Building bridges

From the February 2020 print edition

Long gone are the days when procurement acted largely as the process police. Yet, however unfairly, some still view the department with apprehension, fearing that engaging it may slow business processes rather than facilitate them, says Sheri Spinks, the director, global supply chain, NPS at Husky Injection Molding Systems. But she’s on a mission to change that. And for Spinks, engagement beats governance any day. Championing procurement’s image is also tied to her campaign to present the department as it really is, a strategic business partner that helps to boost the bottom line and mitigates risk to the organization.

Image: John Packman photography

“The best way for us to get people following a process is to show them the value they get,” she says. “Let’s get away from being so process-driven and look at how we truly engage with our customers so that they enjoy the experience, get value and then tell their friends and business partners about it. If we can keep repeating that, we’re going to see that governance and adherence to policy organically.”

While excited to see so many young professionals choosing a career in supply chain, Spinks took a rather different path than that, although one familiar to many in the profession: she sort of fell into it. She earned a degree in Psychology from the University of Western Ontario while, at the same time, bartending to earn money for her education. Similar to psychology, bartending offered insights into human behaviour and thought patterns—a subject of particular interest to Spinks.

“I’ve always had a fascination with people—how they think, how they behave, how they perceive things and how they communicate,” she says.

Getting started
After graduating, Spinks worked briefly in human resources at a global freight forwarding organization, which she says she considers her introduction to supply chain and logistics. But the mundane nature of the position meant she only stayed six months. Her next gig came through a woman for whom Spinks babysat as a teenager. The woman was a purchaser at a global manufacturer of industrial electronics and automation called Phoenix Contact, based in Germany, who recommended Spinks to the company. That, Spinks now says, was her first actual supply chain role.

“When I joined, they had just finished implementing an ERP, so they had boxes and boxes of files. I think I filed every day for a month or two,” Spinks says. “I went to my most senior manager at the time, who was the director of finance and operations, and said ‘look, I have a university degree. I’ve got a lot of great ideas. Please give me an opportunity to do something else.’”

The company obliged, giving Spinks not only an opportunity to get involved in procurement and purchasing but suggesting she get her Certified Purchasing Professional (CPP) designation through the Purchasing Managers’ Association of Canada (PMAC)—now the Supply Chain Management Professional (SCMP) designation offered by Supply Chain Canada.

Spinks leapt at the opportunity, working fulltime and completing the certification on a fast-tracked schedule in just under a year and a half. By that time, she had been promoted to purchasing manager. She worked at Phoenix Contact for 12-and-a-half years, eventually rising to logistics manager. Because the operation was small—30 people at the Canadian headquarters—she wore virtually every hat on the operations side of the business.

“When I left, I was managing purchasing, order entry, logistics, inventory control, we had a small value-added production department, warehousing,” Spinks says. “I had a team of about 15 people.”

Her next position, in 2011, was in the print, marketing and business communications field at a company called Data Communications Management (now DCM), where she started as director of strategic sourcing for the Eastern region, focusing mostly on indirect categories. Within a year she became national director, taking on organization-wide responsibility for procurement. After seven-and-a-half years there she joined Husky Injection Molding Systems in June 2019 as director, NPS, global supply chain. NPS, or non-production services, is equivalent to indirect global procurement, with responsibility for areas including IT, professional services, consulting, HR, travel, tooling and supplies, marketing and others.
The role is a global one, and Spinks manages a growing team of 11 sourcing procurement professionals around the world including in Shanghai, Luxembourg, the US and at the company’s headquarter in Bolton, Ontario. The team is expanding and looking to add new members in Luxembourg and Bolton.

Spinks spent much of her first six months listening to her new team, trying to figure out what worked well, what needed attention and what team members’ career goals and aspirations were. Since it’s a procurement department the team also has aggressive cost-saving goals.
“A lot of what I do, and what really needed the most attention, was coaching the team,” Spinks says. “It’s a large team and they really needed somebody to come in and implement some strategy, give them some vision and help tie what they do every day to how they contribute to the overall organizational goals and objectives.”

Another goal during the first six months was to meet all of her team members face to face, she adds. Those meetings are important to help build working relationships and Spinks has so far travelled to Husky facilities in Milton (Vermont), Luxembourg (twice) and plans to visit the company’s facilities in Shanghai soon.

During those discussions, Spinks makes a point of asking frank questions about not only what’s working well, but what team members would like to see change for the better.

“The most critical element of having those conversations is understanding what’s of value to them,” she says. “What does success look like? What are their needs?”

No two days are the same in her current role, Spinks says. Supply chain can be chaotic, and priorities can change fast. The flow of her day depends heavily on, and is related to, the flow of the business and what’s critical at any given time, she says.

Even half a year into the position, Spinks still carves out time to meet one on one with team members and stakeholders.

“I have formal, weekly one on ones with my team, but I still spend a good chunk of my day dealing with questions that the team has,” she says. “I spend time building out our strategy, making sure it’s in alignment with the goals as those continue to change.”

Spinks considers every step or transition she’s made in her career as gifts that allows her to embrace a new challenge and experience, all of which have helped to propel her to her current position. Her role at Husky is a step that Spinks considers a career highlight, as she is now surrounded by “high-calibre” supply chain professionals. Previous positions have seen her report into finance or operations, while she now reports to an experienced vice-president of global supply chain. She’s quick to describe her “awesome team” as talented, engaged and willing to embrace change.

“I have opened the door to them saying, ‘What do you want to do? What do you want to develop? How can I help you grow?’ I have a lot of them going, ‘I want to do more. I want to learn,’” she says. “It’s both inspiring and encouraging.”A string of supportive, empowering leaders has also guided her in her career, listening to her and recognizing her potential, Spinks notes. For example, when she graduated in 2002 in the top three from her certification program, leaders and mentors at the time were quick to recognize the achievement. They held a dinner to celebrate, plaque-mounted an announcement about the graduation and gave her gifts to celebrate the milestone.

Volunteering
Her career has earned her plenty of accolades since those early days. In 2015 she was named one of the Top 10 Influential Women in Diversity and HR by Diversity Canada Magazine. Last year, Supply Chain Canada also named her one of the Top 100 Women in Supply Chain and Women To Watch in Canadian Supply Chain.

Spinks has also realized the importance of giving back to the profession to which she’s devoted her career. She has sat on the board of directors at WBE Canada (Women Business Enterprises Canada Council) and served on its certification and business development committees. In 2018 she joined the Global Council for the Advancement of Women in Procurement; she is now an executive director of the recently revamped organization, now called Global Women Procurement Professionals (globalwpp.com).

“I find it really, really rewarding,” Spinks says of her volunteer activities. “There’s an inexcusable, undeniable, large gap that still exists—not just within supply chain but beyond as well—when looking at men and women. I aim to empower women and coach them that they have to use their voice and have to put up their hand. They have to speak openly about this gap, take action and close it.”

Spinks coaches women in supply chain to become more confident in negotiating, especially for their own salaries. Female supply chain professionals, skilled and confident in negotiating millions in savings on behalf of their organizations, can still hesitate to negotiate on their own behalf.

She is a strategic contributor at Tidal Equality (www.tidalequality.com), an equality-focused strategy firm. Spinks is part of the organization’s ‘collaborative group’- professionals working to advance equity and justice through their areas of expertise.

Spinks has also joined the board of directors of Supply Chain Canada as an advisor and, last summer, joined the ISM (Institute of Supply Management) Strategic Sourcing and Supplier Diversity Committee.

Spinks notes her “deep respect” for the hustle of entrepreneurship and for those who choose to start their own businesses. She devotes the largest portion of her volunteer time to supporting women who work as entrepreneurs and supply chain professionals.

But the career highlight she’s most proud and humbled by is the words of recognition she’s received from her team, colleagues and customers during her brief time at Husky, Spinks says. She’s received positive feedback, for example, on her ability to listen and ask questions, with a team member and direct report nominating her for “Outstanding Woman of the Year” with WINiT, a division of the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA).

Finding balance
Spinks is working to counter the frequently chaotic nature of supply chain by adding structure to her personal life. She has recently begun waking up an hour early and spending the extra time on activities like the gym. She also tries to fit in a few yoga classes each week and has started journaling.

“I’m trying to focus on being intentional – intentional about my day, about my goals, about my week, my month, my career and my life,” Spinks says. “I have to have flexibility in my day to be able to respond to customers. At work, customer needs come up, emergencies come up and fires come up that need to be fought. Then the schedule goes out the window. I’m working hard to have things that are non-negotiable, which is hard for a supply chain professional.”

At the same time, her family remains her top priority, Spinks says. For the past 14-and-a-half years, she has lived in Mulmur, a small community about two hours northwest of Toronto and a 45-minute commute to her office in Bolton, Ontario. Born and raised in Brampton, Spinks and her husband decided to leave that city before the birth of their first daughter. Spinks describes herself as the “uber-proud” mom of two girls, Kaia, age five, and 14-year-old Zoë. “They’re both bold, kind, curious, and very active girls – they keep me busy,” she says.
Along with yoga and the gym, Spinks is a fan of spending time by the water, which she describes as her “happy place.” She enjoys stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) and loves the sound of the paddle in the water when all around her is quiet. Much time during the summer is spent at the beach with her family.

Spinks cites herself as an example of the notion that there are many ways to get started in supply chain. Now more than ever, organizations realize they need diversity, not only of culture and gender, but of skills. As supply chain organizations continue to specialize, they must also find subject matter experts to serve their customers as effectively as possible, Spinks notes. Many supply chain organizations are therefore looking for people with experience in fields like marketing, IT, HR and the like.

“I would encourage those that might already be in a profession, maybe in one of those areas, that are thinking of making a jump, supply chain is an awesome place to start,” she says.

Supply chain is more fun and interesting than those outside of the field may realize, Spinks says. The department is a hub, she notes, the one place within an organization that touches on virtually all areas of a business. And the effects of the savings that supply chain generates has a sizeable impact on the bottom line. Aligning with the goals and objectives of an organization, then tracking, measuring and reporting on that value, can frame supply chain in a favourable light.

For those starting in the field, Spinks recommends enlisting mentors. But finding those mentors is different than it was in the past, she notes. Coaches need not come from within an organization or even someone with whom the mentee directly interacts. Ideas and guidance can be gleaned from books, podcasts or involvement with associations and other areas.

“Use LinkedIn. Use your network. It’s absolutely critical to surround yourself with the type of people that you’re aspiring to be,” she says. “Just create a funnel of information for yourself in those topics and areas in which you’d like to learn and develop.”

As well, pay attention to potential opportunities, Spinks says. When they arise, pursue them.

And finally, never underestimate the value of the voice of the customer (VOC) – especially within procurement. It’s the most beneficial information available since one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to customers. A common misperception among procurement and supply chain professionals is that a single service model can fit all situations. But what’s valuable to a finance partner will be very different to what an operations partner might deem important.
“What do they value? Treasure it, take care of it. Because if you lose that you’re flying blind,” Spinks says.