13 December 2012 | Nick Martindale
David Brown is a force to reckon with, coming from a military background to become head of procurement for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. He talks to Nick Martindale about the challenges of fixed deadlines and procurement’s early identification of a supply base and a huge variety of requirements
David Brown is a busy man. Our interview in a London hotel is sandwiched between his presentation at the CIPS Annual Conference and a meeting with Gerry Walsh, the departing procurement director at the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
He’s no stranger to tough work, having spent 10 years in the Royal Air Force, and finds himself drawing constantly on those experiences in his current post as head of procurement for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.
“This is the most similar job I’ve had to being in the Air Force,” he says. “It has a very fixed deadline – our product launch is on 23 July 2014 – so there’s no latitude for quality to suffer or for us to delay or postpone. From a decision-making cycle, you can’t put things off for a month and say ‘that’s a bit difficult; I’ll have a think about it’. It’s quite a decisive job and that appeals to my natural inclinations to get on and deliver something.”
Remit of the role
His military background comes through throughout our interview, with phrases such as “mission critical” and “line of sight” cropping up on a regular basis. When the Glasgow 2014 job came up, though, he had already moved out of the armed services and was working as a senior commodity manager for NHS Scotland, handling national contracts for managed services and laboratory and minor surgical equipment. “I wasn’t really looking for another job,” he recalls. “But, as a Scotsman, the opportunity to head up the procurement function for a once-in-a-generation project, [in Scotland], from start-up through to closing the business down after the games, was just too good not to do.”
The position, says Brown, involves the sourcing of all goods and services to do with the games, other than the main infrastructure projects that fall under the remit of the city council. This involves any games time overlay, including a £25 million project to transform the football stadium at Hampden Park into an athletics venue and the games-specific requirements at new arenas such as the velodrome.
“Other than the bricks-and-mortar buildings, we will provide anything else you can think of, from bottles of water or sandwiches through to banking services at the village,” he says. “Any form of hospitality, outlets for merchandising, catering, temporary seating, maybe some of the power, ticket booths, temporary fencing and security arrangements are provided by us and sourced by my team, in conjunction with the operational areas that manage those venues.”
It is the sheer variety of the role – as well as the sporting aspect – that so appeals to Brown. “You can spend the morning working on mascot design and the afternoon on broadcasting,” he says. “You can be doing something that is very creative and highly soft-skilled at one point and then an hour later you’re in another meeting talking about technology or construction.”
Glasgow 2014 has a budget of £524 million, of which some £350 million falls under Brown’s remit and he estimates the organisation is slightly over the halfway point in terms of putting contracts in place. “It’s always difficult to make comparisons with other games, but I think we started earlier and we’re tracking probably six to eight months ahead of where the procurement function might be in a lot of games,” he says. “We’ve got quite a lot of operational contracts – catering, cleaning and waste – coming up in the next six to eight months, but in terms of the number of contracts, we’ve broken the back of it.” At the moment there are nine people in his team, he says, but this will increase to 14 or 15 by early 2013.
Brown says he has always been conscious of the need for procurement to take an active role in identifying requirements and putting contracts in place. “We didn’t want to be sitting back with a team of people ready to go waiting for the functions to come to us because that could have led to a lot of contracts being let in the last six months,” he says. “So we went out quite a long time ago to all our functional areas and said we needed to do a constructive appraisal of what they needed. The upshot is that we have a 30-page plan of what we’re going to require between now and games time and we feed that into a programme that is both resource-efficient to deliver and takes account of the economic conditions at the time.”
The most challenging contract so far has been the tender to provide the broadcasting services to the various rights-holders, he says, which was eventually awarded to Sunset+Vine and Global Television in a joint venture. “That was probably the single biggest contract in value terms that we’ve put out,” he says. “It’s so broad, so diverse and so mission-critical and it’s not an area I’d worked in before.”
Other categories are further complicated by the involvement of sponsors, paying for their package in part through goods or services in kind. Here, Brown works closely with the sales and operational functions, but says the contracting aspect of any sponsorship bid is evaluated in the same way as other tenders. “We still facilitate the process and govern and evaluate it,” he says. Already, a number of such sponsors have been signed up, including Dell as an IT provider, Toshiba in the office automation category, Ernst & Young as the professional services firm and Harper Macleod as the official law firm.
Sourcing for a one-off event brings with it a number of challenges, says Brown. “You only have one chance to get it right,” he admits. “You almost have to turn the tendering process on its head. You have to do very detailed market research and, certainly with critical categories, you have to engage with the supply base early and identify whether your requirement is in line with what they do efficiently. You need to understand at the outset how much money it takes to do something so suppliers know that you’re an informed client.”
Having a fixed deadline is both a blessing and a curse, he says, with all parties involved in the games galvanised to make things work, but also the prospect of last-minute headaches or alterations. “We need to be aware of the fact that there will be things we need that we could not have envisaged or changes and variations to contracts that we will need to plan for,” he says. “The important thing is that you identify what it is that might change and that you inform the supply base.”
Such an event brings other considerations. Procuring locally has been a core focus – around 60 per cent of goods and services awarded so far have gone to Scottish firms – and there’s also been a big emphasis on involving smaller businesses, either directly or as sub-contractors to larger organisations. Here, Brown’s department has worked closely with local business groups, including the development of the official games’ Glasgow Business Portal, which is already being used as a forum for contracts going outside Glasgow 2014.
Sustainability has also been a factor, with potential legacy use an important factor in decisions around whether to buy or rent items such as sporting equipment, and environmental credentials around delivery and packaging also important elements.
Having the London 2012 Olympics on the doorstep has been useful, says Brown, and he’s worked closely with Walsh and his team throughout the process. “They have been extremely helpful in sharing their experiences and it’s also helped us engage with suppliers because if they see a very successful games in London it encourages them to be more competitive in their tendering,” he says.
At the time of going to press, the security contract for Glasgow 2014 is out to tender so Brown is unable to discuss London’s experience with G4S. He does, however, insist that what happened at the Olympics was far from a “disaster” for the organisers. “When things went wrong they had a plan to do something about it and the key lesson for us is to make sure that we fully know what our contingency plans are, not just in security, but across a range of elements,” he says. “What if things that are supposed to work fail? We’re checking our mitigations and risk daily and weekly.”
With a daily commute from Edinburgh to Glasgow thrown in, Brown says he has never worked harder than he is currently doing and there’s no doubt that the Scottish link makes the challenge that bit more personal. “As a Scotsman delivering the games in Scotland I have a different level of emotional investment in it,” he admits. “It’s not about just doing it, but doing it as best I can.”
He’s reluctant to speculate too much on his own future once his current role draws to a close, but says he would be open to commercially focused roles in either the private or public sectors. “A lot of people struggle after games because they move into another role that’s not quite as energising or demanding so I’m looking for another challenge,” he says. “But with 20 months to go to the games, my focus is on making that as good as I can possibly can.”