Doing the job in the right way for public sector supply giant

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From his base in Wakefield, Paul Smith manages the finances, IT and procurement for YPO, one of the biggest providers of supplies to the public sector in the country.

With a headcount of more than 530 people it looks after circa £700m of public finances each year, helping to supply schools, local authorities, charities, emergency services, public sector and other businesses such as nurseries and care homes

An award-winning company with a nationally regarded reputation for outstanding customer services, it provides everything from utility supplies to school exercise books into the public sector.

However, Mr Smith’s career began through more modest means.

“I started out at Jaguar cars in 1990, I used to buy the fake leather for the cars as one of my responsibilities.”

While not true of all finance directors, it is fair to say that the majority come through the route of professional accountancy training.

However for Mr Smith, the road to his current role came through the slightly more unorthodox track of procurement.

“When I graduated university with a degree in economics I wanted to ideally work in procurement roles.

“I am not a qualified accountant but there is no reason why an accountant has the strategic ability to lead an IT department or procurement department.”

In November 2010 he joined YPO as procurement and supply chain director. A reshuffle shortly thereafter saw him add finance and IT to his portfolio.

Naturally, having such a broad role means a few key fundamentals are necessary to make the portfolios he is charged with function effectively.

“The key as I have said throughout my career is having a good team. I have a good head of finance, a good head of IT and a good head of procurement.

“As long as they are doing a good job it makes my life so much easier.

“I relish the diversity of the role. One minute I can be in the Czech Republic talking to a Government official about procurement, the next I can be giving a presentation on artificial intelligence to some CIOs and then involved with our auditors for our year-end report and accounts.”

YPO has been in existence since 1974 and is wholly owned by the public sector, with 13 local authorities, nine in Yorkshire and four in Lancashire, being the owners.

“We look after here about 700m worth of public money each year,” he said.

“It was £280m when I joined.”

At times when local authorities are under enormous pressure from cuts in funding from central Government, Mr Smith says he and his organisation have key roles to play.

“We help them in three ways; to buy better and therefore to save money, to engage the local community in order for them to buy local and finally to return profits to them.”

One of the key areas of excellence that Mr Smith is most proud of as part of his role at YPO is its first class reputation for customer service.

As members of the Institute of Customer Service, they have been ranked alongside the likes of Amazon and John Lewis for outstanding services, and last year were ranked higher than them.

“What amazes is that it is not that difficult,” he said.

“Like all organisations we get complaints, we got a complaint letter to the MD and the MD wrote back personally and sorted it out. It was not a big task for him but the customer was amazed for the MD of the company to worry about that particular school. We review complaints on a monthly basis, We listen to calls as directors and go out with drivers and sales managers and customers and every week we walk around the warehouse to talk to staff to see what is going on. It is central to what we do.”

For a business that is so closely aligned with myriad departments within the public sector, Mr Smith said he does not feel the constraints of public bodies that different to those felt in their private counterparts.

“It can be difficult and slow in the commercial field but I have found that, when a decision is made, it is made. With private organisations it can get changed a month later.

“So there is perhaps more governance but it means decisions are taken properly and with all the proper information.”

Mr Smith said the other public sector related challenge came in regards to recruitment.

“There are no pay rises in the public sector,” he said.

“We have had to work hard to be an employer of choice. We are a brand that people want to join and we have been able to attract good people who maybe are not coming for the money but the full package.

“I always love to catch up with people working here for just a few weeks and they always say ‘I have never worked for such a friendly organisation’.”

During his tenure YPO has proven to be an award-winning organisation, having been twice named UK education supplier of the year.

And, last autumn, he was named best finance director public sector at the Yorkshire FD Awards at the Queen’s Hotel in Leeds.

“I was delighted,” he said.

“When I took on the job I said to my direct reports that I wanted to be just as much an IT director and an FD director as I was a procurement director.

“My challenge was to be recognised in similar terms and it did feel a bit like a vindication of what I was trying to do.”

The FD Awards were sponsored by BDO, Sewell Group, Lockton and Walker Morris.