Purchase to Pay

Everyone knows that times are tough and times are toughest for small businesses. They're faced with obstacles that can seem insurmountable - paperwork, regulation working capital costs. But there's one obstacle above all others that can strike fear into the every small business - the late payer. They are a scourge. Over years, an obsession with the optimisation of DPO (that's accountant-speak for funding your business at the expense of your smaller, weaker suppliers) has become a central financial strategy for many large organisations. Some of the biggest household names in the UK were recently outed for extending their payment terms to an astonishing 180 days and there is an increased awareness among the public and politicians that this practice is grossly unfair.

Ever since I read Hell’s Angels by Hunter S Thompson, I’ve always found the image of bikers compellingly attractive. And so I’ve not spared any cash when it comes to getting my own image right. When I’m wearing my black Rukka Merlin jacket with matching water-proof Gore-Tex, armored leather jeans and my Schuberth C3 Pro helmet with built in antennae, even though I say it myself, I look the business. All I need now is a bike. I remember from my teenage years, as I suspect will many others, the sad soul with the helmet and no bike. Pursuing the biker dream with not enough money for the full package, he missed the point. Having a helmet doesn’t make you a little bit of a biker. It makes you a little bit of an idiot. Making only a partial investment isn’t always an incremental step towards a complete solution. Often it’s a waste of money. And that’s what e-procurement is if it’s implemented in isolation – a complete waste of money.

The European Commission has declared some ambitious targets for e-procurement. They reckon that €2 trillion can be saved and they intend to get government organisations using purchase to pay best practice to deliver these savings by 2016. These targets are of course way too ambitious. What’s more, the Commission is going about it in completely the wrong way. They may be ambitious and their methods may not be perfect but I’m impressed and delighted at what they're doing.

Last week at EXPP I had the great pleasure of meeting Dave Wallis, Director Eastern Hemisphere (great job title) for OFS Portal. You could be forgiven for not knowing of OFS portal. OFS Portal is highly niche specializing exclusively in the Oil and Gas industry. In their own words it is a “group of diverse suppliers working together with a non-profit objective to provide standardized electronic information to B2B trading partners to facilitate e-commerce in upstream oil and gas products and services.” That is pretty specific but don’t let that mislead you in any way – there’s many industries outside of upstream oil and gas that could take a leaf out of their book. They are in many ways exemplars for purchase to pay and they’re now adding to their credentials by partnering with Tradeshift.

How can a banjo frailing ballad singer in Appalachia operate a more modern business model than a government department? Imagine that I am a finance director in the UK with personal tastes which run to “roots” music. Even for relatively obscure artists in any genre and any country, I will probably be able to find a website either for them or a distributor and buy their music directly as a cd or as a download. I will pay with my credit or debit card and get my cd a week later or my download almost immediately. The artist will get paid relatively quickly and pay a merchants fee which they will have factored into their original pricing. What I will not do is raise a requisition for the cd, have it approved and then issued to the artist, create and issue a goods received note when the item is delivered and approved, match the ensuing (paper) invoice against the receipt and the order and then promise the artist that I’ll instruct my bank to pay them 30 days thereafter. Yet, when I go into work the next morning, guess which process I will insist that my organisation uses?

The more I look at the proposed acquisition of Ariba by SAP, the less sense it makes. SAP didn't need the functionality. They didn't need the brand. The Ariba shareholders will clearly be pleased to see this deal go through but what, I wonder, would an SAP sales guy be thinking and what would Ariba's competitors be making of it all?