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How Clemson University is Upping Its Supply Chain Game

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The Clemson procurement team has reduced its supplier roster from 67,000 vendors to a much more manageable 4,000.

College football fans know Clemson University far and wide for its football team. But now, the Clemson, S.C.-based university wants to be known for having a strong supply chain program.“We need to claim our victories,”  Director of Strategic Operations Lori Brierre says.

The university, which started operations in 1889, has a population of approximately 24,000 students and 5,000 faculty and staff. Brierre, who is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, previously held positions at the University of California San Diego and the University of California Office of the President before coming to Clemson in 2016.

That year, Brierre found that the university had a supply chain that needed to be more secure. At the time, the school recognized that several higher education institutions had fallen prey to billing fraud schemes executed through supplier records. The most notable instance was a Canadian university that lost a staggering $12 millions. Scammers would contact universities through telephone calls or email and pose as suppliers that needed to update banking information.  

The universities would accept and not discover their errors until months later because records indicated they had paid their suppliers. But Clemson University was determined it would not make the list of victims of this phishing scheme.

A Great Success

At the time, Clemson had an open registration system with 67,000 active suppliers. “When people visit Clemson, they find themselves wanting to do business with the University,” Brierre says. “Even though we are considered a larger school, 67,000 suppliers are more than four times the number of suppliers we need to effectively do business.” 

Clemson’s plan included replacing the existing open registration solution with one that was closed; meaning suppliers had to be invited by Clemson to register to do business them. The new solution would also include vetting suppliers by collecting all standard business information on each supplier upfront. The first step in executing the plan was rationalization of its supply base. This would mean a drastic reduction in the number of active suppliers. To do this she created an algorithm for the university that helped it reduce its number of suppliers to 4,000.

Using the algorithm, Brierre’s team deactivated any suppliers that the campus paid fewer than five times during the previous two years. This reduced the supply base to 2,500 suppliers that were then invited to register using the new solution. “We also went out to campus customers and end users for feedback on who their critical suppliers were,” she continues. “We invited those suppliers to come in and register.” This brought the supply base to 4,000.

During the project, “We had the tools and executive support we needed for the project to be successful,” she recalls, noting that the strategy not only helped Clemson, but also earned it interest from other organizations.

“We found ourselves sought after by many universities and publications to learn how Clemson had accomplished it,” she says. “It was a great success and it’s being modeled now by a lot of institutions.”

Rolling Out Service

Today, Clemson’s initiatives include the development of its Business Development Center (BDC), which will help modestly sized and disadvantaged businesses. “Because Clemson University has a presence in every county in South Carolina we want to roll it out throughout the state,” Brierre says. 

This is a good fit for the region, she notes, because there are many businesses in the agricultural industry that either do not have or do not use basic business tools, such as internet or email. Clemson also has created the role of a supply relationship manager to support the small businesses registered with the university. Until the BDC formally opens, it will continue to offer suppliers the opportunity to come in to the University Center for informal capability meetings.  

“We’ve had 80 different suppliers meet with us, to take advantage of our capability meetings,” Brierre says, noting that her team researches each of the companies before meeting with them. This includes market analysis, visiting their websites and viewing them from the customer’s perspective. 

For example, she says, if a dairy company has a website that does not include an email address or a phone number for contacting the firm, clients would be disappointed. “Customers want those sorts of things,” she says.

Great Things

Brierre is proud of her staff at Clemson, but notes that they had to be developed into a new team when she arrived. “I really had to fall back on my military training,” she recalls. “The fastest way to make a team happen is name it.”

The group named the team “Shark Tank” and Brierre set about earning their respect and support by more clearly defining the roles of her associates and direct reports. In addition to creating the role of a supplier relationship manager, she also redefined the role of the marketing and communications manager.  

Previously, the main task for that position was to update the website.  “Now, we are scaling out into truly supporting all of procurement,” she says. “For example, when our professional buyers put an agency-wide agreement into place, the mission is adoption. Incorporating marketing into these types of activities drives adoption and savings.   

“We did really well,” she says, noting that she sees “great things” ahead for Clemson, which includes becoming a leader in the public procurement and higher education supply chain in South Carolina. “We have the people to do it, we have the knowledge and we have the drive,” she says. 

She notes, with so many millennials on her staff, “The university is now more capable of adopting other supply chain concepts and strategies, like artificial intelligence and blockchain. We’ve got the right mix to make those leaps and help us stay ahead of things that are in the industry now,” she concludes. 

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