Crossing to "the Other Side of the Desk"

Considering a career change? After 24 years in purchasing, Gene Hudak made the switch.

After 24 years in procurement, Gene Hudak, C.P.M., is now spending his days, as he puts it, "on the other side of the desk." Hudak, who rose up the purchasing ranks at TRW before  having his job eliminated during a restructuring last year, recently joined a contract staffing provider and finds himself talking with the voice of a supplier rather than that of a buyer these days.

Hudak is not alone in making a career change in these turbulent times, according to a recent study by DBM, a human resource consulting and outplacement firm.

In fact, the DBM survey of 14,000 people from 35 countries revealed that 74 percent of U.S. professionals who find themselves out of work are changing industries or functions. Another 16 percent are starting their own businesses.

"Securing employment after a layoff or downsizing today requires a new approach," says Ramona Graffeo, an account executive of DBM, formerly known as Drake Beam Morin. "Successful candidates are repackaging their knowledge and skills and are transferring them to new jobs and new industries, or even using them to become entrepreneurs."

Facing an increasingly competitive employment environment, many individuals in transition are seeking opportunities outside their previous industry or functional area. The global findings of the DBM study show that during 2001, over 44 percent of people changed function and 72 percent transferred into different industries, compared to 49 percent changing function and 74 percent changing industries in the United States.

"In today's competitive employment market, individuals need to explore opportunities in industries and functions outside of their direct experience," says Graffeo. "Simultaneously, organizations are hungering for new ideas and perspectives, perhaps explaining why so many of our program participants successfully secured positions outside their previous industry or functional area."

A Career in Procurement

Gene Hudak's experience provides a useful case study in this type of personal repositioning.

Hudak had joined TRW in 1977 as a purchasing stores coordinator, expediting orders and working on the shop floor doing replenishment and ensuring proper inventory levels. He progressed to a buyer position and spent five years in that role at TRW's aircraft components division.

In 1984, when TRW opened its new World Headquarters in Cleveland, the company promoted Hudak to manage the headquarters' purchasing operation. "It was a huge opportunitiy," recalls Hudak. "The chance to start a purchasing operation from scratch."

The purchasing manager position at the head office opened up new opportunities for Hudak, who went on to head up the corporate agreement program for TRW. He remained in that position for about 10 years before joining the company's Project ELITE initiative (Earnings Leadership In Tomorrow's Environment), a multiyear automotive program TRW began in 1995 with a goal of improving operations, reducing costs and speeding time to market. Hudak headed up the supplier management portion of that project, leading commodity teams in the search for savings and quality improvements and finding ways to work more efficiently with the company's suppliers.

Project ELITE led Hudak into a regional purchasing manager role, which lasted through 2000. Then TRW began a restructuring initiative, moving from centralized purchasing of indirect goods toward more of a decentralized approach, with the attendant changes in the company's purchasing infrastructure. Hudak remained at TRW's headquarters as manager of purchasing through the rest of 2000 and into the next year, before finally having his job eliminated late in 2001. October 31 was his last day.

Looking Outside the Purchasing Box

Out on the street, the long-time purchasing veteran began to assess his options, including possibilities outside procurement. "I took an accounting of what my interests were, my skill bank and so on," Hudak explains. "I had 24 years to assess what my interests were, and I realized that I was very interested in demonstrating savings to upper management. A large part of my life for many years was selling the value of proposals and agreements to upper management and gaining their endorsement. That was one thing that I thoroughly enjoyed doing.

"There was no real driving force that led me away from purchasing," he continues. "But as I began to look at different opportunities, one hit me smack between the eyes. That was with Volt Services Group."

Volt Services Group, a Fortune 1000 company with revenues north of $2 billion, provides its corporate customers with temporary and contract staffing, hiring services and a variety of other labor-related services and solutions. Hudak knew Volt Services Group from his days at TRW, where he had set up the company's corporate agreement for purchased labor. "I had worked very closely with Volt Services Group over the years and had a very good rapport with the company," Hudak says. The feeling clearly was mutual, and Volt Services Group brought Hudak on in early January as a national program manager, working with some of the major accounts, including TRW, for Volt's services group.

Hudak's job search experience jibes with that of other professionals seeking jobs, based on the DBM research, in which 60 percent of respondents cited networking as the source of their new jobs. On that basis, the consultancy advises job-hunters, "Networking is the key to any successful job search, especially in the case of a career change."

From Procuring to Persuading

In his new position, Hudak is able to tap the skills he developed on the purchasing side. "I enjoyed working with suppliers and interacting with outside contacts and so on," he explains, and the position with his new employer "just affords me the opportunity to do what I like."

Hudak, 52, admits that the transition was, well, a transition. "It was a bit of a change. I'm on the other side of the desk now. Selling, promoting versus procuring."

At the same time, Hudak is finding that his well-honed purchasing expertise is coming in handy. "Persuasiveness. Being able to do presentations. The ability to get at the benefits of a program and explain why, for instance, Volt Services Group can offer things that its competitors can't," he says, ticking off the skills that he brought with him to the new job.

But beyond his knowledge of the ins and outs of purchasing, Hudak also cites his familiarity with the mentality of the purchaser as an advantage for him in his sell-side role. "So often you get a lot of window dressing from sales people. But I found it very unique to have someone who came in and knew exactly what I needed to hear, what my management was looking for. I can relate to purchasing people that way because I know what they have in the back of their minds. They're looking for savings. They're looking for value. These are the kinds of things that I put before them, and it's working out pretty well."

Hudak says he is still developing the skills he needs to make direct sales calls, but he notes that Volt Services Group has not thrust him into that position yet. "Fortunately, it's not something that I'm being thrown into. I'm gradually being developed and groomed for those kinds of challenges down the road."

What advice would Hudak give to other supply chain professionals considering a career change? "It's the old saying: 'Know thyself,'" he says. "You have to do a self-analysis, if you will. What do you enjoy? What are you good at? What motivates you? Sometimes, if you've had a long career, you pick up a lot of things that aren't strictly functional focused, but just auxiliary skills that you pick up along the way. And often, those highlight where your interests truly lie and what you're good at. You could go with those and make a career out of it. It just depends on whether you're willing to take the risk."

Tips for Transitioning

For its part, DBM offers more formalized advice for potential career-shifters, dubbed "Tips for Changing Careers in a Changing World." Here's the consultants' list:

1. Plan for a longer job search. Changing industries requires research, which requires time. Assess your financial situation and make realistic decisions. You may have to consider an interim position or part-time work to bridge to your new career and gain valuable experience.

2. Stay grounded in reality. A successful career change is based on setting realistic goals and making an honest assessment of your skills, then matching those against the current market conditions.

3. Forget about ads and search firms. With the exception of entry-level positions, companies run ads to recruit prospects with specific experience. This is also true of search firms, who are paid to find highly experienced talent that matches the job description exactly.

4. Network, network, network. The most effective way to transfer skills to a new field or new career is by using your contacts. Companies are more willing to take risks on people who are referred to them by individuals who can account for the candidates' abilities and potential.

5. Learn the language. Every field has its own culture and language. Assess your skill set and align it with industry needs, then translate your skills into language that resonates within that industry.

6. Learn the business. Professionals today are expected to have an understanding of their chosen industry, current issues and challenges faced. Read every article you can find on the industry, so that you can leverage your skills in offering solutions to industry challenges and demonstrate the value you would add to an organization.

7. Find a Mentor. Mentors provide guidance, facilitate introductions and endorse your capabilities.

8. Volunteer. Gain experience in the new field by volunteering your services.