Centralized purchasing and use of small, women- and minority-owned vendors resulted in significant cost savings
Gloves, face masks, hand sanitizer: These pedestrian items became much sought-after – and quite scarce – at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But thanks to a cross-university team and the support of small, women- and minority-owned (SWaM) businesses, William & Mary was able to procure these items and the other materials it needed to continue operating while also protecting the health of its community members.
“It was awesome to see that group just kind of come together and figure out what products do we need for the university, what kind of quantities are we looking at and where are we going to find those things,” said David Zoll, strategic sourcing analyst with W&M Procurement Services.
A team effort
When the pandemic began, the university recognized that it needed to change its approach to buying, centralizing purchases and switching from a just-in-time to a warehouse inventory model.
“One of the reasons we had discovered the need for this was because people were reaching out to us initially telling us, ‘I can't get hand sanitizer. Where do we go? Where do we buy?’” said Kathy Mabe, senior procurement officer. “Years ago, we worked off of a centralized warehouse for all of our needs, but then over the years, people became responsible for ordering their own materials. So we found it was really necessary for us to go back to an older way of thinking so we wouldn’t compete with ourselves.”
To meet the needs of the whole university, Procurement Services partnered with representatives from Facilities Management, Environmental Health & Safety, Building Services, Quarantine & Isolation Housing and W&M’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science to form a team dedicated to thinking through what the university needed to continue operations, how to obtain those supplies and how to distribute them. The team met weekly to advise campus departments, the Budget Office and COVID Response Team leadership on the status of supply buying and to plan for upcoming needs.
Along with long lead times for purchases, one challenge was getting departmental buyers to understand the correct price for items they may not be used to buying, such as face masks.
“If you're not used to buying that item, then you might pay way too much,” said Zoll, adding that they wanted to avoid falling victim to price gouging. “By us coming together and doing this, we were able to save funds, get the university what it needed to stay open and manage the process.”
The collaboration, which leveraged economies of scale, resulted in cost savings for the university at a time when employees were asked to curtail any spending that was not deemed mission-critical.
For instance, W&M was able to centralize its purchase of disinfecting solution, buying two bulk quantities from Veritiv Corporation for just under $15,000 per order compared to an average bid cost of $22,000, saving a total of $14,000 for both orders.
Additionally, W&M purchased hand sanitizing stands, dispensers and solution for the whole university from Ferguson Enterprises for just over $48,000 compared to an average bid cost of $87,000, saving $39,000.
All of that was made possible by the members of the cross-campus team, many of whom worked on campus throughout the height of the pandemic to determine what products were needed, ensure they were effective and safe, buy them at a reasonable cost and get them where they were needed. In addition to Zoll and Mabe, team members included Teresa Belback, director of environmental health & safety (EH&S); Ryan Wright, EH&S specialist; Sharon Mikanowicz, director of business services; Liz DeWees, procurement specialist; John Bjers, warehouse supervisor; Bob Morman, director of building services; Mariellynn Maurer, director of conference and event services; Mark Brabham, executive director of facilities management for VIMS; and Carol Tomlinson, director of financial and administrative services for VIMS.
“We work closely together anyway, but this was an even greater opportunity to come together so that we could improve things for the university and for the people that were remaining here during the first part of pandemic and then after, when we returned to campus,” said Mabe.
As the cross-campus team met, it became apparent that many of the university’s larger vendors would not be able to provide supplies to W&M because of huge orders they already had or because they were limiting their inventory to frontline workers and first responders.
“So we really needed to start reaching out to SWaM vendor community for help, and they were able to open up the supply lines for us to get us what we needed,” said Zoll.
As with centralizing purchasing, that move resulted in cost savings for the university. For instance, one of the SWaM vendors, Miles Ahead Distribution, was able to provide classroom wipes, saving the university more than $104,000 compared to the average bid cost for the same products from other vendors.
Another SWaM vendor, Bright Ideas — a small, woman-owned, Virginia-based business — was able to provide W&M with its wellness kits, which included masks, hand sanitzer and cleaning wipes, for a savings of about $45,000.
Other SWaM vendors that W&M utilized during the pandemic include TK Promotions, which provided cloth face coverings; TSRC, for hand sanitizer and acrylic barriers; and Hackworth Reprographics, for acrylic barrier and signage.
Oleta — a small, minority-owned, local business — was also used to provide transportation to and from quarantine and isolation housing, including off-campus venues, for students.
“The work that our transportation partners provided, while considered to be a little bit ‘behind the scenes,’ was actually quite integral and appreciated,” said Maurer, who managed W&M’s quarantine and isolation housing. “For the students who were transported, this service helped make their transition a smooth one and really gave them one less thing to worry about during what was, most often, a stressful time.”
W&M has been working in recent years to increase the diversity of its suppliers through such efforts as annual SWaM vendor fairs. The university’s current goal is to use SWaM vendors for at least 42% of all dollars spent. At the height of the pandemic, that number was 50%, said Zoll.
“I think that's the biggest takeaway from the vendor standpoint, that SWaM suppliers are integral to our success here,” he said.