The art of serious spending

April 28, 2005, vol. 33, no. 1
By Miguel Strother

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Imagine being able to go shopping with $40-million of somebody else's money? That, in a sense, is how Robert Szczotko, Don Graham and the six other members of SFU's purchasing department spend their days.

Sure, a room-sized washer for cleaning up bird and animal cages, such as the one Graham recently bought for animal care, or a cell sorter valued at more than $700,000 for HIV research might not be the first items on their personal wish lists, but the department is charged with buying some important, and interesting items.

“We have some great young researchers here at SFU, which is really exciting because they're a lot of fun to work with,” says Graham, a graduate of SFU's department of economics. “With their knowledge they are the experts. What we facilitate is the purchase of equipment through a competitive bidding process.”

Graham is currently in the process of buying a $200,000 research vessel for the school of resource and environmental management. The boat will be built from scratch and its purchase must adhere to the strict legal rules of procurement, as well as meet the exact demands of researchers. For Graham, it's all part of what makes his job fascinating.

“I mean, how many times in your life do you get to buy a boat?” says Graham. “That is where the job can be fun.”

The department plays a very serious role for the university, however, as the equipment and services they buy are vital to researchers and the community as a whole. 

The department recently helped purchase a customized communications vehicle for Peter Anderson of SFU's school of communication. The advanced mobile emergency communications (AMEC) vehicle is manufactured to exact specifications, outfitted with state of the art satellite and telecommunications equipment and used as an advanced laboratory that can provide key information on calamities in remote locations, such as the Okanagan fires. 

“My relationship with purchasing has been excellent,” says Anderson. “They've helped to facilitate many complex purchases, some of which entailed equipment being custom manufactured out-of-country and delivered within very tight time frames. Working together I think we've learned a lot about how to undertake and manage large, complex research projects that meet both researcher and administration requirements.”

According to Szczotko, manager of purchasing since 1996, helping to acquire the AMEC vehicle is just another way that purchasing's role extends to serve the entire community.

“It's my understanding that this is a critical vehicle in terms of communications tying in with communities,” says Szczotko. Both men stress that the rules of purchasing have changed a great deal in recent years.

To adjust to the change, the purchasing process has become more transparent. One example of this is how SFU administrators are working with students to develop an ethical procurement policy. With the help of people such as Pat Hibbits, VP-finance and administration, student James Woods, and the No Sweat SFU Working Group, this policy is almost ready to be placed before SFU's board of governors. It will ensure the university spends money on things such as fair trade coffee and ethically manufactured clothing.

“Gone are the days when competitive purchasing involved just a bunch of quotes,” says Graham. “There is more to it than that and we are really after best value to the university in an open and transparent fashion.”

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