A Nestle Procurement Veteran Is Changing Charter Schools

In 2013, Damon Norris — a seasoned business leader who, in various capacities, worked at a string of Fortune 500 companies — took a decision that would take his career into places he had never imagined. Until that year, Damon had held a high-ranking, not to mention lucrative, position at Nestle Purina. By early 2014, however, he had taken a rare opportunity to work in education and, with it, a pay cut.

Damon, a newly appointed purchasing manager at a charter school in Phoenix, had found a new mission: to make a real impact in the field of education. This was not a charitable or philanthropic endeavor, neither was it a personal sabbatical — Damon had no desire to teach.

Damon desired a real impact; he wanted to see tangible improvements in how schools would be able to serve students. And with his solid credentials in Procurement, Finance and Operations, he was perfectly positioned to help schools where it really mattered — their finances and their ability to manage their money.

“Where I came from, if you lose a million dollars on a bad advertising spend, all you’ve done is lost a million dollars. You lose a million dollars in the education field, that’s the sort of loss that can quickly shutter down a school.”
Damon Norris, Director of Member Services at Arizona Charter Schools Association

Damon wanted to leverage his deep knowledge as a procurement expert and his hard-won skills as a negotiator to improve the purchasing process at schools. He wanted to see money “flow back into classrooms rather than places that it shouldn’t be going.”

And by all accounts, he succeeded. Six months into the job, he was nominated as the Business Person of the Year; since then, he’s taken on more responsibilities and tried to extend his expertise across a vast spectrum of charter schools in Arizona. He has helped, as the Director of Membership at Arizona Charter Schools, realize over $1 Million in savings; he has also helped grown one of Arizona’s charter school networks to double their number of students across 12 campuses.

Damon Norris, Director of Member Services at Arizona Charter Schools Association.

How did he do to accomplish this? Damon was kind enough to sit down with us and take our questions:

Procurify: Let’s get down to it. Take us through your first few days in the education sector. I mean you had just left Nestle Purina, for a new and entirely different challenge. What was it like?

Damon: Well, I’ve been involved with Procurement for almost 12 years now. At Nestle Purina, as a business and financial analyst, I was working with procurement and, in other capacities during the course of my career, I worked in Procurement. But when I first joined the education industry as a Purchasing Manager, there was a definitely a learning curve…you know just trying to figure out public companies versus schools. Working in a big company is like being on a big cargo ship — you make a decision, and the ship follows. Whereas schools, specifically charter schools, are different; it’s like being on a speedboat — you have to make decisions quick, and if you don’t have get it right the first time, you invite trouble. And if you don’t make a decision, you’ll hit that levy soon. In a big company, if you lose a million dollars on a bad advertising spend, all you’ve done is lost a million dollars. You lose a million dollars in the education field, that’s the sort of loss that can quickly put a school underground.

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Procurify: You wanted to bring more money into the classroom by helping the school establish a better purchasing process. Can you elaborate on how you built the foundation for a better Spend Culture? To what extent did technology play a role?

Damon: Technology definitely plays a role. I’ll give you an example: In 2005, I was working for a company where it would take between six to eight weeks to get a purchase order approved. The process was manual, and involved a lot of paper shoveling.

Now, with spend management software like Procurify, the process has become dramatically easier. These days, however, you get a purchase request, and everything can be approved within 30 minutes.

I’m no longer tied to my office. I could be in the field or a factory or the school and I can be issuing purchase orders, purchase requisitions or anything that I need from that location — I’m not tied to a location. I can get digital signatures from my boss who’s sitting on a beach in San Diego; I can get his approval on purchases without having to wait for him to get back.

Procurify: Can you give us some insight into how you do what you do? What are some of the skills that a Procurement leader must be conscious of?

Damon: The number one skill is to have the ability to say No. You need a passion for negotiation. These two go hand-in-hand. The price is the negotiation’s starting point. I think you have to have some tenacity – a little bit of an ego knowing you’re going to get what you want, and you have to understand there’s really no thing as a win-win situation when it comes to negotiations. You better come out on the top side but you’ve also got to make sure you’re giving enough value so that the person on the other side thinks they’ve won.

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I do think that procurement in general is much more complex than it seems. So if someone in your company needs a computer, procurement is not just about going out and buying a computer — it’s about going out and buying the specific unit which that specific person needs. It’s being competent enough to buy something that will endure instead of buying something new year after year as technology changes. So, I think if you have those three things —  being able to talk and listen, negotiate, and the ability to say No, you can make an impact.

So, for someone in my position, the perspective I have is like this:

If I’m going to buy a $100 widget, will I be able to negotiate it down to $75? That’s an extra $25 that could go towards education in the classroom, or towards buying things that support the classroom in some shape or form. It’s not just about purchasing something, it’s really more about how much money can you redirect to the classroom and the education of the children in the school.

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