The intricacies in the ever-evolving supply chain industry keep growing; however, technological advancements and ground-breaking strategies add crucial value to tackle these problems. Leaders in the supply chain understand how an innovative approach can allow organizations to be more proactive and productive. To upscale the workforce with effective strategies to drive better performance and profitability, Karen Owen drove a culture in the supply chain industry with her extensive knowledge.
As the Vice President, Supply Management and Customer Relations at OECM, Karen implements inventive and effective business solutions elevating the organization’s profile. OECM is a trusted not-for-profit collaborative strategic sourcing partner for 100% of Ontario’s school boards, colleges, universities, and a growing number of broader public sector customers, including hospitals, municipalities, and other not-for-profit organizations.
We at Insights Success caught up with Karen in our endeavor “The 10 Most Influential Women in Supply Chain – 2022.” We talked with her to understand how her award-winning business innovation strategies created a highly successful customer-focused organization.
Below are the highlights of the interview.
Brief our audience about your journey as a business leader until your current position at OECM. What challenges have you had to overcome to reach where you are today?
Early in my public sector career, neither procurement nor supply chain management was considered a strategic function within the business of government. Women, in particular, were typically in transactional roles, and few opportunities for career advancement or professional development existed. It was rare to see women in leadership roles – it took serious work for women to pave their way as industry leaders.
Fortunately, I worked with several successful women in management who were excellent role models and mentors to me, including Michelle DiEmanuele, who is now Secretary of the Cabinet for the Government of Ontario. Working with her and witnessing the power of her confidence and influence – particularly in the area of leadership and ‘bravely going where few women had gone before’ – that set the bar for me. It helped me form my own leadership style and recognize my potential.
Throughout my career, I’ve been able to lead and contribute to pioneering change initiatives, which laid the groundwork for the innovative and leading-edge strategic sourcing, supplier relationship management, and customer relationship management solutions we offer through OECM today. When I was asked to join OECM in 2009, I was less interested in my own professional growth and more in my passion for implementing transformative change that could bring long-term value to the sector. It was an opportunity to explore and establish ways to facilitate collaboration to effectively leverage spend, and drive savings and supply chain value for Ontario’s broader public sector.
Today, OECM is a distinguished, highly trusted collaborative sourcing partner for hundreds of customers. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished over the last 12 years, reaching $2 billion in accumulated collaborative spend in 2020, creating relationships and seamless partnerships with innovative and reputable supplier partners, and generating savings for customers while providing the best overall total value and quality of service. As a woman in the supply chain industry, I’m especially proud of the role I’ve played in helping OECM establish a solid foundation of best practices, skills, and innovation that enhances the value of collaborative sourcing.
I’ve always considered early challenges as opportunities that guided me towards leadership – I wanted to see women empowered to choose supply chain management as a career path, to mentor and guide a new generation of female entrepreneurs and demonstrate for them the value they bring to the business. I’m proud that 53% of OECM’s workforce are women – with 24% directly working in supply management.
Tell us something more about OECM, its mission, and its vision.
OECM offers a comprehensive Marketplace of collaboratively sourced and competitively priced products and services from over 287 unique supplier partners in a wide range of categories: facilities and operations, finance, human resources, information technology, and marketing. We also offer value-added services, such as advisory, business analytics, and knowledge sharing. We deliver service that is consistent, accessible, and responsive, supporting our customer-centric service delivery model. Solid relationships and seamless partnerships have contributed greatly to OECM’s growth and continued success. In 2020, we managed over $500 million of collective spending for 800 organizations across Ontario, handling over 78 categories of products and services. While our primary focus is on the province of Ontario, we continue to explore strategic partnerships with like-minded shared services organizations to expand our offering across Canada.
Enlighten us on how you have made an impact in the public sector niche through your expertise in the market?
I’ve spent a lifetime developing and implementing strategic supply chain solutions and bringing innovation to strategic sourcing for the broader public sector. As an active participant with industry associations, including the Canadian Public Procurement Council, Ontario Public Buyers Association, and Supply Chain Canada, I’ve had abundant opportunities to share my expertise and experience. Whether speaking at conferences and events or moderating panel discussions, I focus on Leadership in Supply Chain, Innovation, and Collaboration and aim to teach and inspire but especially empower women in this field. In 2019, I was deeply humbled to be named to the Supply Chain Management Association’s first-ever list of the 100 Influential Women in Canadian Supply Chain. This was a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women in the supply chain and showcase the future – with women leading the way.
Describe in detail the values and the work culture that drives your organization.
OECM is driven by talented individuals with a shared passion for achieving results through teamwork and collaboration. Our people truly are at the root of our success. We are proud to support a work culture that is anti-racist, diverse, and inclusive – we embrace the strength that comes from our diversity statement. Our varied experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds make for a truly dynamic and engaging workplace. Through our representative, staff-led Diversity and Inclusion Committee, OECM promotes a welcoming environment that is built on the tenets of collaboration, responsiveness, integrity, innovation, and respect – the cornerstones of our business.
Undeniably, technology is playing a significant role in almost every sector. How are you leveraging technological advancements to make your solutions resourceful?
Innovation, collaboration, and technology have become critical drivers in establishing a secure supply chain and driving operational effectiveness to support our customer community. At OECM, we’re fully embracing this technological shift, focusing on data-driven analytics and insights. We’ve invested in Customer Relationship Management (CRM) technology, initiated a robust Supplier Recognition Program (SRP), and are soon transitioning to an enhanced and interactive website – to help us leverage customer and supplier data related to usage, spend, customer satisfaction, retention, behavioral trends, and other insights. We’re also exploring the “art of the possible” when it comes to adopting new infrastructures for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. The notion of modeling or predictive analysis is changing the face of customer service, CRM, and Supplier Relationship Management (SRM). OECM, as part of our continuous improvement journey, is using customer and supplier segmentation to better understand the needs of customers and strengths of suppliers leveraging technology to enrich insights and personalization to predict what our customers “may need” before they need it and then working proactively with suppliers to respond.
If given a chance, what change would you like to bring to the supply chain industry?
I believe that change is already well underway. The economic disruption and shortages caused by the COVID-19 crisis revealed significant vulnerabilities in the supply chain and raised concerns around globalization. Organizations need to take a step back – to review and assess their supply chain requirements, areas for improvement, customer demands, and supplier relationships. The pandemic highlighted the importance of supply chain management and the value that skilled supply chain professionals bring to their organizations. In my opinion, supporting professional development and career advancement in the supply chain industry is the key to longevity and success. Continuous investment in professional development focused on innovation will ensure organizations have access to skilled resources with robust business intelligence (data and analytics), SRM, and CRM knowledge. The future is bright for those most passionate about strategic supply management, proficient in the process but also strategy, innovation, and business intelligence.
What, according to you, could be the next big change in the public sector supply chain management industry? How is OECM preparing to be a part of that change?
The public sector supply chain management industry has transformed deeply over the last ten years. Customers want improved supply chain flexibility, increased efficiency, greater privacy and security, and innovative approaches to help solve their complex problems. As well, organizations are bringing supply chains into strategic planning discussions earlier, which is a tremendous advantage that adds value to the industry while also increasing the need for agility and proven solutions.
The next big change I see, especially in sourcing for the public sector, is more collaboration and consolidation. While this is important at the product/service level, in terms of increased buying power and leveraging the benefits of category management, we’re now seeing a more coordinated and strategic approach to supply chain at the organizational level – opening the door to diverse partnerships – and collaboration across the public sector. The Ontario government’s recent introduction of their Supply Ontario agency, a secure, centralized supply chain that supports domestic production, collaboration with small businesses and entrepreneurs, and partnerships that drive innovation and greater value, is one example of the changing landscape.
The bottom line for OECM, while keeping an eye on the future of Supply Management, we’ve recognized the need to continuously evolve – for our organization to be disruptive, our teams to be able to gather and use data and analytics effectively, to prioritize supplier and customer relationships, to bring on resources with a variety of skill sets, and to focus firmly on the power of collaboration and value of strategic partnerships.
Where do you envision yourself to be in the long run, and what are your future goals for OECM?
I’ll continue to help guide OECM through the next phase of our growth and in achieving our strategic goals for bringing innovation and collaborative sourcing solutions to more customers in the broader public sector. Personally, my focus continues to be on mentoring and supporting the next generation of supply chain management leaders, both within OECM and across the industry.
What would be your advice to budding women entrepreneurs who aspire to venture into the business sector?
My advice for women aspiring to make a mark in this industry is two-fold. First, be brave. Don’t be afraid to look at every possibility, challenge the status quo and confidently share your opinions. As women, we bring refreshing concepts and innovative perspectives to this industry – let’s get those ideas out there. Second, understand and embrace the power of networking. Build a system of support and be equally supportive of your network of like-minded peers. Take the time to learn from and also support others in their own learning journeys. Never stop improving your skills and increasing your knowledge bank. Listen and be open to the exchange of ideas – you never know where the next brilliant idea will come from!