Across the finish line at the Olympics

Fri, Jul 20, 2012, 01:00

For three years, Derry-born Gerry Walsh has worked to make sure that the London 2012 Olympics has everything it needs – a job he says it has been a privilege to do, writes MARK HENNESSY,London Editor

COPING WITH the crisis caused by security firm G4S’s failure to honour its contracts to supply thousands of staff to protect the Olympic Games in London has kept Gerry Walsh busy in recent days.

It’s a far cry from what Walsh expected to be doing three years ago after retiring, as planned, just after 50 years of age from a career in procurement that had seen him work with a handful of household names across corporate Britain.

When recruitment consultant Odgers came calling “for a chat”, he was in no hurry to get back to work.

“My initial reaction was that I was quite happy being retired and, therefore, I didn’t really fancy having any discussion with them. I suggested that I give them some names of people who might be interested.

“It was at that point that they said, ‘This is not just an ordinary organisation, this is the London Olympics’,” Walsh, procurement director for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, tells The Irish Times.

Having joined in July 2009, Walsh, a veteran in procurement, had to establish “a brand new supply base” to handle the £1.2 billion that Locog had to spend to provide everything bar the buildings needed for the Games.

“It was an easy organisation to join. People appreciated that they needed help,” says Walsh, who grew up on a farm near Bellaghy and went to school in St Patrick’s Grammar School, Maghera. He studied business administration and philosophy – “a strange choice, but there you go” – in Queen’s from 1975 to 1978.

Unlike some past business challenges, the Olympics date could not be moved. “The immovable deadline. When you start out, the clock is ticking. In other times, the launch date can be put back – quite often, but not every time,” says Walsh.

“In the Olympics you can’t, so it does create a challenge, but it also creates a focus because everybody knows that one of the solutions isn’t that the date can be put back. That helps focus people’s minds.”

Like many others, Walsh left Northern Ireland after college, joining the Ford Motor Company, as he always calls it, as a graduate trainee. “With all that was going on with the Troubles, I thought it would be particularly difficult to find the right kind of job.”

Starting off in Brentwood in Essex, Walsh thrived in the Ford culture. “They had an absolutely fantastic programme there for developing people, training people on the job. You were thrown into the deep end and you were expected to learn pretty fast.”

From the off, trainees were expected to toughen up. “I can remember very early on in my first couple of weeks, being in a position where an existing supplier came in and demanded a price increase on components which they were supplying.

“Inflation was in the high teens at that time, it was quite a challenge. I had to do everything I could to resist paying a significantly inflated price for that product. So you very quickly learned the trade.”

In 1984, he left Ford when it was clear that company retrenchment meant promotion opportunities would be restricted after the US giant decided to merge its British car and truck operations.

“The easiest thing would have been just to sit in the position I was in. Progress would have happened, but it would just have taken a reasonable bit longer. I just wasn’t prepared to be that patient, so I moved on and I am glad that I did,” he says.

Taking one step back to go forward, Walsh joined a windows provider in Cheltenham, learning about proper warehousing and production to add to his procurement and purchasing background.

Later, he added an international dimension to his CV, joining sanitary products group Tambrands, where he was eventually put in charge of procurement, planning and logistics for Europe. Later, he was given responsibility for the company’s plants in Ireland, Britain, France, Germany and Russia.

In 1994, he was approached to join American Express. “In those times, the financial services sector was beginning to realise that growing revenues was becoming incredibly difficult, so [they] started to look at how they could improve margins by taking costs out.

“Professional procurement really started ramping up. The major banks, NatWest, Barclays, Midland, all invested,” he says. “Up until the early 1990s, procurement had been fairly haphazard, hit and miss.”

Waste was pre-ordained.

“You didn’t have centralised procurement. Often, major decisions would be taken by non- procurement people. Massive waste. The same service was bought by a number of different departments. Many different suppliers supplied the same organisation. Trained professionals were needed rather than just people who were in the job for a long period of time. You need professional people, rather than people who have merely fallen into the job.”

Today, Walsh believes procurement has still to find its place in the sun alongside other business disciplines, even though, in an era of “just-in-time” management, the skills needed have never been more necessary.

“It has got much better, but there is room for improvement. For me, procurement is no different to accountancy or to law. There are right ways to do it and wrong ways to do it, and we all know which we should adopt,” says Walsh, who left Amex in late 2001.

“If I had stayed, my next role would have been in the US and, with my children in school, it just wouldn’t have been the right time.”

The memory of the September 11th attacks played its part, too, since he had frequently visited Amex’s offices in the World Trade Centre in New York. “It wouldn’t have been my favourite route [to travel].”

From Amex, he moved to private equity firm Doughty Hanson, which had bought baker and miller, Rank Hovis McDougall – makers of Hovis and Mr Kipling cakes – and was preparing to return it to the market .

“They needed some significant work to get them ready to go back to the market. I was brought in to help their procurement side to get everything shipshape and we did. It was a very successful flotation, added a tremendous amount of value to it.”

Unpopular in some quarters, Walsh defends private equity firms. “I do believe that there are times when they will cut through a lot of mess and move an organisation through change faster than would otherwise have happened.”

A stint with Associated British Foods brought Walsh beyond 50 – the age at which he had decided years before to retire – and a life of ease at his family’s country home outside London “with 30 acres and some horses”.

He enjoyed it. “There were always lots of things to go, things to fix and, therefore, I was actually going back to my roots and quite enjoying it.

“I was also doing a few things on a pro bono basis, like helping friends and doing a little bit of consultancy work for them, helping people out who had helped me along the way and putting something back, really. But it was all very enjoyable and I had more time with the kids.”

Once enticed by the Olympics, however, Walsh took charge of an operation that has had to cope with last-minute purchases of 250,000 ponchos and, far more seriously, the political storm caused by G4S’s failings, which will be examined even more minutely after the Olympics.

From the off, life in Locog has been complicated. “The challenge would be the range of stakeholders that you need to engage with – anything from the government departments, central or local; suppliers to sports federations and interested bodies such as nations and regions.

“They all want to maximise the amount of contracts coming from their areas. You can’t keep everybody happy all of the time. That is something that you realise very quickly. You have to keep most of the people happy most of the time.”

Transparency was the key to ensuring that expectations could be managed. “There is, of course, the management of disappointment because we had a tremendous amount of competition for every category that we sourced.”

Unlike other businesses, London 2012 has an end date. “In the Olympics, often you are sourcing for a short-term need, so typically you won’t spend as much time as developing full-blown partnerships with suppliers.

“However, you do require a really good relationship with suppliers, that the relationship is very strong because, as you get closer to the launch date, if any issue arises, you really do need to know you are going to have a supplier who is going to step up and help you.”

Equally, London 2012 has the lure of being able to act as the entree for companies to a lifetime association with the International Olympic Council. “Suppliers do want the opportunity not just to supply to London, but to Glasgow in 2014, Rio in 2016 or to the Sochi Winter Games [in Russia in 2014].”

Speaking before the emergence of the G4S crisis, Walsh was confident, saying that the experience of Queen Elizabeth’s recent diamond jubilee celebrations – where some security firms, but not G4S, were criticised – had not “caused any significant change in our plans”.

“We are very comfortable, confident, but I stress not complacent,” he says. “We will keep an eye between now and Games time. Anything that we can learn from, we will take on board, but largely our plans are formulated now.”

Some of that plan has now had to be torn up because of G4S’s failings.

The scale of Walsh’s challenge is illustrated by the pentathlon. “We procured 55 horses from a range of stables. You need to find horses that are of exactly the same standard, who can jump to 1.2 metres, who don’t have vices and are going to be fit and healthy come Games time.”

Nearly two million meals will be served at the Olympic Park to athletes and fans, while 400,000 temporary seats and a thousand portable buildings will be used between now and the closure of the Paralympics on September 9th.

Three years on, Walsh has no regrets. “This has been an absolutely phenomenal experience and I am delighted that I have done it. It was a privilege to be part of the Olympic team. And it has been a great team, a very, very energetic, hard-working team.”

Following the Games, Walsh and others will have to endure the post-event inquiry into G4S, which will either have fallen away from public attention in the excitement of a successful Games, or be blamed for all of its sins in the event of a security crisis occurring.

He stands down in October, although some of his staff will remain until the end of the year, returning tonnes of rented equipment.

“I don’t know what I will do. It won’t be Olympics-related, but it would need to be something that would make me get up in the morning.”

Name:Gerry Walsh.


Position: Head of procurement at Locog, the group organising the London Olympics, which opens next week.

Born:Bellaghy, Co Derry.

Education:St Patrick’s, Maghera, and Queen’s University Belfast.

Something that you might expect: Sports-mad, having played Gaelic football and basketball in school. Still plays competitive tennis.

Something that you might not expect: Keeps horses at his country home outside London.

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