Next up on our Procurement Leader Spotlight blog series, we spoke with Nisreen Bagasra about the major changes that have taken place throughout her career in procurement and supply chain, challenges she faces as a modern procurement executive, and her advice for the future leaders of the function. Nisreen is the Chief Procurement Officer of Veolia North America and has acquired nearly 20 years of experience managing procurement for companies like Thermo Electron, SAP, Hanover Insurance, and Sunovion Pharmaceuticals.
Q: How did you get into procurement?
A: I got into procurement 15-plus years ago. I was part of a core team at Thermo Fisher Scientific that was brought in to drive operational synergies. Thermo was going from a holding company to an operating one. The organization found that people were buying products and services from so many different providers—because each location was choosing their own supplier—and not in a very structured way. So, we decided to do it in a more thoughtful fashion by using data and information to drive the decision-making process.
Even though this was 20 years ago, it was an interesting study because we went from hundreds of providers to one or two, and by doing so, we reaped the benefit of volume aggregation for better pricing and generated savings. What we did was not rocket science. It was a win-win solution; the vendors benefited, the stakeholders benefited, and of course, procurement came out as a superstar in the process. Shareholders benefited because it's a direct impact on earnings. That's what got me interested in the space.
Q: What is your favorite thing about working in procurement?
A: Two things have motivated me to stay in the procurement profession. One is being able to see the difference that procurement can make in an organization by removing inefficiencies and improving performance. So it's very rewarding from that perspective.
There's also continuous learning that happens, and it's horizontal in the sense that you can apply the same procurement process across different industries. I went into a different industry and I learned something new. I learned how the business models work, I learned what was valuable to stakeholders, and how to create and generate more value for the organization I work in. I think that's really what has kept me in the profession and wakes me up every day, to get to work, and continue to drive forward.
Q: Over the last 5-10 years, what are the most impactful changes you have seen in procurement?
A: There's been a lot of growth in procurement, where it's gone from a function that was primarily doing three bids and a buy to becoming more of a strategic partner and a trusted advisor to the business. I've seen that metamorphosis take place. I've also seen procurement leaders moving into the C-level suite. So whether they are progressing into becoming CEOs or COOs, that's a trend.
The reason for that is it's gone from being the rigid procurement organization that's policing a policy to a value-added organization, and I think what enables that to happen is also on the technology side. We have added a layer of intelligence, whether it's spend analytics or whether it is tools that make it easy for stakeholders to use preferred vendors. All those changes have added the ability to focus on the strategic needs of the organization versus the tactical.
Q: Where do you see the procurement industry going over the next five years?
A: My philosophy is that procurement is going to expand on the path that we are presently on. It's going to move more towards an efficiency or a performance function, versus just procurement in the sense of dealing with vendors and pricing. Organizations are going to look at procurement to provide category expertise and support revenue growth through supply chain innovation. If I have a customer that I need to provide value to, I have to ask what the best way is for me to achieve that from an efficiency perspective. So I think it's going to morph more into a performance or an efficiency organization. In terms of tools and analytics, I think it's not going to be just about strategic sourcing, which the focus has been on for the last 10 years, but it's also going to be around demand management, consumption optimization, and vendor performance—which are the 3 pillars of category management.
Q: What are the biggest challenges that procurement faces?
A: I think there's always a need for savings, and to constantly show the value of the function versus the savings continues to be a challenge, especially when we get the first wave of inefficiencies out of the system, the second and third waves continue to be a challenge. You can only squeeze so much juice from the orange so to speak. That said, there are ways to demonstrate value beyond savings, and that's an area that procurement leaders need to keep an eye on.
I think the second thing I would say is, traditionally, most procurement leaders focus on the top spend areas in accordance with the Pareto rule. But as the organization matures, there's a ton of inefficiency in the bottom 20 percent as well. It’s more challenging to get to that, but it’s definitely an area of value that can be easily addressed with new and emerging technologies.
Q: What about procurement executives—what are the biggest challenges they face?
A: Hiring people in procurement, especially in North America is a challenge. I don't think there's enough limelight on that function. People don't understand that it is actually interesting and fun to work in procurement. Most people think it's dull and boring. Hiring talent and building talent within the organization becomes a challenge with all of the other opportunities available out there for people to explore.
Q: What skills do you think the future leaders of procurement need to be successful?
A: I think it's a combination of soft and hard skills. The hard skills are easier to talk about, and most people have them by the time they reach their mid-career in procurement. Those skills are being analytical, having strong negotiation skills, being able to review contracts, and those kinds of things. But I think the key to success is some of the soft skills, and I think what's really important in procurement is being able to influence others.
I don't believe that procurement should be an organization that uses a hammer to drive compliance because it's just not sustainable. Instead, if you use influence and are able to show the value of the solution, I think that creates a level of adoption, which is much stronger and long-lasting. So I would say being able to influence and find win-win solutions would be the most important skills for procurement resources.
Another thing I will add to that is I think it's really critical for procurement people to understand the business that the organization is in because if you don't know what it is that the company does and how they provide value to the customers, it's very difficult to be able to come up with supply-based solutions to meet those needs.
To that effect, when I see successful procurement organizations, I find that it's a mix of resources. Fifty percent of the people may be new, may have strong procurement backgrounds, have strong hard skills in contracting negotiations, category management, and all of that. But, if you bring in people from operations, it makes a really powerful team. When you're building the procurement team, bring in folks who have led or been involved in some aspect of the operation to be part of your direct spend. And on the indirect side, if you can attract talent from functions like IT, HR, or Marketing and then develop the procurement skills of contract negotiations or strategic sourcing, I think it makes for a very powerful resource or function as a whole.
Q: How can young people in procurement prepare now to get to where they need to be? What is your advice for the future leaders of procurement?
A: There are just two things: Be curious, and be caring. If you possess those two qualities, you can excel in any field, including procurement.
Q: How has technology, automation, RPA, ML etc. impacted your organization? Can you share examples of innovative changes to your procurement processes or technology stack are you currently undergoing?
A: One of the first initiatives that we put in place at Veolia when I joined was we found that our buyers were spending a lot of time answering questions from stakeholders about who the preferred vendors were, and how do we buy from them. The buying team was frustrated because they like to go and put preferred vendors in place, but not do the tactical work of supporting purchase orders. So we implemented a chatbot that lives on our intranet site and assists our stakeholders instantly.
When we first went to our CEO with the idea, he asked if that was usually for external facing customers. I told him it was, but I added that we have 7,500 employees at Veolia, and we have hundreds of preferred vendors across 800 different locations. We needed to make it easy, and that was why we wanted to have an internal procurement chatbot.
So simple things like that don’t cost much, but they freed up a whole bunch of time. And again, it's a win-win solution, because the stakeholders are happy, and it allowed the buyers to go back and focus on their core skills. So that's just an example of how we’ve used technology, but we want more out of it. We want spend analytics that can do dynamic mapping and provide us with a predictive sense of what our spend is going to be versus our historic spend. We want to be more automated so we don't have to be in that approval workflow at all. I'm not sure we're quite there, but we have a roadmap for a future state, and I'm hoping that we’ll be there in a few years.