Procurement Leaders

15 minutes with…Christina Ooi, head of group procurement, Malaysia Airlines Berhad

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At Malaysia Airlines Berhad (MAB), procurement was centralised in September 2015 and now covers all procurement activities at MAB and its sister companies. Christina Ooi, head of group procurement, talks attracting talent to this newly transformed function and how the gender balance of procurement is tipped in favour of women in the Asian market.


Procurement Leaders (PL): In many parts of the world, procurement is a very male-dominated profession. What gender differences have you seen in the function in Malaysia?


Christina S. S. Ooi (CO): In my experience, I find there are a lot more women working in procurement in Malaysia than there are men. Of course, this can vary depending on the industry, for example, the scales are tipped further towards more male procurement employees in the manufacturing and production sectors, but, in the non-production environment and as a wider trend in the procurement industry overall, women tend to monopolise the profession.


Today, at Malaysia Airlines, more than half of our procurement team members are women.


In general, I think this trend comes down to the fact procurement began life as a back-office, largely administrative function, which as a type of employment, typically attracts more female talent than male.


This has also come about due to the nature of businesses in Asia. Many Asian businesses are either private family-owned companies or small-medium enterprises (SMEs), and these have evolved and grown over time. So, over the years, as these businesses have expanded and evolved, women in these administrative roles who have stayed on at the companies, have also evolved and progressed into the more sophisticated procurement roles we know today.


Here it is a case of a lack of male procurement professionals. Going forward, as large, foreign businesses launch in Asia, such as multinational corporations (MNCs), we are more likely to see a more even gender distribution as men are attracted to these corporations and so enter the profession.


PL: What challenges do you think procurement teams in APAC can help each other tackle and take learnings from each other on?


CO: Talent is the main challenge for procurement in the APAC region, and, at MAB, we strongly believe in lifelong learning for our group procurement team. We also believe in growing our own talent. In Malaysia, there is also a shortage of talent in category management, and hands-on procurement practitioners. This is another area of talent that we need to develop. So, rather than organisations luring trained talent away from other organisations where good procurement talent is already scarce, it will be a win-win and more effective approach to pool talent together in a collaborative manner with other non-competing organisations.

I think procurement teams from these different non-competing organisations could work something out where we rotate people across different organisations. For example, people from the talent pool could spend around 3-4 weeks at other organisations under this programme, working in the procurement divisions, while learning and networking with each other. We could also provide cross-organisation category mentoring opportunities to leverage the skillset and overcome the issue of talent scarcity. We have started to give this some serious thoughts, and have a few organisations in mind already to reach out to.


PL: What do you do at Malaysia Airlines to build and grow procurement talent in the organisation?


CO: Often the hardest part of any business change is getting the psychology of the team right and building a vibrant can-do attitude and pride in the company culture.


In Asia, very few people tend to look at procurement as a worthy profession to pursue, and some don’t even perceive it as a profession at all. Also, procurement in the past was seen as a back-office, administrative and largely reactive function, and so it has been difficult for people to challenge this perception and have the self-confidence to prove themselves as dynamic, change agents taking on more proactive roles in the organisation.


As part of the ongoing procurement transformation agenda at Malaysia Airlines, we focus on boosting self-confidence in the procurement team, and creating a renewed procurement culture that exudes an aura of positive energy, vibrancy and enthusiasm. This all started when we introduced the team branding “#ProcurementIsAwesome” and designed our procurement on-boarding programme for new recruits joining the team.


We also have a #ProcurementIsAwesome t-shirt that the whole team wears every Friday; it gives us a sense of belonging. And we have our signature 2-minute team chant and dance, based on the Lego song ‘Everything is Awesome!’ which we do every Tuesday morning to relieve stress and boost our self-confidence. Bringing everyone together through a team dance and wearing the t-shirts has actually encouraged everyone to connect and engage with each other. It has created a commonality between all team members, that whether they have joined the team from outside or inside the business, or from outside or inside procurement, everyone is on an equal footing. It is the glue binding everyone together. I guess it’s our little attempt to show both the procurement team itself and the wider business the renewed role of procurement in the business.


It may all sound simple but for us it has proven effective. It has made a big difference to the team, given people a true sense of belonging and also the confidence to stretch their own capabilities further than they might have previously thought possible. We believe that by creating a lifelong learning experience helps us attract the best talent to the procurement team.


This article is a piece of independent writing by a member of Procurement Leaders’ content team.


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