Tim collecting his award on 13 September 2017 ©Alex Deverill
Tim collecting his award on 13 September 2017 ©Alex Deverill

Award-winner's tip: relationships are everything

Tim Bullock of NATS on the value of camaraderie in relationship management

The vision and drive to take an already high performing service to a leading class level takes energy, strategic thinking and great influencing skills. So said one of the judges about Tim Bullock, director of supply chain at air navigation service provider NATS, who won CIPS Procurement and supply professional of the year at the CIPS Supply Management Awards 2017. SM caught up with Bullock to hear what others can learn from his award-winning approach.

Relationships are everything

At NATS, relationships with suppliers and partners can sometimes “last longer than marriages”. “How you deliver value is not about a single negotiation, it’s about having a sustained relationship, which means having tough conversations when you need to,” Bullock says. Dedicated relationship managers look after key suppliers.

Procurement’s view of the internal and external means it should act as a bridge. “Our role is to facilitate both [supplier and internal objectives],” Bullock says. “A strong relationship will carry you through the difficult periods. Spend time getting to know people on a personal level.” This is also crucial in getting suppliers who are ‘arch rivals’ to collaborate on important projects.

Invest in development

During his tenure at NATS (he joined in 2012), Bullock’s function has grown from 17 to 44 people. He is passionate about investing in and developing his team. Much focus has been on softer skills, critical given the importance of relationships. As well as offering coaching to senior managers, training in areas such as having difficult conversations and influencing has been rolled out more widely. In addition to CIPS certification, NATS’ supply chain team is trained by the Institute for Collaborative Working. “We train as much around relationship skills as the technical procurement skills,” says Bullock. Every quarter, the whole function goes on an away day to ensure everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet.

Focus on the business

One mistake that procurement professionals sometimes make, believes Bullock, is being too insular, and not focusing on what the business actually wants and needs. “Tailoring your model is important: you can’t just take it out of a drawer,” he advises. “The [team] structure you put in place needs to reflect how you spend your time.” For him, that means having a strong supply chain leadership team with clear accountabilities, allowing him to spend more time outside of the function. “It’s about making decisions not just as a procurement leader, but as a business leader that happens to look after procurement.”