Lisa Deal: Taking UF Procurement from tactical to strategic
As an undergraduate political science major who immersed herself in the performing arts at a small liberal arts college, UF Procurement director Lisa Deal never imagined herself leading the purchasing department of one of the largest universities in the country. But in listening to her excitedly speak with admiration of the researchers UF Procurement serves and with pride in her work in the field of public higher education, it’s clear she is exactly where she belongs.
Originally a Manhattan girl, Deal began her career in performing arts administration in New York before her marriage to an army man led her to Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. It was there she first dipped her toe into the world of purchasing as a temp employee hired to add up columns of numbers with an adding machine. Before long, she was hired by the company and began her career in earnest as a buyer in the banking industry.
Since that time, she has actively supported her field as it transformed from a fairly simple, tactical paper and pencil industry to a much more complex and strategic one driven by the transition to ecommerce. In 2015, Deal was elected president of NAEP, a national organization supporting higher education and educational procurement.
Here’s more about her journey, in her own words.
It’s interesting that your college background was not in accounting or another business-related field. What were you like as an undergraduate?
My college degree is in political science. I graduated from Kenyon College, but I spent a lot of my credits in the arts. I did an independent study in dance notation and I played the flute in wind ensemble. I was in theatre and dance, and my political science professor asked, “Why are you majoring in political science again?” And I said I’ll never get to work in theatre and I’ll never get to do political science again as long as I live. Talk about critical thinking. It was a great way to learn how to think. I never thought I’d work for a big public sector institution, but that small, liberal arts education really helped me learn how to problem solve and I use that in my job all the time.
So after a couple of years in private industry, you joined the Health Science Center as a purchasing agent. What were those early years of your career like?
One of the very last projects I worked on was for the Brain Institute. I worked with Dr. Luttge, who is no longer with us, but he was responsible for bringing that grant to the University of Florida. I worked on the majority of equipment and supply purchases to open the building.
But then my husband accepted a job in Tampa and I ended up going to work for the University of South Florida in 1998 and worked there until 2001. I worked as a purchasing agent, similar to what I had done at UF. But then they needed someone to roll out their PCard program. I got in touch with the people at UF and learned about their program, then designed the program at USF, trained it, and gave my last presentation to the university president’s cabinet 38 weeks pregnant with my second kid. We called him the PCard baby because right after he was born, I was on maternity leave, sitting in my study with him in my lap, telling people how to process PCard transactions.
When we returned to UF in 2001, there weren’t any openings in procurement, but there was a position available in Contracts and Grants. And because I was interested in understanding how grants worked after being exposed to the Brain Institute, Contracts and Grants hired me even though I didn’t have much of an accounting background. I worked there for about two years and found it really fascinating.
I came back to Purchasing in 2002 as the assistant director over the PCard program and then the university implemented PeopleSoft. When the associate director became ill and left, they posted his job, but I didn’t want to apply for it because I didn’t want to be the boss. My boss at the time said, “Well, you can be the boss, or other people can be your boss.” So I applied and got the job and now I’ve been in that role for over 10 years. During that time, I was promoted to director and we now report directly to the CFO.
You’ve seen tremendous change in your industry during that time.
What’s interesting is that when I came to work here, I had come from the private sector, which was very different. The role of purchasing at UF back then was to code yellow pieces of paper so they could be typed into purchase orders. You literally would write at the bottom what standard statements went on the PO, put the vendor name on it, and every once in a while you would suggest a different supplier or get a different quote, but most of the time you would just code the requisitions and give them something to type.
That’s called tactical procurement. But I’ve spent my entire career at the University of Florida trying to get us to go from paper pushers and gatekeepers to actually adding value and providing what we call “best value” rather than low price to campus. We’ve spent a fair amount of time and resources to get our people to that place, and our last customer service survey indicated we’ve done pretty well. People understand we’re here to help them, not to smack them around. We want to help them do it the right way when they call us early when they’re making a major purchase.
How smooth has that transition been?
It’s been really hard to get to that place because it’s a huge institution. I don’t like to quote this number, but it’s a fact: 600+ departments, 8 professional buying staff—10 if you include myself and the associate director. My role is really to get out in front of the fiscal leadership on our campus, engage campus in a conversation to make sure the tools we provide campus are easily used and understood.
A big piece of what we do is to provide contracts that can be used by the entire campus and ensure that the vendors do what they say they’re going to do. That sounds really silly, but just because you sign a contract that says this is what we’re going to pay and this is what’s going to happen, if you don’t check back, it isn’t going to happen. We have a new supplier relations manager position that was created in the last 18 months and now we’re making that happen and we can already see an improvement in responses from our major suppliers.
What are some of the most exciting aspects of your job?
We get to see the whole institution. We get to support the infrastructure of the institution. How many people can say they’ve actually toured the water treatment facility on campus or been underneath the Health Science Center? But we also get to see all of the really cool things we support—from the new ticketing system at the performing arts center to research where we’re buying parts and pieces of the microscope that goes at the Canary Islands. I think we bought things for Dr. Yamamoto when she was busy developing a cure for feline AIDS. We get to touch really interesting research projects—dropping things in the sea to create an artificial reef and then measuring the results. We get to touch all of that.
We see how the whole organization works and put things together. For me, one of my favorite moments was when I was working on a solicitation for Housing for variable refrigerant flow (VRF) HVAC systems for an apartment building so they could independently meter apartments. It’s different technology than we use on most of campus. And I happened to be working on another solicitation for [IFAS faculty member] Pierce Jones on energy efficient housing, who had no idea we were installing VRF on campus. And because I happened to be working on both solicitations at the same time, we could connect researchers and students to Housing where they were installing these systems.
When we did the office supply solicitation, embedded in that contract are two scholarships for Opportunity Scholars. We helped contribute to the institutional mission not just by finding best value, but by actually supporting students that come to our school.
Everyone in our department is passionate about supporting higher education. Many of us have worked in the private sector, but we’re here because we believe in supporting public education. There is nothing like leaning across the table to a supplier who is concerned about his or her profit margin and reminding them that UF isn’t about profit, it’s about trying to make the world a better place. It’s really powerful.