Lifetime of Achievement: John Dickson

John Dickson was Chief Procurement Officer at AstraZeneca during the height of the pandemic.

At the outset of his career, as part of a graduate trainee programme with the Yorkshire Electricity Board in the UK, he spent time in the purchasing department, where he found he enjoyed the excitement of the bidding process.

From those early beginnings Dickson has landed a succession of prestigious roles at world renowned companies, including Rolls Royce, BP, and most recently, as Chief Procurement Officer at AstraZeneca. 

Procurement career challenges

Through his long career Dickson has experienced the modernisation and digitisation of the procurement sector, and has had to overcome onerous challenges along the way. He says one of the biggest challenges is  communicating the value of procurement to colleagues across one’s employer.

“Gaining recognition for procurement is always a challenge,” he says. “Everyone generally believes they can do the job of procurement professionals because outside of work we are all buyers. Yet corporate procurement is very different from personal spending. But this challenge comes with the territory, and I actually see it as one of the attractions of the job.”

Managing internal relationships is part of the skills of a chief procurement officer (CPO), but Dickson stresses that delivering  value – rather than simply focusing on cutting costs – is what really defines the function, but says achieving this goal is hugely problematic.

“Ensuring procurement focuses on total value delivery has always been hugely important to me, but at times it’s difficult to achieve because of the pressure and expectation that the function reduces the cost of goods, year over year.”

Procurement successes during times of adversity

But for Dickson, challenges came no bigger than his being CPO at AstraZeneca from 2018 until 2023 – where he found himself in the front line of the medical fightback against COVID-19. There, his procurement team had to work at pace, and under great stress, as part of a cross-business project to not only prepare a vaccine in double-quick time, but also make sure that all risk was identified and mitigated. It is all an achievement of which he is justifiably proud. 

“The performance of the procurement team at AstraZeneca during the pandemic was incredibly stimulating and fulfilling, while also being exhausting at times,” he says. “Working with internal and external partners towards such a hugely important  common goal was incredibly rewarding.” 

The pressure on pharmaceutical companies to create COVID vaccines was immense. Under normal circumstances, a vaccine might take years to research, develop, test and have ratified. But for its COVID vaccine, AstraZeneca was working to hyper-accelerated timeframes, with procurement and supply chain operations having to keep pace. “Providing a solution in eight months – something that normally would take around five years – and doing it within budget to meet a pressing global need, filled me with a huge sense of pride,” he says.

Lessons from a varied procurement career 

After AstraZeneca, Dickson moved onto the next phase of his career, launching his own procurement consultancy service. In his role as an advisor, he is able to draw upon deep experience gained  from a varied career across pharmaceuticals, aerospace, oil and gas, and the public sector. 

Having an advisory role has given Dickson pause for thought, and enabled him to see essential truths about the profession about which he is so passionate.

“.“Listening must always be the most important part of being a procurement professional,” he says. “Listen to your colleagues within the function, but more importantly, listen to your business stakeholders.”

Dickson also understands that in any walk of business life, there are no short-cuts to understanding the needs and priorities of stakeholders. But this, he says, is the essence of procurement, because “one can “challenge the status quo by bringing your own knowledge and ideas to the table”. 

He adds: “You must always strive to gain as much knowledge about the business you are supporting as quickly as possible. Engage with the business at all opportunities and establish a relationship that gives the freedom to challenge and bring a different insight than they may have had up to that point.”

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