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Book Review: The CPO: Transforming Procurement in the Real World


I have read and reviewed a number of business publications, most of them directly related to supply management, but The CPO is truly a unique creation. This book captures the adventure of procurement by outlining principles and concepts for success – not through dry or prescriptive chapters – but through the very engaging story of a fictional CPO and the challenges he faces on the job and at home. Thomas Sutter, the main character (dare I say hero?), captured my attention immediately and held it right through the final pages. I’ll even admit (my apologies to the authors for cheating) that at one point I was so wrapped up in the interpersonal dynamics of the story that I peeked ahead to read the end so that I might relax and absorb the full message of the book as I went.

Structured like a novel, The CPO starts with a chance encounter between Sutter and the CEO of Heartland Consolidated Industries, a large U.S. based CPG company with a transactional procurement function and a number of competitive challenges. Impressed by what he hears, the CEO offers Sutter a newly created CPO position. Sutter’s decision to accept it sets off a series of challenges, setbacks, uncertainties, and successes that make perfectly clear just what is required to pull off an actual procurement transformation.

Two of the surprises from my perspective were the total absence of third party procurement software, and the fact that no outside consultants (save one life coach type character) were involved in the transformation. This second point is remarkable given that the five authors are all long-term team members at A.T. Kearney: three Partners, one Vice President, and one Director. A third surprise was the need to know how to read the comic book-style overview that introduced each chapter. I got the hang of it quickly, but I hadn’t anticipated that this would come to light as a gap in my qualifications. Each chapter concludes with three ‘CPO Best Practices’ and a list of them would be a worthy addition to any aspiring procurement professional’s office wall.

The idea of executing a procurement transformation is not to be taken lightly. Many efforts labeled as such fall far short of the standard set in this book. As I thought back over the evolution seen in Heartland’s procurement function, I realized that a less aspirational procurement executive might have considered Sutter’s early improvements a transformation. In reality, he was merely cleaning out and building up the basic capabilities of a strategic procurement function. This is an important step to be sure, but it is not transformational. It was not until Sutter and his team had started to generate real successes for the company that they began to consider transformation. These changes, played out in the final chapters, altered the shape and organization of procurement as well as the way their values and processes were integrated into the rest of the organization.

If investing in your skills, knowledge and perspective through reading is among your professional development goals, this book is the perfect place to start. Sutter’s journey and the very realistic people he meets along the way make the book easy to read. By the final pages, the rewards are a feeling of satisfaction for his accomplishments and an altered perspective of what is required, personally and professionally, to stage a successful procurement transformation – in the real world.

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