Keep moving forward

From the June 2020 print edition

On the first day at his new position as CPO at Coupa Software, Michael van Keulen got a call from the head of HR. The call told him to cancel a flight for the next day. Shortly after, the organization announced a company-wide, work-from-home policy to deal with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. At the time, the notion of working from his home in Vancouver was new to the procurement and finance veteran, who had spent his career going to the office.

Image: Erich Saide Photography

“So, I got in the car, drove to Best Buy and bought my laptop,” says van Keulen. “Besides that, I had to change my onboarding. I had a whole week planned. I was going to meet all these people and now, all of a sudden, everybody was confronted with a new reality. So very quickly I had to shift. That’s what procurement can do – we’re agile, we’re nimble, we have the ability to immediately own our new destiny.”
So began van Keulen’s career not only at Coupa but as a professional working fulltime from home during the largest pandemic in a century. It’s been both an exciting and challenging time in his career, says van Keulen, who is originally from Holland but most recently worked in Greensboro, North Carolina before relocating to Vancouver.

His early days at Coupa also saw van Keulen set up several meetings with stakeholders and log numerous hours on Zoom, the online video conferencing platform. All that time spent video conferencing is fine, van Keulen notes, as face-to-face meetings (even virtual ones) are the best way to understand how procurement is perceived, what stakeholder’s strategic priorities are and how to best support them.

“Ultimately, my most important customer as a procurement professional is my internal customer,” van Keulen notes. “I need to understand what drives them, what issues do they see, any suppliers that may or may not be performing – whatever might trigger them. I need to have the ability to understand that very, very quickly so I can immediately start focusing on supporting them and driving results internally.”

He attended the University of Amsterdam, graduating in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in business economics. He worked in various finance-related roles before landing a job in 2002 as the European controller for Foot Locker, where he worked until 2006.

In 2007 he moved to VF Corporation, the parent company of 35 well-known global apparel brands such as The North Face, Vans, Timberland, Dickies and more.

His role was initially finance for three years before he was tasked with setting up procurement for Europe in 2010. In 2013, van Keulen moved to Greensboro after being asked to lead a global procurement transformation for the company, which began in early 2014. In 2015, another opportunity arose to set up the procurement function at lululemon. That led him to Vancouver, where he currently lives. After four-and-a-half years at lululemon, van Keulen joined Coupa this past March as head of procurement.

He describes himself as a finance professional who transitioned into procurement, and his passion for the field sparked during his early days at Foot Locker. That was 15 years ago, and at the time, processes at the organization were largely manual. The company was a well-known global retailer with robust expense control, but Excel was still a common tool and there was very little automation. But that changed when Foot Locker became the first customer of an e-sourcing platform that does reverse auctions in Europe. Adopting the platform helped the company to utilize its spending better while gaining competitive pressure within its supply chain.

“That’s when I recognized procurement is going to be able to drive a lot of value and I really started to get super passionate about procurement,” he says.

Getting to know Coupa
But it was after leaving Europe for Greensboro to lead VF Corporation’s global procurement transformation that van Keulen was first introduced to Coupa, the company he would eventually work for. VF selected Coupa as its platform and van Keulen says he has been a “Coupa loyalist” for the past 10 years or so. He was headhunted to work for lululemon, another company that ultimately implemented Coupa as part of a broader procurement transformation.

He began working for Coupa in Vancouver. “It was a pretty interesting time with everything that’s transpired,” he says. “We all thought this was going to be a couple of weeks and we’ll be back to normal, hopefully.”

Like many in the field, van Keulen describes his routine as “varied.” The day can begin, for example, with supplier negotiations – either a tough, competitive process to achieve contract goals or a discussion with a strategic partner about performance. Team brainstorming sessions can focus on hashing out priorities like better utilization of a contract, better management of business spending, the future direction of commodities or raw materials and so on.

Later in the day van Keulen might focus on conversations with internal strategic partners like senior executives or a department leader around strategy, objectives for the next year, the stakeholder’s three-year strategic plan, supplier challenges and so on.

He also acts as an internal consultant, especially for Coupa’s sales force. He provides insights into where he sees opportunities, how to engage with prospects and outside procurement leaders and other areas.
“The key thing that you need in all of that is what we call EIQ, or EQ, and having the emotional intelligence, if you will, to resonate with different people at different times of the day and still have the ability to ultimately drive value,” van Keulen says.

He describes himself as a “finance guy at heart,” for whom data, numbers, debit and credit and similar metrics remain important. At the same time, what excites him about procurement is that the field allows him to take data and turn it into measurable value for the business. That happens by bringing together suppliers and internal stakeholders through a competitive cycle, van Keulen says.

“You do that in a way that could be by competitive negotiation, it could be by col­laboration with your supplier, it could be driving innovation upstream with stakeholders internally,” he says.

Procurement practitioners must be at the centre of that creative process, van Keulen says. Procurement can have a broad view but at the same time be tactical and in the moment. He’s been fortunate due to the leaders that have influenced him, the support he has received and the opportunities that have presented themselves. Career highlights include implementing Coupa at lululemon, an event he describes as the “crown” on a four-year journey to transform the company’s procurement function.

Procurement at lululemon was underdeveloped when he joined, although the company boasted roughly $2 billion in sales, Van Keulen said. There was lots of purchasing, tactical and operational work, but little thought behind who suppliers were, how much the company paid or its business spend management.
So, the company began its procurement transformation, applying real best practices to managing its business spending. That involved digitizing the process, and Coupa was brought in to help go from sourcing to contracting, and with the downstream procure-to-pay process.

“Implementing Coupa as the Cadillac of business spend management was a massive moment of accomplishment, not just for me but also for the company and for the team that really supported that,” van Keulen says.

Another of van Keulen’s career highlights involves setting up the procurement function at VF Corporation in Europe. That process allowed him to produce value for the company while simultaneously taking his career to a new, higher level. His experiences transforming procurement at both lululemon and VF Corporation also highlight the importance of being bold and seizing opportunities, he notes. Last year, van Keulen received a Spend Setters Award at Coupa’s Inspire19 conference in Las Vegas. The recognition, which took place before he became an employee at the company, is especially meaningful since it was bestowed by his peers.

“That’s why I’m extremely proud, grateful and honoured to be in the role that I’m in today,” he says. “To be given a Spend Setters Award, in front of a couple thousand peers in procurement, that was a pretty big deal.”

Procurement has no shortage of challenges, with the disruption caused by the novel coronavirus seeming to highlight that fact. For van Keulen, who is a father of three, it’s a completely new dynamic to work from home with multiple young children. But Coupa is a mobile-friendly technology company with employees accustomed to working in the cloud, and with an ethic and culture that allows employees to get on with business as usual. But the current crisis has put procurement in a unique situation.

“Procurement has been waiting for a highly disruptive situation to start leading companies through a storm,” van Keulen says. “Nobody wanted this to happen, obviously. But now that it has, and it’s so disruptive for supply chain, for companies, for the globe, life will never be the same. And it’s for procurement to lead. Procurement has just now turned a corner and we’ve been waiting for something like this for years. We’ve been training for this for years. It’s our time to lead and it’s our time to shine.”

Completing an MBA has long been a potential goal for van Keulen, who says he’s also excited about the direction that Coupa is taking. It’s as though the past 10 or 15 years of his career were designed to culminate in his current position. “I’m extremely fortunate to be in the golden seat of procurement,” he says.

It’s also an exciting time for procurement generally, van Keulen notes. The field has an opportunity to raise its profile, to go from “the basement to the boardroom.” That move requires practitioners to claim a seat at the executive table, rather than waiting to be asked.

“I’m even more excited to see where supply chain is going, where our profession is going and how we can drive innovation through supplier collaboration and through real community intel­-
ligence,” he says. Coupa, for instance, has a community intelligence-based platform that brings together suppliers and buyers, van Keulen notes.

The disruption brought about by Covid-19 has set the stage for innovation and highlighted how essential collaboration is. Companies are accelerating payment terms, for example, to help suppliers weather the storm. Organizations are also flexing service level agreements or buying slightly more from those suppliers, if possible, to offset volume drops elsewhere.

“There’s a silver lining to all of this. From a practitioner’s standpoint, I think being in procurement right now, I couldn’t be more excited,” he says.

As van Keulen is Dutch and his wife comes from Brazil, he counts himself as a “huge” fan of soccer. He also loves skiing and describes living in Vancouver as “a dream.” He also has a love of speed – he’s done 200 miles an hour on a motorbike and 180 miles an hour in a Tesla S Car. His appreciation of all things fast comes through in his work style, as well.

“I love speed, I love getting stuff done,” he says. “It comes back in the way I work. It comes back in the way I operate. I’m always looking for the next thing.”

The family has three children – a daughter, age 11, a nine-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter. The family dynamics are interesting, he says, as he’s Dutch with a Brazilian wife, the first two of the children are Belgian and the youngest is Canadian. “We’re the United Nations,” he says of the family.
He counts great managers – as well as some with room to improve – among his former colleagues. But working with both types offers learning opportunities, he says. When he was about 24, van Keulen had a manager that told him he stood to make more money between his 40th and 50th birthdays than he would between his 20th and 40th birthdays. At the time, van Keulen was unclear what the manager meant. But now, he says, he realizes the meaning: early in a career, it’s more important to make the right choices, take the right roles and learn than it is to make a lot of money.

In other words, don’t be impatient, van Keulen stresses. Many people switch to a job in which they will earn five or 10 per cent more. Of course, money is important. But ensure it’s the right role with the right responsibilities, he advises.

“Make sure you’re ready for the role, that you’re done learning in the role that you’re in,” van Keulen says. “Be patient, take your time and be mindful of the choices that you make along the way.”

At the same time, it’s important to be bold and remain in control of your own destiny, he adds. It’s common for professionals to start a role and question whether they’re truly ready to take it on. But van Keulen stresses the benefit of figuring out such a situation along the way.

“Learn and adapt, that’s how you elevate yourself,” he says. “Be bold and go grab it,
go after it, because nobody is going to give it to you.”