Minding the Store

March 2, 2003

David Leiva

Bill Van Cleave had a hunch. Then he ran the numbers and confirmed his suspicions. He couldn't justify carrying such a wide array of office supplies at the medical school's storeroom. It didn't make financial sense. In terms of variety and price, the storeroom just couldn't compete with local retailers such as Office Depot.

So, Van Cleave, director of materials management, did away with the bulk of the merchandise. Gone is the endless variety of paper clips. Instead, the basketball courtsized storeroom is now filled with more appropriate needs--medical supplies.

The move to stock medical rather than office supplies was probably as symbolic as it was cost effective for the retired Navy officer, who came on board in November 2001 and splits his time between the uptown and downtown campuses. Everything is being streamlined. Policies are being revisited and procedures reexamined as Van Cleave slowly brings together the three areas under his umbrella: purchasing, receiving and delivery.

Ultimately, said Van Cleave, the result will be a more efficient and effective way for departments to requisition and receive purchases. But Van Cleave first needed to tackle the organization that had become bloated and cumbersome. The four miles separating the uptown materials management folks from their cohorts downtown might as well have been 400 miles. There were two directors, two systems, two different cultures that served different needs.

"I tried to standardize on one," Van Cleave said. "Create an identity for the university." The department now has only one Web site. One set of policies and procedures is being drafted. And colleagues from both campuses are getting to know each other a bit better. If there are personnel shortages, workers are shifted between campus offices.

Last year, materials management placed more than 33,000 purchase orders totaling $57 million, while handling more than 60,000 freight shipmentsall of it done for both campuses, and all handled by 34 employees comprising a staff that includes veterans of 25, 30, and even 40 years of university service. Employees such as Garry Roland, the storeroom supervisor at the medical school, who has worked 29 years for Tulane.

Along with canceling the superfluous supplies such as soups, colas and multiple brands of the same colored pen, Roland's now dealing more with the laboratory end.

"We're now able to offer more," he said. And that includes offering Van Cleave more feedback. "He took our input," said Roland. "He's keeping people abreast."

Ditto, according to Kerry Cordes, a familiar name for those who purchase furniture and athletic equipment. Now, Cordes is more involved in planning than ever before.

"[Van Cleave] has asked for my input. Which is different than it used to be," said Cordes, procurement coordinator with 30 years at Tulane with the black rocking chair in his office to prove it. "Different" is a buzzword that's making rounds in the office. "We don't want to have that im-age of a department that just places orders," said Tom Latusa, executive secretary. "We're different now."

How different? Just ask Kay Orrill, assistant dean of the Graduate School, whose office received a facelift. "I didn't want to deal with aggressive salesmen," said Orrill. "[Materials management] served as that shield."

They measured the office, spoke to vendors, came back with suggestions and options, ordered the furniture and coordinated with facilities services on the delivery. "I never had to call a vendor," Orrill said. "Tom spoiled me."

David Leiva can be reached at

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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000