"One on One: An Interview with Debra Bell" By Michael Fredette, Spring 2001, Vol. 37, No. 2, p. 2
Journal of Supply Chain Management Copyright © May 2001, by the Institute for Supply Management, Inc.
Interview by Michael Fredette, writer for Purchasing Today®
Debra Bell is the chief procurement officer for AT&T responsible for the corporation's purchases of goods and services internationally. She is also responsible for the company's accounts payable function. Ms. Bell has been with AT&T for 17 years and has held a variety of leadership positions throughout the company, including those in law, real estate, and corporate strategy. Prior to joining AT&T, Ms. Bell worked for United Way as a planning strategist and for the law firm of Porzio, Bromberg & Newman. She has served on the board of the New York/New Jersey Minority Purchasing Council and has participated in a variety of purchasing industry associations, including NAPM and CAPS Research.
The Journal of Supply Chain Management: Explain the role of supply management within AT&T.
Debra Bell: I report to the CFO. The role of procurement is viewed as strategic from a cost management perspective and from an operational perspective since a critical part of meeting our business needs is through our supply chain and our supplier relationships.
The Journal: What challenges is AT&T facing, and are any of these challenges unique to your industry?
Bell: I would say some of the challenges are fairly general to a lot of industries. We continue to contribute to the company's competitive advantage through leverage negotiations with suppliers. It's still very critical to manage the cost side of the equation. One of the challenges is understanding the business plans, and understanding cross-unit and cross-operational requirements. Anyone in the telecommunications field is having challenges with staying current on technology trends because there is a lot going on in a high-speed mode, as well as staying current on emerging suppliers that are going to be the new sources as technology changes. Specifically, within the telecommunications industry, there has been a shortage of fiber across the sector. This is a good example of how forecasting and supply chain communications breakdowns across an industry can lead to a situation where demand outpaces supply.
The Journal: How is purchasing helping to resolve these challenges?
Bell: We help create a discipline process in forecasting supply needs to meet the business objectives. We look across the company to coordinate upcoming supply needs in attempting to aggregate the demand. This is an important step in leveraging the supplier arrangement, and making sure we are communicating across the business. Also, we establish streamlined contract vehicles that help with cycle time. In addition, technology solutions are helping to automate the procurement process that leads to driving costs out of the business and improved cycle time and productivity.
The Journal: What is the vision for supply management at AT&T?
Bell: Our vision is to continue to be very focused on strategic sourcing — the high end of the activities that buy values for the business in the purchasing process and streamlining the more tactical and transactional procurement activities. Focusing on forecasting, sourcing strategy, and planning — those are the key areas to ensure that the business is optimizing its use of suppliers, not just in a tactical fashion, but as a strategic weapon in getting as competitive as you can possibly get.
The Journal: What have been the successes to come out of your department based on the challenges and competition within the telecommunications industry?
Bell: We have had tremendous success in streamlining the end-to-end process — that is, the ordering through payables process — and in driving time and cost out through technology solutions. This is sort of step one in un-cluttering what your people are working on so they can focus on the higher-end activities. We have had success in building and recruiting skilled people into the group so that we can focus on the more strategic activities. It's tough in this market of low unemployment to attract and retain the talent. We spend a lot of energy on building and recruiting talent, and I think we've been very successful in this area. Getting closer to the operational teams has also been critical, and we've been very successful. This alignment is important in building the credibility necessary to take a lead in negotiations.
The Journal: What is your e-commerce strategy, and are you under pressure to do more with e-commerce?
Bell: Our strategy is very simple: make sure we take advantage of the technology that is out there, and make sure we first have a business process in place inside the company to ensure we can quickly leverage that technology. That's where we started — making sure we had the right business processes in place. The strategy is to continue to understand what the technology has to offer us in terms of other sourcing solutions and productivity measures and make sure we are taking advantage of the right tools in order to get to the highest level of productivity.
The Journal: What don't you know that supply chain management research could help you with?
Bell: We spend a lot of time trying to measure competitive advantage in various supply categories, and it's difficult to get your arms around what competitive measures are out there. Competitive information helps you gauge where your company is well-positioned and where more focus is needed to attain further competitive advantage. Another area is planning and forecasting methodologies — methodologies that would allow for a strong planning and forecasting capability that allows you to have strong communication up and down the supply chain. This is an area that could probably use some more research.
The Journal: What are good sources that you use to discover this information?
Bell: There have been articles in Purchasing Today® and The Journal of Supply Chain Management on measuring competitive advantage, but we have found it is most useful to develop this data on an industry-by-industry basis. We're using whatever relevant information exists in a given industry to measure how we are doing. In IT hardware, for example, we would look for information within that industry to compare ourselves against. Short of asking your competitors what they are paying, it's tough to get this information.
The Journal: Is there an adequate talent pool, and what are the skills and capabilities that you are looking for in supply management candidates?
Bell: The professionals that you need now have to have dimensional skills — strategic thinking, operational skills, financial skills, and often we require industry-specific skills, too. It really becomes a bit of the Renaissance Man that you are looking for, and of course everyone is looking for those kinds of people. It is difficult. We do have a challenge to continue to find skilled people — we have been lucky to find some very skilled people, but there's a lot of market demand and with a less than 4 percent unemployment rate, that makes it tough. The people are out there, they're just in very high demand. We have moved from purchasing being a tactical job with a very linear set of skills to comprehensive supply management requiring strategic and dimensional skills. We have also seen an increase in salaries paid to supply management professionals.