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‘There can’t be any buying without market intelligence and spend analysis’

Apeejay School of Management alumnus Umesh Rishi reveals the mantra of being a successful international procurement services professional, breaking the language barrier in business and how he overcame stage fright



Umesh Rishi, Manager, Global Procurement Services with Perfetti Van Melle, has wide-ranging experience across industries such as FMCG, wine and spirits, technology, oil and gas and pharmaceuticals, with global on-site exposure in geographies as eclectic as Switzerland, Singapore, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and India. In an interview, he discusses the opportunities and challenges in procurement services, the importance of building a reliable network of suppliers and leveraging technology to come up with trustworthy market intelligence reports for leading MNCs. Edited excerpts:

 Please tell us a little about the procurement services industry and your own role.

To begin with, let me say that I am not into hard-core procurement. I am into a support function that is supporting global category management. Hard-core procurement is done by the sourcing guy who is probably sitting at a factory who does contracting based on the in-scope products or services that he or she has to source. The person deals with suppliers end to end, and his or her job is to ensure that the materials are always there in stock, so that the production never comes to a halt.  Any company would have category managers, on top of them they would have regional category managers who take care of a certain region. And then there will be global category managers followed by the category directors. I support the regional and global category managers, as well as the category director with special projects for their categories. I also carry out spend analysis. Only when you know how, how much, where and what are you spending, can you manage your spending.  Also, in market intelligence I track commodities for Perfetti. Let us take an example of sugar, wheat or liquid glucose. All these are traded commodities. So I track that, and tell them when is a good time to buy.  There can’t be any buying without the guidance of the market intelligence report.

Did you always want to be in this field in this specialisation when you were younger?

Frankly (laughs), I had no clue about this career when I began. I wanted to go into marketing. The Smart Cube, which is a UK-based research and consulting firm, they came to our college for interviews. I was the only one who got hired. Much later I got to know there are so many research and consulting organisations, otherwise I always wanted to get into marketing. Thereon the journey started. I stayed with the company five years for then went on to work with larger MNCs such as Accenture and Perfetti.

Looking back at your journey in the corporate world, was the first job a learning ground? 

The first job was a great learning ground, because it was a relatively small company as compared to Accenture that has more than six lakh employees . Smart Cube had only 700 or 800 people, but in the entire Accenture, there are not more than 50 people who do market intelligence. So in the market intelligence domain Smart Cube was a big player. In the five years I was there with the company, I got to work with large clients such as Diageo, the makers of Smirnoff and Black Label; Novartis, Johnson and Johnson, Carlsberg and Colgate: the biggest names. Also, I got travel opportunities, I travelled extensively to Europe. Then Accenture came in. So, all the learnings of the five years of that company were utilised in Accenture and I became the youngest service delivery lead, who was taking care of market intelligence and spend analysis domain for one of their very precious client accounts. Then Perfetti happened and I received a lot onsite exposure to APAC countries such as Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, China and Hong Kong.  

How was your experience in management school and what are the life lessons, which you picked up at the Apeejay School of Management?

I’ve been with Apeejay not only for the MBA but for BBA as well. So I spent five years there. Initially, I was a shy person. I used to run away from giving presentations and had a fear for public speaking. But this was a great life lesson for me. If I was part of group discussions I knew I had better answers but I did not have the courage to speak in front of a crowd . I had stage fright to begin with. Hats off to Chhaya Wadhwa maam and the other ASM faculty. My teachers impressed upon me that I had the wherewithal to fight this fear. By God’s grace I was successful in achieving this. So the biggest life lesson is you should know when to speak, also when to shut up, but you should speak for yourself. No matter how great your thought process is, if you cannot communicate it, nobody would get to know about it. So that is what I think is a great learning. Apart from this, from the preparation of CVs to preparing for the interview was also a good lesson. I remember Shivdasini maam was the placement coordinator. She requested the Smart Cube people when they came in that she wanted to be seated there.  She would just be a silent observer and give students feedback on what they could have done better. So they agreed. I have not seen faculty sitting in an interview like this and trying to assess students live when they are giving an interview with a company to give them feedback. This is a great thing. Apeejay has always been like a family for me . I’ve never been out of touch with them even 11 years after leaving management school.

You must have become popular in college after you overcame stage fear?

Yeah, I became Mr Synergy. I won a few awards, walked the ramp, was an anchor for many of the events there. I got the first prize in a business quiz presentation. I also won the Dr Stya Paul Award for Human Values in the batch of 2009-11.

Please share some tips for students who want to pursue procurement services, especially if they want to make a transition from smaller companies  to bigger players .

I would say students nowadays are far smarter than we were. They must choose a domain they want to pursue and not compromise with it for the sake of a brand. I have many examples from different batches. Sanchita for instance, was two years my junior. She did not setttle for a sales interview and only sat for marketing because she was sure about her goal. Alternatively, they must not be too adamant either. I mean, a marketing profile might not appear as interesting if you have limited knowledge and exposure about the actual corporate world. I used to think of working in the alcohol-beverages industry. I did my internship with United Spirits Limited and I thought that being a spirits company it is recession-proof and has all the glamour associated with it. But ultimately when I went there, it was a different experience. From morning to late at night, I was just visiting premium liquor outlets . The glamour is only in the institutional sales, which is just 1% of what happens in India. The rest 99% is retail sales and that is a different world. So don’t be adamant. Also, keep tabs on the industry you want to pursue . I wanted to get into the alco-bev space. I had the entire SWOT analysis or competitive landscape analysis mapped in my mind. My interview went on for 40 minutes. They fortunately  discussed the same industry and the interviewer said that they might not be as knowledgeable as I was about this industry, or as passionate. They took me on the basis of that knowledge. So follow your passion, and stay updated on the industry you want to be in.

You mentioned recession-proof segments. How did the Covid-19 pandemic affect the procurement services sector and how did you overcome that challenge?

It affected almost every sector, but we managed to reach 93% of our target, which is very good. Financially we were not that impacted but in procurement, since the last one and a half years, especially because of the crude oil prices, the sea freight shipments were impacted. If we were paying Rs 200 for something in the supply line, we ended up paying 800 which had a significant impact on business. We had regular Covid update calls as a procurement team, wherein the global procurement team members from across the globe came in. They would tell us: This supplier has shut down because of Covid cases, and hence it would impact the business continuity for the next 10 days. So we had to do alternative sourcing. Could we get it from Vietnam or Indonesia ? So, we had an open forum to discuss opportunities, brainstorm and execute, and regular update calls that gave us an edge and never once the production line was stopped. So technology came to our aid .

What would you put as the biggest challenge for a career in procurement services?

The biggest challenge I experienced while working overseas, especially in APAC countries, was the language barrier , particularly when dealing with China, Vietnam and Indonesia. The trick is to have everything in black and white. Because you may go on a great dinner with your supplier and you will think the deal is finalised, but when he mails you, it would be contradictory to what you might have discussed, primarily because of the language barrier. Even while working with colleagues in China, Vietnam and Indonesia — which were my key geographies — to make them understand and get work done was a challenge sometimes. The idea is to spell everything out in black and white, build a rapport and then pick it up. So, explain or reiterate what you are looking for.

So how did you overcome the language barrier?

Learning a new language was not possible for me. But I knew after building a rapport and adopting a practice like reiterating what I needed or what other person needed from me. What the outcome would look like, and putting that on a mail so that at least they can understand it. So transparency is very important. And having everything in black and white. Now, China is known for not being transparent: I mean they will come and say yes to most things when we meet but in the end do something else altogether.

So, what according to you, is the secret of being a successful market intelligence professional?

There are actually two things. One is building a reliable network to fetch information. And that is through suppliers and peers. Say if I were to book sugar in my present company I have somebody in Dabur or Britannia, or Coke to speak to. If I were booking at 30 rupees and my peer was doing it for 29.5, I would know I have to squeeze the supplier further. So having networks made up of suppliers and industry peers is critical. Second, leverage technology at the level of all your data sources. Are you updated to do predictive analysis or not? That is the bottomline.

Aasheesh Sharma is a seasoned journalist with an experience of more than 25 years spread over newspapers, news agencies, magazines and television. He has worked in leadership positions in media groups such as Hindustan Times, India Today, Times of India, NDTV, UNI and IANS. He is a published author and his essay on the longest train journey in India was included in an anthology of writings on the railways, brought out by Rupa Publications. As the Editor of Apeejay Newsroom, he is responsible for coverage of the latest news and developments in the Apeejay institutions. He can be reached at [email protected] He tweets @Aasheesh74

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