Balancing Student Needs and Vendor Support
Vice President of Campus Services
Rita LaRue drives Drexel’s purchasing and procurement functions, and her career at Drexel spans more than 20 years. LaRue did a masters degree in arts administration at Drexel, and while serving as president of the Graduate Student Association she developed a working relationship with Drexel’s president at the time, Constantine Papadakis, along with his senior vice president Tony Caneris. When an opportunity to work under Taki graduated, she joined Drexel as a full-time employee in the Office of Student Life.
As Caneris noted of her ability to persuade others, “people listen to you even when they don’t want to.”
“I went into the finance division of Student Life, worked on revamping policies and procedures, and was soon promoted into the Senior VP’s office. In that role I was given an opportunity to do a lot, and to learn a lot, and my experience expanded from finance and administration to things like negotiating contracts with Teamsters, working on food service contracts, and on student housing as well as athletics and facilities.” With this growing set of experiences LaRue took on “auxiliaries” into her portfolio – those services provided to students, like housing and dining, which generate revenue to support the university’s academic mission. Further administrative reorganizations put LaRue in charge of the auxiliary and business services portfolio, with housing, dining, bookstore, student centers, event services, conference services, printing and mailing, vending and the Dragon Card office falling into her purview.
A move into a VP position in 2016 placed procurement services in LaRue’s portfolio. LaRue’s experiences working in administrative and auxiliary services, back when Drexel was a smaller institution, had a lot to do with dealing with business partners both large and small, and following that path through the years has given her a certain perspective on supplier diversity and relationships. “My philosophy has been: there is enough to go around,’” meaning that in Drexel’s urban setting there are many opportunities to cultivate multiple suppliers for functions like food services and the like, including from the local community. “I always engaged with local merchants because we’re not an island, it is in our interest to have a strong community surrounding us, and students want choice and variety. For LaRue, the key is balancing those needs for mutual benefit.
LaRue notes, “a nice example is when we were building the Northside Dining Terrace in 2009. My colleagues who own Drexel Pizza (a private business not owned by Drexel) came to me worried that the new facility would ruin them. ‘You’re putting food service on the north side of campus and we can’t compete.’” Taking the concerns of local dining retailers seriously, LaRue thought through a solution with them. “What do you do that the dining terrace can’t? What’s not going to be competitive? The Northside Terrace won’t do a grill, or burgers, and you do great burgers. We won’t have breakfast there, and you do breakfast.” As LaRue’s team also runs the student dining services currency Dragon Dollars, they were able to set up local merchants with card readers that would allow them to be reimbursed by Drexel for food sales to students, for selling meals that students couldn’t get in the same area of campus. It comes down to making sure that partners in procurement, vending, and services are heard, that we are sharing information with them, and helping them position themselves to be successful.
A core part of the work for LaRue is mapping procurement needs to local suppliers, leveraging trends in the university spend for local investment. “For instance, we just outsourced our print services because people are printing a lot less, so it was a great opportunity to create a local print supplier list.”
Procurement Services under LaRue places itself at the front end of finding out what Drexel’s departments need to buy, and supporting them through the RFP process for the big expenses. LaRue advocates for working closely with departments to understand the pros and cons of going with one vendor over another. The challenge? “We are a rush rush rush university.” Before Drexel hit its stride building out coherent systems for a local procurement strategy, it was difficult to get out in front of RFPs. “Departments would just hand us an RFP and we’d have to get it done quickly.” Goals and plans are important, but “you have to building the time to get all the pieces of the system on board, doing the analysis work, working with departments and getting to know their needs, building credibility. Then think about goals and strategy. Then you can start putting together master contracts with diversity vendors.”
LaRue has some clear ideas about what kind of skill set is best for this work.
“You can’t JUST be technically proficient – you and your team have to be persuasive. We are the front line, as persuaders, helping the university understand why supplier diversity is important. You have to be mindful of assigning the right staff to this work. And the priority of diversity and local spend has to be infused throughout the work: appointing only ONE person to coordinate it sends the wrong message. Build a partnership with your colleagues and do it together.”
The advice LaRue would give to other institutions:
Data is critical. “Once goals are set, get the metrics clear right away.”
- Care about the needs of users – both internal departments and vendors.
- Even if in the beginning the successes are small, document them and celebrate them.
- In terms of negotiating around vendor and community needs, align around what local vendors have to offer to create sustainable win-win situations.
- Don’t over-promise to your vendors! Keep a clear line of communication with vendors. “You can’t launch partnerships and then just let them go. You have to really shepherd a new vendor in the beginning. You give them access to your office, help them with their communications, and set key performance indicators with them so it’s clear what everybody’s expectations are.” Relationships with vendors must be less ad-hoc, and more intentional for the strategy to work.
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