We speak with Anu Srinivasan, Head of Procurement at Bupa in Australia, about her department’s transformation journey and how she’s brought more of a human touch to the business overall.
Anu Srinivasan is so much more than the Head of Procurement at Bupa Australia. As if that role wasn’t varied enough, she’s also a yoga teacher, and a mindfulness expert who works with other organisations to improve their mental health and inner peace. Perhaps even more impressively, she runs mindfulness sessions for children that have gone through trauma and organisations that work directly with children to help them through challenging circumstances. Being able to help people, in whatever way, is something she’s deeply passionate about – especially given the difficulties of the last 18 months or so. In conversation, these additional hats she wears are no surprise; she comes across as extremely calm, friendly, approachable, yet still professional. It’s an admirable balance to have achieved.
Having moved from India to Australia around 22 years ago, Srinivasan has made Melbourne her home, and describes her role at Bupa as “exciting”. Let’s dig into why. “It’s exciting because, one, it’s a healthcare organisation and my personal values very much align with those of Bupa – it’s about longer, happier, healthier lives” she explains. “We’re always thinking about physical health and mental health, and it’s an organisation that focuses heavily on the culture and engagement of our people. It’s very exciting to be working in a healthcare space and being able to solve problems for customers.
“The other thing that’s exciting at Bupa is we have a very broad variety of businesses. We have health insurance, we have care homes, a health services business – which includes dental and optical. No two days are the same because we are always working on different business challenges.”
Because of this, Bupa also has a wide range of spend categories to look after, both direct and indirect. This includes spend like technology, professional services, marketing, travel, and property, but also medical consumables, general consumables, medical equipment, allied health, food and beverage for the aged care and health services businesses.
Procurement from scratch
“The other thing that’s exciting for us is we’ve been able to start from a clean slate; when I started at Bupa, most people found the idea of procurement new,” Srinivasan says. “We didn’t have to work through any kind of negative brand or image within the organisation – we built it from the ground up.” With no former procurement department to shake off the legacy of, creating a brand new function that truly adds value to every part of the business has made for an exhilarating few years.
The past 18 months in particular have totally changed the landscape for Srinivasan and her team. At the start of it, Bupa had begun to recognise that procurement is a part of the business that can help with commercial savings and get better deals, but procurement didn’t yet have engagement with every part of the business. Additionally, procurement wasn’t necessarily aligned with broader business problems Bupa experienced, and Srinivasan was in a position where she sometimes had to ask to be engaged rather than having a streamlined process where that happened more efficiently.
But Srinivasan persevered; “building strong relationship and trust was key”. This was achieved by truly listening to stakeholders and delivering on promises. “While we have substantially improved, we still have a way to go to a full mature business engagement.”
Procurement Team Member, Murray Peters, Portfolio Manager Allied Health and Consumables adds that building implicit trust through listening to our stakeholders has moved Bupa from a procurement function to that of a trusted advisor. “We now have a seat at the table where we not only review cost base, but also challenge the way the business operates, contribute to opportunities to improve business operations and meet other strategic imperatives like ESG targets.”
The same outcome has been achieved in the technology area. Peter Chester, Portfolio Manager or Technology and Supplier Management, is now fully engaged and supporting the Bupa CIO and his Leadership Team. “We went from a situation in 2017 where engagement wasn’t mature; a deal would need to be closed or a contract negotiation with a large partner supported, but that we weren’t proactively considering longer-term planning”, he says.
Reflecting on the past four years, Srinivasan is most proud of the team engagement scores. It more than doubled over the years and Srinivasan believes that the overall satisfaction of the team will lead to procurement’s success. Procurement team member, Cornelia Scheibert, Portfolio Manager Business Services, echoes this view. “I have always felt safe to present ideas and to ultimately make a difference. Of course, not all of them come to fruition but senior leadership teams are supportive and encouraging when it comes to new ideas. This has been a key in providing job satisfaction to me.”
Adding value through information and insights
A major issue behind all of this was a lack of insight due to not having the right data. “We were not able to provide insights to the business around supplier landscape, and the opportunities in that space,” Srinivasan explains. “So the business felt like we were not adding value. Our team was very reactive, and even when we did deliver savings, it was simply seen as a savings from a deal – in this case, in a commercial negotiation with a supplier – but it doesn’t necessarily reflect in the bottom line or a better business solution, so it’s almost meaningless from a value-adding perspective.
“There were a lot of questions around the value we brought to the table,” Srinivasan continues. “Now, procurement is seen as a value-adding function, a true business partner in most parts of the Bupa businesses. Through enhanced spend transparency, insights and partnering, the perceived level of value-add is improving. The evidence is apparent in that we’re planning for our next calendar year, and we’ve got businesses coming up to us, saying ‘this is our road map – how can we work together to identify opportunities?’ They also see us as a group that understands their business, and they’re open to sharing their challenges including sensitive considerations with us so we can help.”
In terms of data and insights, procurement is able to provide the right information to executives across the business, and the savings made now have a direct link to the bottom line – no more savings from a deal. “There’s still some work to do, but it’s been an interesting journey and we’ve come a really, really long way from where we were 18 months ago.”
Getting the technology in place to identify that data and create insights has been a major boon for procurement, and that involved getting the right people in place. Srinivasan is very much of the opinion that the best people in the correct position is at the core of a strong team, so getting the right capability in the team to build the technology needed was a top priority.
“It was also about leveraging existing technology, because we had a lot of systems already that could be used more effectively,” she explains. “Additionally, we worked very carefully with some of our strategic partners to help us navigate that minefield, because there are so many technologies out there and it’s difficult to pick the right solution. We approached it in manageable chunks, which helped a lot because there was some really painful but necessary, fundamental work to do, like cleaning thousands of lines of data. We wanted to have clean source data. We hired a couple of analysts to help and that took around four months, which was very challenging from a timeline perspective, but an important first step in moving towards better analytics and insights.”
All of this taught Srinivasan an extremely valuable lesson: that really important foundation work with technology needs time and investment. You can have the best technology in the world, but if your data isn’t clean, that won’t mean a thing. “So, we had to really focus on understanding our data and figuring out what’s necessary, what success looks like over a period of time, and slowly building on that.”
Paul Morris, who heads up Procurement Operations, adds: “After putting some structure in place to solve the fundamentals, we ended up creating a bespoke platform for our spend analytics. This allows us to continually enrich our data and report on more, without expensive vendor change fees or delays, which is enormously important given the ever-increasing pace at which businesses change”.
Bupa’s procurement team will undoubtedly continue making use of emerging technologies in the future, because Srinivasan knows how to approach it, now: carefully, with a great deal of research and collaboration with experts to avoid implementing something that Bupa has to adapt to, rather than the other way around. “We always need to really understand what the problem is, and get help from people who are technology-agnostic and understand the space. Figuring out our exact requirements first is key.”
Returning to the topic of the right people in the right place, company culture is of particular interest to Srinivasan – unsurprising, considering her expertise in wellness and the promotion of positive mental health. For her own procurement team, it took a significant amount of time to get the combination of people right, because they would shape the individual brand of the team. “I had to consider what the brand should look like; what are the characteristics of the brand of a procurement person?” Srinivasan ponders.
“I even worked with my team and created this image of a human that had the characteristics of what the procurement brand should embody. We want our colleagues to see those characteristics in every procurement team member.” This ‘people plan’ made choosing the right people far simpler, and has had a positive ripple-effect across the company, so Srinivasan has been working with the other team leaders to help them understand the performance and potential of every single employee.
“We’re very human with our people,” Srinivasan explains. “We’ve come up with an actionable people plan that we share with everybody, and a calendar of activities – unrelated to procurement – that we do each month to continuously improve and support them. The long and short of creating such a positive company culture is having a really clear view for the type of people we want, recruiting them, having a clear action plan for investing in them, and continuing to implement that. People see we don’t just talk the talk – we walk the walk as well.”
Srinivasan’s focus on wellness has spread throughout her team and across the business, meaning there’s a mutually supportive atmosphere that has the added benefit of affecting business relationships with suppliers and partners. This means being honest about what is and isn’t possible, sometimes, and setting clear expectations. “Someone might ask for something and we don’t go back to them and say: ‘we can get this done for you in 24 hours’, because that would involve someone burning the midnight oil,” Srinivasan says. “So, we set clear expectations, and we get respect in return for not over-promising and under-delivering.”
Srinivasan is also very passionate about ensuring employees know that making mistakes is a learning opportunity. “Bupa, as a business, is very supportive of helping when people learn their lesson that way. It’s really helped the relationship between procurement and the rest of the business, because when we mess up, we own up,
we learn from it, we do better. They see us as accountable people who care about the business.”
The power of partnership
Another key element in our transformation journey, Srinivasan says, is the engagement and support Bupa has had from its strategic partners. “They have played a key role in helping us provide robust solutions to solve business problems. They have consistently lent a listening ear, challenged the status quo, and brought market insights. Our strong partnerships have also held us in good stead from a delivery and supply chain transparency perspectives through a difficult and challenging last 18 months.”
With a procurement strategy in place, what’s the road map from Srinivasan’s perspective? Success, to her, looks like continuing to establish partnerships with the parts of the business where this hasn’t yet happened, and making sure procurement works as one close-knit, efficient unit.
The road ahead
“There’s parts of the business that have recognised the great work we’ve done to date, there’s an appetite for my team to review a larger spend portfolio, share our expertise as a central shared service and via the strong infrastructure we have in place. We’re doing some pilots over the next 5-6 months, and once they become successful, there will be more opportunities for us, as a team, to do that and reflect on the value we bring to the table from a customer perspective and an operational perspective – not just a procurement perspective.”