Premier Paper is a leading paper merchant in the UK and also a strong example of a Slim4 customer. I had the pleasure of interviewing Ilona Smith, Supply Chain Manager at Premier Paper. As someone that injects fun and energy into the company, Ilona places a full focus on enhancing the customer experience at Premier Paper.

In this interview, Ilona reveals what it takes to overcome your inventory hurdles!

Tell me about your history in the supply chain industry

I initially started law school in Poland. However, after the first year, I realised it wasn’t for me. It was so static, therefore I decided to change my subject of study. Despite my family not agreeing with this decision, I pursued a degree in international relationships which felt far more dynamic and exciting.

Having changed subjects, I now had to finance everything myself. In addition to studying full time, I applied for a job as an administrative clerk for a German automotive company. Initially, I started in the systems support team with many translations and typical clerk work. However, given that I am multilingual, I was able to get more involved in the business and take an active role in both productions and logistics systems; areas which I absolutely loved.

Given that my Mum was in banking and my Dad was in engineering, the supply chain field was completely new to my family with no traditions or any forms of understanding. However, considering the dynamic nature of supply chain and the fact one deals with real-life problems, I became very passionate about it all: material fluctuations through the process, financial aspects of the production operations, all planning functions, first stock-takes and results reconciliations, etc. I became one of those supply chain people. This is where it all really began!

How has your career evolved?

My new career in the manufacturing industry saw me move to Germany and then to England. This gave me even wider introduction into the supply chain field. It was here I realised that inventory is the beating heart of the supply chain as everything we do is with or about inventory. The reason why: optimising and strategically planning inventory has a huge impact on the business.

premier paper

From this, I decided to do a Post Grad degree in supply chain management in the UK. This allowed me to explore the theory behind the practice that I already knew. The course also opened the doors to a new role as Inventory Manager.

The supply chain itself is so dynamic. Wherever you go, under the umbrella of the supply chain, there are so many different functions: from material management, through the forecasting, operations planning, production planning, procurement, new product introduction, logistics etc. Each business I have worked for has taught me different aspects of their supply chain mechanisms.

After several years in the aerospace & automotive sectors, it was time for a change. I took up a new role as purchasing & supply chain manager within the electronic components sector.

Here, I felt like I could really make a difference. This role gave me the ability to see how other businesses and supply chains worked. But more than this, it showed me how you can improve the supply chains as well as the positive and rewarding impact you can make to the business. Having the past-experience, I understood and could implement my knowledge around how teams work. This resulted me into managing team changes better. It always starts and finishes with people as they are the biggest asset each business has.

Tell me about your first position in the paper trade?

My first position in the paper trade is at Premier Paper, where I am currently in the role of supply chain manager. This is a group function as we have our Headquarter in Minworth, but we also have 17 branches around UK. I am responsible for the supply chain mechanisms and everything that comes with it across our network.

The culture in the paper trade is amazing! It is natural to be a little bit reserved when joining a new industry. You don’t really know what to expect and naturally have a tonne of questions to ask. But at Premier Paper, I was very warmly welcomed to the company and the industry. It’s a traditional culture and as a female manager, you don’t see many of us! But they certainly make a spot for you!

The collaboration between customers and suppliers is very good as they work together well and have done for many years. There is a brilliant balance where the boarder is almost non-existent. It is a respectful relationship but one which is open to innovation.

The fantastic relationships remain the same, but innovation allows new processes to be adopted and for the utilisation of tools such as Slim4. I can really see myself in this industry for years to come, continually balancing tradition & innovation.

When you started at Premier Paper, what were your initial priorities?

My initial priorities were to understand the industry, products and their ranges which are not as simple, nor easy as one may think. Understanding ranges and the complexity of the sector is key. I was very keen to understand the capabilities of my team as well what tools were available for us. Ultimately, my focus was to clearly identify the grounds and then plan further improvements on the base of that where we could work smarter.

Before you can strive towards KPIs, you need to empower people to take ownership and work with them to solve the problem. Only then can you start making changes on a daily basis that make a difference to the overall goals, ultimately business goals.

One area I have begun exploring further was our lost sales records. Specifically, how do you recover from lost sales and prevent them reoccurring? As a result of this, we will be now adding a new interface to Slim4 where this data will be transmitted from our ERP system in a consolidated and readable format.

I can see you’re extremely busy at Premier Paper! How do you juggle work and family life?

Lots of red wine! It is a challenge but so is being a stay at home, full-time mum. It’s all down to the decent planning. I have three kids and so there are three very different challenges (particularly as they are all miniatures of me!) but with good planning and a good support circle from friends and family, it’s doable. Unfortunately, you cannot use Slim4 to plan your family affairs!

One question many women often tend to ask me (Women in the Engineering community) is “Family or career?” I honestly believe you can have them both and be happy with it. It is by no means easy, but it is achievable and rewarding.

What are your biggest inventory hurdles and how does Slim4 support you?

As for most businesses, forecasting is a big inventory hurdle for us.

On a day to day basis, you cannot use algorithms in the scale Slim4 does. Slim4 takes into consideration all of the available stock in location, stock in transit, overstock based elsewhere, past trends and what may happen in the future. Order recommendations are calculated taking all those and more factors into consideration.

Stock forecasting in the paper industry is much different from what I have seen in other industries. Firstly, it isn’t as formal with a degree of uncertain seasonality. Seasonality is what Slim4 picks up and highlights accordingly. Forecast exceptions & forecast anomalies review became a regular task each planner does. We couldn’t manually manage every single line the way we now do without having Slim4 alerts. It would be an unbearable task, despite having 8 very knowledgeable and competent people placing regular orders.

Slim4 gives the power of information and plans ahead. The user still has to make the final decision but it’s so much easier with the right tool in hand from the start. I have personally worked on quite a few forecasting tools in the past and I have to admit that Slim4 is perfectly tailored for what Premier Paper needs.

What is your favourite thing about Slim4?

I love the graphs. It is all very visual and clear. As the youngsters say, very much ‘in your face’.

The month’s demand chart and data tab are by far my favourite feature and are used most frequently because if there are large exceptions between the months, you can easily view the information in more details.

The inventory tab is also very important as on one screen you can see all of the key information, for example, all of the parameters for one SKU.

With expanding ranges of not only traditional paper but also packaging, display graphics and digital sectors, we often add in new product groups and many new SKUs. Slim4 helps us right at the beginning of that journey as the system recognises (through the setup) different stages of the product life. That way it helps with the planning process, enabling smarter ordering decisions.

Changes can be made and carried out by individuals or in case of advance modification to the version we use, with immediate help from the Helpdesk. It’s very user-friendly and logical, that is what I like the most about it. I think we all do!

What is your inventory focuses for the next 12-18 months?

It’s all about getting the right quantity of the right product, in the right place at the right time. We have our HQ plus 17 branches; with a mixture of products which go to every branch. So, for us, supply chain people, it’s all about making sure that each branch has got the right selection of ranges in stock to successfully fulfil customer orders for the next day delivery.