resolve them suffers. Regular business reviews are an integral part of a management system. Build them into the relationship plan to ensure alignment at all levels of the business.

Shared Communications

Since a partnership sits atop the supplier hierarchy, a high degree of collaboration is required for the supplier and customer to be successful. This implies a structured and managed approach to communications and engagement across all dimensions of the relationship. Communications will span the management hierarchy and the functional disciplines of both parties. Open, transparent, and strong cross-functional engagement between the partners is as important as the contractual and formal aspects of long-term performance and value contribution. If communications channels are not open and bi-directional, long-term success will be compromised.

Shared Risk

All business ventures have elements of risk. When two companies come together to do business, they are both taking on new and shared risks. Some of these are unique to their business or market and some are shared by the fact that they are collaborating to be successful. It is critical that both parties acknowledge these risks and be transparent with one another. An open, honest engagement will provide the clarity both parties need to deal with risks when they occur without jeopardizing the partnership.

Shared Reward.

Winners beget winners. At the end of the day, success in the marketplace needs to be shared all along the value chain. Supply chains with close, vested, and mutually-beneficial relationships at the highest levels of the supplier hierarchy will succeed the most. Successful partnerships will generate more mutual value than lesser relationships. When set up properly, there is reduced chance of arguing over who got what or not later on. Market share growth, access to technology, improved profits, and other measures are examples of what each party may accrue.

 

The strategic partnership is the pinnacle of supplier relationships and takes a more holistic management approach to be successful. When making decisions about very strategic engagements, consider each of the above elements to ensure that the partner selection is well-founded.

 

Michael Massetti is an Executive Partner with Gartner who really does enjoy being a supply chain professional! Seriously. All opinions are my own.

Don’t Be Afraid to Say “No!” to a Bad Contract

The Grass is NOT Always Greener on the Other Side of the Fence!

Grass-isnt-always-greener

With the new operations and procurement organization in place, it was time to focus on improving the performance of the supply chain. Since we were a relatively small manufacturer, we maintained our contract manufacturing with one partner. The performance of this segment of the supply chain was not meeting expectations. At the surface, the answer appeared straight-forward – change suppliers. The new CEO and new Sr. VP of Operations were experienced with a larger partner from their past. For the procurement team, it was time to evaluate the options – supplier improvement and/or a new supplier.

We began the new supplier evaluation process. Candidate companies were researched, visits to their facilities were completed, and we reviewed initial RFI (Request for Information) responses to prepare for the next step. We selected two companies to execute a formal bid with in addition to our current partner. With the courting process now in full motion, a few months later we made the choice to select a new supplier and begin the negotiations dance. So far, all of the amazing attributes and features of their business models were in full bloom, just like the male peacock’s glorious tail.

Dancers

Meanwhile, there was business to run, market share to attack, and profit to be achieved. Procurement was under-staffed, especially the resources dedicated to the largest and most critical supplier. After adding a very experienced out-sourced manufacturing ace to the team, it was time to drive measurable performance improvements. The four areas requiring focus were cost, inventory visibility, cost of poor quality (CoPQ), and delivery performance. The team set out to establish systematic improvement plans in each area – that’s what procurement does. With all of the warts and blemishes in full purview, we had to assess if we could dress our current dance partner up to the hilt.

With the prospective partner identified, we prepared to negotiate the contract. We had already negotiated myriad contracts during our professional life. We understood the ins and outs of negotiating, outlining critical goals for each partner, giving and taking on the hot clauses, and sending countless red-lined versions back and forth. It always seems to go this way: we tear through many of the clauses rapidly but get bogged down on the most intricate ones that have the largest financial risk.

Stalemate

Six months had passed since the contract negotiations commenced and we had not reached closure. It was looking dismal. There were a few very critical clauses that we could not even come close to agreement on – we put negotiations on hold twice during the process to ensure both companies were thinking things through thoroughly. We had come to a critical juncture in the potential relationship, not just the approval of the agreement. Despite many attempts to massage the wording to accommodate both parties’ concerns, we had reached a stalemate.

It was a difficult call to make, but it was time to go to the senior vice president and tell him we had to abandon the negotiations – we could not accept the financial risk that was being put on us compared to our current situation. During the six month period of the negotiations, our existing partner’s performance had transformed markedly. The quality team had reduced the cost of quality excursions by 50%. Delivery performance climbed over our 95% objective. Inventory issues had virtually disappeared. And, cost reductions were reaching all-time levels. Was there really a dire need to change suppliers anymore? In contrast to the courting phase when we observed all of the beauty of the new supplier and the warts of the existing one, we had a more complete view of both parties now.

Cancel Contract

In the end, we said “No!” and continued a successful and productive relationship with our existing partner. We sat down and hammered out a new agreement with them in less than two months. Business was progressing well. While it was a difficult decision to make, in the end, it was clear that the grass was not greener on the other side of the contract fence.

ciao…mam

Michael Massetti is a high-tech supply chain executive who really does enjoy being a supply chain professional! Seriously.

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So, you really enjoy being a supply chain professional? Part 3

Supplier Management – Isn’t It Fun to Manage Suppliers?

Let’s face it supply chain is a fascinating and pressure-filled field. As we discussed in part 2, without demand there is no need for supply. Similarly, without supply, there’s no need for suppliers. If it weren’t for all the trials and tribulations of working with suppliers, procurement professionals would lead such a boring life. Don’t you wonder sometimes how and why you got into this field?

This third article will look at the fun that is managing and working with suppliers – from the transactional vendors all the way up through strategic partners. Future story lines will include inventory, supply chain risk, logistics, and managing numbers.

Suppliers who insist on telling you how strategic they are, aren’t.

Supplier Management Pyramid

As buying evolved to purchasing, which then evolved to procurement which further evolved to sourcing, the organizational concept expanded accordingly. The tactics of buying grew into the discipline of managing supply and suppliers.

The development of supplier relationship management accompanied the stratification of the supply base into a number of different hierarchal models. The most tactical suppliers are fundamentally transactional and have the lowest level of relationship management. This highest are the most strategic with the largest and most critical spend allocation and the deepest relationships. There are way more suppliers at the base than at the top.

Then why does it seem that the suppliers who are lower in your spending hierarchy insist on declaring themselves strategic to the procurement team? Based on non-scientific surveys of suppliers who evaluate themselves as “strategic” the triangle above would be inverted with hardly any in the lowest tier!

The question really is “who’s strategic to whom?”

A cornerstone of any supplier management program is transparency between both sides of the relationship. If your suppliers are not intimately aware of their status, the program might need some work.

Regardless, this does not guarantee that the supplier will not continue to view the relationship as strategic to them … it just may not be strategic to you.

 

If you or your suppliers consistently refer to “the contract… the relationship definitely needs some work.

Contract Icon

Anyone who has ever negotiated a long or difficult contract has experienced the absolute relief and joy when the agreement is signed and filed. Have you had this thought before? “I just hope that my tenure with this supplier expires before the agreement!”

Regardless, contracts are necessary (evils). Many companies require formal purchasing or supply agreements for specific spending thresholds. They are the foundation for managing the relationship, executing business, and dealing with exceptions – especially the unforeseen.

Nonetheless, the most hair-raising and deflating words that a purchasing professional can hear during the normal course of business is, “But, that’s not what the agreement says …” It gets even worse when similar comments permeate the daily conversations. Been there. It’s not fun.

Believe me, agreements are one facet of the total relationship. However, if you hear about the contract repeatedly, the relationship is dysfunctional. Fix it!

“If you had told me it was a competitive bid, I’d have come in with a lower price.

Dilbert Bid Lie

I’m sure we’ve all heard the cliché: the three most important things in purchasing are price, price, and price. A lower price, for sure.

RFI. RFP. RFQ. Auctions. E-Procurement. D&B. Altman Z-score.

There are myriad methods available to sourcing pros to evaluate and eventually select suppliers. Of course, the criteria include price, capability, capacity, relationship, number of sources, and more. No matter what, it’s always difficult to avoid price … or should we say PRICE?!

And, there’s nothing more upsetting during a bid process to have suppliers try to game you. Isn’t it frustrating to have to go back to a supplier, especially one you are already working with, and they tell you that they didn’t realize that price was important? Down right maddening!

Really? You didn’t know that your best bid was required? Makes you wonder. Cross that one off the list.

 

ciao…mam

Michael Massetti is a high-tech supply chain executive who really does enjoy being a supply chain professional! Seriously. Thanks to my former colleague and partner in supply chain crime Alex Brown for his ideas.

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