James Barker interview
In our fifth interview with procurement leaders, Head of Procurement, James Barker describes how he came to support scientists at the world-leading London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine research and deliver as much as possible with every pound in funding.
From working for the research arm of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), to ensuring that funding from organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation tackles the big global health challenges, James explains his journey to date.
From moving around to MOD research
“My father was in the RAF so we moved around every three years. I went to boarding school when I was eight. I studied Physics, Maths, Business Studies and English at AS Level and realised business studies was my thing. It was something I could apply to life.
“After graduating with a Business Studies degree, my dad suggested the Defence Science Technology Laboratory (DSTL), which is effectively the research arm of the MOD. This is where I fell into procurement as a commercial assistant, which was 90% procurement and a little bit of sales work, helping to write contracts for defence companies that use the specialist facilities near Salisbury.”
Promoted to manager and running a team of six, James gained insights into the scientific equipment bought by the Porton Down site. Working with mentors, learning why certain terms of contracts were used and how to work with the intellectual property team enabled James to develop his interest in procurement:
“It was effectively supporting people like my dad and other military guys that I played rugby with. There were projects I know would have been directly helping people I knew. Things like vehicle and body armour designing or system designing, like radar or sonar for the navy.”
Volunteering in Kenya.
James had a career break when his girlfriend took a volunteer position teaching in Africa. He worked on a charity project in Kenya, building desks, chairs and notice boards for a school.
James explains: “I set up a fundraising page to raise money for the equipment for the local orphanage and school. The orphanage didn’t have the facilities to allow pupils to take their exams so I built the desks and chairs. I had to put my procurement skills to the test by going around the local traders and negotiating prices to buy the materials.”
“Unfortunately after just two weeks there I contracted malaria. Initially I thought I was only dehydrated but after a couple of days realised I was seriously ill. The local doctor was really calm, gave me some tablets and told me I’d be fine.”
After returning to the UK, James returned to DSTL for a few years where he continued to see the growing importance of procurement. From the CPO role being below the executive board, to moving to the executive board, to driving strategy by the time he left, James recognised that especially when budgets start to get tighter and a business needs to spend less, organisations increasingly turn to procurement.
James got the role at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) in May 2015 and was promoted to Head of Procurement in June 2016. He says: “It was the first time I’d looked at a job spec and thought ‘the person they’re looking for is me.’ Of course, I’m still learning but it was the type of procurement I have experience in.
“The Procurement Department supports everyone, including scientists working on massive projects. There are hundreds of projects here, from students doing PHD projects to our massive malaria centre.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of our biggest funders through its philanthropy work in global health. It supports studies that aim to further our understanding of how diseases are transmitted and help people with non-communicable diseases in lower-income countries. I’m constantly astounded by the level of impact this has around the globe.
“I try to get an understanding on a project by project basis by working with a team and asking what they’re trying to achieve. Even a basic knowledge helps me to support them better and make sure they do as much science as possible with every pound in funding. Making sure those pounds have as much impact as possible is essential.
Joining the dots
“I’ve been looking at what LSHTM buys and have done a category analysis with the finance team, by looking at the purchasing system, building a picture and then showing the board what we spend, where we could make savings, make improvements or drive efficiencies. I aim to join the dots, so, as one example, if a department is ordering microscopes and another department is too, we buy them together so we get a better discount.”
“Departments have specific requests that we support them on. We had a request to purchase three vehicles in Sierra Leone to transport samples and equipment, so we had to assess whether to hire or buy these.
“I think I’ve built up a very good relationship with the faculties and within the central departments and estates. It’s important to build relationships with the heads and deans of faculties, but it’s also about the end project. If I’m implementing a new travel system I need to consider the end-user who is actually making the booking. Procurement hits everybody, which is why I like it.
“It’s about absolute job satisfaction. If I can drive efficiency, make something here better, which can have an impact worldwide. Even if I’m a tiny part of making sure a team got that microscope on time, on budget or for less than their budget, its great motivation. It’s very easy to be motivated here because of the impact we have in the world.”
Working with Banner
James comments; “Banner provide LSHTM with a wide range of products and business solutions, delivered by an attentive and proactive team. With Banner I’m confident that the overall needs of the organisation are being looked after because the account management team regularly identify savings and look at alternative and new products coming through the market to help better meet our end user’s needs.”