Journal of Supply Chain Management

"One on One: An Interview with Bradley Holcomb" By Julie S. Roberts, Spring 2003, Vol. 39, No. 2, p. 2

One on One: An Interview with Bradley Holcomb

Journal of Supply Chain Management Copyright © May 2003, by the Institute for Supply Management, Inc.


Julie S. Roberts
Interview by Julie S. Roberts, writer for Inside Supply Management®

Bradley J. Holcomb joined Waste Management, Inc. as vice president and chief procurement officer in September 2000. Waste Management, headquartered in Houston, is the largest waste disposal company in North America. Mr. Holcomb has led procurement organizations to achieve exceptional results in three previous companies. His recent position was vice president, supply chain management for American Precision Industries (API). Prior to API, he was vice president of global procurement and materials management at Praxair, Inc. Mr. Holcomb spent 20 years with Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York; while in corporate purchasing, he led the effort to globalize procurement and held the position of director, supplier relationship management. Mr. Holcomb holds a bachelor's degree in engineering science and a master's degree in industrial engineering from Arizona State University, and holds a Master of Science degree in chemical engineering from the University of Rochester.

The Journal of Supply Chain Management: What is your background, and how did you get into supply management?

Bradley Holcomb: I got into supply management late in my 20-year career at Eastman Kodak Company. I had worked in a variety of capacities including products and process development, business development, marketing, and manufacturing. However, in October 1993, the management team changed, a new CEO came in, and we began to take a new direction. We reengineered a number of business processes, and I was selected to reengineer procurement from a global standpoint. During my last two years at Kodak, I had a chance to do that, and I fell in love with the profession. It was very rewarding and a great opportunity to deliver value to the company and the shareholders. Apparently, word got out about the experience at Kodak, and I was recruited to Praxair as vice president of global procurement and materials management. I've continued in the profession ever since.

The Journal: What is your position's role within the organization? To whom do you report? What is your role at the strategic level?

Holcomb: My title is vice president and chief procurement officer. I report to the senior vice president of operations, who, in turn, reports to the chairman of the board. Our role at the strategic level is significant in that the chairman has identified procurement as one of his four key initiatives to deliver value to the company and to turn it into a company that is noted for its operational excellence. So we're very much part of the strategic thinking and the strategic process, with companywide support. For example, we just delivered our fourth-quarter earnings report to Wall Street, and among the notable accomplishments was that the company reduced costs in 2002 by $108 million through the procurement process. That's a big number. So, we're making a meaningful difference for the company.

The Journal: What challenges is your organization facing?

Holcomb: One of the biggest challenges we face, in addition to the usual difficulties of having poor data and developing new information systems, is that we have had far too many suppliers in our company by virtue of the way it was formed. It's made up of 1,200-1,400 different companies merged and acquired over a period of several years, and we ended up with far too many suppliers. We're a broadly dispersed company having up to 1,400 different sites across North America, so our big challenge is reducing the supply base and aligning our dispersed organization with the suppliers that we "pick on purpose" - an expression that we often use at Waste Management. We started out with 500,000 suppliers two years ago, and now we're down to less than 100,000. We will have less than 10,000 in a few years when we're done.

The Journal: How is purchasing and supply helping to resolve these challenges?

Holcomb: We have a group of 43 professionals in our procurement organization - a fairly small group of people relative to the size of our company, a Fortune 200 company with $11.3 billion in revenue. This group is working to develop the supply strategies, handle the RFPs, and "pick our suppliers on purpose," but we're also extending our reach by involving many people from other parts of the company in our cross-functional teams. We provide the processes and leadership for the whole company to get engaged around this procurement imperative.

The Journal: What is your vision for supply management at Waste Management, Inc.?

Holcomb: Our vision has two components: that we will create a lean, world-class supply base that produces a competitive advantage in every corner of our business, and that our supply base becomes readily accessible to the end users. The second piece, becoming readily accessible to end users, is really about e-procurement and the electronic commerce mode that we're working our way into. The supply base that we create needs to produce a competitive advantage for Waste Management relative to the competition. So as we pick our suppliers on purpose, we expect them to do very special things for us, spend more time and more mindshare with us, and deliver more value than they would to any of our competitors.

The Journal: What have been supply management's biggest successes at Waste Management, Inc.?

Holcomb: The biggest success is entirely a credit to our field organization in the way that they have rallied around this initiative. The whole organization has achieved a 95 percent compliance level with the programs that we have generated. This is a pretty amazing thing. It's something that we track diligently; we have metrics around it, and the metrics are very visible. It's a bit competitive the way that we do this, and everyone has come to realize that these programs are not optional. Everyone now realizes that the only way for us to optimize our procurement programs is for everyone to get on board. It is an iterative process. Ninety-five percent is amazing.

The Journal: What skills and capabilities do you seek out in individuals when hiring or recruiting? Do you find there is an adequate talent pool available? Holcomb: We have recruited all of the people that are in procurement right now over the last two years and, for the most part, have gotten some fine individuals. We haven't been perfect in that regard; we're always trying to get better, but the skills that we find that people really need are interpersonal skills and business acumen before we can even think about their supply management skills. Our environment requires people to interface with others at all levels of the organization internally and also with our suppliers at the most senior levels. So they have to be very good communicators with good talking and listening skills for both verbal and written communications. They have to be aware of their surroundings and the context they're operating in. They need to have the ability to appreciate where our field people are coming from, and not just come at their work from a pure procurement standpoint because there's a lot more to it than our own technical skills. Then once our candidates have those things, we need to like the people we choose to work with. They need to be nice people to work with and have tremendous integrity and presence. Then, we're looking for very strong procurement and sourcing skills with, in most cases, several years of experience.

The Journal: What do you see in the future for supply management at Waste Management, Inc., or the function in general?

Holcomb: At Waste Management, we're about half-done with our initial work. We spend about $5 billion each year on all of our goods and services. We've sourced about 50 percent of it and realized over $180 million in cost reductions, which is about halfway toward our goal of $350 million in cost reductions.

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