When a young business experiences rapid growth, it can be challenging to ensure all internal functions keep up with the accelerated pace. Company-wide processes and strategies need to be developed and implemented to stay on top of new responsibilities and continue delivering value, and it is crucial that these changes are actioned quickly to maintain pace with the success of an expanding organisation.
This is the position that The Unite Group (trading as Unite Students), the UK’s largest provider of student accommodation, found itself in towards the back end of 2020.
Rapid expansion through both organic growth and M&A activity, including the £1.4 billion acquisition of Liberty Living, saw the student living specialist develop quickly and earn a place on the FTSE 100 index in 2022. This milestone prompted Unite’s leadership to re-evaluate the role and focus of its internal support functions, including procurement.
Edward Cox, Efficio Principal, caught up with Unite Students’ Joe Lister, CFO; Tom Ellis, Group Business Services Director; and Eleanor Biddiscombe, Procurement Director, to discuss their procurement journey and the changes they put in place to ensure the function would continue delivering value to support sustained business growth.
Uncovering the need for change
It was towards the end of 2020 that Unite Students really started to focus on the development of its procurement function. The business had grown quickly, and when Tom and Joe looked at the instrumental role procurement was to play in Unite Students’ medium- and long-term plans, it became apparent that it was a function worthy of additional focus.
“We brought in a couple of senior appointments in operations, with backgrounds in the hospitality industry, who understood the concept of ‘procurement excellence’ and the additional value it can unlock,” said Tom. “They helped us to identify the areas we could build on and what this might help Unite Students to achieve.”
“Until that time, our procurement function was doing what we needed it to do,” added Joe. “However, as Unite Students continued to grow and mature, we needed the function to evolve to continue meet the requirements of the business.”
The need for development had been identified but, for change to be actioned, Unite Students needed to reassess the way in which the function operated. It was no longer about what procurement was delivering, it was about what it could deliver, and that meant building the function out further with a new direction in mind.
The right people, with the right strategy
In early 2021, Tom and Joe set the wheels in motion to define Unite Students’ new procurement strategy, identifying what parts of the function were to be filled from scratch and the leadership required to continue its evolution.
“Joe and I engaged with Simon Whatson, a Vice President at Efficio, towards the beginning of 2021,” Tom said. “We were looking for someone to not only help us refine the processes of our current procurement function, but to also help define the structure and capabilities we should aspire to, to bring procurement to the forefront of our focus here at Unite.”
Together with Efficio, Unite Students started to outline the future of its procurement and drove some quick wins, creating stronger relationships with suppliers and unlocking additional efficiencies. It became quickly apparent that the strategies and objectives used to define the next steps of the journey needed to move away from focussing on cost, with operational efficiencies and high service levels being incorporated to unlock further value.
To truly transform the procurement function though, they needed to find someone to lead it. Tom, Joe, and Simon wanted someone that could be brought in from the top to support and build on business objectives.
“We put a great deal of thought into who would be right for the position,” continued Tom. “They would become an integral part of the function’s success, as it was crucial for us to have the right person directing our procurement – which led to us hiring Eleanor.”
Establishing the new procurement team
Eleanor Biddiscombe joined the Unite Students team in March 2022. As Procurement Director, she was tasked with building a highly skilled team that would take the company’s procurement function to the next level. To achieve this, Eleanor first needed to identify the building blocks of Unite Students’ procurement, key areas of spend, and the additional expertise needed. It was important that the new team not only had the right skills, but the right cultural fit and cultural change to be a part of the next steps in the company’s procurement journey.
Eleanor needed the time and space to define her own strategy and onboard the right capabilities, which would have been difficult without receiving additional support. “We had Efficio collaborating with us throughout 2022, supporting on the day-to-day and picking up quick wins,” Eleanor said. “Without having third-party support in place, it simply wouldn’t have worked. We needed the room to be able to define where our procurement was heading, and the steps needed to get there.”
En route to a new procurement focus
Fast forward a year, and Unite Students’ procurement function has undergone significant development. Relationships with suppliers are stronger and more focussed, and additional efficiencies are being driven throughout the business – which has proved particularly valuable amid high energy costs and rising inflation.
“One of the most important elements that has contributed to the success we’ve seen so far has been the executive-level sponsorship we’ve had in enacting this change,” said Eleanor, reflecting on the journey so far. “Unite Students’ stakeholders bought in to our strategy straight away, which has allowed us the space to separate procurement from what it had been to what it can deliver.”
While a huge amount of progress has been made, and its key stakeholders are on-board, Unite Students’ procurement journey is far from over. The business is continuing to grow and with that comes the need for continuous development.
“The work the team has put in to get us to where we are is absolutely something that should be celebrated,” Eleanor added when discussing the current success of the function. “But we understood from the beginning that this would be an ongoing process and, while we have seen great success in levelling up the procurement function, we need to keep going to ensure it continues growing with the business and delivering value.”
“Given the pace and scope of our growth, we knew there was more that procurement could deliver,” added CFO, Joe Lister. “Tom and Eleanor, with support from Efficio, have strengthened our procurement function and mapped out the steps that will see it continue to operate at a high level. Not only has this already started to drive further value across the business, but it has also led to other teams identifying ways in which they can perform their jobs better and further contribute to Unite Students’ overall purpose – delivering a full-service, best-in-class student experience.”
Though Unite Students’ procurement journey will be ongoing, the wheels are well and truly in motion. Eleanor and Tom have delivered impressive results, cementing procurement’s strategic role within the business and developing processes to govern it – whilst laying the foundations to continue building a strategic function that is well equipped to scale and evolve alongside the business.
Don't miss our conversation with Unite Students' Tom Ellis and Eleanor Biddiscombe, describing their journey to realign procurement ... and aligning around Eleanor's description of Unite's key pillars to success!
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