“The ethos of the museum is to create advocates for the planet,” Andrew Davies. ©Peter Spinney
“The ethos of the museum is to create advocates for the planet,” Andrew Davies. ©Peter Spinney

Andrew Davies: procuring for posterity

10 May 2019

As procurement manager at the Natural History Museum, Andrew Davies’ job is to ensure suppliers are in tune with the organisation

The Natural History Museum has around 80 million specimens, but buying them is not a job for procurement – or anyone at the museum. “We don’t buy specimens,” says procurement manager Andrew Davies. “We don’t want to encourage a global market – it’s unhealthy for science. It’s not like the Tate gallery going out to acquire another Matisse.”

Most of the collection, which covers palaeontology, mineralogy, botany, entomology and zoology, has been bequeathed, with the largest donation from Walter Rothschild in 1937. “He had no interest in banking, but in natural science, and his father built a museum for him in Tring, Hertfordshire,” says Davies. 

The museum is home to some items that were collected almost 200 years ago by Darwin on his voyage on the HMS Beagle, as well as much more recent additions, such as a rare squid that washed up on a beach, and which the head of molluscs, Jon Ablett, brought to the museum in a van, explains Davies. “A new specimen creates a stir, so all the scientists came out to the car park to witness this enormous mollusc arriving. But these molluscs secrete a fluid that stinks of wee, so there weren’t many volunteers to help get it safely into the tank room.” Ablett, the story goes, went home that night on the packed London Underground drenched and stinking of wee. “The other passengers would have had no idea he is one of the world’s leading mollusc scientists who had just had a really good day,” says Davies. “The museum is full of people with this incredible knowledge and enthusiasm. Working with them is a pleasure.”

Davies is a recent arrival at the museum, having taken the role in the ‘late afternoon’ of his career. The mortgage was paid off, the kids had left for university and he could see a work-life balance, a role combining a challenge and an interest. “I always wanted to work in a museum,” he says. And this museum’s purpose and strategy – to help create a future where people and the planet thrive – aligns with one of his specialisms, eradicating modern slavery. 

He has been a strong advocate of managing risk of human rights abuses in public supply chains. In his previous role as director of London Universities Purchasing Consortium, he co-wrote a guide for public procurement in protecting human rights in the supply chain, which has been used – and credited – in the government’s forthcoming guidance on tackling modern slavery in government supply chains.

The museum is a public body and an exempt charity, with a turnover of around £90m a year and a government grant of less than half that from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. It was the fourth top attraction in the UK last year, with more than 5.2 million visitors. “The value of the pound is weaker and tourism is higher – visitor numbers are strong right now,” he says. And although the museum is free, there is profit through spending in the shop, catering and temporary exhibitions. 

Procurement has a budget of around £45m, focused largely on estate maintenance, public engagement for the museum and equipment for its leading science research centre behind the scenes. So one day he can be purchasing marketing services for temporary or travelling exhibitions and managing temporary worker contracts, and the next buying DNA sequencing kits or a £1m electron microscope. “It can be like buying for different organisations,” he says. Allocation of spend varies considerably, depending on needs. Science decisions are made by the science leadership, with departments bidding for funding when available. The current major purchases are a mass spectrometer, which is being advertised on the OJEU, and a project for specialist image printing for exhibitions, each worth around £150,000. 

As well as selling spare time on its sophisticated lab equipment to universities or industry to carry out research, the museum can also act as a reference site for equipment, which can help with costs. 

“In pre-market engagement we warm up our bidders and talk about additional benefits – acting as a reference site is popular. Research facilities around the world may want to talk to our scientists about the capabilities of a given piece of equipment. It is good PR for the manufacturer and we will have a commercial benefit in the contract for the supply for the equipment,” all within legal limitations of public procurement, he stresses.

Regulations can be problematic when procuring for temporary exhibitions. “There is a lot of creative input that doesn’t sit comfortably with public contracts regulations,” says Davies. “So we try to get involved at the start and make everyone aware that the more time we have, the more flexible we can be in the scope of the procurement.”

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the most important exhibition for the museum. “Right now WPY number 54 is on display in the gallery. Number 55 is in the judging process, and number 56 is in planning,” he says. “So, we are engaging the creative industries and thinking about redesigns and how to keep it fresh.”

The museum shares some central services with the Science Museum next door and the Victoria and Albert Museum, including the security services. “On a busy day we might have 5,000 people milling around our combined site. In the control room here, if we detect a pickpocket in the bird gallery, then it’s hand in the handbag and off round the corner. But because we have this shared contract, we can monitor them even if they go into the V&A.”

Within the estate maintenance and public engagement category, there are some operation-critical contractual relationships. “We do our best to manage those relationships carefully. For example, you can’t leave the toilets uncleaned for very long,” says Davies, adding that his boss has given him a scenario where he would be getting a mop and bucket out if necessary. “We have extremely good soft and hard FM providers, but we have to have a plan in place for anything.”

This would be the go-to solution if contractor staff resources were depleted through Brexit, although Davies doesn’t see that as a problem for the moment. A more immediate impact of Brexit has been the risk of disruption in the supply of perishable laboratory consumables. “If you are conducting research over a long period, you need to reduce the number of variables to protect the veracity of the data, so you can’t change halfway through to a different petri dish manufacturer. “Our strategy was to stockpile a bit of what we can store. But we also had to adopt the strategy to not start sensitive research at this time.”

Davies has a team of just 2.5 people, who deal with high-risk/high-profile contracts, key central contracts and services, and business travel. There are also staff in IT and projects teams who procure and who have a dotted line to Davies, but Davies is responsible for the procurement policy, strategy and compliance. 

“I want to make sure what we do with our commercial partners is contributory [to the museum’s strategy],” he says. He has already published a responsible procurement policy, a modern slavery statement and carried out a risk assessment of all categories. This identified the usual high risk categories: electronics, garments, services where lower pay is prevalent. “We are carrying out due diligence and taking corrective action where necessary,” he says. “For the cleaning and catering, the risks are not so much with our contractors, but when they need to use a third party labour agency, so we make them employ 100% of their workers directly.”

Davies has signed up to the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange, which shares factory audits and collectively raises the standards in the industry.

He has also affiliated the museum to Electronics Watch, a non-profit organisation for public authorities across Europe that monitors human rights in global supply chains. “We have about 1,000 desktop and notebook devices we are shortly to replace, and we want to make sure our supplier is committed to upholding respect to human rights issues,” he says. Electronics Watch will write a clause for the tender request, which will sit on the e-sourcing platform. The aim is to help suppliers comply in 18 months’ time, when the requirements will be mandatory.

Environmental sustainability is another area of attention for Davies, and although he knows less about this, he will engage the sustainability team working at the museum to help ready the suppliers to become advocates for the planet.

“We’ve taken swift action on single-use plastic and now we will get really embedded in our supply chain and take a similar approach. It will be a key feature of our purchasing decision.” He plans to go beyond a sustainable weighting and add steps in their specification, looking at whole-life costing in purchasing decisions including disposal. “These kinds of decisions will become second nature, possibly first nature.

Page one, chapter one of the procurement textbook says align your strategy with the strategy of your organisation. And that is all that we are doing here.”  

Saving the butterflies

The long-term survival of the collection is the biggest concern for the NHM, and it may need to rehouse some items or find new solutions. “Some specimens have been in our possession for two centuries. We want to make sure they are preserved indefinitely,” says Davies. The fragility of the collection was explained in one of his first office meetings, where he was told he could have no plants or store food because bugs are a major risk. “The team from integrated pest management showed me a picture of a beautiful tray of butterflies from South America, and then what happened when a particular beetle got under the glass into the tray. The butterflies were completely decimated, gone forever.” The biggest issue is how to build an environment that protects the collection in the long term, as the building around it continues to age. “The museum has some major decisions to make in the next few years and I fully expect our procurement team to get quite closely involved.”

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