By Ronald Hedley
When Dennis Silva completed his formal education at The University of British Columbia, he had a degree in geography, a need for employment, and a yet-to-be discovered ability to lead. His career began humbly enough, selling appliances. Silva recalled, “I started my journey over 25 years ago, working for a large Canadian retail organization.”
Among the refrigerators, microwaves, and washing machines, Silva soon discovered qualities about himself that he had never known before. “I enjoyed sales because it took me out of my comfort zone. It was a challenge for me, and I learned a lot on the floor: how to work with others, how to deal with the public, and how to build that confidence.”
It was in retail where Silva envisioned his own future. “At the time, our company was one of the fastest growing retailers in Canada. It offered a significant amount of opportunity, given the economy of the time. What attracted me was the internal growth, more than the sales.”
Silva explained, “After four years, when the opportunity came, I moved to the head office to take on what they called a fixture re-buyer role. I jumped in and have never turned back.” Silva has been in procurement ever since.
Becoming a Procurement Leader
At said Canadian retail store, Silva learned what it takes to be a leader, and it is where he developed his own leadership style. He also learned the importance of working for a cause that is greater than himself. “Being connected to thousands of employees across the country made me a part of something bigger. I was given opportunities to do things that I would never have imagined,” he explained.
Silva explained how he appreciates the leaders that influenced his career. “I was blessed with working with great mentors, working with people who were driven. These people are not like rah, rah. Some were soft-spoken, focused, and enjoy working with people and their teams.”
Silva singled out one such mentor. “My VP of Store Development had a strong influence on me. I didn’t have a lot of procurement experience, but he trusted my work ethic and supported my professional growth. In the years that we worked together, he challenged me. He was fair and tough, but throughout that process, I knew he had my back.”
Today, Dennis Silva has a lot of people’s backs. He is the Chief Procurement Officer at BCNET. He explained his company’s focus. “BCNET is a not-for-profit, shared services organization that offers technology services and solutions that enable world-class research and education in British Columbia. We represent the interest of 24 post-secondary member institutions in the province made up of colleges, universities, and research institutions.”
Procurement is Transformational
Silva sees procurement as being more than just a department in an organization or company. He believes procurement can and should transform an organization. Why? Because of procurement’s opportunity to take on today’s unique challenges.
Silva explained, “When I say transformational, I mean that it’s an opportunity to work with your peers, creatively addressing problems that present themselves.”
Silva continued, “I don’t see procurement as solely an administrative function. I see it as a function that can make an impact. When I look back on my first days in procurement, I remember lining up behind the fax machine, waiting to put my purchase order through. That’s not the world we live in today.”
Today’s business world challenges are complex. Silva said, “In some respects, it’s uncharted territory.” He explained further. “Everyone is empowered with technology, and technology is having a disruptive and pervasive impact through the supply chain.” He added, “As procurement leaders, we are responding to an ever-evolving marketplace. Those challenges really drive me.”
As Chief Procurement Officer, Silva is in the unique position to drive that transformation by encouraging collaboration. “It is energizing working with my peers across the sector that are inspired by collaboration.”
Procurement Requires Collaboration
Since 2012, British Columbia’s 25 public postsecondary institutions and the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training have collaborated through the “Administrative Service Delivery Transformation” Program to share ideas, best practices, expertise and resources to improve the delivery of post-secondary education administration and other supporting functions.
One of the by-products of that effort is the collaborative procurement that Silva leads. Silva understands that, if collaboration is to be successful, a leader must invest in creating a common understanding among the consortia. “For collaboration to succeed, I need to be sensitive to what collaboration means for our members. In other words, what are they going to get out of this? I’d like to think that we have created a positive space where we can create something that is tangible,” Silva said.
Silva shared a collaboration example that emphasizes the importance of a multi-functional team working towards a positive outcome. “We brought in functional leaders from facilities and procurement from across the province to work on the Elevator Maintenance Contract. Working with a consultant, with the support of the provincial Safety Authority, we worked together as a group, spending countless hours working on developing specifications, approaches, and outcomes.”
The collaborative Elevator Maintenance effort was a success. Silva explained, “And through that engagement, sustained throughout that engagement, we walked everyone through every step of the way. As a result, not only did we end up with two robust contracts that any of our 25 members can use, the new contracts save time, increase capabilities, and improve outcomes.”
Procurement Drives Sustainability
“If there are favorable habitats and favorable forms of association for animals and plants, as ecology demonstrates, why not for men? If each particular natural environment has its own balance; is there not perhaps an equivalent of this in culture?” —Lewis Mumford
If procurement is truly a gateway to opportunity, then there is no greater opportunity than reducing our carbon footprint. Silva ruminated, “For example, if you think about the pressure that we put on our environment to make paper…” Silva continued, “We have an opportunity to make small changes that can make a big impact.”
Silva and his team knew that there had to be a more eviromently friendly way of making paper. “One of the opportunities that we were and are pursuing is reducing our need for wood fiber-based paper and shifting to an alternative fiber,” he said.
It is the greater cause that Silva and his team have been working on for the last several years. “Through our collaboration efforts, we identified a source that uses sugar waste by-products to make paper. The product is called Sugar Sheet,” Silva explained.
Converting to Sugar Sheet was no easy task, but with the innovations in production, it is now possible. Silva shared the success story, “The supplier had to ensure that the product was comparable in performance to traditional copy. With the support of The University of British Columbia student researchers, innovative leaders and partners within the intuitions who understand the net environmental impact of the solution, and because making Sugar Sheet is now cost effective, the final hurdle was overcome. Sugar Sheet is now in our reach.”
Silva understands the bigger picture significance of their collaborative effort. “I consider this as an example of procurement driving transformation and innovation,” he explained.
“We have an opportunity to make small changes that can make a big impact.”
Silva offered a rhetorical question for the potential procurement professional: “How many roles are there where you can, through your efforts, drive innovation?”
Silva believes that procurement is a gateway to opportunity. “Be it opportunities for the institution or the sector you work in.” He knows this because he is the quintessential example.
“Without work, all life goes rotten. But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies.” —Albert Camu