One of the things I was most surprised by when I got into the jobs business over a decade ago was the prevalence and practice of age discrimination in hiring right here in the USA. Oh, sure... we're not like some overseas markets where job ads explicitly demand youth, or a particular gender, or beauty(!), in the applicant, but there it is...
To switch from working in technology and manufacturing to legal services takes courage and imagination, qualities Christin Burek has in spades.
Burek, who had worked for both IBM and Honeywell in Phoenix, began searching for a new position when her spouse took a job in Illinois and the couple decided to relocate to Chicago. While location was key, Burek was open-minded about where she could apply her experience in global procurement and supply-chain management.
She did not actively start exploring her job options on TheLadders until the decision to relocate was definite. That was in July 2008. “The search was fast, and it was effective,” she recalled. “In fact, I had two offers to consider in October, which was surprising in this environment. And the other one also came off TheLadders.”
The offer that intrigued Burek the most came from Mayer Brown, an international law firm operating in most major cities worldwide. Mayer Brown had just created the position of director of global procurement, and the company was willing to fill it in London, New York – or Chicago.
New twists on procurement
For Burek – whose background is strictly procurement supply chain, not law – the role presented a couple of enticing challenges.
Mayer Brown had shifted its focus, Burek said, from operating as a law partnership within a small structure to running the firm like a fully fledged business operation. “That presented a significant amount of challenge,” she said. “Something that from a career standpoint I had not yet had the opportunity to do. It was almost a green field because procurement wasn’t necessarily a formal function within Mayer Brown prior to my arrival.”
As director of global procurement, Burek is responsible for organizing and implementing contracting and procurement strategies and increasing international operational efficiency and profitability. This includes all business categories from services to travel, offices to facilities, real estate to IT. And within the overall operational plan, the focus of the role is to create a strategic policy of process for each category. For Burek, the primary challenge was adapting her approach from her previous operational experiences at IBM and Honeywell. From head of procurement for a technology operation to a legal firm was a huge change-up in terms of scale and size of the company. “Whereas at Honeywell, I managed over a billion dollars of funds, here I manage maybe a quarter of that. But in terms of the overall scope and challenge, it is significant.”
So while some analytics Burek has been used to working with are either “different or not there at all,” she said she believes that, taking the current economic environment, the different conditions in the market place and the size of the firm into consideration, factors line up well for new procurement strategies and processes to be implemented in 2009 at Mayer Brown.
In November 2008, shortly after Burek joined Mayer Brown, the firm laid off 33 people from its U.S. offices, citing the economic slowdown. The jobs cut included lawyers as well as support personnel. “The managing partners and planning committee really supported the concept of bringing procurement in and formalizing it so that it could make a contribution to the firm in the difficult economic times that we are in,” Burek said. “Whether there are new positions being added or otherwise, we still have a focus on strategic hiring, even though we had to take the action [to downsize].”
A diversified portfolio provided job security
Mayer Brown serves many of the world’s largest companies and financial-services organizations, including a large proportion of the Fortune 100, FTSE 100, DAX and Hang Seng Index companies and most of the major investment banks. Despite turmoil in the sector, Burek said, the firm is well positioned to weather the economic recession because it has diversified its practices; as some of the sectors decrease, others should improve. “Obviously,” she said, “there are challenges in that nobody is seeing a significant upswing right now. But areas like litigation will go up as financial indicators go down. The positive in that sector is that there is still a need for legal support in some of those areas.”
Another challenge for Burek was adapting to a significantly different corporate culture. Mayer Brown is a 127-year-old law firm that Burek said has “an outstanding reputation” with both its clients and the legal community. Burek was also attracted to Mayer Brown’s commitment to pro bono law,representing disadvantaged clients and often unpopular causes. “It is absolutely engrained. And a significant amount of hours are expected of each attorney.” She also noted that there are additional opportunities for staff to become involved. “In Chicago, for instance, we have the Stockton School Reading Program, and any Mayer Brown associate, lawyer or staff [is encouraged to] help with the third-grade reading at Stockton. So there is a great commitment across the community as well as true bono work.”
Another factor Burek cited in her decision: The firm is a strong proponent of women in the workplace, she said, and is both very family- and women-friendly. Burek said she appreciates that it is often more challenging for women to make it to the top of large law firms. “From my own experience as a woman coming through the ranks of corporate culture, I think you can see women making the conscious choice to stay home at a certain point and take a pause in their career, and that definitely has an impact when you transfer that into the legal environment. Some of those years that you may choose to focus on other things are critical to the partner path.” The fact that one of the partners who interviewed Burek for her new position was a woman was crucial. “That really made a difference for me,” Burek said.
Burek stressed the importance of procurement for Mayer Brown as a global function. In her previous role at Honeywell, Burek had completed significant work with its international team in rolling out procurement with a global strategy, particularly in Europe. “I think that was one of the decision factors as to why Mayer Brown picked me,” said Burek, who has two undergraduate degrees. One is in business from Michigan State, a top four supply-chain procurement school in the U.S. The other is in Spanish. “Spanish is definitely a huge asset. The first company that I worked for was a French company, so I also speak some conversational French.” Burek decided early on that she wanted to leverage her language skills and work in the field of procurement so she chose to refine her education by also graduating with a supply-chain management MBA from Arizona State University.
Opportunities for finance professionals in procurement
Burek said she believes finance professionals with the right combination of skills and education have an excellent opportunity to move to procurement. She had been involved in recruiting MBA graduates from Arizona State into IBM’s Supply-Chain Leadership Program and pointed out that the recruiting team often gave preference to students with financial backgrounds because of their strong analytical skills and understanding of P&L and how to manage the budgeting.
As the economy slows, firms are going to be looking for ways to avoid waste, to consolidate manpower, and to track and analyze global spending effectively though supply-chain management. Burek noted that most of the procurement job opportunities that she considered in her search were new positions in their organizations. “I think you are starting to see the mid-level privately held firms looking at procurement because they either have managed it without much discipline to it, or they are starting to recognize that they need to focus on it, as it really can contribute to the bottom line.”