Podcast: Advancing to Executive Supply Chain Roles – with Chief Procurement Officer, Martha Buffington

By Published On: November 3, 2022

Hosts: Rodney Apple and Chris Gaffney

In This Episode:

We speak with Martha Buffington, a Chief Procurement Officer who talks with us about how an interest in working internationally turned into a great supply chain career in sourcing, including overseas assignments. She shares her thoughts about how first-hand experience in multiple restructurings and transformations has influenced how she and her team rolls them out. She provides advice about how you establish your brand and build up trust through your relationships. Martha emphasizes the value of working across a variety of areas of supply chain for those who want to move up to executive roles. She provides an overview of the three phases of your career, and advice for those who are moving up from managing others to leading others. Martha closes with recommended resources for women in supply chain.

Who is Martha Buffington?

Martha Buffington is Chief Procurement Officer of SC Johnson. Martha was also Chief Procurement Officer of Royal DSM, where she lived in Maastricht, The Netherlands. Before DSM, she had a 21-year career at The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta. She was Chief Procurement Officer of a $4 billion division of the company and previously was VP Indirect Procurement and Center of Excellence. As divisional CPO, she was a board member and governance chair for the Cross-Enterprise Procurement Group, which is the Coca-Cola system’s procurement consortium. Her career has included leadership roles and experience across a broad range of supply chain and procurement functions. Martha is an active mentor and supporter of women in business. She was an executive sponsor and board member of the women’s employee resource groups (ERGs) at Royal DSM and The Coca-Cola Company. She has an MBA from Emory University and a BS in International Relations from Georgetown University.

[00:01:40] Rodney Apple: Martha, we’re very happy to have you on today, and thank you for guesting on the Supply Chain Careers podcast.   

[00:01:47] Martha Buffington: You’re welcome. Glad to be here. Thanks.   

[00:01:50] Rodney Apple: So we’d love to understand how you got started on your career journey. What were some of the big influences and what sets you on the path into supply chain?  

[00:01:59] Martha Buffington: You know, when I was growing up, I had family that lived in Europe and I was an exchange student in Spain and high school. And from then on, I wanted to do something international for my career. And after college I was doing international logistics and living in Atlanta, and that’s when I got exposed to the Coca-Cola company and I really had my heart set on working there. And so, when I was getting my MBA at Emory, I got an internship at Coca-Cola and supply chain, and that is where I knew that supply chain fit my personality and fit what I love to do. So, I have Coca-Cola and actually Chris to thank for getting me started in my career in supply chain.   

[00:02:43] Chris Gaffney: I do remember those days, Martha, and we were very fortunate. We worked with some wonderful people who’ve done some wonderful things. And obviously since then, you’ve had a really remarkable journey that has taken you in many ways around the world. So, would you give us the headlines on kind of the steps between when we work together in those early days and where you are today?  

[00:03:06] Martha Buffington: Sure, that’s right. This is a long time ago when I was an intern working for you. But, I have done a lot of things since then. So I worked at Coca-Cola for over 20 years and I worked in roles all across the supply chain and procurement. And then my last role at Coca-Cola was being chief procurement officer of a large division of Coca-Cola. Then I decided to mix it up a bit and leave Coca-Cola and I really wanted to go work in Europe. So, I got a job at a company called DSM in Europe, and I was their Chief Procurement Officer for four years. And now I’m back in the US working as Chief Procurement Officer of SC Johnson.  

[00:03:47] Chris Gaffney: Martha, you and I have seen and worked through a lot of large organizational business model changes and increasingly, you had to lead others through those, but how have you learned to navigate through that type of large organizational change and business model change?   

[00:04:06] Martha Buffington: That’s true, Chris. At Coca-Cola, they restructured every few years and did big business model changes all the time. We’re constantly transforming the business. It taught me so much being involved in those transformations. First, being more junior on those projects and really watching how they worked and how complex they were with so many moving pieces and things changing all the time. And then as I became more of a leader and leading those kind of things, certainly made me appreciate how important it was to have a really strong team leading those things. And really good cadences of routines and metrics and just communication to keep everyone on the same page moving forward, working together, even when the outcome wasn’t even crystal clear, where we were going, we had a North star, but we didn’t actually know the game plan of exactly how we were gonna get there.  

So I learned over the years to be more flexible. Everything’s not black and white. You gotta embrace the gray. And, I also took with me later in my career, the experiences I had earlier in my career. Having those restructurings and transformations and stuff more done to me and how it felt not having your career in your own hands, for example, or not really being on the inside and not knowing what’s going on and what was gonna happen in the business and in your role. So that uncertainty, that feeling of not knowing where your career’s going and not being in control of it, is not a good feeling.  

And so as I lead others through these kind of transformations, I just put myself in their shoes and think about what can I do to help them feel more informed, more understanding of the change, more in control of it in some ways, and frankly, help them think about their career in a bigger picture. This could have opportunities for you, this transformation, this change, this restructuring. Think of it on the bright side. Think about what you can do to take advantage of an opportunity that’s come your way through it versus just thinking about it negatively as something you’ve gotta either live through or put up with.   

[00:06:25] Rodney Apple: So, when you look at large transformational projects in the last few years, what have you seen in terms of comparing and contrasting and how have you adjusted to all of that change in the workforce?  

[00:06:35] Martha Buffington: I would say even when you get higher up in companies, so I was working at DSM, a large global chemical and nutrition, vitamin, medical supply, a large conglomerate in Europe. That business was going through massive transformation. We changed CEOs midstream while I was chief procurement officer. Changed business strategy, selling companies, buying companies, just great transformation and change in that business that impacted me and my role as well. And so, no matter what level you are in the company, these things kind of happen to you. You’ve gotta learn to be flexible in them, but you’ve gotta learn to take some ownership too in what you can control and make sure that your team understands what’s happening, what’s needed of them, where you want them to go with you, and help your organization contribute to where the company wants to go. So, bring it down to an actionable level in your team, and at the same time juggling all the chaos going on in the supply chain, right? I don’t think there’s ever been a more dynamic time to try to be a leader and juggle all those different factors, but you gotta keep your eye on the priorities and what’s really best for the business, and for your team and all of that.  

[00:07:56] Chris Gaffney: Martha, you’ve worked in a number of large organizations and been successful in all of those. And for me, that is evidence of agility. You’ve been able to translate experience, skills and capabilities to different, literally different industries, different businesses, different cultures. What are the things that have equipped you to be able to do that, that others could learn from?  

[00:08:18] Martha Buffington: I guess I would say that, I really did learn a lot. It’s not so easy to change companies, especially after 20 years at one place. When you know everybody, you know how everything works. You know you have a great reputation. You built up trust and respect with colleagues, and to go somewhere new that you have none of that. You have to build it completely from scratch. And I did it in a different industry, on a different continent, even with a company that had so many people speaking in other language. So really a big change culturally for me to do that. I think you’re gonna underestimate the amount of change you have to go through in a situation like that. I would just tell everyone who’s doing it, take your time to build relationships, really get to know the culture, get to know the people, get to know how things work, get to know the politics even of the situation before really diving in and truly trying to implement any kind of transformation. Always best to err on the side of going a little slower and building better relationships. So maybe I didn’t do that as well as I should have at DSM. But this time I hope I’m taking that lesson and doing it better this time.   

[00:09:36] Rodney Apple: The Chief Procurement Officer role is fairly new in supply chain. We’d love to hear some of the lessons you learned along the way, how you positioned yourself to move into a role at that level and maybe give our audience kind of a day to day of the core things that you tend to work on.  

[00:09:53] Martha Buffington: Yeah. Being chief procurement officer, it’s not technically a full C suite, at least in the companies I’ve worked for. It’s not on par up there with the CEO, COO, or CFO. It’s a click down below that. And my current role, I actually report to the chief supply chain officer. But, CPO is really all about managing the relationships and the value that your supply base brings to the company. Generally, 50, 60, 70% of the cost structure of a company is from your suppliers. All the raw materials and goods and services that you buy from your suppliers to then make into products is managed through procurement. You manage the strategic relationships with your suppliers. And then, most CPOs have operational arms in their organizations that manage more of the day to day work with suppliers. And then overall, you’re trying to ensure that you build a supply base that’s trusted and valued, and bringing innovation, and sustainable, and bringing broader value to your company than just buying stuff and buying things so that you can sell things. It’s a much more strategic role and really integral to the strategy of the business itself, even beyond just being part of the supply chain.  

[00:11:14] Rodney Apple: And is there anything you would recommend, there are those that aspire to reach your level, any perspectives to share there or advice for those that are seeking to move up into a role like the one you’re in?   

[00:11:25] Martha Buffington: I would say to think about your career in sort of three phases. First in your career, you’re really all about building broad functional skills and transferable skills. Transferable skills like project management, communication, presentation, analytical skills and functional skills in the supply chain. From the end to end supply chain, all the different parts of the supply chain. Move around as much as possible in the supply chain.  

And then once you have that foundation, then you can build on that and get into management. And that’s leading individual departments, leading people. And then from there, once you’ve done that sufficiently and started to really work much more cross-functionally in your roles, then you can build up to these more senior leadership roles, which have much broader impact across the enterprise.  

And so, if you aspire to have enterprise leadership roles, you have to think about that earlier in your career and in these three phases of your career, you need to be working towards that all along the way. And for procurement, there’s a very broad background that can lead to procurement.  

Of course, I worked all across the supply chain. And up through the ranks in procurement. People come into procurement from many places, from supply chain, from finance, even from commercial roles. So, there are many paths to procurement, but it’s a super fascinating career because it really sits right in the middle of your suppliers, your customers, and your operations.  

In summary, if you aspire to a really bigger enterprise role, you have to think about that earlier in your career to make sure you’re getting the right experiences that lead up to it. You’re building leadership skills, you’re building cross-functional skills. You’re building strategic skills, and you’re getting the foundation that you need to get one of those top jobs. Cause think about being maybe a chief supply chain officer. In my case, it’s something I’ve aspired to for a long time. But as I got up through my career, I realized, I had never worked at a plant. And not having had a manufacturing role, no matter how many other supply chain roles I had, I think that was still a hindrance. Maybe I couldn’t land any chief supply chain officer role at the moment. Maybe in a company that’s more distribution oriented or something, but not at one that’s heavy manufacturing focused. That’s fine. I have plenty of other career opportunities, but don’t miss one of those stops along the way if that’s truly what you wanna do.   

[00:14:05] Rodney Apple: Thank you. That’s an incredible perspective. 


[BREAK at 14:07]   

[00:14:32] Chris Gaffney: So Martha, we sometimes ask people about key milestones and forks in the road and I actually think of something that for me was pretty pivotal and you and I worked on it together in our early days in distribution, we were working on the science of supply chain, and try to put those principles in place. Don’t know if you remember that, but I’m curious, how have you evolved your thinking about that? Obviously in the past couple years, resiliency has become a huge issue, but I’m just curious if that perspective, from those early days to today, how you think about that.   

[00:15:05] Martha Buffington: Actually, it really has stood the test of time. I still go back and speak to professors. That early work we did in supplier relationship management has really stood the test of time and I’ve used it in all my roles and, continue to use it today in terms of thinking about how you build relationships with suppliers that are beyond the transactional. How do you get suppliers to consider you their best customer? And how do we as a customer actually create value for that supplier, and how do we find this relationship that has some wins in it, and that both companies really lean in to make the most out of that business relationship.  

And for me as a CPO, what I’m looking for in suppliers like that is ones that will bring us their new ideas first, bring us their innovations, bring us their technology. They’ll put their resources towards making their products, their services more sustainable. They will partner with us when times are tough. You mentioned resiliency. Absolutely key to have a long-term relationship with your best suppliers if you want them to supply you in tough times when there are shortages. And frankly, those kind of relationships have bailed us out many times over the last two years. Having those kind of deep, trusted partnerships is incredibly important for companies and I think it’ll continue to be so.  

[00:16:35] Rodney Apple: Martha, we’ve seen procurement evolve, but with that, we’ve seen the skills needed to be successful continually evolve as well. But from a procurement, strategic sourcing, commodities management, what are some of those evolving skills, both soft, as well as hard skills that you find are very important to be successful?   

[00:16:57] Martha Buffington: You’re right, the skills needed to be great at procurement have really evolved, and it’s probably true across all of supply chain management. Business partnering, relationship management, that’s key, because procurement actually doesn’t buy anything. We may manage billions of dollars of spending for the company, but we don’t sign the checks. Right? We don’t pay the bills. It’s the business stakeholders that decide what they need to buy, and then we go out and find the best source of it. So we’ve got to work extremely closely with the business partners to be sure we’re meeting their needs while also bringing our expertise to make sure we spend that money wisely.  

So, business partnering is key. And then innovation is also another thing that’s huge in the procurement space. No company these days develops new products alone. You need your supply base to bring technology, bring innovative ideas, and partner with your R&D teams to develop new products. And so, attracting that technology, protecting intellectual property of co-developed things, making long term partnership agreements, is an important aspect of procurement that I think is a skill that people in procurement didn’t do in the past. Another huge thing in procurement is all around sustainability. You can’t make sustainable products as a company unless you’ve got sustainable materials coming in to transform into your products. And so, it’s procurement’s role to be sure that our suppliers, one behave sustainably, and also contribute sustainable products and sustainable materials into our supply chain, into our products. So, sustainability’s huge, and that’s something that procurement folks need to know a lot more about than they ever did in the past. So those are some of the new skills that they need.   

[00:18:55] Rodney Apple: And what would you say to the evolving field of supply chain risk management, which we have seen a heightened focus in that area. Getting into your suppliers and maybe even their suppliers, and maybe even a level down from there.   

[00:19:09] Martha Buffington: Resiliency is a huge topic and all procurement organizations and supply chain organizations have a lot to learn here, because for many, many years we really didn’t focus on it very well. It may have been a check the box kind of thing, but we’ve never had to activate it like we have now. And so we’ve learned a lot by scrambling to activate it. And where our pain points are, and now we’re trying to put solutions in place to minimize those risk points. But honestly, now that we’re patching holes of the past, there’s gonna be some new hole that we haven’t even thought of, frankly. So it’s really important to actually to start doing some scenario planning and think about what could happen and what if two or three of these things happened at the same time.  

I don’t think that you can ever have a fully resilient supply chain or supply base. It’s too costly and it would limit your flexibility potentially if you had to maintain double and triple of things or so much inventory or what have you, so it’s gonna have to be a balance. And I think our industry, we don’t quite know where that balance point is right now. Everybody pivoted to resilience. Now that the economy’s slowing, potential recession, high inflation, we’re having to pivot back to the cost management side of things. I know at least in my company we have governance to make sure we don’t lose the resilience we’ve built up over the last two years. So I think it’s up to us to make sure that we stay advocates for it. Even if times get tough and the rest of the business says, the heck with dual sourcing, I want the one cheapest supplier. We’ve gotta be advocates for resiliency so we don’t lose it.   

[00:20:58] Chris Gaffney: Now, Martha, at the beginning of our discussion, you talked about an aspiration to have a career that allowed you to be in the world of international commerce in one way or the other. And then at a point in your career, you set a target to be a CPO. And so really two questions in one. Number one, we debate the discussion of a planned career path versus an unplanned career path, and we’ve got great examples of both. And then the second piece is you’ve obviously delivered on your aspirations by reaching that CPO level. So, who are some influencers who helped you along the way?  

[00:21:33] Martha Buffington: I think the biggest influencers are all the people I worked with over the years. Right. I learned from them. I learned from you, Chris. I learned from all the good leaders I had at Coca-Cola. I think I was so lucky to work there at such a great company that put so much effort into leadership development, training, coaching, feedback. Honestly, some of the hardest feedback I had to hear was the best feedback. Now that I look back, it was the most useful and beneficial and important feedback. I think the best way to learn and to grow your career is learn from others, always be seeking that feedback and taking it in and then having a bit of a north star to your career.  

I always had that international focus and I always knew from early on that I’d love supply chain. And so those two things, were always my north star. And then as I worked up in my career, I took it in chunks of maybe five years at a time and thought maybe two or three roles in advance. Now, not specific job titles, but broadly where I wanted to be in the kind of work I wanted to be doing. And that way, as opportunities popped up, you didn’t just jump at anything and then randomly take your career off track. I knew I wanted to advance in leadership, advance to broader roles, advance in the supply chain and get broader supply chain experience. I knew I wanted to work and have a global role or live overseas, so I wouldn’t say that my career path was really planned, but I also did try to manage it along the way.   

[00:23:15] Chris Gaffney: No, I think that’s great. I think your advice earlier about the manufacturing experience is also a great point. And I think ideally you understand some of those big forks in the road early on and can make that as a conscious choice. And in my case, it was very early at Frito, they basically said, you could go in the plant or you can go beyond the plant. And I’m like, I don’t wanna go in the plant. And I’ve been living with that decision for the entirety of my career. And you either are okay with it or you’re not okay with it.   

[00:23:45] Martha Buffington: Exactly. I’ve also been living with that decision. I never even knew it was a decision. I didn’t even know that that was something I had to decide early on.  

[00:23:55] Rodney Apple: Yeah. This is great advice for our audience, especially looking more at that linear journey, or they think they don’t need to maybe take a role that’s sideways or lateral or even potentially a step down. Have you ever had to do that at your career, Martha, where you may have been asked to work in a lateral move just to broaden your experience?   

[00:24:13] Martha Buffington: I’ve certainly done lateral moves. I can’t think of one going down, per se, frankly, in my career at Coca-Cola, there were so many restructurings. There were a lot of times when I just literally got moved into a different role, and at the time I didn’t like that, but now that I look back, I actually got lucky because I got really a bigger breadth of experiences than I might have gotten otherwise if I’d literally tried to apply and compete for those jobs.  

[00:24:40] Chris Gaffney: All right, Martha, you, you have received great advice along the way, and you’ve built your own experiences. As you guide your teammates, mentees, that type of thing, what are a couple pieces of advice that you offer pretty consistently to folks?  

[00:24:58] Martha Buffington: Good question, and I do give people advice. As much as I can, because I feel like I’ve learned a lot of great stuff over the years. One thing is I often ask people, what’s your brand? What do people say about you? What do you want your brand to be? Someone asked me that a long time ago and I didn’t have a clue. I wasn’t cultivating that brand in any way. But actually, your brand is your reputation. And it’s important to have a strong brand and you never want to lose that good brand and good reputation cuz that’s your trust and that’s how you get selected for jobs and things.   

You know, that happened once, right? Chris? You pulled me over from a role I was in, I think in corporate. He pulled me back into North America and I almost didn’t know you did it. You did it behind the scenes and I think it might have been our history working together and my reputation, so, thank you again for that one.   

[00:25:53] Chris Gaffney: Well, a wise person, not me, once said, you interview for your next job every day. And so, I do think that your brand is a function of every single interaction through your work life. So, I think that’s wonderful advice.   

[00:26:07] Martha Buffington: Another thing that I try to help people learn is that difference between management and leadership. And it’s a tremendously different thing. And there’s gonna come a point in your career where you’re not an individual contributor anymore, and you have to deliver results, through other people. With other people. And so it’s that classic case of what got you here won’t get you there, because as an individual contributor, you’re all about managing your own time and delivering your own results. And yes, working with others, but it’s more you focused. Whereas as soon as you move into management and then leadership, it’s much more about others. It’s not about your own success. So I think that people may be, have to be on the lookout, aha, I’m at that transition point. I’m moving from individual contributor to a department or team manager. I’m moving from team manager to more of a leader of others and leader of teams. Because those are huge pivot points in your career and you need to really learn new skills when you hit those pivot points. And so, just don’t forget to always be learning. I know that’s one thing you taught me too, Chris.  

You’re constantly reading, leadership books and going to conferences, talking to professors at universities, whatever, but constantly be learning, not just the expertise of your field, but be learning of leadership skills. It’s never too early to be doing that.   

[00:27:38] Chris Gaffney: Martha, I would tell you, one of the things I’m most proud of is seeing some of the folks who are on my team’s advance to positions of significant leadership. And a number of those folks are women. And you would be on that list. What would you say about the rise of women in leadership in supply chain? What you’ve learned along the way and what’s critical about that, both for the individuals and both for organizations to have women in positions of influence in supply chain?  

[00:28:08] Martha Buffington: Thanks, Chris. Love that question because I’m super passionate about advancing women in their careers, whether it’s supply chain or other careers. One of the things that really helped me coming up in my career was being part of our ERG, so our women’s networking group at Coca-Cola. I was involved in it for years and years. Then I became the champion of it at my new company, and I’m still involved in it today. People think of those organizations maybe as social groups or something, but they’re absolutely not. They’re places to develop your leadership skills. Great places to meet other people in the company. I met many a senior women in those organizations that I learned from and became mentors of me. And I know many people active in the women’s group that can credit getting a job to their relationships they form there. Unfortunately, we’re not past that time where we need these women’s business resource groups to help women navigate their careers. And it’s just great to have that supportive environment, the mentorship and the learning you get from participating in those. So, I would say for women that they’re fabulous things to join and from there, you’ll just learn to also lift other women up and so the minute you get a chance to give back and to develop other people, help other people in their careers, that’s what every woman should be doing.  

[00:29:35] Chris Gaffney: Yeah. I listened to a podcast today and it was actually a lady who was, I think the Assistant Secretary of State, and her perspective got to the inclusion space of it is you want to be in a place where you can bring your whole self to work. And in her case, ironically, she talked about a situation where she was negotiating with the Iranians and she ultimately cried and she said, I didn’t plan for it, but I was extremely frustrated. And it ultimately got a breakthrough in that. But she said her point was to people is she wants you to be in a place where you can bring your whole self to work because you will bring your best and that’s in the best interest of whatever organization that you’re part of. I don’t know if you have thoughts on that.  

[00:30:18] Martha Buffington: Yeah. Actually, I wanna address that crying point because I have cried in my career as well. And it’s one of those things you wish you never did, but you know, women cry when they’re mad or upset or frustrated and men yell and get angry and shout. And to your point, we have to understand that people react to situations differently and one’s not necessarily a sign of weakness, and the other, a sign of power, right? So, it’s just learning about the differences between the genders to make sure that you include all perspectives and you don’t make assumptions about people.   

[00:30:54] Rodney Apple: Martha, that’s again, another great perspective. And is there any advice for our female members of our audience, where to get started? Any particular organizations that they may wanna look at?  

[00:31:04] Martha Buffington: I think being part of your own company’s ERG group is important. If you go to, they’ve got a wealth of materials to help support women advancing their careers. And they have a whole network globally of these lean in circles. You can be part of a discussion group in your own area. And, I do find those very beneficial.   

[00:31:24] Rodney Apple: Martha, thank you for a wonderful conversation today and sharing your unique career journey in supply chain and procurement and supply chain careers.   

[00:31:33] Martha Buffington: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it, Rodney and Chris.