CIPS Americas News

CSR Leadership: An Interview with Walgreens CPO Jim Townsend

CIPS 15 October 2019

Walgreens Boots Alliance CPO Jim Townsend says he is generally uncomfortable with the status quo, so he has been a change agent through much of his career. That’s one reason why he is on the CIPS Procurement Power list this year. One of his focuses currently is corporate social responsibility, which he sees as a foundation for success for any company – and especially one that is dedicated to wellness.

We recently interviewed Townsend for a Global Sourcing Insights podcast, and here are excerpts from that program, edited for length. You can listen to the entire interview in this podcast.

CSR Leadership: An Interview with Walgreens CPO Jim Townsend

What convinced you that Walgreens had to be this active in responsible sourcing? Was it a top-down decision, a bottom-up initiative, or were people throughout the organization supporting it?

When you look at our long legacy – of both Walgreens and Boots – all of our stakeholders, from our investors to our consumers, non-profits and our employees are all demanding that we act responsibly and sustainably. That includes packaging, ingredients, and product transparency and traceability. And it goes beyond that into how we interact with the community.

A top-down decision or bottom-up initiative? From our perspective it is really both. Our senior leadership and our board are deeply committed to corporate social responsibility, but at the same time our employees and our customers are driving these issues and demanding more transparency and accountability in companies such as ours.

In what areas do you think you are trailblazing – going where others in your industry are perhaps waiting and watching?     

We absolutely believe in accountability and transparency. And it’s less about huge, overly ambitious targets, and commitments we can’t meet and much more about putting in place real plans where we can deliver on our promises. We measure our progress by setting very clear baselines and then absolutely being accountable year in and year out for delivering against those commitments.

Our CSR performance metrics are assured by Deloitte so we know they can be trusted. We believe within the leadership team of WBA that we are setting the standard for transparently recording our CSR performance metrics. We are very, very clear about that.  

Has it been good for business?

Today’s customers are very savvy, and they demand that companies take measurable actions towards operating more sustainably and responsibly. Improving our supply chain through greater ingredient transparency and traceability and ethical sourcing is crucial to protecting our corporate reputation and meeting customers’ demands. It’s also something we are seeing in talent recruitment. People want to work for companies that do the right thing. 

Are you happy with where you are in your CSR initiatives or are there still areas that wake you up in the middle of the night?

The only thing that wakes me up in the middle of the night is jet lag. We are at a place where we never step aside. There is always more to do. There are some huge sustainability challenges that we read about in the newspapers and hear about on television, and clearly as an organization we need to continue to strive and be ambitious to do all the right things from an environmental, community, workplace and marketplace perspective.

This is something that motivates us. One of the things that a lot of people find very refreshing about working for Walgreens Boots Alliance is that CSR plays a huge part in the procurement agenda. And that’s something that really attracts individuals to our organization.

I’m absolutely convinced that what we do for the communities we serve, and what it is that we do for our customers and our team members actually make it a fantastic place to work and actually creates an environment where I personally and the team are actually really motivated to do the right thing for our customers and team members. 

Looking at the procurement profession in general and how it is evolving, what are you seeing?

Gone are the days when an old leader of mine used to say it was all about three bids and a puff of smoke. That’s clearly not the situation now. The kind of relationships that we in procurement are involved in forming are very often, large, strategic, complex and fundamental to the growth of our companies. And that requires a different degree of know-how, capabilities, intellectual horsepower and savvy. It’s all about what is the overall value to the organization.

We do still see some companies stuck in cost reduction, but it’s clear that Walgreens has moved beyond that.

I think you have to walk and chew gum on this. You actually have to do both because the market we are operating in – pharmacy, retail, health care services – is radically transforming. And to do that we have to ensure that we leverage the power of our collective supply chain to enable us to transform and offer some tremendous customer offerings in the future, but we’ve also got to get our own cost base into shape, so I think you actually have to do both. You have to focus on the future and focus on building those big relationships, but at the same time you have to manage your costs and your cash position very carefully as well.

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