An Interview with Scott Wharton

- Managing Director, Global Head of Strategic Sourcing & Procurement Services, Citi

In 2008, life was going extremely well for Scott Wharton. Newly-married, he and his wife had just moved from Sydney to Hong Kong. He had been headhunted from Westpac by one of America's largest and most prestigious investment banks to run their cost management and procurement in the Asia and Pacific region.

"It appealed to me a lot," Wharton recalls. "I recognised that, in terms of career development, I needed to get some international experience. "I could see where the Australian economy was heading, and that the experience of working in Asia was very important. So moving to Hong Kong for a regional management role was a major opportunity for me."

They had been in Hong Kong less than a year when, overnight, the dream turned sour. The bank that had headhunted him was Lehman Brothers. When it filed for bankruptcy protection on Sept 15, 2008, it was the largest bankruptcy in US history - the one event which triggered what became known as the Global Financial Crisis.

"It was an incredibly dramatic time for us," continues Wharton. "It had been a big decision for my wife and I to move. We hadn't been married long. We didn't have children then, but my wife is a doctor, and she'd had to give up a job she loved in Sydney. All of a sudden, I was looking down the barrel of unemployment in Hong Kong."

There were a few anxious days, but fortunately a Japanese bank, Nomura Holdings, announced it would buy Lehman's Asia-Pacific operations, including Japan, Hong Kong and Australia. When the deal became effective in October, Wharton found himself suddenly back in the same job, but for a different company.

Five years later, Wharton is now in New York, working for another US financial giant, Citi. As Citi's Chief Procurement Officer, Wharton heads a team of around 700 people in over 50 countries, managing a multi-billion dollar supply chain budget. His profile for Citi describes him as a specialist in "process reengineering, business transformation and strategic sourcing". But he explains it in terms that are easier to understand.

"Citi group is a very large bank, one of the biggest in the world" he says. "To keep the bank running, we need to procure a range of services around the world. "My team's job is to figure out the smartest way to buy everything from servers for technology to marketing services and travel.

"We help Citi's businesses select the best suppliers and negotiate deals for everything the bank buys and put the contracts in place. The size of the deals varies, from some worth millions of dollars each year to very small services."

It's an exciting global role. "The job requires a lot of travel, a little more often than I'd like to be honest because I've got a young family and I'd like to be at home more often.

"Two weeks ago I was in London and Budapest. The week before I was in Hong Kong and Singapore. Next week I'm in Miami and Mexico. It usually works out that around once a month I am on a plane somewhere."

It's a far cry from the island in Queensland, where Wharton grew up. Today, he says, it's much more developed, but in the 1980s "it was a country town by the sea, a lovely place to grow up".

He went to the local primary school where his father was a teacher and his mother a nurse (she is still passionately working as a nurse on an island, this time in the Torres Strait). Then, to his surprise, he won a scholarship to one of Queensland's top schools. In High School, the young Wharton was convinced he would do something in medicine or dentistry, so he chose to go to the University of Queensland to do a general science course that allowed him to specialise later.

But by the end of the first year, Wharton had realised that he was more interested in the corporate world, so he applied for a scholarship studying Science/ Law at University of Sydney.

There were two reasons for leaving Queensland. Firstly, he felt it was time he stretched himself and experienced life in "the big city". Secondly: "I wanted to do something in the business world, but I was still passionate about science. Science/ Law gave me the option of deciding what I wanted to do after the course. I could move to graduate medicine or go into the corporate world."

By the time he'd finished his first degree, the dye was cast. "I'd been doing a bit of para-legal work for law firms," he says. "And I had several friends who were already management consultants."

Wharton decided as soon as he graduated with his Bachelor of Science he would take a full time job, as a management consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Sydney. "But I still wanted to continue my Bachelor of Laws because I had enjoyed legal studies so much, and I wanted to complete it."

This is where the University of Technology, Sydney comes in. "UTS had by far the most attractive programs for someone who was working, like me. Not only did the course allow me to be flexible around my work, but it was a good university. "UTS had the most attractive program, particularly its electives."

"I was travelling a lot for work," he explains. "There would be some weeks where I couldn't do any study. But when my work schedule allowed, there would be weekend study plus a couple of nights a week. It was a real labour of love to get it done."

Was it worth the time and effort? "Although in my career I haven't actually needed a law degree, I have found the knowledge and skills learnt really useful. I also really enjoyed it. I found the course very intellectually challenging.

"The lecturers were interesting. They were contemporary, and had careers in the corporate or legal fraternities, which made things relevant and up to date with what was going on in the real world."

(He is now paying back his debt. As a UTS Luminary, Wharton is helping the university arrange alumni gatherings in New York: "There are a lot of UTS graduates here," he says.) But while he was studying at UTS Wharton had embarked on what would become his career path - a combination of technical skills and intellectual acumen.

He found himself in the forefront of a revolution. In the past 15 years, an increasing number of internationally recognised companies have discovered - with instant communications and the ultra competitive global economy - that they can no longer operate the way they used to.

"Process engineering", "business transformation" and "strategic sourcing" may seem like jargon phrases, unconnected to what most of us do. But they mean a huge amount to company boards trying to achieve efficiencies and the welfare of workers around the world waiting on those decisions.

For Wharton, the phrases meant not only was he continually learning (he also holds an Executive MBA from INSEAD in France and another Executive MBA from Tsinghua University in Beijing), but he was also progressing very fast up a ladder of corporate excellence.

From PricewaterhouseCoopers ("That grounded me in supply chain strategy and reengineering"), he moved to Westpac, one of Australia's "Big Four" banks. Then to Lehman Brothers in Hong Kong. And on to Nomura Holdings, where he stayed a couple of years. And finally to Citi.

"When I first joined Citi in 2010, I wasn't doing procurement," Wharton says. "I was based in Hong Kong running their process engineering and cost management programs. "We loved living in Hong Kong. It's an exciting place to live and we were very settled. As far as banks are concerned, three important financial centres are New York, London and Hong Kong.

"But when I was offered the chance to move to New York, it was too good an opportunity to turn down." The Wharton family arrived in New York in March 2012. They now live in "downtown Manhattan". "It's a very kid-friendly place, Manhattan," says Wharton. "It's very safe these days and there are plenty of activities for children.

"At the weekends we walk around with the stroller, doing the sights of New York. My son is doing toddler soccer, and there are plenty of great parks and museums to visit. It's a wonderful place to raise a family.

"I enjoy the arts, in particular music and theatre, as does my wife. Growing up, I was a very passionate saxophonist. So being in New York - one of the greatest jazz cities in the world - we enjoy going to jazz clubs or bars as often as we can."

But what of the future? "I love my job," says Wharton. "I want to maintain an international career. I enjoy regional and global leadership.

"I have really enjoyed the cross cultural differences you experience. I can tell you that dealing with different parts of the world, and being sensitive to local cultures and what is needed to motivate a team in different parts of the world, is a key part of my job. "Whether or not we end up In New York, Hong Kong or Australia in the long run is to be determined. But for now we are enjoying New York, raising a family in New York."

Words: Steve Meacham, April 2013