The year 2021 marks Amherst College’s bicentennial, and the spirit is strong in Ralph Johnson, director of shared services and procurement. He has been with the Massachusetts-based college for almost four years, and in that time, he has been an integral process transformation agent.
“I initially had the opportunity to come to the college as its inaugural procurement officer and enhance the procurement program,” Johnson explains. “Being able to come in with my expertise and start that off was an opportunity I couldn’t resist.” This opportunity then led to also being the leader of shared services, which encompasses payroll, accounts payable, shared HR services, and HR information systems.
In the capacity of the college’s procurement officer, Johnson forges vendor relationships and makes sure he gets the right price from the right partners at the right time. Regarding his overall role, “I make sure from a customer service perspective that business transactions operate seamlessly and ensure that employees and business partners are paid on time,” he says.
The Nashville native has certainly made the grade at Amherst, and he credits lessons learned by example from his parents, both of whom were schoolteachers. “What intrigued me was their patience, dedication, knowledge, and their relationship-building,” he says. “My father passed away in 2014; he taught for thirty-eight years. He always had former students calling him for advice, long after he had retired. At his funeral, I would say half of those in attendance were former students. My mother was the same way. You could see the personal impact they made.”
Johnson, too, considers himself a teacher when it comes to developing his staff. “It’s very important to teach and provide opportunities to develop,” he says. “In implementing initiatives on campus to drive cost-savings, I have had to do a lot of training and teaching, not just for my staff but for the campus at large.”
Johnson was educated at Howard University. “My degree was in electrical engineering. I have a bent toward the sciences and math; they fascinate me to this day,” he reveals. Following his graduation, Johnson worked for thirteen years in procurement engineering at Nortel, which ceased operations in 2009.
“Early during my career, I could see that if I was going to survive and thrive in corporate America, I would have to match my technical acumen with business acumen. “While I fell in love with procurement engineering, I started to learn the procurement side of the business, which ultimately parlayed itself into becoming a procurement officer.”
In 2010, Johnson became historic Morehouse College’s first chief procurement officer. After seven years there, he heard that Amherst was looking for someone to fill an open position.
“What I found attractive about Amherst,” Johnson reflects, “is the diversity of the student base. It is what America will be in 2050. This is inspirational as we also work to enhance our spend with diverse vendor partners to be much greater than its current level. Another thing I found attractive is that the procurement function had to be built from the ground up; there wasn’t a formal program in place.”
Johnson made “exponential improvements” to Amherst’s procurement using what he calls the three Ps: partners, people, and the process. “It’s taken us a long way,” he says.
He describes his management style as one that is highly collaborative. “I’ve been trained in the art of situational leadership,” he says, “not to be a chameleon but to ensure my leadership style fits the situation.”
At Amherst, Johnson initially sought to understand the culture and why things were the way they were. “I met with every member of the president’s cabinet to understand what their needs were,” he said. “I also solicited input from the key members of the different departments, the leaders and influencers of change. Gradually, I was able to establish relationships and start making things more efficient and optimized.”
Often, when someone new comes into a position seeking to effect change, they are met with resistance. This was not initially the case at Amherst, Johnson says. His experience there has been marked by a sense of collaboration and enthusiasm, “from day one.”
“It speaks to the wonderful people at Amherst that they wanted to work with me,” he notes. “[The culture] is extremely team-oriented and friendly. You get the feeling there is no employee left behind. When there is an established goal, we hold hands, lock arms, and get there together. There is no problem too big or too tough.”
Among his many accomplishments at Amherst, Johnson is perhaps most proud of his role in the implementation of the Workday ERP system, a tool that stores and organizes information and data, allowing his team to streamline everything from the payment of bills to the tracking of leaves of absences. He was responsible for the implementation of the procurement, supplier accounts, and expenses modules, while his team was responsible for implementing the payroll, absence, and time-tracking modules.
He is also proud of the development plans that are in place for his staff, and the implementation of a travel portal, a system by which employees traveling on behalf of the college can make reservations and pay for most expenses up front so that they do not have to place them on their personal cards.
And that is what Johnson likes best about his job: the ability to help his team “see measurable results in terms of how we are improving things for the college. I do it because I love it,” he says.