Strategists Urgently Wanted

Purchasing. Long treated like poor relations, the department is gaining importance in many places. But the personnel market has a gap: There are hardly any of the all-rounders so much in demand.


By Jürgen Leidinger

The rating a department had in past decades can be gathered from the career path of today's top executives. "Just look at the general managers and executive board members", says Gundula Jäger, Managing Director Austria of Kerkhoff Consulting. "It's very likely that they are coming from sales, from production or from financial areas. But you will have to look hard for any buyers."
Strategically dealing with procurement, supplier management and the like had long been just a favorite among major production-intensive companies. But then, across all sectors of the industry, the cost issue had been pushed to the very top of the list of priorities due to the economic crisis and the increasing raw materials prices. And it slowly became clear that a purchasing department at the forefront of developments can here achieve quite a bit.

Human resources departments need to catch up

"But that does not yet reflect in personnel strategies", says Stephan Penning, General Manager of the personnel consultancy Penning Consulting which specializes in purchasing. "Do we have enough qualified people? If not, where can we find them? Such questions are actually still faced in unusually naive terms." Jointly with Kerkhoff and the Austrian Produktivitäts- und Wirtschaftlichkeits-Zentrum (ÖPWZ – Productivity and Profitability Center), Penning provided the "Presse" with exclusive data on personnel management in domestic purchasing departments. On average, key positions remain vacant for eight months. According to AMS, the average filling of such a vacancy in contrast takes only one month across industry sectors and vocational groups.
From his own personal experience, Helmut Handel-Mazzetti knows the image change of recent years, but also the problems. The head of central purchasing of the Casinos-Austria-österreichische-Lotterien Group had his department newly set up with Penning's assistance. Some of his staff went internally to other departments. Purchasing as such is now divided into an operative and a support area, as well as the new group of strategic buyers. The last named are supposed to work with a more long-term orientation and detect optimization demands across the group divisions – not only in terms of quantity, meaning cost savings, but also in terms of quality.
"All those who wanted to change over into this new third area had to subject themselves to an analysis of potentials. In agreement with the works council, there was no risk involved for the employees", says Handel-Mazzetti. "Should there be no potential for strategic purchasing, they would continue to work in their old position." The only exception was the boss himself who also subjected himself to the analysis. If results had been negative, the consequences for an executive employee would have been disastrous, of course.

All-rounders wanted

In the end, one internal employee transferred directly to strategic purchasing. Others were attested to have the potential. Four positions had to be filled externally – which had taken some time: "We need a high level of social skills – a high degree of empathy enabling us to put ourselves not only into the situation of our internal customers but also that of external enterprises", describes Handel-Mazzetti the requirements. "The profile of strategic buyers is actually very broad", says Gundula Jäger. Aside from distinctive social and management competences, the corresponding methodical know-how would be required. "Maybe 20, 30 percent of the applicants for such positions actually do have the necessary skill set. That's a huge problem for companies", says personnel consultant Penning. "In the future, they will have to continue to hire rather according to potential and talent than according to competences."
In recent years, things have begun to move somewhat in the education and training scene. Aside from institutions, such as the ÖPZW's Forum Einkauf [Purchasing Forum], study courses and academic programs have also been established. For example, Handel-Mazzetti completed intensive studies for heads of purchasing at the University of St. Gallen. Experts agree that, apart from competences, the purchasing department also has to do its share and – do an even better job of selling its own successful performance in the future.