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Climbing the career ladder

Born and raised in East Lancashire, Simon Walsh MCIPS is understandably proud of his successful and distinguished 29 year career in NHS procurement across the North West.

Leaving the University of Manchester with a degree in Politics and Modern History, Simon started his procurement career in 1987 at North West Regional Supplies (based at Rossendale General Hospital) as a clerical officer, where he completed routine clerical duties and became CIPS (Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply) qualified.

Following a number of promotions Simon made his next move to Blackpool Hospitals where he stayed for two years as deputy supplies officer. Moving on to Wrightington Hospital and Chorley Hospital and then returning to Blackburn Hospital in 1996, he was part of a team that created a joint procurement department for hospitals in Blackburn and Burnley, bringing together two procurement teams to make the department bigger and better.

In 2003 Simon made the biggest career decision of his life; to leave Lancashire and move to Manchester to become director of purchasing for Central and South Manchester Hospitals, a decision he has never regretted. The move took him to further success in 2005 when he became the Supply Chain Director for NHS Shared Business Services (SBS) and then secured the role of national chairman of the Healthcare Supply Association (HCSA) in 2014, a professional body that represents the interests of supply and procurement staff.

Making an impact

Today, as procurement director at Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS FT (a large and successful healthcare provider with an annual turnover of £1 billion, 13,500 members of staff, 52 operating theatres and 100 wards and departments, where around one million items are purchased per year) it’s fair to say that Simon is required to regularly draw on his vast experience when leading his 60 strong procurement team. It’s not just the contracts, catalogues and stock that his procurement team manages, it also, unusually, includes the invoice payments department, which processes 150,000 invoices per year.

Historically, Central Manchester was bottom of the class, the worst performing NHS procurement department with the least resource, the fewest electronic systems and the lowest purchasing levels. Now, the Trust is one of the top NHS procurement departments in the country because Simon and his team revolutionised NHS procurement, taking out paper and moving to electronic systems.

In 2006 all NHS procurement became part of the completely electronic Oracle finance and purchasing system. Gone were the days, when Simon started his procurement career some 29 years ago, where it was common practice to process paper requisitions, put orders into envelopes and for staff on a ward or in a department to place paper orders.

Simon continues to concentrate his efforts on improving and streamlining NHS procurement to provide the 13,500 members of staff with the tools to do their jobs. He focuses approximately 75 per cent of his time on the Trust and 25 percent on external groups, national working groups, meetings with NHS Supply Chain, the department of health and on the Lord Carter initiative; a Government report outlining how the NHS could save £5 billion.

Simon comments: “Ultimately everything we do is focused on patient and user satisfaction. If the person performing a procedure in the NHS or the person providing a service in the NHS has access to what they need to do it and it works correctly then that is how we can judge the success of procurement.  Whilst there is a clear need to manage NHS procurement at a strategic level it is vital to remember that the hospital only runs and these services only function if the procurement department delivers the goods, materials, services and supplies into the hospital.”

The future of NHS Procurement

Simon’s vision for the future of NHS procurement is better coordination; some of it nationally, some regionally but a generally more cohesive and coordinated system, which he believes will only happen with the recognition that NHS procurement needs leadership.

“NHS procurement is not a single structure organisation and this amplifies the need for leadership. One person does not purchase one item for the entire NHS across the country, as would likely be the case for other industry sectors such as grocery and general merchandise retailers.

“There are current examples of successful coordination within NHS procurement. For instance, Banner supplies items to the NHS on a national contract through the NHS Supply Chain. Banner also supplies items directly to NHS Trusts along with other contracts within the NHS family and this has proved to be a successful purchasing model.

“While in many ways the Department of Health is doing a great job to support Trusts and NHS Improvements is providing strategic leadership and practical help to the sector with regards to agency staff and NHS Supply Chain, there remains a need for clear leadership and direction.

“The idea to date has been that the NHS will be able to gradually improve the coordination of procurement but the reality is that there is a need for clear direction, which can only come from bodies and organisations that have a national footprint and a national mandate.”

Until recently there had not been any national mandates or directives. However times are changing and, referring to them as nationalisations, Simon notes two directives that he believes are setting the scene for the future.

Firstly, agency staff in the NHS. NHS Improvement has given clear guidance on which agency the NHS should use, how much should be paid and to only use framework contractors.  From 1 April 2016 agency staff should only be paid 55% more than NHS employed staff.

Secondly the same guidance has been applied but in a different way to high end devices, expensive medical implants and medical devices. This has resulted in a national agreement for NHS Supply Chain to be the lead organisation for the purchase and supply.

Speaking frankly about recent directives from NHS Improvement, Simon remarks; “Here are two examples of absolute and clear guidance, national leadership and a clear mandate. My personal view is that this approach will enable the NHS to coordinate and buy some supplies and services on a national level. Not all, but some, elements lend themselves to this model. ”


How did you come into procurement?  Was it planned or merely happenstance?

Twenty years ago I saw an advert and thought it looked interesting.  From that point on I’ve built a career but if I’d not seen that internal vacancy I probably wouldn’t be doing what I do now?

So, twenty years on, is it any different?  We have a new starter this week who has a business degree and whose father works in the NHS but she hadn’t considered NHS Jobs as a portal for career opportunities.  It’s not unsurprising then that we get the same applicants for every job we post on NHS jobs or that the quality is usually quite poor.

Where will our future procurement professionals come from and how can we encourage people to think of a career in procurement as a fantastic opportunity and a rewarding job?  After all, the NHS isn’t just doctors and nurses!

About three years ago I started to go into schools (my daughter’s school actually) as they wanted local employers to attend a careers fair.  The stands included, the NHS, the Armed Forces, the Council, Colleges, and the largest factory. Probably a familiar setup in lots of localities?  (Sadly I knew the NHS stand was only going to be geared up to answer questions about medical posts – so I decided to be maverick and try something different).  My stand probably looked a little out of place as it wasn’t advertising an employer but a profession.  Procurement; a great career choice.

It took a while before I got any interaction as folks just didn’t get it – err Procurement?   (I’ve since changed it to ‘a career as a buyer’).  The few who did come possibly only came because there was an iTunes voucher to win – lured by advertising.  (Well, they might as well hear about sales tactics early on!)

Those who came I tried the following dialogue.

Look around you, what do you see and what can’t you see?  How do you think it got here? (‘someone bought it’).  That job can be a job you can do!  Often the response came back, ‘I can’t do that’.  I bet you can…..

Can you:

  • Communicate?  (or as I put it, ‘have you ever used a telephone’ – they all had mobile phones)
  • Have you ever used a computer to buy something? (a majority had)
  • Can you negotiate? (Or in the way I phrased it, ‘have you ever asked a parent for money or to stay out later at a party?’ – unsurprisingly plenty had done this too)

See, there you go, you have building blocks for a career in procurement.  We have a conversation with someone about buying what they need, we use technology to place an order and we speak to suppliers about the price and ensuring it gets there on time.  Speak to any of the other stands in this room and you’ll find they have a Procurement (or buying) department.  Make it a career choice for you.

I wasn’t sure how well it had gone but 12 months later we had our first apprentice from that school who is now a Senior Buyer.  In our new apprentice intake we have someone from a college we attended in April

We’ve developed our interaction with local schools over time and have done things like interview practice, presentations and even careers speed-dating.  We’ve had someone come to visit us who wants to join next year’s intake following a presentation by our first apprentice at their school.

Ian Willis MCIPS

Head of Procurement

York Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust