Staff Q&A with Mark E. MIlls

What’s on your weekly shopping list? At Penn, thousands of items ranging from rubber bands to donated body parts (more on that later) are purchased regularly to keep the University running smoothly.

It’s Mark Mills’ job to keep track of what is bought, to get the most for the University’s money, and to help his team at Penn Purchasing Services develop mutually beneficial relationships with local, regional, and global suppliers.

In addition to overseeing the University’s procurement of nearly $1 billion in goods and services each year, Mills also manages Penn’s economic inclusion and local purchasing initiatives. Sustainability, diversity, and social responsibility are key priorities when it comes to forging contracts with vendors, Mills says. 

Before coming to work at Penn, Mills worked at Unisys Corporation where he led a team responsible for technology and telecommunications procurement for North America. Before that, he earned a master’s degree in organizational dynamics from Penn.

An avid cyclist who rides to work from his home in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., Mills also pedals for charity. Each year, he and a few friends stage a 100-mile fundraising bike ride for the March of Dimes. He calls the event the CC Riders Tour For Babies, named after his daughter Chloe and her twin sister Chessa. Both babies were delivered 10 weeks premature, but Chessa did not survive. This year, the ride is scheduled for June 16. Supporters can sponsor Mills through the website

Q. Tell me in a nutshell what your job entails.
A. I direct the purchasing group here at Penn. Our office, we have about 16 when we are fully staffed, manages almost a billion dollars in spending. We have the responsibility of putting certain contracts and supplier relationships in place. We enable the leveraging of Penn spending to get the University the best buying opportunities. We are the stewards of the Board of Trustees’ money, so when purchases that are over a certain threshold come through, we review those to make sure they comply with the purchasing rules at Penn.

Q. You said you have about 16 full-time workers on staff. What are their different areas of responsibility? 
A. We have responsibilities by category. For example, we have an e-business team that manages and hosts our online procurement tools. They also manage Penn Marketplace, which is the online spot where we host all of the information about our preferred contract suppliers. It’s got catalogs and things like that so faculty and staff can basically shop online with our preferred contractors. And then there are other things online, too, like BEN’s Attic, which is a system that lets us repurpose and sell surplus items on campus. All of these different systems are managed by our e-business team.

Q. What are some of the other categories of responsibility?
A. We have a sourcing manager that manages research and life sciences. That covers everything that makes sure the labs have the right contracts in place to keep their inventory stocked. We have an IT and office supplies category. We also have someone who manages a big category that encompasses a whole set of support services like construction and events and catering. That category also supports housing. Then we have a print and publications category, which manages everything from stationery and envelopes to promotional goods, mailings, invitations, anything marketing related. And the other big area we manage is travel and travel services.

Q. That is interesting because there’s a notion on campus that Penn is so decentralized. But what you’re telling me is that in your office purchasing is pretty centralized.
A. It’s a centralized function with decentralized responsibility for the purchases. We offer central support.

Q. I want to get a better sense of the scope of what purchasing entails. Are we literally talking about everything from buses to beakers? 
A. Yep. So, when we needed a new scoreboard at the Palestra, we worked with the athletics group to put that in place. Another thing we buy on behalf of the University is donated body parts. You know, cadavers.

Q. Did you say cadavers?
A. Yes. There is a whole fee schedule out there for body parts. When you think it through, you realize somebody has to manage that. I’m not going to pretend to know that world, but we have somebody who does. That’s why I love it here. We get involved with widely varied spending.

Q. Can you put Penn’s purchasing footprint in perspective for me?
A. We rank right up there with some Fortune 500 companies. We are the largest private employer in Philadelphia, so it’s formidable.

Q. In addition to keeping an eye on everything that is purchased, what is the strategic goal of the department?
A. I feel that everybody’s job at the University is to make sure Penn is able to advance its academic agenda, and to do that with a high level of financial responsibility. So, I think of our role as one of service and stewardship. 

Q. Can you be more specific about those goals?   
A. Economic inclusion, sustainability, social responsibility, and fair-market practice. Those values, by the way, were a big lure to me. They were why I wanted to come to work at Penn. There is a lot of that kind of ‘speak’ out in the corporate world. But it’s often a ‘let’s be compliant’ mentality rather than ‘let’s have this be part of our core values.’ … When I learned about the mission of this program, I realized this would be a great opportunity. It’s a really refreshing part of being at Penn. … Penn already ranks as one of the top institutions in the country, if not the top, in terms of delivering value in economic inclusion.

Q. What do you mean by that?
A. We have a tremendous level of spending with area suppliers and diverse suppliers. We are looked at as a model in that regard.

Q. What are some new initiatives that you want to implement, or improvements you think can be made?
A. Our biggest priority right now is travel expense management. This is an initiative that will dramatically improve the efficiency, and the cost, of managing travel and expense reimbursements. We are looking to take a completely paper system and make it all electronic. As you can imagine, that is a very big initiative.
Also, we want to further enhance our already strong commitment to economic inclusion and diversity. I’d like to make it inherently part of the purchasing process, so in the future we have it in place as inherit policy.

I feel that everybody’s job at the University is to make sure Penn is able to advance its academic agenda, and to do that with a high level of financial responsibility."

Q. Any other priorities?
A. Sustainability and social responsibility. We already do a pretty good job with that, but when it comes to diversity and inclusion I want to make sure our process is one that forces that kind of consideration. For example, in our Request For Proposals (RFPs), we want to make sure it’s inherent in our process that we are asking about sustainability and social responsibility, and that we are thinking about that in contractual terms. There are issues, and you’ve heard about them in the news lately, about conflict minerals and labor practices overseas. It really warrants our attention in contracts. We want to be in the forefront of best practices in terms of bidding and contracts.

Q. Can you leverage Penn’s buying power to change suppliers’ practices?
A. People want to come and do business with Penn, and we know that. We take our position as an anchor institution seriously. We feel like we have a responsibility to foster special programs, like our relationship with a company called Telrose Corporation, which preceded me. Telrose has become our office supply provider in partnership with Office Depot. They are an African American-owned company in West Philadelphia that, in a competitive bidding environment, won business with us. They were a pretty small business when they started working with Penn and we helped them scale up. That, in turn, enabled them to take their business to Drexel and other large entities. In the long run it helps Telrose, it creates jobs, tax money, all that good stuff. And the best part is we get incredible service from them.

Q. Let’s go back to the travel and expense initiative, making it completely electronic. Where does that initiative stand?
A. The project has been going on for quite some time. It’s a big change. Right now we are working with Concur, testing and configuring a tool for Penn. Because we are so decentralized, there are a lot of people on campus who approve and manage travel differently and we need a system that can conform to what all of our schools and centers need.

Q. Can you give me an example of how the electronic system would work? 
A. So let’s say, in theory, somebody has been on a trip for five weeks and goes to five different countries. When they get back, they have a stack of receipts that they hand to an arranger. There could be cash receipts from, say, Egypt, and other places. The arranger would have to put that in a paid receipt form and attach the receipts. And when it comes to exchange rates, they would have to figure out when the transaction took place, what the exchange rate was on that day, and what that converts into in U.S. dollars. But with an electronic system, you can just key in the date and the amount in Egyptian pounds and the system will convert it. 

Mark E. MIlls