Clerks to Smooth Operators: How Purchasing Managers Are Redefining Their Roles

First, let’s dare to ask: Is the purchasing manager really a “manager”—or is she just a clerk?

Twenty-plus years ago, the answer to that question was so obvious that it would hardly be worth asking. The purchasing manager in those bygone days was a manager in name only. The everyday reality was that they were almost unanimously seen by management (and themselves) as clerks—plain and simple.

That’s changing, and changing radically—at least in savvy, forward-looking organizations. Thanks in part to technological advances, today’s purchasing manager is uniquely positioned to make huge contributions that go straight to the bottom line, with more immediate financial impact than almost any other business function—including sales.

But it can still be tough to get respect. The old ways die hard. Despite the best efforts of the modern day purchasing manager, their vital contributions are often still misunderstood and under-appreciated.

But in the real world, purchasers are a more eclectic group than practically any other profession. In fact, one of the most overlooked things about the role of the purchasing manager is that a successful career is possible in just about any type of business or industry you can imagine—because every business needs a purchasing manager. This wide and varied range of career possibilities has given rise to an equally wide and varied experience among purchasing managers.

No matter what kind of business or organization they serve or the title they hold, the challenges, opportunities, and contributions these professionals are able to make are fairly similar. For every purchasing manager, her unique visibility into many aspects of her organization plays a role in making the profession so important to watch in terms of its ability to impact any business’s bottom line in big ways. Along with that shift, the perception of the role of the purchasing manager is shifting too.

However, whether the contributions of the purchasing manager are fully understood and appreciated by upper management—and whether she is treated as a manager or a clerk—is still, unfortunately, a matter for debate.

We talked with five experienced purchasing managers in widely different roles to get their opinions on this burning question.

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Erik Schertzl 

Role
Inventory Manager and Buyer, Fanatik Bike Co., Bellingham, WA

Time in current role
Three months as dedicated, full-time buyer. Formerly held additional responsibilities due to small size of company.

Years of purchasing experience
Twenty-plus. Prior to joining Fanatik, was a light manufacturing supply chain procurement manager.

About the company
Founded in 2004.
High-end enthusiast bike, parts, and accessories retailer.
Custom on-demand assembly and repair.
One physical location plus global online sales.
20 employees.
Sales are currently 50-50 between in-store and online.
In-store sales are steady, with online showing strong growth.

Individual annual purchasing
Dollar amount unknown. Responsible for 8,000 unique items.

Key contribution
Produced immediate increase in online sales by focusing on inventory control.

Key challenge
Before company growth allowed for specialization, most staff members assumed multiple roles, decreasing focus and effectiveness.

Key insight
High visibility into many aspects of business—inventory, sales, marketing, and accounting—makes purchasing a strong jumping-off point for advancement.

Quote
“When you’re a high level buyer, you have access to the big picture. You have to be involved in the sales side because you’re supporting that, as well as with the accounting side. So you learn how those aspects balance and work together. If you’re the right person for the job you can naturally slide into a management or sales role.”

Advancement possible?
Yes, absolutely.

Clerk or manager?
Manager, no doubt.

 

 

Anne Holzmeister, CPPM

Role
Director of Procurement, National University, La Jolla, CA

Time in current role
Two years.

Years of purchasing experience
Fifteen years, progressive. Formerly at Loyola University, Chicago.

About the company
Main campus est. 1971
28 campuses with on-campus and online programs
70 online degree programs
Private, nonprofit university with scholarships, grants, and financial aid opportunities

Individual annual purchasing
Unknown.

Key contribution
Strategically negotiated purchases producing more than $4.5M savings. Organized and streamlined purchasing functions, increasing productivity by 80 percent.

Key challenge
Getting other business units to understand procurement and get procurement involved in their business processes.

Key insight
Taking an internal sales approach, offering services individually to different parts of the organization with an emphasis on saving time, money, and effort, produces results—and takes time.

Quote
“There’s sometimes a lack of knowledge about what procurement does. I think a lot of people see it as a strategic role, while others don’t quite know what we do. When people start to gain that awareness, it sometimes seems to evolve into, ‘Hey—we want you involved in everything!’”

Advancement possible
Not sure. Lack of understanding of role is a contributing factor.

Clerk or manager?
Neither…seen more as a “catch all.”

 

Darcey Zoller

Role
Independent set decorator for film and TV, based in Seattle, WA

Time in current role
Six years.

Years of purchasing experience
Six years.

About the company
Creates staff of 1-8 assistants on-the-fly depending on needs of each production
Works on 10-30 productions annually
Much purchasing is done near production site, regardless of global location
Responsible for artistic direction as well as purchasing.
Works without direct supervision
Often funds initial purchases and is reimbursed

Individual annual purchasing
$250,000+

Key contribution
Holds sole responsibility, logistically and artistically, for everything (besides actors) that appears on screen in TV and film productions.

Key challenge
Unlike other purchasing roles, most items purchased must be returned for full or partial refund after production. This requires strong, special-status relationships with vendors.

Key insight
In film and TV, purchasing effectiveness is visible to every member of the crew. Managerial respect is given based on consistently producing excellent results.

Quote
“I can source anything. If you can imagine it, it’s my job to find it. Anything from sand that looks like the beach to the perfect blanket to wrap around your kid—and it’s all for film. I’m making ads for the big corporations where purchasers are sitting behind desks. This is a lot more fun.”

Advancement possible?
Yes.

Clerk or manager?
Manager.

 

Chris Bown

Role
Real Estate Contracting Officer, U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Western Regional Office, Renton, WA

Time in current role
Ten years

Years of purchasing experience
Ten years

About the company
Responsible for all aspects of U.S. aviation and airspace
Has eminent domain power over real estate, based on national security and airspace safety imperatives. If needed property can’t be leased, it’s purchased. If it can’t be leased or purchased—it’s condemned and taken.

Individual annual purchasing
$60 million (mostly leases, some purchasing).

Key contribution
Has warrant to independently sign individual deals up to $3 million—soon to be increased to $5 million. Signs 15-20 deals annually.

Key challenge
Can’t always shop or negotiate for the best deal. Often, other location imperatives or political considerations take precedence.

Key insight
Mission of FAA dictates that some deals must be closed to protect the national airspace regardless of cost. All negotiations must be conducted within this primary constraint.

Quote
“They want to put us into the clerk role. But I’m not willing to be in a clerk role. From my standpoint, I’m a strategic partner. You can see me however you want to—but I’m not going into the role of a clerk.”

Advancement possible?
Yes, but advanced degree may be required.

Clerk or manager?
Perception: Clerk.
Reality: Manager.

 

Teresa Magario Anderson

Role
Purchasing Manager, CED Greentech, San Luis Obispo, CA

Time in current role
11 years

Years of purchasing experience
11 years

About the company
Full service wholesaler of solar and renewable energy products
Division of Consolidated Electrical Distributors, Inc.
Business is distributed among more than 30 locations across the U.S.

Individual annual purchasing
$17M

Key contribution
Uses value-based procurement methods—comparing terms, features, and pricing—to determine real value of purchases.

Key challenge
Purchasers’ ability to adopt a strategic role is based on relationship between purchaser and individual manager, rather than being baked into the business structure.

Key insight
Decentralized purchasing among many locations allows for leverage with vendors, especially when negotiating payment terms.

Quote
“Our company works on profit sharing. It’s a high motivator and great incentive that encourages us to use the capabilities we have to negotiate the best price and terms with our vendors. Rather than just being happy with whatever is offered, I always try to negotiate the best deal.”

Advancement possible?
Not sure—but feels encouraged to take individual initiative, with a high degree of autonomy in current role.

Clerk or manager?
Neither. More than a clerk due to strategic contributions, but no supervisory functions.