A conversation with Byron Witherspoon, Ameren’s Director of Supplier Diversity
September 10, 2019
POWER: How did you get into supplier diversity?
BYRON WITHERSPOON: I enjoy talking through how I got into it – quite frankly, I didn’t know there was a profession called supplier diversity at first. I am a social worker by training and have my undergrad in it. I first worked for the Missouri Department of Social Services. I also have a graduate degree in public policy administration. I have always had a passion for advocacy of underserved groups – promoting access for those group, implementing social change. With that as my foundation, I then worked for Disadvantaged Business Enterprise programs, for the City of St. Louis, Missouri Department of Transportation, St. Louis Metro Transit Agency, and then, Ameren.
POWER: So supplier diversity work was a natural evolution with your social services background.
BYRON WITHERSPOON: It was interesting because my first boss in this field –– pretty much told me, “The reason I hired you is that I can build on your advocacy ability for disenfranchised groups – I can teach you the rest.” There were certain characteristics she was looking for, and then the specifics, she said, she could teach me.
POWER: How have you seen the practice of supplier diversity evolve over the years? What are some trends we might see in the future?
BYRON WITHERSPOON: Early on in my career, even prior to Ameren, supplier diversity was primarily a compliance-driven practice. What’s happened over the years is an evolution from more compliance-based to more values-based. The philosophy behind that is to move past the check-the-box exercise to a strategic initiative that makes sense for the communities we serve. For Ameren, that really does mean being good stewards of the community with a diverse supply chain.
POWER: We’ve experienced that evolution over the years with Ameren’s supplier diversity program. Where can we go from here?
BYRON WITHERSPOON: When you think about the communities we live in and serve, it’s now more about the economic impact. We want to illustrate that jobs are supported by local workers. The other piece of that is diversity in the workforce. Ameren has candid conversations around supplier diversity, because by definition, diverse businesses are owned, operated and controlled by individuals in diverse groups. But when you look around throughout the organization, there may be little to no diversity. The discussion now is around how we influence the workforce diversity to complement the diverse ownership. We’re still figuring it all out, but that is our next evolution.
POWER: What prompted the development of Ameren’s supplier diversity program? The rapid growth in Ameren’s diverse spend seemed to start in 2010 – how do you maintain the annual increases without compromising quality and efficiency?
BYRON WITHERSPOON: I’ll take you back a little further: Ameren’s renewed strategy began in 2006 – I came onboard in 2007. Our leadership thought it prudent for us to renew strategy around supplier diversity, to take it from a tactical to a strategic initiative. At its onset in 2006, we gathered the right intelligence and information on current practices. You must get an idea of where you’re at before you know where you’re going. We were trying to get our hands around exactly where we were at. Once that was identified, we went to each business segment and evaluated goals for them. Later, we captured direct opportunities with primes. In the 2010-2011 timeframe, we added in that Tier II [diverse reporting] component for primes. We asked our prime suppliers to share in our values. We started asking for utilization plans in our RFPs, asking prime suppliers how they’ll provide opportunities for diverse-owned businesses. When we did that, we saw a spike in our diverse spend numbers. Compromising quality and efficiency wasn’t an issue because many suppliers subcontracted work already. The addition was asking them to include diverse businesses.
POWER: By increasing Ameren’s goals annually and by default, the goals for your prime suppliers, you saw that natural increase?
BYRON WITHERSPOON: Yes. I’m glad you mentioned goals, because it’s important to understand how we go about setting goals. At Ameren, we have the corporate goal that gets cascaded down to each segment. Each business segment carries a goal – supplier diversity executives will work with each business segment to establish a goal based on some of the baseline opportunities. And then we look at the added opportunities that are in the pipeline. This is the methodology for goal setting. Lastly, we establish the mutually agreed upon goals that rise to our corporate goal. Historically, we’ve seen [constant] upticks in spend. At some point in time, we will reach a point where it begins to flatten out – then, we start thinking about other things we’ll do.
POWER: That makes sense, because it doesn’t really sound feasible to keep increasing until you reach 100% diverse spend.
BYRON WITHERSPOON: That’s right, we’re not going to reach 100% diverse spending.
POWER: You mentioned adding workforce diversity into the mix, eventually – when the financial goals flatten out, is that when the more values-oriented goals come into play?
BYRON WITHERSPOON: We are evaluating other key performance indicators to consider above and beyond diversity spend.
POWER: What makes a good prime partner in supplier diversity? You’ve already mentioned the importance of looking beyond diverse spend numbers.
BYRON WITHERSPOON: Absolutely. From what we’ve seen, our prime suppliers predominantly share Ameren’s diversity values. We ask primes to align in our value of being good stewards of our community, as it is a corporate social responsibility for Ameren. What we don’t want to do is have this compliance-based focus – we’re going to work to where we’re adding value and supporting our corporate social responsibility to our communities.
POWER: For prime suppliers looking to embody your values, what are some actionable things they can do to build a supplier diversity program that aligns with Ameren’s?
First, we ask our primes what type of work they are looking to subcontract. We identify select suppliers, rather than saying “come one, come all”, and then do a lunch and learn at that prime’s place of business. We’ll take four or five suppliers out there and introduce them to the prime. By inviting the suppliers to the prime’s place of business, it helps diverse suppliers understand what Primes are looking for and helps primes understand the goods and services that the diverse suppliers provide. Secondly, when prime suppliers marry up with us in support of our supplier diversity symposiums and summits, it gives them access to not only our stakeholders, but suppliers and even other businesses. Lastly, when primes support our advocacy organizations, they are showing Ameren their values. Just a prime’s presence at these events, and their ability to engage diverse-owned businesses, supports Ameren’s mission.
POWER: It can seem daunting to build a supplier diversity program, but it sounds like you’re saying that half of the work is showing up and paying attention.
BYRON WITHERSPOON: Yes, being engaged is extremely important to success. You don’t have to recreate the wheel. There are processes and best practices already in place in our industry. You have to identify what works best for your culture and be intentional about the application. That’s how you cultivate a culture of diversity, along with dedicating resources to build out the process. It just doesn’t happen by itself.
POWER: Ameren’s supplier diversity program goes beyond mere sourcing and reporting – you help build up and develop potential suppliers, too. Can you describe the importance of mentoring and diverse firm development? How do you balance procurement practices with an educational framework?
BYRON WITHERSPOON: I don’t know that they’re mutually exclusive. When our supplier diversity team gets involved, they vet and evaluate the right firms to put in front of the business unit. What we don’t want to do, is take an inexperienced firm into our utility to work on our infrastructure and not understand what we care about. Safety, for example: we want to make sure companies are operating in a safe manner. You might say that’s table stakes, but we do need to evaluate and filter out companies who aren’t working safely. It doesn’t matter if you’re diverse or not – that’s across the board, for all suppliers. Also, mentoring for us includes awarding scholarships. Since 2009, we’ve provided scholarships to Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business for their Minority Business Program. We send selected suppliers to the Ivy League school in Hanover, New Hampshire and they go through a week’s worth of intense training, everything from business planning to understanding financial statements to marketing. We also have a formal in-house mentoring program that began a few years ago. The curriculum includes how to get paid, project management, quality management, safety and Ameren rules to live by. We believe it’s our responsibility to help facilitate diverse business development. At the end of the day, we work to position our diverse businesses for long-term success within our supply chain.