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30 Years working at Crown Agents

26th August 2020

Steve Guppy, Director of Procurement, reflects upon what good procurement looks like, why he stayed at Crown Agents for this long and how a sheep left him speechless.

You joined Crown Agents in 1990- a lot of things have changed since then. What would you say has been most transformative during this time?

Crown Agents is truly a unique place to work and, to be honest, I did not think when I walked through the doors of St Nicholas House in Sutton on the morning of 11th June 1990 that I would still be here today, three decades later!

It goes without saying that the organisation I joined in 1990 was a very different one from the one I am working for today. In 1990, we had three entire floors of buyers, a floor of engineers providing technical advice and specifications (and the occasional lesson in how a processing plant worked), and a typing pool who used to draft all the contracts and letters for us.  At the time, we were buying railways and uniforms, and one of our teams procured Land Rovers only! Email did not exist and official indents came in through diplomatic bags. We had one or two computers per department which you had to queue for to put information onto a database. Of course the world was also a different one then – Mandela had just been released, the German unification was under way and the world wide web didn’t exist.

Having started my job without the possibility of using the internet, I was lucky to live abroad and learn first-hand how to operate in different contexts. I have worked in all corners of the world, from the Caribbean to Central Asia and Africa. My first two postings could not have been further apart: My first was in Durban, where Crown Agents sent me for a few months. It was 1995, and Durban was a buzzing place where people spoke English, and it was generally not a challenge for me to move around the city. From there, I went to Central Asia for two years. I did not speak the language and I think there were only 20 British people living in the country. I was located in a very remote, rural area at the time, and the drive to the nearest airport was four hours long. So you see, from sitting in Durban one minute to travelling to Central Asia the next- you never know what tomorrow brings.

The fascinating thing about procurement is that it is continuously impacted by global events- from changing geographies to the creation of new markets. You therefore have to ensure that you evolve as a procurement professional in line with these developments to understand those new regions and those new clients, building new relationships. Too often I know what the academic answer to a question is, but then I would need to adapt it to the context of a country which has floods half of the year, which makes some of the supply chain routes unusable.

When I joined, a lot of my work was exclusively in Africa for the first five or six years, but very quickly, I also started to work in Asia, the Balkans, the Caribbean and the Ukraine. When I first began, I worked on purely transactional workstreams, but soon I also established myself in the consultancy space where I led Crown Agents’ procurement work with governments for over a decade, strengthening sustainable procurement and supply chain practices. This includes green procurement, and ensuring value for money in resource constrained contexts.

It sounds like your role is quite varied and constantly changing. In those 30 years of facing those challenges, what would you say were your biggest achievements?

My highlights are certainly the work we did during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and now during COVID-19. The sheer volume of tasks is unprecedented, as well as the short space of time we have to do them. We are achieving so much so quickly, with the team working 15 hour days at times, and whilst these are always very challenging and draining periods of my life, they are also times of immense pride. Looking back, one can say, wow, we actually made this happen- we are the ones making those phone calls; we are the ones placing those orders and getting those goods on the plane, despite the closing of supply routes and the restrictions on where you could export from. With Ebola, these restrictions were applicable to some countries, whilst with COVID-19, many challenges are global, such as raw material shortages as well as demand and price increases.

In these situations, it is so important to be surrounded by a team which has the ability to get things done and find new and innovative solutions to unprecedented challenges. You need to be able to trust your people to understand what works in procurement and not deviate from essential procurement principles; to be skilled to adapt actions and processes for emergency situations without compromising those principles; and to know how you can still be transparent and accountable, despite operating in such a rapid environment. And that obviously builds trust with clients, which you need when things have to move quickly.

Thanks Steve, these are certainly impressive accomplishments to look back on. What would you say makes Crown Agents unique as a company to work for?

Well, there are many aspects of Crown Agents which are unique, but above all, I am immensely proud that Crown Agents is a member of Transparency International’s Business Integrity Forum, as it shows our commitment to integrity and also that we are recognized by other key players for this. Integrity and transparency were extremely important when working on procurement in a COVID-19 environment, because it is crowded with substandard products and the run for supplies is very competitive, so we wanted to ensure that our clients always knew where they stood and that they could rely on us in terms of promised delivery times and requested product standards.

I am also fortunate that I can rely on in-house expertise across the entire supply chain, because our company also provides inspection services, procurement consulting/training and transactional expertise, all under one roof. This makes it so much easier to make smart decisions on one end of the supply chain knowing how it impacts the other aspects of the process and how they all link together.

Thank you Steve. With your global exposure and work that is not as simple and straightforward at times, where there any moments that took you completely aback? Where you simply did not know what to do?

Yes, there have been many, but one moment in particular sticks in my head: When I was working in Central Asia, we did quite a lot of procurement work for the Ministry of Agriculture in Kyrgyzstan. The work had been very difficult for various reasons, but we got it done, so the Ministry was very happy.

One day sitting in my office, I started to hear strange sounds, animal sounds. It was a hot summer day, so I thought that the heat had gotten to the team and that they were fooling around, imitating animals for some reason. I had some work to do so I got rather irritated and was about to confront them outside my office, when suddenly a young boy with a string in his hand shyly peeked through my office door. He was probably only 10 years old. He came through and walked nervously towards my desk. I then noticed a distinct smell and finally saw some white fluff coming through the door- I noticed then that a live sheep was attached to the string the boy was holding. The sheep looked as confused as I did, and the boy lost no time, quickly tying the sheep to my desk and running away, giving me no chance to react or ask questions.

After staring at the sheep for a few minutes, I called my team into the office and asked them what they thought was going on, and they said the sheep was a gift from the Ministry of Agriculture for all the hard work we had done. As lovely as it was to be thought of in this way, I did not have any facilities at home to keep a sheep. To make matters worse, it was 10 o’clock in the morning and 40 degrees hot in my office, a scenario that was clearly not going to end well for either myself or the sheep. We finally decided to allocate staff members taking turns to walk the sheep outside the office to keep it entertained and healthy until we decided on a way forward (I did not end up taking it home in the end).

This was certainly a very unusual situation for me to be in, and I highly doubt something similar will ever happen to me. But if it does, I am prepared!

What a story- thank you so much for sharing. This sounds like you had a fascinating time abroad and brings me to my next question: Apart from diving into other contexts and cultures, what do you love most about your job?

What I love most? Our impact. Being able to say that we were at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 and Ebola- these being big moments in history- is something really special.

When you work for Crown Agents, people know what you do. Most countries I have been to in the world have a story about our company. This makes me feel incredible, part of something much bigger that will be here much longer than myself. Having this sense of purpose would be difficult to replace.

Also, being able to witness the impact of your work, seeing something that you have helped create or conceptualise in terms of consultancy, and then delivered on it and it makes a difference to people’s day-to-day lives, is such a fulfilling and unique experience.

And most importantly, meeting people along the way who are real role models, those individuals who approach situations always with a glass half full and stick to what they think is the right thing to do, no matter what life throws at them. I found this particularly true for people who live in environments which can be much more challenging than ours.

Lastly, I have really treasured passing on knowledge and experience to people who were just starting out and who were genuinely interested in learning and growing. Seeing them succeed is something I have really enjoyed. There is nothing more rewarding than spending some extra time with junior staff who are interested, and later knowing that you contributed them getting to where they wanted to be, that it was so worth it. I have had a lot of people that have believed in me, supported me, given me the opportunity to do things, so I feel it is really important to give back.

Thank you Steve for these inspiring words. Lastly, to conclude, if you had to describe Crown Agents in 15 words or less, what would you say?

It’s a family, not just an employer. It’s opportunity, rich experiences and making a real difference.