Industry Market Trends

Long-Time Purchaser Shares Lifetime of Lessons

April 19, 2005

30-year purchasing veteran Herb Shields looks back at the changes that have redefined his profession throughout the years:

HerbShields.JPGWhat's run-of-the-mill now was nothing short of revolutionary back in the days when Herbert Shields first embarked on his career as a purchasing professional. "Buying not made-in-the-U.S. products was really strange. For example, bringing in ball bearings from Japan in the 1960s was revolutionary," he tells Industrial Market Trends in a recent interview.

Indeed, Shields' 30-plus years of experience in the purchasing field have given him front-row seats to the dramatic shifts that have reshaped his profession. He spent three decades working for major corporations such as Westinghouse, Ingersoll Rand, Alberto Culver and Helene Curtis (purchased in 1996 by Unilever). During this time, Shields climbed steadily in the purchasing ranks, eventually assuming the position of vice president of materials management. In 1999, he left the corporate world to set up his own firm, HCS Consulting, which helps companies maximize their purchasing dollars, reduce costs and boost operating efficiency.

Looking back at the trends that have impacted his profession, he pinpoints three that have exerted the most influence: commoditization, globalization and the Internet. Even specialty chemicals have become commodities, Shields points out, marking a dramatic shift from the days when purchasers could only choose from a limited number of suppliers for certain products. Today, people in procurement have nothing less than the world to consider. "The purchasing function is of strategic importance to the company," he says. "Purchasers have an obligation to strategically source and have to think globally."

Today, locally sourced items only have a slight edge over globally sourced ones. "If everything else is equal, there's an advantage to buying locally--timing and transportation cost--over buying across the world," he tells IMT. Meanwhile, the third major trend, the use of the Internet, has been a driving force behind globalization, immensely widening the scope of suppliers that purchasers can choose from. Moreover, it has accelerated processes, he says, allowing procurers to quickly complete transactions that once required paper-based documentation.

Purchasing practices and strategies for the 21st century not only represent his field of expertise; it's also what Shields is teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He teaches a newly offered purchasing course, which is part of the logistics program at IIT. While he expects that most of his students will never work as purchasing managers, he says that the course will help prepare them for a career in logistics, in which purchasing plays an integral part. He points out that "logistics represents more and more jobs" but interestingly, the "average person doesn't understand the impact of logistics on his/her daily life."

Purchasing is similarly shrouded in obscurity even though its strategic role in the corporation has been emerging since the late 1980s, he says. Shields estimates that "99.9% of high school students don't have a clue that purchasing even exists as a profession...and that's a problem." Fortunately, he says, "any number of different educational backgrounds are perfectly acceptable routes into the purchasing function." Shields, for example, was an electrical engineering major.

In fact, the educational path that will best prepare a student for a career in purchasing depends on the industry in which the company belongs, he says. For instance, students with a technical background tend to be well-suited for the purchasing departments of firms with a technical orientation. In short, purchasing is often a career that people gravitate toward not actively pursue, but it's one that can be especially rewarding and eye-opening. Just ask Herb Shields.

"My purchasing career has been a terrific learning experience. I have traveled the world and visited hundreds of manufacturing companies in the process," he says. "Working in the purchasing profession has given me the opportunity to interact with people from every business function. No two days were ever the same and there was always some new process or product to understand."