Conrad Smith, Founder and CEO at Graphite Systems, discusses the similarities between Formula One and procurement amid significant digital transformation.

“Our business, like the F1 driver, knows to go fast.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that procurement and Formula One are worlds apart at first glance. However, to Conrad Smith, Founder and CEO at Graphite Systems, they are actually a lot closer than initially meets the eye. A petrolhead by his own admission, Smith shared the stage with Haas Team Principal Guenther Steiner at DPW Amsterdam 2023. As a purchaser with almost 30 years of experience, Smith has overseen quite a transformation during his procurement career. He says that with everything going digital, you would assume that purchasing would accelerate. But it is, in fact, the opposite.

The pace of purchasing

“Over these 30 years, you would think purchasing would be getting faster,” he tells us. “Business is speeding up, but purchasing is slowing down – that’s stunning. When you think about it, where else in the world is slowing down when everything’s going faster and faster? Even though we’re investing in Coupa and Ariba and all of these expensive purchasing tools, it’s still slowing down. Our business stakeolders know business is speeding up, and so their tolerance is going away. In the nineties, when you onboarded a supplier, you just needed commercial data, name, address, tax, and banking.”

Conrad Smith (left) with DPW founders Matthias Gutzmann and Herman Knevel

Having been founded in February 2019, Graphite Systems is the premier supplier life cycle and risk management solution. The emergence of risk and due diligence has become a primary function within procurement. Vendor due diligence during the procurement process ensures users can identify and mitigate the risks present with a vendor they want to do business with during the contracting process. For Smith, he believes that this transformation has been 15 years in the making.

“I think that it was typical that a purchasing leader would point to other stakeholders and say it’s legal that’s holding this up, privacy or security. They’re the ones stopping the process from happening,” he explains. “And quite frankly, I’ll admit, those were my early thoughts. This is like a hot potato – I don’t want to be owning it. I look stupid because of the slowness I described. Think how stupid the business thinks we are when they come and say, I’m working on a project, I need this consultant here on Monday. And our best response is that it’ll take weeks or months to onboard the supplier”           

“Weeks matter, and we need to go through all this risk and due diligence. It’s really important to do the risk and due diligence, but we can’t do that at the expense of the speed of business. While business is quicker, in every measure that you look at, purchasing is going slower. It’s dumb, and the business knows that, and it means we lose credibility. It needs to happen, but we need to be very intelligent about it and not just do things the same ways we’ve always done them.”

Conrad Smith with Haas Team Principal Guenther Steiner at DPW

Procurement’s changing

Smith explains that one of the reasons he can relate to the F1 analogy is that while cars are going faster than ever, the drivers are far safer today. “Every year, we see massive accidents take place,” he tells us. “I think last year, a car that was flipping head over heels tumbling and hit the fence before slamming into the ground but the driver was okay,” he explains. “There’s this principle that is very important in almost any situation where somebody says, you can have this or you can have that. It’s a false choice.

“You have to pick speed, or you have to pick safety. If you go in with a requirement that says it has to be fast and it has to be safe, that’s the F1 example. You have to go into purchasing and say it’s a non-negotiable. It has to be fast and safe. How can we rethink the design so it can go fast and be safe? That’s really my passion, and it’s possible. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it’s possible. Frankly, in the case of this purchasing problem, it’s way easier than it should be. But we’re still stuck on passing paper back and forth instead of just saying, there’s my profile. Everything you need is in my Graphite profile – just like everything you need to know about me [as a professional] is in my LinkedIn.”    

The future of creation, management, and sharing of data and documents between buyers and suppliers absolutely needs to evolve from emails, spreadsheets, and PDFs into a modern social network architecture. This transformation of information sharing has already proved its speed and efficiency in most other aspects of our lives. It’s time to quit wasting time and money on supplier onboarding and embrace modern technology in this critical procurement process.

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