Transformational Leaders: Ginny Warr, Head of Procurement at British Land

Transformational Leaders: Ginny Warr, Head of Procurement at British Land
Published: 2 November 2020

As part of our Transformational Leaders series, Tom Graham, a Consultant within our Procurement & Supply Chain practice spoke with Ginny Warr, an experienced procurement leader who has transformed organisations across several industries and sectors.

Ginny’s first leadership role came with Vodafone a business she initially joined in 1994 spending almost seventeen years there, in various senior management and leadership roles within procurement. Ginny then took a role with Sovereign Housing spending almost four years with the business before joining British Land, where she remains today as their Head of Procurement.

The discussion centred around Ginny’s move from one of the largest Telecommunications businesses globally, in Vodafone, to Sovereign Housing, a Social Housing provider, with properties across multiple locations in the South of England.

What for some, could have been seen as an unusual move, was seen by Ginny as an opportunity to transform procurements performance and perception within Sovereign, an ambitious and growing company. Tom Graham spent some time with Ginny discussing more about her career and the move into the Social Housing sector.

Ginny, tell me more about what inspired you to choose a career in procurement?

When I was at school, I was told that most girls studying the subjects that I chose ended up working in the beauty, fashion or hospitality industry. There were no obvious career choices for those not doing straight maths and science subjects. On the back of this unhelpful career guidance I signed up to study Hotel Management at Westminster University. Very early on I realised this was a bad choice but reluctant to let my parents down I persevered and completed the course.

My first step into Procurement came when I joined Olympus medical division where I was responsible for the procurement of medical components for the fibre optic division. I loved the frantic nature of sourcing and the interaction that I had with internal stakeholders and suppliers. My passion for Procurement was ignited. I soon came to realise that I could in fact make and follow a career in this fascinating and exciting business area where I could combine my passion for numbers, business process and legal structures.

You spent a substantial part of your career, in high profile roles with Vodafone, before joining Sovereign Housing, what made you join them and what attracted you to the sector?

During the last 10 years of my Head of Procurement role at Vodafone I had spent a significant amount of time boarding planes and travelling the world. I had two kids who were both at a critical stage of their education and I was finding the pressure of being away from home was unhelpful. I was in no doubt that I wanted to stay in Procurement, but I wanted to use my transformation skills to find a role that involved setting up and establishing a professional procurement function in an ambitious and growing company. I had never worked in the public sector so when I saw Sovereign advertising for a Head of Procurement with experience in setting up procurement from scratch I could not resist.

It was made clear to me by the head-hunters recruiting for the role that I was a wild card as they were looking for someone with Public Procurement experience. I was happy to be a wildcard I was intrigued to see first-hand how this sector operated.

The interview process was very thorough, good job I had done my research. I knew nothing about housing and had no experience of OJEU rules, but I was very experienced in business transformation which was the real area of challenge at Sovereign. I was eager to learn a new sector and operating model.

I have to say after the interview I was still unsure that Sovereign was right for me, could I adapt to the culture, would I be given the space to recruit a team with the appropriate skills to make procurement a professional part of the organisation? The then COO who was part of the interview panel picked up on my hesitance. Having recently made the transition from the private high-tech sector to public sector himself he was keen to share his thought process. Over coffee the following day he said that Sovereign would provide a great opportunity to gain experience in the public sector. I would have a blank canvas to create a highly professional procurement team to make a substantial contribution to the strategic objectives, reporting directly to ExCo. This coupled with the opportunity to work locally with no international travel and a salary to match my Vodafone package I decided to take what felt like a huge leap of faith. Everyone thought I was mad.

Can you tell me more about what needed to be done at Sovereign - the challenges and the expectations and how did you elevate the performance and perception of the function?

When I arrived, there were two people who had been working to support the business with procurement for some years. They had no focussed leadership and no strategy or direction. My first task was to sell the procurement vision to both ExCo and the Board and to get them to feel enthusiastic and excited about procurements contribution to the Corporate strategy.

It was clear that Sovereign had never had a focussed procurement function and that the majority of people within the organisation had been quite accepting of the procurement activities being delivered by the Housing Managers or Quantity Surveyors in the Property Management function. Hence there was a real lack of common operating models and business process.

I have throughout my career found that the best way to get people on board is to involve them on the journey. Of course, I used all of my experience from Vodafone but key to my success was my ability to make it relevant to a non-international, housing sector market. I achieved this by using a quickly established stakeholder network from within Sovereign using like minded individuals who were looking for positive change.

Talk us through your time with Sovereign, how you delivered the transformation and what you achieved.

I recruited a team of highly motivated procurement professionals from a broad range of backgrounds. I was looking for ambitious people who could connect with my procurement vision and strategy and would bring constant healthy challenge. As a procurement leader I have grown through surrounding myself with brave individuals who are ambitious and not afraid to challenge me.

I set out a clear and simple strategy to get procurement on the Sovereign map. I prohibited the use of procurement practitioner jargon outside of the procurement team and adopted a language that connected with our stakeholder community.

I used (KISS) ‘Keep it simple, stupid’ approach which is a design principle which states that designs and/or systems should be as simple as possible. Wherever possible, complexity should be avoided as simplicity guarantees the greatest levels of user acceptance and interaction.

I delivered a clear engagement and procurement operating model which enabled staff to understand the roles and responsibilities of procurement versus other business functions.

We delivered a clear set of governance principles, policies and procedures which were to later form a critical part of our CIPS accreditation.

And then to secure real support and buy in we shared our success stories with the wider business making sure that we gave credit to those staff members who had trusted and worked with us

How did coming from a different sector help deliver the results you did, what were the critical skills required to deliver success?

My 17 years at Vodafone working with a vast range of international stakeholders had taught me the critical importance of listening. People need to share their stories of frustration and success; this is part of the process. This provided me with a rich source of information which I could then use to unlock doors and present opportunities.

I had to wrestle with colleagues in Development and Property Management teams who had been left to provide a procurement services within their own functions for many years before I arrived. There was no communication or mandate gifted by the board to say that now we have a Head of Procurement that all Procurement related activities will be led by her. I had to use my powers of persuasion through demonstrating how I could add value and remove distracting activities allowing them to focus on their own areas of expertise.

What did you feel were the biggest skills gaps within the sector and what opportunities could other housing associations explore?

They key challenge in the public sector is a desire to only recruit people with public sector experience or background. This is a big problem and just recycles talent and completely overlooks the benefit of recruiting talent from outside the sector who bring, fresh, innovative ideas, access to a new supplier market, and great stakeholder engagement skills. There needs to be a energise approach to Procurement in the public sector and this will then attract more new entrants both in the people they recruit and the suppliers they work with.

Finally, how did the time in the sector develop you as a professional and help you with future roles?

It took the best part of four years for me to establish a professional procurement function at Sovereign and to embed this into the structure and DNA of the organisation. A critical success factor for sustainable change is to make sure that you work at the right pace for the organisation. Too fast and people become overwhelmed and start to block things, too slow and people disengage due to change fatigue. Listen to your audience and read the signs.

My time with Sovereign was a great experience, I left behind me a professional, very capable team accepted by the organisation as a go to source of expertise, support and advice. Soon after I left the team, they were rewarded with CIPS procurement accreditation which is well deserved recognition for the work that we put in to create a procurement centre of excellence.

The new skills that I refined and knowledge that I acquired at Sovereign were an important part of my next and current role as CPO at British Land. My ability to talk confidently about the property sector and tenancy commercial arrangements, all of which I learnt whilst at Sovereign allowed me to demonstrate my suitability for the role in real estate.

For more information, please contact Tom Graham, a consultant in Berwick Partners’ Procurement and Supply Chain practice. 

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