Northern calling

From the October 2021 print edition

The North has long called to Bonita Nowell. Although the Yellowknife, Northwest Territories resident and Indigenous Northerner has felt the pull of the North for many years, and even represents the region as president, Northern Territories Institute of Supply Chain Canada, she began her decades-long procurement and supply chain career further south.

Image: Angela Gzowski photography

Nowell began that career working in the 1980s at the Grand Prairie General Hospital in Grand Prairie, Alberta, about a four-and-half hour drive from Edmonton. Her first position at the hospital was part time, as an operating room unit clerk who scheduled surgeries. While she was an employee there, one of the ongoing issues that the department faced was a need to improve the delivery of medical and surgical supplies for the operating room.

“We would get a patient, and that patient would come in and all the paperwork had been done. They’d get them on the stretcher, get them in the operating room and realize they didn’t have a piece of equipment, a supply that we needed for it. And this was never ending,” says Nowell, a sixth-generation Northerner and member of the Northwest Territories Métis Nation.

Part of the hospital’s strategy to ensure ample supplies included adding a new, part-time buyer position to the materials management department. The staff recommended Nowell for the job due to her hands-on understanding of the needs of the operating room. She landed the job and, before long, was promoted to a full-time senior buyer position. She felt the importance of the role on a deeply personal level.

“What if one of my family members came in on an emergency and there wasn’t the required piece of equipment or supply?” Nowell says. “I carried that throughout my career – how important medical and surgical supplies are to life. At any time, it could be my family member. What could I do to mitigate that?”

In various ways, Nowell’s time at the hospital proved instrumental in helping her to develop her procurement career. When the hospital established a product evaluation committee, Nowell became its secretary. The committee’s work included working to keep supplier visits to doctors’ offices and surgery units more coordinated. It was a role that Nowell found fulfilling.

Nowell also worked to develop and implement an inventory system for the facility and to establish a new product evaluation committee. She cooperated with the project management team on the building of a new hospital, the Queen Elizabeth II, for which Nowell purchased all of the commissioning equipment and supplies.

Due North
In 1987, Nowell returned to Yellowknife, intent on continuing her work in procurement. From there, her career flourished over the next three decades while she was employed mostly at the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT). She has since become an award-winning collaborator, public policy and post-secondary program manager, a Northern expert on public procurement and an advocate of procurement and supply chain management education.

Among her first positions after arriving home was as an inventory controller with the City of Yellowknife. About a year later she left to begin working for the territorial government. She worked in three departments during that time: public works and services, government services, along with the department of industry, trade and investment.

Nowell was the acting regional manager of material management before moving into the role of manager of the government of the Northwest Territories business incentive policy, which is a procurement preference policy. From there, she was promoted to manager, GNWT procurement policy reporting and standards.

Her final position before leaving the public sector was eight years with Aurora College, managing a program called Northern Adult Basic Education (NADE). In that role, Nowell’s responsibilities involved managing the priorities for the multi-million-dollar program and working with various stakeholders like contractors, consultants and others. Her work involved participating in meetings, developing and testing new curriculum and piloting that curriculum in targeted communities. She also collaborated with two other major Northern colleges. During her time at the college, Nowell delivered 147 projects, co-authored 54 post-secondary publications and introduced approaches that the college adopted in project management, supply chain management and procurement management.

She retired after 33 years in June of 2021, and Nowell has since established her own procurement consultancy. Her first contract involved completing a procurement gap analysis. Coming from the public sector world, Nowell says that she had to ensure that she geared her recommendations to the private sector. Even the client for that first contract, when Nowell asked what the project’s biggest challenge was, noted that she should avoid focusing those recommendations to government. Yet when she submitted her work, the client accepted it without changes. The client even mentioned the ease with which she had transitioned to the private sector.

Continuous learning
Education has always been important to Nowell and she considers herself a life-long learner. In 1994, she became the first person in the Northwest Territories to earn the SCMP professional designation from Supply Chain Canada (at the time, it was known as the Certified Purchasing Professional, or CPP designation, bestowed by the Purchasing Management Association of Canada, or PMAC).

Along with that designation, Nowell has earned the Executive Manager’s Leadership Certificate from the University of Alberta’s School of Business; a Leadership Certificate from Vancouver Community College; a certificate from the Government of the Northwest Territories in IT project management and a creative writing certificate from the University of Calgary. She also advocates for education among her procurement and supply chain peers. This advocacy has led to 21 members earning their SCMP designations and over 40 members getting a diploma in supply management training in Northern Canada, Nowell says.

Nowell has received several awards during her decades in the field. In 2000, she won the Northern Manufacturer’s Association Appreciation Award, followed in 2002 by the GNWT Deputy Minister’s Special Recognition Award for collaboration and public consultation on the GNWT Business Incentive Policy. In 2016 she took home the NWT Premier’s Award of Excellence for Collaboration as well as the Aurora College Board of Governors Service Quality Award for Program Governance, and in 2018 received the Most Thoughtful Humanitarian Award from the staff at Aurora College Yellowknife Campus.

“Of these awards, the 2016 NWT Premier’s Award of Excellence for Collaboration and my participation on the NWT ASETS-Aurora College Partnerships were especially meaningful, as I was the first ever SCMP to receive this award in the Northwest Territories,” she says.

The pandemic has affected every aspect of business over the past year and a half, and procurement and supply chain management are no exceptions. For Nowell, the pandemic has given her the opportunity to reflect on what is important to her, both personally and professionally. So often, people spend their time with busy work, running around like hamsters on a treadmill, she says. It’s difficult to stop and focus on which direction you would like your life and career to take.

The pandemic, and the downtime from being so busy, has allowed her to refocus. She has since focused her energy on her consultancy, which works to support private sector companies as they work through their post-pandemic rebuilding efforts.

“‘The Great Global Pause’ has really helped me to make that decision,” Nowell says. “That reflection over this past one-and-a-half years really contributed. I’m recognizing
private sector really needs some expertise.

I haven’t even gotten my banner out and I’ve already got three contracts under my belt, and I just retired officially in June. I’ve been doing procurement gap analysis, helping clients with planning, looking at their possibilities, and pursuing funding.

“I’m an award-winning collaborator and an education advocate, but I also draw on my creative strength, which is planning, planning, planning.”

The place of technology in today’s world, including for networking, is hard to deny. But for Nowell, nothing has been able to beat word of mouth for letting people know about her business. These days, while people may spend a lot of time on social media, more direct communication remains superior, she says.

That’s especially true in Canada’s North and in Yellowknife, which Nowell describes
as a “mini-Toronto.” The city hosts people from around the world, and those people boast a broad range of expertise, knowledge and experience, she says. Pretty much any lifestyle one could imagine is attainable there, whether it’s to live on a houseboat, in a house, a condominium, or even a cabin along the highway.

Yet, there are differences between working in procurement and supply chain in Canada’s Southern regions compared to its North, Nowell says. In the South, tasks tend to be siloed, and someone in a specific role may perform duties only related to that position. In the North, however, many roles don’t have access to the personnel needed to delegate tasks in that way. Rather than focusing on one or a limited number of products and services, Northern procurement professionals often work across many categories. It can also be challenging to get certain goods or services in the North. Or, if certain goods are available, the challenge may arise in getting them to where they need to be, Nowell says.

“I truly am about the North and for the North. If I can help Northerners in the private sector I look forward to that opportunity,” she says. “I look forward to continuing to represent the North at a national level with Supply Chain Canada and continuing to collaborate with my colleagues at other institutes.”

Nowell is a sixth-generation Northerner, a member of the Northwest Territories Métis Nation, and the eldest of 10 siblings. She is also a family historian. She is currently working on her first creative non-fiction manuscript in the form of a family history.

The project had long been something she had wanted to take on. Returning to Yellowknife provided the context she needed to get going on the manuscript. Yet, in doing research for the project, she noticed that the writing on the subject, going back a full six generations, was written primarily from a patriarchal perspective. Nowell wanted to write a history of the family from the perspective of women, illustrating the role they played in society and that of the North, across those generations.

Along with creative nonfiction writing, Nowell has long taken an interest in flying. She has held a private airplane pilot’s license since 1990. She recalls that the song Flying On Your Own, by Canadian singer Rita MacNeil, served as a theme song of sorts during her training. While she maintains the license, Nowell hasn’t flown in quite some time.

“We have a cabin and my husband (said) it would be nice if you could resurrect that. I said, ‘yeah well, maybe if you could buy me a plane, because renting one would be very expensive!’” she jokes.

Nowell and her husband, Howard, built the cabin together 14 years ago, she says. Like all cabins, that project needs ongoing maintenance and new structures built. The couple has discovered a shared talent in doing so, Nowell says.

“Our latest project was building a cedar sauna,” she says. “It took us months and months of planning and involved very complex logistics to get the supplies out to the cabin. Today, one of our favourite things to do is have an evening sauna under our Northern Lights.”

Nowell’s husband also works in supply chain, as does the couple’s daughter, Angela. Both family members are superintendents in different mines.

“My husband is a former fire fighter,” she says. “We’re part of civil air search and rescue and have been for over 20 years. Our daughter is a member of the emergency response team and is pursuing that skill.”

Career advice
For those looking to enter the procurement and supply chain management fields, Nowell has a series of promises for what the field has to offer: “I can promise you that you will never be bored,” she says of the profession.

“I can promise you that you will grow exponentially, personally and professionally. I can promise you that education in supply chain management will benefit you and your family.

I can promise you that you will establish life-long connections with colleagues, because they are part of one of the fastest growing professions in the world and share the same values.”

Nowell counts herself lucky that she has spent most of her career working with excellent colleagues who share her outlook on the profession. There’s a quote from American writer Maya Angelou, stating that while most people won’t remember what you said or did, they remember how you made them feel.

This quote stands out for Nowell as among her favourite. Those working in supply chain
do well to feel good about what they’re doing, as well as to realize that the possibilities in the field are extensive.

“And to be a good person along that way,” she says. “Be the best that you are. Always put your best foot forward, no matter what’s going on – it will always steer you right.”