“The moment I think everything has been thrown at us, something even more unusual pops up,” says Marc Dial. ©Cressida jade
“The moment I think everything has been thrown at us, something even more unusual pops up,” says Marc Dial. ©Cressida jade

Interview: Buying bat consultants and Tudor tents

Rebecca Ellinor Tyler is former editor of Supply Management
26 July 2019

Being in charge of procurement at Historic Royal Palaces in the UK leads to some interesting requests. Marc Dial and his team have also sourced doves, Delftware pots, actors and armour

Marc Dial has a short walk from the car park to his office entrance. But it’s an enviable walk – his destination is his ‘office’ in Hampton Court Palace, the elaborate former home of King Henry VIII. It overlooks London’s River Thames and is within hailing distance of the infamous Haunted Gallery, where the ghost of Henry’s fifth wife Catherine Howard can allegedly be seen running through, screaming for mercy.

And that’s just today’s commute. Tomorrow he might choose to hot desk at one of five other ‘offices’ cared for by the UK’s Historic Royal Palaces (HRP). These include another four in the capital – the Tower of London, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace and Banqueting House – as well as Hillsborough Castle and Gardens in Northern Ireland.

As an independent charity, Historic Royal Palaces must do all it can to raise money to meet its cause of bringing each of these prestigious venues to life. 

The organisation generates money from the four million people who visit each year, as well as sponsorship and through the running of events. Those funds are then invested into showing how the monarchs and people who lived in these great palaces and castles shaped our society with changing shows and exhibitions.

Palace-based procurement

As head of procurement, insurance and contracts, Dial’s role – and that of his small team of three – not only extends to ensuring value for money for every penny spent, but also to supporting the generation of funds.

“We lead or advise on procurement activity with an annual spend of around £30m a year. But we’re also involved with income contracts that generate about £10m a year and wider deals, licences and memorandums of understanding (MoUs), because we have no in-house legal resource.”

While nominally based at Hampton Court Palace by leafy Bushy Park, south-west London, Dial’s team are often found at the organisation’s other sites. He and his colleagues are hands-on with more complex and high-value activity, with lower-risk, lower-value deals devolved to colleagues. These colleagues are then supported by advice and some procurement-related training covering the basics of purchasing, contracts, supplier management and negotiation skills, plus intellectual property guidance.

Meanwhile, specialist teams use the guidelines and policies set by Dial’s department to buy services relating to the conservation of the historic fabric of the palaces, and retail goods, such as the reproduction medieval armour gauntlets you can purchase from the online shop. The combination of these conservation services and retail goods accounts for around another £25m of annual expenditure. But it is not only the retail and conservation departments that get involved in some out-of-the-ordinary sourcing activity. Procurement has plenty of examples of its own.

“‘Costumed Interpretation Services’ (or actors) are just one of the more unusual services we have sourced. We have also had requests for Delftware pots, game-keeper vehicles, ice rinks, Tudor tents and bat consultants. We’ve sourced for food festivals and even suits of armour. 

“The strangest ‘fee’ we have for a specific licence is for ‘a pair of white doves’. Where else but here?

“And that’s naming just a few – it’s difficult to know where to start and end. The moment I think HRP has thrown everything it can at us, something even odder and more unusual pops up.”

Dial, who is MCIPS qualified, says it’s the sheer range and variety of goods, services and activities his team is involved in that makes the role so varied and interesting. “I have been here a long time now – more than 20 years. I was working in the finance team when the procurement job came up. I thought management accountancy would be my career path, but I wasn’t enjoying it.

“We shared an office with the contracts team and the work seemed interesting and varied, involving trips out to suppliers and trade fairs and so on, which seemed quite glamorous. I’d already worked for a firm of lawyers for three years while at university and gained experience in drafting simple contracts, which I enjoyed, so when a role in procurement arose, I applied. I was successful and haven’t looked back.”

Changing duties  

The job has evolved in that time and now incorporates insurance and wider contracts and agreements that are not procurement related. “We took responsibility for the insurance area of the business about three years ago. We found that given the historic nature of our sites, the artefacts they contain and the four million-plus visitors we welcome each year, insurance and indemnification considerations and risks played a part in just about every contract we placed,” Dial explains.

“So now our role is to oversee the insurance programme, ensuring relevant policies are arranged and renewed, that prominence is given to the subject at board level and emerging risks are considered – for example cyber cover.”

He says a key part of this responsibility is to regularly liaise with brokers to ensure that HRP’s underwriters are aware of and happy with some of the unique activities and initiatives it gets involved in. Medieval jousting, for instance, is one of the more unusual things they need to insure for.

And last year, the moat surrounding the Tower of London was filled with 8,000 flame torches for the installation Beyond the Deepening Shadow, which marked the centenary of the end of the First World War. It ran for a week in the lead up to Armistice Day to honour the sacrifice of the fallen, and Dial’s team organised more than 40 contracts associated with it, including the candles, security and artists.

“Insurance fits with us so well as a team, it was a sound strategic move for us, as we are often aware of upcoming plans at a very early stage, given that most things involve a contract or sourcing exercise at some point.”

The procurement team is involved in licences for large-scale events, sponsorship agreements and concession contracts arranged by HRP.

“Examples of these would be things like our catering concession contracts, food festivals, ice rinks, music festivals, corporate events business and the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, which all adds to the variety and uniqueness of the role.”

Events this year alone include live stage productions of the Terrible Tudors and Gorgeous Georgians from the Horrible Histories series; an exhibition exploring Queen Victoria’s private life at Kensington Palace; food, music and garden festivals; outdoor cinema screenings and The Real Tennis Champions Trophy at Hampton Court. 

“My team can’t claim to come up with the ideas or delivering them operationally, but where a supplier or a contract is needed, we are involved and support and negotiate alongside the commercial teams,” he explains.

Where sponsorship is concerned, the development team cultivates the opportunities and then when it comes to finalising the exact details, placing contracts and advising where there may be VAT considerations and more, the procurement team steps in to help, he says. The advice, support and involvement they offer is dependent on the level of risk and the value of the deal or significance of it.

And as HRP is an independent charity, the money the team helps to save or generate supports its primary cause – to conserve the palaces for future generations to enjoy, as well as providing a great experience for visitors.

“Most people are surprised to learn that Historic Royal Palaces is completely financially self-sufficient, and expect that the upkeep of the palaces within our care is funded from the public purse. But given we’ve received no public funds since 1998, in terms of importance, this income stream is second only to that generated by our visitors and therefore crucial to our success in delivering on our cause.

“Within our sector, the organisation is very forward-thinking and ambitious.” As a consequence, Dial says, the procurement team must be “on its toes, flexible and at times creative, or we’ll cease to be relevant”.

Historic plans

While many sourcing requests may be unique, many of the other challenges the team faces are the same as any other procurement department, for example, ensuring they’re in the room and at the table when big decisions are taken at the top of the organisation. “We want to be able to influence positively and be recognised for possessing a wider commercial and risk-based skillset than just saving money.”

Like other small teams, one difficulty is ensuring it can spread itself widely enough to keep up with the pace of the organisation and ensure it is involved in and able to add value at the right times. It also has to contend with intellectual property rights and copyright considerations when dealing with creative partners and artists. “These are often tricky and involved, even at low spend levels,” he says. Other challenges he summarises as raising the level and consistency of its strategic contract management and supplier development capability; finding the time to step back, critically appraise what it does and how – in order to be more efficient and effective; and the recruitment and retention of talent. “It’s a tough market, and recruits with the balance of hard and soft skills required here are, in my experience, in short supply.” 

Plans for the future include trying to reduce the stretch on his team and improving its IT-related procurement capability. “These are advanced on both counts and I am optimistic additional resources will soon be available.”

He says they have identified an IT procurement champion and are in discussion about how to formally include them in the team on a part-time basis. They are also identifying other potential procurement business partners within key departments. “We want to tackle some enablement and efficiency issues back of house,” he adds. “Much progress has been made, but we can be slicker.”

Medium term, he says, there is a desire to overhaul the charity’s contract management and supplier development capability. “There is scope here to improve things and really provide further competitive advantage for HRP if we get that right.” Thinking further ahead to the future, he would like to be able to fully centralise under one hub all of HRP’s procurement and contracting activity, and the advisory function at lower levels. “There is good reason why the status quo exists, but things move on and we believe in terms of simplicity, efficiency and consistency, real benefits could be gained.”

Dial says he achieves immense job satisfaction from seeing his team develop and the contribution it is making to the charity.

“What keeps me here is the variety,” he says. “It is the daily challenge and the fantastic, passionate and skilled people that make HRP such a force in the sector. It is being able to see how our team is contributing to the amazing things the organisation does and the success of it, but probably number one for me is seeing team members learn, develop and blossom. 

“I am very fortunate to work with a team that possesses a first-class attitude, well-rounded abilities and the desire to improve themselves and our team more generally – it is a genuine pleasure to work with them.”

The variety of work, visible proof of its impact and the people, have all helped to hold his interest for two decades. “Plus, I am allowed to work flexibly and have a choice of six palaces to be based at. Normally people react with some envy when they find out where I work, particularly when I describe our office views.” 

Historic royal facts

• Capital assets
All of the palaces are owned by The Queen ‘in Right of Crown’ – which means she holds them in trust for the next monarch. 

• Facilities management
The Tower of London has been a monument symbolic of royal power since the time of William the Conqueror. It joined the World Heritage List in 1988.

• Deal brokering
Hillsborough Castle was the venue for negotiations for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

• Risk management
Kings and Queens of England have used the Tower as their own personal safe for more than 600 years. More than 30 million people have seen the Crown Jewels at the Tower.

• Local sourcing
The Kitchen Garden at Hampton Court has been restored to an approximation of how it would have looked in the 18th century, growing soft fruit and vegetables, including some unusual ingredients from the time, such as costmary, sweet maudlin and trick-madame.

• Future proofing
In 2018, a major project to conserve, refurbish and reopen the Great Pagoda at Kew was completed. Eighty dragons have been recreated to adorn the pagoda.

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