Staff Q&A with Brent Friedman

Each year, the University spends an astonishing $100 million on information technology, or IT supplies. Separately, Penn spends about $20 million annually on office supplies and support.

That’s a lot of computers, pens, paper, and software.

The person behind these integral components of the University experience—without which many tasks and jobs would be nearly-impossible—is Brent Friedman, the technology sourcing manager in Penn Purchasing Services in the Division of Business Services.

In his role, Friedman facilitates a competitive bidding process among technology and office supply vendors, negotiates and drafts contracts, and works closely with other offices to identify and mitigate risk. He also runs the Managed Print Services Program on campus, a sustainability initiative designed to streamline the printing process and have a noticeable positive impact on an office’s bottom line.

His responsibilities add up to some big numbers: In IT alone, the University has 30,000 orders per year from nearly 600 suppliers. And annual orders of office supplies? Those amount to about 35,000 each year.

Friedman came to the University nearly two years ago from Merck, where he had worked for 15 years, most recently overseeing the “indirect spend” for products, including creative agencies, consumer marketing, and financial services.

Here at Penn, the scope of his responsibilities is also broad: “The different types of things I’m responsible for on a day-to-day basis is much larger,” Friedman explains. “Here we have the responsibility for everything from writing the contract to running the whole competitive bid process to supplier remediation, data analysis—all of those functions are in my own department.”

While still fairly new to Penn, Friedman is no stranger to the city. He currently lives in the Fairmount neighborhood, and, in fact, family members of Friedman’s have called Philly home since the 18th century.

“We haven’t really moved around. We don’t get out much,” Friedman says. “At one point, the neighborhood I grew up in had five houses on the street that were all part of the family. My family moved out to the suburbs in the ’50s, and I’m the first to move back in.”

The Current sat down with Friedman to get the scoop on IT and office supply purchasing at Penn, what it’s like to work for such a decentralized place after the corporate life, and what exactly “managed print” means anyway.

Q: So, part of your job is to negotiate Penn’s IT contracts?
A: These would be contracts with our third-party suppliers like Dell and Apple or Lenovo—they’re the three big ones. Also software services, we spend a lot of money on those things, but in a given year, I have to review close to 100 contracts and I sign about 700.

Q: Are the bulk of those contracts for computers across the University?
A: It could be anything. If we think about the IT category—specifically the $100 million per year—that’s with about 550 suppliers, with about 32,000 orders placed per year. They don’t all result in a contract, but the contract could be anything from hardware to software to services. As far as contacts go, software is where the most contract work is.

Q: Since this is a higher ed institution, do you have to negotiate in a different way than if you were working for a for-profit company?
A: One thing that’s at our disposal in higher education that doesn’t exist as much in corporate are cooperative purchasing contracts. There are local contracts and national contracts that Penn can leverage along with other institutions. There’s a collaborative of about 20 institutions in the Philly metro area called the Philadelphia Area Collegiate Cooperative [PACC]. Penn is a founding member of that organization and we buy all kinds of things across categories with those other institutions. We just finished leading a competitive bid process for all of the PACC schools for a technology peripheral reseller, like printers and displays.

Q: What are some of the unique challenges that come with working at a place like Penn, especially after you spent so long in the private sector?
A: Throughout my interview process, a common thing that came up is how decentralized Penn is, but the company I left operated very similarly, especially in the early ’90s before the pharmaceutical industry went through a big consolidation. So coming to Penn was an organizational dynamic I was accustomed to, but what is very different at Penn is the sales cycle is longer—and that’s not a bad thing. That’s really due to Penn’s decentralized nature and needing to spend a lot of time influencing and doing the best you can to get people to work together toward a common goal.

Q: Penn has a focus on buying locally. How do you balance this expectation with the reality of markets, especially in IT where many suppliers are global companies?
A: It is tough, particularly in the IT category, because a lot of what you can buy from IT you can’t get from many places. Software is a classic example. Office supplies are probably where we have the bigger opportunity [to buy locally], and the [West Philadelphia-based] Telrose and Office Depot relationship I manage for Penn has probably been one of our biggest success stories.

Q: Can you describe Penn’s relationship with Telrose?
A: Telrose is what we would call a Tier I diversity partner with Office Depot, and this is usually a small business that manages all of a company’s end-to-end needs with a supplier. Telrose will manage customer orders for us, customer service, all the billing for Office Depot, and they provide a delivery service. Telrose has grown to support more than just the Penn campus; they now support some of the other PACC schools—Drexel, for example. They’ve grown the business outside of higher education and have landed some corporate accounts. … We do what we can to help our small business partners advance their own business to grow and diversify as much as possible.

Q: Is that relationship with such a small vendor unusual for a company of Penn’s size?
A: In the corporate landscape, supplier diversity is very common. Penn, relative to other higher education institutions, is far ahead of the curve with supplier diversity and economic inclusion. Within higher education, we’re leading-edge. Penn spends about 10 percent of our spend with small and diverse businesses. We spend about $1.5 billion, and close to $100 million is small business.

Q: Sustainability is a big priority at Penn. How do you focus on that?
A: Being so decentralized as we are, sustainability is one of a handful of things that seems to be a common theme across the organization. Everyone is familiar with the big initiatives going on and I think everyone understands that it’s important for Penn. That was kind of refreshing to see that coming here. That also helped me scope out projects a little bit—which leads to managed print.

Q: What is managed print?
A: It’s when you hire a third party to provide the full end-to-end service to manage your printer fleet from supplies to fix-and-repairs to device replacement. Traditionally, you source your toner from one place, your printer from another, you have internal IT support, and you may have an outside contract for fixing breaks. In a Managed Print Services contract, all of those elements get distilled down to one contract and one vendor. We conducted a pilot project of about 600 printers [in the Dental School, Vet School, Annenberg School, Lab Animal Resources, and Business Services] and one of the things we identified was that people could implement managed print without removing personal printers and still cut costs by close to 30 percent.

Q: How does that work?
A: That happens just from redirecting supply purchases to a preferred vendor and eliminating the internal IT help ticket costs. ... Done really well and comprehensively, managed print will cut office printing costs by up to 40 percent. The thing with printing—it is very much an out-of-sight, out-of-mind activity. The transaction costs are so small, it usually does not get attention, but when you start to really critically analyze what paper, unused print jobs, duplicative printers, and over-specified printers cost, you can see printing is very inefficient and very costly. We estimate on campus that there are about 20,000 print devices, costing us between $15 and $20 million a year.

Q: How do you address concerns that you’re going to get rid of all printers?
A: One of the biggest pieces of pushback we get on managed print is that it’s automatically going to mean that somebody loses their personal printer and it gets taken away from them—which is not the case—and that two, people will argue there’s an inefficiency of having to get up and walk to a print device. Both of those things are not always the case. It’s usually not a big disruption on how people work on a day-to-day basis. It’s kind of seamless.

Q: You’ve said that Penn is decentralized. How do you get a handle on that?
A: There’s tremendous opportunity for people across the institution to work with Purchasing Services to try and what we refer to in our line of work as ‘elevate the spend’ —which does not mean spend more. There’s a lot of opportunity for schools to do things together and use [our office] to help advance that strategy, especially in the IT  category because it’s the one category consumed and used by everybody. In my field of work, decentralization means healthy opportunities to help a diverse range of clients with complex needs. The great thing at Penn is that there is a continuous need for project support, and each need is very unique. The work provides for a continuous learning opportunity to better understand how our entire business operates, while helping our customers maximize value and minimize risk with their acquisitions.

Brent Friedman