Dedication to Diversity: IBM’s new global supplier diversity chief

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Michael RobinsonIBM’s supplier diversity program has gone global, and Michael K. Robinson is the new man at the helm. He is responsible for ensuring that minority suppliers are included in every procurement request IBM makes, be it in the United States, Latin America, Canada, Europe or South Africa.

Robinson certainly knows what IBM wants. Since joining the company nearly 23 years ago, he has served as manufacturing manager, procurement and production control manager, ECAT (Electronic Card and Test) site procurement manager and Business Services Council chairman in Charlotte, N.C.; distribution manager in Boulder, Colo.; materials manager in San Jose, Calif.; and federal procurement manager in Bethesda, Md.

IBM’s relationship with suppliers is not one that is antagonistic; the company is not always looking to squeeze costs, he said in a telephone interview. Rather, the company sees its suppliers as innovative partners and looks to them for ideas that will bring a competitive advantage to the marketplace. For example, one supplier developed an environmentally friendly pallet recycling program and another introduced a one-stop service that allowed IBM to outsource order fulfillment, purchasing, inventory management, distribution and planning functions, which resulted in thousands of dollars being saved over several years.

IBM’s dedication to its suppliers has won the company more than 18 accolades since it began to build a diverse supplier base in 1968, Robinson says. According to company figures, IBM procures more than $40 billion worth of goods and services each year, of which $1.64 billion, or 8.7 percent, comes from minority suppliers. The dollar amount spent on procurement from minority-owned companies has quadrupled since 1995, with a database of more than 300 minority suppliers in more than 75 countries.

Robinson insists he is settling into his new position well, but he is quick to point out that his new duties are not without challenges, the most pressing of which is finding qualified minorities in manufacturing, especially in information technology. He muses that this is due to the high cost of entry into the sector, which most minorities cannot meet. Still, his job is rewarding, he says, citing the company’s policy of giving back to, not just purchasing from, the minority community. “Part of our supplier diversity program includes a mentor-protégé program. This program matches suppliers with IBM executives who act as a sounding board for advice and guidance based on IBM’s own successful business practices,” he says.

IBM also organizes annual executive retreats, where top business school professors spend two days engaging suppliers on such topics as globalization and client diversification.