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Erin Sawyer on finding the perfect suppliers

Erin Sawyer

In the automotive sector, speed, efficiency and agility are everything. From product innovation to vehicle delivery, the financial health of the entire ecosystem – from the likes of Ford and BMW through to the lower tiers of their supply chains – relies on these three components.

 

That speed, though, cannot come at the cost of quality and it is here that procurement comes in. It is the function’s job to ensure a supply chain can deliver goods at pace and to a high standard.

 

It also needs to ensure the team is agile enough to respond to challenges and new technologies as they arise.

 

The development of electric engines is a pivotal part of this changing industry. Consumers are increasingly recognising the impact their cars, powered by traditional combustion engines, have on the environment and, as such, are turning to ‘green’ vehicles.

 

Wrightspeed, a California-based manufacturer of electric vehicle powertrains for heavy-duty, frequent-stop vehicles such as rubbish trucks, buses and delivery lorries, is at the forefront of this changing industry. The company says its technology will help reduce emissions by 63%, fuel consumption by 67%, and save thousands of dollars in annual maintenance costs.

 

The company is currently moving from developing prototypes towards full-scale production and it is the procurement and supply chain team, led by vice president of supply chain Erin Sawyer, that is working to ensure the right supply chain is in place to support this move, which is being made at pace.

The Goldilocks zone

When we speak to Sawyer, she is in the midst of building the supply chain and looking for what she calls her ‘Goldilocks’ suppliers – those who sit perfectly between startup organisations and more established names in the industry. She refers to them as Goldilocks suppliers because they are the ones nimble enough to respond to changes and challenges, but can also make quick capital

investment decisions and will prioritise working with Wrightspeed.

 

The Goldilocks analogy is one many procurement chiefs will easily relate to. However, finding these sweet-spot suppliers is the tricky part and something Sawyer is currently contending with.

 

Another key part of her job is maintaining a tight grip on development and keeping production costs as low as possible. To achieve both, she is drawing on her career experiences, which have seen her move from traditional automotive to consulting and back again to an automotive industry that has changed drastically since she started her career there.

 

Sawyer grew up in Detroit, the home of the US motor car industry, and started her career at the turn of the millennium with Ford, one of the city’s most famous firms and recognisable automotive brands. She interned within the company’s auto-transmission centre where she designed and tested new automatic transmissions for light-duty trucks and SUVs.

 

She then moved to Cummins, a company that designs, manufactures and distributes engines, filtration systems and power-generation products. Sawyer worked as a mechanical engineer within the research and development team, where she and designed and tested turbocharged diesel engines for lorries.

 

Sawyer joined Honeywell Turbo Technologies, which engineers, develops and manufactures turbochargers, in 2004. She managed new product launches for some of the world’s largest automotive firms but was also given her first taste of procurement through product sourcing and supplier negotiations. Sawyer enjoyed that side of the job so much she decided to stick with it.

 

“The procurement side was great, I really found my calling,” she says. “I liked the ownership of selecting suppliers and working with them to get them ready for production. But I also liked the fact I could continue working with engineers.”

 

When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, Sawyer decided to develop her wider business skills and enrolled in a management and strategy MBA at the Kellogg School of Management.

Drilling down

On graduating, she wanted to develop her business knowledge further and so joined management consultancy AT Kearney where Sawyer says she went deep “functionally”. There, she was also able to get a better understanding of different industries through the clients with whom she worked, as well as a better understanding of how procurement was applied in those industries. After nearly four years at the consultancy, Sawyer returned to a very different automotive industry with Tesla Motors to assume the role of group manager, global supply – core technologies.

 

At Tesla, Sawyer was responsible for identifying and evaluating new sources of supply to support the company’s manufacturing plans, new product launches and its sustainability objectives.

 

Part of this role was to push suppliers to move faster – so the company could meet its production targets – but not so fast that the supply chain started to break. It was, she says, “a difficult balancing act”, but proved to be a valuable learning experience that would, along with her engineering background, stand her in good stead for the challenges she faces at Wrightspeed.

 

“Today, we are at a critical point between prototype and full production,” she says. “Essentially, we are choosing or swapping out prototype suppliers with those who can take us forward.”

 

It is these Goldilocks suppliers that will be critical to the company’s success and will, ultimately, determine whether it can move forward at the required pace. Finding those suppliers is clearly the essential part and, recognising that, Sawyer and the business are taking a long-term view. They are looking to build partnerships and implement long-term contracts to ensure the foundations of

productive relationships are established and will pay dividends for many years to come.

Absolute conviction

Sawyer is confident of success and puts this down, in part, to an understanding among the company’s senior management team of how critical it is to find the right suppliers, including the company’s founder, Ian Wright. “Ian recognises the value of the supply chain and understands the risk that exists for our business,” says Sawyer. “He knows we need suppliers who will deliver on time and won’t screw up.”

 

Aside from that, Wright understands the team will encounter problems they will not immediately know how to solve, so encourages them to “know the problem they are trying to solve” and to “ask the right questions to fix it”, Sawyer says. “He encourages us to go away and come back with the answer once we have figured it out. That is a great quality for a leader to have, because we don’t always have the right answers straight away,” she says.

 

When suppliers have to deliver everything from battery cells to complex machined components for a four-speed gearbox transmission, the answers are not always going to come immediately, so this understanding is critical for a team that is still developing.

 

Beyond the challenges of building a supply chain, Sawyer must also contend with the difficulties that any establishing function faces in terms of recruiting the right staff and implementing new technology. Attracting people to a young organisation is always difficult, but Sawyer is “playing up the mission of the company and the sustainable nature of the technology” in order to draw talented

individuals into her team. Being based in California, with lots of other technology companies, is helpful, she says, as there is an existing talent pool to dip into.

 

As for technology, Sawyer says she is not looking to “reinvent the wheel”. She is currently working to implement enterprise resource planning, supplier quality and inventory control systems, but is not fazed by the challenge.

 

With the support of the business and undaunted by the pace of the challenges she faces, there is no doubt Sawyer is well placed to keep this industry disruptor on track to deliver on its promises.

 

This interview originally appeared in PLQ Issue I, Volume II. Procurement Leaders members can read the full issue here, while non-members can read selected articles here

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

Tim Burt

Tim Burt -

Editor, Procurement Leaders

Tim Burt is Editor at Procurement Leaders and has interviewed some of the leading figures in the procurement profession.

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