With about fifteen thousand students and a spend on goods and services in excess of $90 million, Ian Robbins had a lot to oversee as director of procurement services at the University of Montana. But those numbers were small when compared to what he’d oversee when he moved to Florida State University (FSU), where he currently serves as chief procurement officer. That means he’s in charge of procuring goods and services for a campus of more than forty thousand students, in addition to faculty and staff. FSU also spends about $420 million annually.
However, even with those larger numbers, that’s still somewhat of an oversimplification of what Robbins does every day.
“We’re not just transactionally focused,” he says. “There’s a lot of strategic activity that goes into everything because we want to be able to procure the goods and services on campus for the best value. That means there’s negotiation going on, and there’s the establishment of strategic contracts. There’s also spend analysis that looks at spending behaviors so we can try to leverage buying power for all of our departments.”
Needless to say, it’s an enormous undertaking. “You can imagine with an entity of our size and as distributed as we are, we have so many different silos of procurement activity on the campus,” Robbins says. “Trying to rein that in to get folks to buy off of our strategic contracts that we’ve negotiated sometimes can be a challenge.”
That hasn’t, however, stopped Robbins from giving it his all in the name of the garnet and gold. Although he’s only been at FSU for three years, he’s spearheaded several new e-procurement enhancements, worked on a new vision statement for his department, and developed a procurement technology roadmap, among many other initiatives.
His hard work is paying off. For the past two years, FSU has been presented with the Excellence in Procurement Award from the National Procurement Institute—something that the school had never won before Robbins got there.
“It’s a prestigious award,” Robbins says. “It’s given for organizations that demonstrate excellence in innovation, professionalism, productivity, e-procurement, and leadership. They’re very stringent on what it takes to win. And it’s a collective thing—a total team effort.”
Now, Robbins shares some of the actions that have led to such an honor, including networking with other CPOs around the world and championing e-procurement software customized for FSU.
Is being a procurement officer in an academic setting—specifically at a large state university—different than it would be at another type of organization?
In the private sector, it’s more driven by profit and loss—the P&L statement. You don’t necessarily have that mandate in higher education, so you need to incentivize folks to want to use those contracts. I think it’s more service-driven. If you show your researchers and administrators across campus the value, then naturally they’re going to look at it and go, “Oh, this is more efficient. This is going to save me money.”
There’s also a marketing aspect to it, I would say. Maybe marketing isn’t the best term, but you’ve really got to get out in front and be able to demonstrate that you’re not a roadblock. You’re not somebody who’s telling folks no based on policy. You’re in fact saying, “How can I help you and how can I make your dollar go further?”
So the job involves a good deal of persuading various academic departments why procurement is important.
It does, and not just from myself. My entire team continually pushes on showing why procurement is important. We look at total cost of ownership. For instance, if you’ve got somebody in a department that says, “You know, I can just run downtown and buy that at Costco.” Then, you have to analyze the total cost of ownership. That means looking at how long it took them to find the product, plus the time they spent away from the office, and their gas. When you add all that into the cost of the product, you more than likely didn’t save by doing it that way when you could have just sat down at your desk, ordered the item directly from one of our strategic contracts online, and be done with it.
I’ve literally seen that. I saw that at my last school. We started arguing over sticky notes and scotch tape. It was like, really? You get people that will find it less expensive, and they just dismiss it without really thinking about the total cost of ownership.
Since coming to FSU, what are some of the initiatives you’ve taken to make the procurement process more appealing?
Lately, I’ve been very engaged in a major project called the SpearMart Enhancement Project. SpearMart is FSU’s branded name for its e-procurement system. We’re moving all of the procurement activity for campus into this platform. It’s intended to be a one-stop shop for all of campus. If you need to initiate any type of procurement or purchase order or fill out a procurement form, all of this and more can be done within this platform. I think that’s going to greatly enhance our functionality to campus.
What’s your relationship like with other procurement officers around the country? You’ve mentioned that you all know each other, especially in the world of academia.
There are various organizations and committees that many of my peers serve on, along with several professional development conferences throughout the year that provide networking opportunities. Many of us are also part of various e-mail distribution lists that keep us connected. We talk about the latest trends, what we’re doing in our institutions. We also share best practices.
We leverage a lot of their contracts from the Educational and Institutional Cooperative Services, Inc. Since I’m on its sourcing committee, that’s been valuable from a networking standpoint. That’s something that’s really different and unique about higher ed than the private sector; we do know each other, and we do share. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I can call up someone who I know at an institution and say, “Okay, I know you have this challenge. What did you do to address it?” Sometimes that can shorten your learning curve.
That’s a big part of what we do: shortening that learning curve by sharing best practices and thinking through issues together. In higher education, we share so much.
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