Alison Barto was recently appointed Chair of the CIPS Board of Trustees. Here, she speaks about her career in procurement, the next generation of the profession and her key priorities for the three years ahead.
Alison, could you start by telling me about your background in procurement and your career to date?
Like many, I didn't set out to be a procurement person. I have a very mathematical brain and did engineering at university, then joined a subsidiary of British steel on their graduate training scheme. As part of the rotation you sample lots of different areas, and one was procurement. I moved into their raw material sourcing team which acted as a centralised purchasing hub for all the British Steel sites and a number of plants across Europe, which was fascinating. At the time I was buying some traded commodities, we were also hedging nickel warrants on the London Metal Exchange, and sourcing materials from all over the world ensuring their supply chain was stabilised. I loved the negotiation, the people aspects, the contractual side and realised it was for me.
After I gained my CIPS qualifications, I was approached by HSBC to move into their procurement function, so I went from buying raw materials to buying servers and software. I worked my way through the organisation and had the opportunity to work in Hong Kong where I built an IT procurement team across Asia, then moved to Chicago and built a similar team there, and came back to the UK where I was global CPO of HSBC for six years.
Then I had to make the decision. Do I stay in procurement and go into another organisation as CPO, or do I stay at HSBC but do something different? I'm a big believer that you should change and adapt so I moved to a commercial bank, then later into a corporate banking role. After a number of years and maternity leave I had the opportunity to move into non-executive work.
And is that how you became Chair of the Board of Trustees at CIPS?
Well, I had been on the Board of Trustees for six years. When the Chair role came up I hadn't intended to move, but I am very passionate about procurement and very passionate about CIPS. I’ve been doing some advisory work elsewhere, working with startups and helping businesses with my experience from my corporate banking role, so I'm used to helping organisations move on to their next step. I’ve been applying this skillset at CIPS to work on the transformations needed to help it grow for the future.
What comes across very strongly is this focus on growth and development throughout your career.
Yes, and the importance of connectivity. I want to focus on connectivity with our members because members need to understand what CIPS can offer and see the value in it. We have a lot of loyal members – I am one. It has been fantastic for me in my career so I'd like to be a shining beacon that says CIPS does make a difference, and show how it can do that for others in their careers. Because if you speak to young people who are deciding what university courses to take they don't say, ‘I'd like to do procurement’ – but why not? Global disruptions have made procurement more relevant than ever but I don't think people coming up through A Levels understand the influence they could have with a procurement job. So one of the things I'm keen to do is connect with that generation so they understand how they can have a huge impact on the world and the planet through procurement. If people could understand the power of their decisions I think we would attract a lot of talent.
From your experience, how do you think procurement can respond to current challenges facing the profession?
I think procurement individuals need to be a lot more creative than before because the world is changing. We have to ensure we harness creativity in the talent we develop, and I don't think that's something we've done before. In most organisations people don't look at procurement as the creative point - we tend to follow templates and contracts and things like that, but with the environment we find ourselves in, whether it's a cost of living crisis or the war in Ukraine, we have to be more creative in the way we think and bring that to the table.
What can members expect from you as Chair?
Well, I'm only the second female chair and I think probably one of the youngest we've had so for me it’s about connecting to that younger generation and making sure we can raise the voice of the profession, bringing CIPS into a position that is more accessible and more relevant.
And what are your goals for the next three years in the role?
It's a strong brand and two of my principles are to make it more accessible to everybody, from content and thought leadership through to the learning programmes we offer, and to enhance digital propositions. I want to make CIPS more digital in its offerings and more relevant to our members. I’m also keen to raise the voice of the membership – to connect with more and more members, get their thoughts on what CIPS should look like in the future. I want them to share their thoughts and input because I don't believe the people sat around the board have got all the answers, whereas we have got a huge membership footprint we can tap into and make use of going forward. By giving the members a greater voice we can make CIPS more relevant to their changing needs, make it more accessible and welcoming. That's my challenge.
Do you have a golden rule or tip you'd like to share?
For me it’s grow and adapt – because the world doesn't stay still. Just just look at everything that's happened over the past four years. I was at HSBC during Covid and we had to get all of our call centre staff operating from home because they couldn't come into any offices. You have to learn to constantly adapt, prepare for it and to be willing to change, because a lot of people don't want to. But you have to accept that change is always going to happen and life is very rarely static; that’s just how the world evolves.