Founded in 1886, St Hugh’s College is now one of the largest colleges of the University of Oxford, with around 800 students. Quality is at the heart of everything the college does – whether it’s in the teaching from first-class academics, to the food served to students, fellows and guests, including those visiting conferences and events.
We spoke with the Domestic Bursar for St Hugh’s, Rahele Mirnateghi, to understand how she balances the procurement process, taking into account her desire for continual improvement while closely managing budgets in an unpredictable climate.
“As the domestic bursar, it is my role to oversee the domestic side of the college. Catering is, of course, a large part of what we do, every day. St Hugh’s College is able to host conferences and functions both during term time and out of term.
“Out of the academic term, we convert all bedrooms into hotel-style accommodation. We welcome people from all over the world and it really is a beautiful college, with fantastic grounds. With 500 bedrooms on site, it is a large operation that takes a lot of organising.
“For me, I started working at St Hugh’s College in 2012 and my background has always been in hospitality, mainly in the hotel sector. What I really wanted to do here was put my stamp on the quality aspect – within the remit of the college – respecting its focus and priorities.
“I want the students, fellows, college members – well, everyone who comes here – to enjoy the experience and the focus I place on wellbeing. My aim is to create an atmosphere where everyone can eat well, sleep comfortably and enjoy the experience.
“From a food perspective, the team and I have worked very hard to look at the quality of the food offering – constantly looking to better ourselves. However, with that comes potential budget implications, based on the fluctuating nature of food prices.
“I started to look at food procurement and how we could do this better. I have limited resources and need my chefs to be hands-on, in the kitchens cooking, not spending the majority of their time on managing administration, price negotiations or handling other administrative queries.”
“Pelican Procurement approached me at the right time,” she adds, “although at the time I wasn’t convinced that working with a third-party would be right for us. I get a lot of calls from companies saying the same thing, ‘we can save you money’; however, I was impressed by Pelican’s team and its cautious approach, and professional, understanding attitude.
“It struck me that they know the market very well indeed – and understood our needs. I arranged for them to visit and review our purchasing process and suggest what changes could happen to help us from a budget and invoicing perspective, stock control, supplier management and reporting point of view.
“A big area for me is being able to track purchasing habits; I wanted to make significant savings without compromising quality or delivery service, and also reduce administration for my chefs as well as the finance team. I had hundreds of invoices on my desk that needed verifying and I would rely on input from the chefs to confirm what had been delivered.
“Working with Pelican over the last year has ticked all these boxes. Following a bespoke tender with key lines, including wholesale, fruit and vegetables, butchery, dairy and fish, we have identified financial savings of 14%. This is impressive when you consider we’d already been involved with a purchasing framework, plus the uncertainty of Brexit is impacting prices. To realise savings without impacting quality was something I wished for, and that’s what was delivered.
“The great thing was that the tender wasn’t just a review of prices; it also gave us an opportunity to look at the quality of suppliers. Pelican were able to present different options to us and be impartial, offering guidance only and letting us make decisions. They also negotiate directly with suppliers, which saves me a lot of time.
“During the tender process, we chose some suppliers who weren’t the cheapest either; for example, we wanted to be able to support the local community as much as possible, so we decided to continue purchasing some of our items from local suppliers, but Pelican has been able to manage these relationship for us, too. We are able to continue supporting local suppliers, which is important for St Hugh’s to give back to our local economy.”
“Pelican even ensures suppliers are meeting the delivery criteria,” continues Rahele, “and so we can be confident that we will receive what we need, when we need it. At the start, we even had Pelican come here and be visible, inspecting the quality of deliveries. That was very reassuring to know we had extra hands supporting us.
“In fact, the key here is that whenever we’ve faced any issues, the team from Pelican has been extremely responsive – Michelle Parnham and Sarah Garnade act promptly as if they are members of our internal team. Pelican has created efficiencies with reduced administration and the finance team now has everything centralised onto an online procurement portal called Pi. Reports can be accessed whenever needed, which is great for when I need to plan for the next year’s budget, for example.
“Now, instead of hundreds of invoices, I receive one centralised statement from Pelican and we use the e-invoicing service, which the finance team are really impressed with. My chefs are able to buy from agreed lists and it makes it far easier to manage budgets. Working with Pelican has certainly had a positive impact on our balance sheet, with significant savings.
“On top of this, the stock management aspect of Pi is really good; the chefs are able to work in a more structured way and this has been noted.
“The things I really value are regular updates on performance, reports on savings and purchasing behaviours. I now have a far more strategic view on our food procurement than ever before.
“Using the Pi system means I can be far more precise at determining costs for commercial activities as well as our internal charges. Having the visibility of what is being spent, where, means I was able to do this.
“Ultimately, I’m here to do the best for the college and I am very grateful for the expert support I have received this year. The savings achieved haven’t meant compromising on quality, and that is my fundamental goal. This will continue to be my objective for the coming year, and I look forward to working with Pelican to see how the relationship is going to develop further.”