Buying strong at small colleges

5 strategies for purchasing success

If there’s one thing small college purchasing managers know for sure, it’s that they have to be smart about a lot of things.

“At larger schools, people in purchasing have more specialization—they only do IT or facilities or science. Those of us at small colleges have to be able to do everything,” says Allison Canada, director of purchasing and auxiliary services at Maryland’s Wor-Wic Community College, which has a two-member procurement team and about 3,100 students.

In addition, some small colleges combine the procurement functions with other major responsibilities. Canada also handles employee travel arrangements, for example.

Related: A different kind of consortium

Her counterpart at Cedar Crest College in Pennsylvania, Karen Khattari, meanwhile, is the only administrator handling procurement for the 1,600-student institution—and she manages the telecommunications system, too. And yet, these purchasing generalists often not only survive, they thrive.

“This forces us to build better relationships with our end users, so while it’s a challenge, it’s also a unique opportunity for us to be more involved on campus,” says Canada. Their departments are small, but their reach is not.

Related: Managing rogue spending at a small institution

These purchasing managers work to save their institutions time and money through a range of strategies that result in purchasing power and wisdom from higher ed peers. Here’s how to do the same.

1. Become a joiner.

Members of purchasing cooperatives, higher education consortia and professional associations—such as the National Association of Education Procurement (NAEP)—receive a range of benefits. Volume discounts they could never achieve on their own come from membership in groups like E&I Cooperative Services, National Joint Powers Alliance (NJPA) and National IPA.

Canada underscores the value of co-op membership with this example: After switching from its own contract with UniFirst uniforms to using NJPA’s contract code in the supplier’s billing system, Wor-Wic saved $14,000 annually.

Alan Leonard, director of purchasing at Colgate University, which has about 2,900 students, does more than just take advantage of the contracts he has access to through E&I membership. He also helps shape what’s available.

Because the liberal arts college’s location in a rural part of central New York presents supplier challenges, Leonard advocated for schools in remote areas when he sat on an E&I bid committee. “This is something people don’t always think about, but it’s important to those of us who aren’t located in or near cities,” says Leonard, whose department has six employees.

Like many other schools, Colgate also belongs to a regional group, the New York Six Liberal Arts Consortium, and Leonard participates in its bidding process.

Canada takes advantage of Maryland’s community college brain trust. “If you’re working on a new roofing project, chances are somebody else has already done that and can send their contract to guide you,” she says. “People in these groups are so good about helping others not reinvent the wheel.”

2. Consider e-procurement, even if you think you can’t afford it.

E-procurement systems often pay for themselves, saving money by directing users to preferred vendors. These products reduce the time and labor involved with purchase order approvals, and free up purchasing staff to focus on higher-value activities.

“For several years, we put in a budget request for a third person, but now that we’ve been using Jaggaer [for e-procurement] for 2 1/2 years, we don’t need that additional staffer,” says Canada. “In addition, because we’re not processing orders anymore, we can focus on strategic initiatives such as looking at our spend data so we know more about where to put our emphasis in negotiations,” she adds.

Jaggaer bases pricing on school size, operating budget and transaction volume.

Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, which formed a purchasing department and instituted centralized purchasing just two years ago, uses ESM Solutions’ cloud-based system.

“I try to use technology whenever possible because it saves us so much time, even when you factor in what’s involved with keeping the system maintained,” says Cynthia Urick, Swarthmore’s contracts and purchasing manager and part of a three-person department at the college, which has a student enrollment of about 1,600.

In addition to hosting product catalogs in one location online, the e-procurement system processes purchase orders for approval automatically, moving them through the approval cycle and then authorizing order fulfillment once approvals are maintained. These are all steps that otherwise would have required staff involvement.

3. Study the data.

Urick reviews data from Swarthmore purchasing-card reports to identify patterns that could guide future contract decisions. It also helps her uncover other problems. For example, when a review of P-card statements revealed about 1,000 Amazon transactions with no tax exemption and missing line-item detail, Urick created an Amazon Business account for those who buy from the site.

She now has a tax-free account, purchase specifics and some controls.

“Our Amazon Business account gives me line-item detail that I don’t get when people buy on their own,” she says. “It also lets me block products they shouldn’t be buying, like office supplies, and requires approval for others we’ve identified.”

At Colgate, Leonard uses data to help the college save money. “I want to know if we have five departments all buying the same thing separately because we might be able to combine the orders to get a better price,” he says.

4. Build relationships both on and off campus.

Establishing relationships with Cedar Crest employees is a key piece of Khattari’s strategy for reducing rogue spending, a longtime issue for institutions of all sizes. Khattari, director of general services and procurement, views employees as clients. “I meet with them face to face so they know me,” she says. “I build those relationships so they know to come to me when they have a question or need help.”

Such relationships help ensure administrators and staff purchase from preferred vendors and reduce wasteful spending. “It’s not OK to just carte blanche order an office chair from an office supply chain,” she says. “We need to make sure that chair not only serves the person who needs it now, but also the two who come in after them.”

Khattari nurtures vendor relationships too, because they help her save time. Once she knows what she needs to order, the provider will often tell her which cooperative to use to get a contract price, she says. “A larger school would have staff to research that, but as a department of one, I don’t.”

Leonard, when possible, likes to meet with vendors in person. “I know a lot of schools don’t do that, but this is how I learn about new opportunities, programs and ideas,” he says.

Through these personal connections, Leonard secured a furniture contract with a large-school discount and corresponding free design services linked to new construction projects.

5. Be aggressive.

At Minnesota’s Augsburg College, Jill Davenport says she inserts herself into a purchase when she hears about a transaction for campus that could benefit from her experience. “Sometimes that’s welcome, sometimes I have to explain myself,” says Davenport, manager of purchasing and central services and the only full-time administrator in the department.

For example, when the college, which has about 3,500 students, was constructing a new academic building with science classrooms and laboratories, Davenport was asked to order the laboratory equipment. While professors had done this in the past, they welcomed her expertise because they hadn’t purchased on such a scale before.

“It turned out to be a huge project, and this isn’t what we want them to be best at,” she says.

The expertise coming from the procurement office is vital. “Because our biggest challenge is that we have to know how to do everything, research is a big part of the job,” says Urick at Swarthmore. “And that’s why I love it.”

Sandra Beckwith is a western New York-based writer.

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