Until 14 months ago, Chris Birrell was Senior Vice President and Chief Procurement Officer at Revlon, the global cosmetics and beauty products business. Based in New Jersey, USA, from 2009, with the business for a decade, Birrell quit at the end of 2014 to pursue new options, having spent a total career of more than 30 years responsible for procurement.
Interviewee: Chris Birrell - former Senior Vice President & Chief Procurement Officer, Revlon
Birrell has witnessed the development of the function from a tactical role to a much more strategic contributor to business performance. “I feel lucky to have fallen by chance into procurement at an early point in my career. This unplanned move into Procurement might be typical of my generation, as it wasn’t then a high profile career option”.
Indeed, Birrell began his career at Cadbury Schweppes in various junior roles, working in multiple functions, before moving into purchasing because his previous role was redundant.
“At that time procurement was just beginning to professionalise.” he says. “I was fortunate to be trained in a forward thinking team led by a very capable and driven procurement professional. This was a great environment to develop skills and experiences across many spend areas. We were encouraged to challenge the status quo and be quite radical in how we delivered extra value.”
From Cadbury he moved, in 1995, to Cott Beverages, a UK start up business with a US parent, where he joined as Procurement Director for Europe, later becoming Operations Director and a member of the board of directors for the European subsidiary.
“It was while I was at Cott in the late Nineties that my career evolved into broader Supply Chain and Operations,” says Birrell,“ Cott gave me progressively greater accountability, leading eventually to the role of European Operations Director, where I led manufacturing and supply chain at three drinks factories and one plastic component factory.”
He adds, “As a procurement person, becoming accountable also for factory operations, customer service, etc was a formative experience. I now had to deal with the operational impact of procurement actions, such as changing a supplier”.
Birrell says that this helped make him a more rounded decision maker, sensitive to the challenges faced by manufacturing businesses when dealing with change driven by the procurement team.
In 2004, he joined Revlon Europe, first as Procurement Director, before being promoted to Operations Director for Europe and Canada region. In 2009, he was transferred to the USA to lead procurement globally as the company’s Chief Procurement Officer.
On joining Revlon as Procurement Director for Europe, Birrell picked up accountability for Indirect spend as well as Direct. “Like many of my procurement peers in other companies, I learned to approach Indirect spend, as a service to the spending department. This proved to be a more effective way of working than simply marching in and saying ‘we can save you 20%, but we are going to change your suppliers and how you do things’.”
Such an approach served him well when he moved to lead Revlon’s global procurement team based in the USA. Here his focus was on globalising the procurement function, as well as delivering savings.
“The remit was to deliver cash flow as well as cost savings and the methodology was to develop a globally coordinated team. Until then, the majority of Revlon’s procurement specialists had been focussed on US direct spending. As the company was growing and developing it was clear that we needed to leverage all our spending around the world. We did that through a combination of personnel development, and changing the nature of the work from largely transactional to much more strategic.”
Birrell adds, “Key to success was leadership buy-in that all spend (Direct and Indirect) should be subject to Procurement scrutiny. Of course there were challenges and different approaches between individuals, but once people realised the value that could be delivered without interfering with the quality or quantity of goods or services received, then we all became aligned quite quickly.”
So what are the major changes that Birrell has witnessed in his time in Procurement?
Birrell feels that most change has been very positive:
- The function has gained a voice at the top table. Sometimes this is as part of broader Supply Chain or Finance. However, it is undoubtedly the case that CEO’s today expect Procurement teams to bring strategic value to the business.
- Technology, whether e-procurement or data mining, has become as fundamental enabler, allowing Procurement professionals to cover more ground and gain rapid insights.
- Excellent people are now choosing Procurement as a career. It has been great to see the quality of people entering Procurement and has been a privilege to work with some of them.
- Procurement has developed from being all about the money to now leading multi-functional cooperation with suppliers. Of course, price will always be important, but the real added value is in broader multi-functional cooperation with suppliers. That is the really challenging and rewarding part of being a Procurement specialist”.
One area that Birrell would like to see further change is in reducing the tendency for Procurement people to stick to a limited range of spend categories. He tells us: “I see many procurement people choosing to specialize in one or a few categories. This may be good for their earning power in the short term, but I believe that they miss out on a lot of richness and intellectual stretch if they don’t try new categories and businesses.
So what now for Birrell?
Since leaving Revlon, he has spent some time out and recently returned to live in the UK while considering future work options. “It is an exciting time to be an experienced Procurement and Operations executive” he says. Of particular appeal is the potential to get involved with a business where his skills and experience might make a rapid positive difference. To that end he has recently completed a short USA based assignment for a private equity company.
“Part of the appeal”, he says, “is the attraction of joining a business with minimum bureaucracy and maximum scope for moving forward rapidly.” Birrell also likes to work where there is a need for action, perhaps to secure the viability of the business. “I recall particularly enjoying my time at Cott because it was very challenging to make the European business viable.” he says. “It was loss-making when I joined and its future direction was not clear. In retrospect, I thrive best in that environment, as it allows for rapid decisions and action. I hope to be able to bring that skill set to my next roles whether in the UK or overseas."
Birrell has seen a lot of change in Procurement over the course of his career, not least because of the elevation of the function to a strategic contributor to the top table. Today, the opportunities available to the most talented procurement executives are more than they ever were before.