From early in her career Erin Strang, Group Treasurer & VP Tax & Governance at Australian rail freight operator Aurizon has been aware of the power of networking. In this profile, we hear Erin’s candid views on how networking has helped shape her career and how she believes a more diverse corporate landscape can be created.
Group Treasurer & VP Tax & Governance
Erin Strang is the Group Treasurer & VP Tax & Governance of Aurizon, Australia’s largest freight rail operator listed on the ASX on 22nd November 2010. Erin has been with Aurizon for over five years, manages enterprise financial risk, funding requirements, tax and governance, and was responsible for managing the transformation of the treasury function post IPO. Prior to joining Aurizon, Erin worked as a Corporate Advisor to government owned corporations with Queensland Treasury Corporation, and in financial and operational risk management with investment bank Barclays Capital, the Bank of England and the Reserve Bank of Australia. She holds a Master of Applied Finance from Macquarie University and a Bachelor of Commerce (Honours) from the University of Melbourne.
Do you feel that women bring something different to the needs of treasury?
I certainly believe that different people bring different perspectives to the treasury function based on their experiences and attitudes. However, I am not sure if this can be defined by gender, nationality, or anything else for that matter – it is ultimately down to that individual’s make-up.
Balancing professional and family life is tricky – what’s your experience?
Having the correct work/life balance is extremely important in my opinion. Whilst I love my job, I do, of course, have things that I like doing outside of the office. Thankfully, our CFO is a family man and he understands that there are times when I may need to leave early or start late, so I am lucky in this regard. Also, more generally I feel that it is important to demonstrate to my team the importance of a healthy work/life balance. I don’t get this right all the time, but it is something that I am always trying to do. As an enterprise we are actively working on ensuring that people across the business are offered flexible working arrangements where practicable to help them achieve their full potential.
How is Aurizon looking to drive gender diversity across the business?
At present, our business comprises roughly 14% women. The company is actively taking strides to improve on this number and our CEO has set an aspirational target to hit 30% by 2019. As a result, there are currently numerous initiatives happening across the business that seek to engage women including in operational areas where historically they have not been. We have also implemented a mentoring programme that looks to support women across the business and offer an environment where they can talk candidly about issues they may be facing at work.
Do you see a day when we will have true equality in the workplace – at all levels?
I certainly hope so. I look at what is happening in our organisation, with our aspirational target, and also more broadly across the Australian corporate sector and I think the signs are positive. For example, in Australia we have a Champions of Change programme where CEOs of major corporates across the country promote greater diversity and equality in the corporate workplace. For these schemes to be successful however, there has to be male engagement because it is not just a female issue, it is a cultural issue and there needs to be a step change in our overall culture.
Communication and relationship management skills are a fundamental tool that treasurers need to develop. The role of treasury has changed a lot in recent years and it is vital that treasurers hone these skills in order to understand the various needs of the departments that treasury interacts with and to demonstrate how you can add value to them by what you are doing.
“Having the correct work/life balance is extremely important in my opinion. Whilst I love my job, I do, of course, have things that I like doing outside of the office.”
Transporting over 250 million tonnes of commodities across the nation, Australian rail freight operator Aurizon prides itself on connecting miners, primary producers, and industry with international and domestic markets. The company therefore seems an appropriate fit for its Group Treasurer & VP Tax & Governance, Erin Strang, for whom building networks has been a key goal throughout her career.
“I was told by a colleague early in my career about the power and value of networking and, in my opinion, this is vital to every aspect of work and also life more broadly,” she says. This wasn’t always the case however: “for a long time I didn’t make the time to network because I could not see the value in it. Yet, as my career has progressed it has developed into a very valuable tool.” For Erin, it is through networking that she has attained a greater understanding of how business operates, attained influence inside and outside her department, developed herself as a professional and also helped others on their career path.
She also believes that networking is particularly important in the treasury arena. “Treasury teams are often quite small,” she says, “yet our reach needs to be extensive. It is therefore helpful to develop relationships across the business and understand the different issues they have and how we can help support them. The ability to communicate and build relationships may be the most important tool available, not only to a treasurer, but to anyone in business.”
Networking has certainly helped in her career which she admits, for a corporate treasurer, has taken an ‘unusual’ path. After graduating from university with a Bachelor of Commerce (Honours in Economics) she began her career in the public sector with the Reserve Bank of Australia, working in public policy and risk management. Staying in the public sector, her next move was to the other side of the world to work for the Bank of England in a similar role. “It was a great experience working for both of these famous institutions and it gave me a fantastic grounding in risk management and how to approach this analytically.” Yet, for Erin something was missing from these roles. “As time progressed, I found it a bit dissatisfying not being close to business, so I decided to take the plunge and move away from public policy, initially working in investment banking and then shifting to the corporate advisory sphere with the Queensland Treasury Corporation.”
In 2009, Erin fully immersed herself in the world of corporate treasury assuming her role at Aurizon, a company that was about to undergo an extreme transformation. At the time, the company was called Queensland Rail and was under government ownership. In 2010, it was privatised and listed on the Australian Securities Exchange, before being renamed Aurizon in 2012. The role of the treasury team has been pivotal in this process having put in place corporate debt facilities, obtained credit ratings from Moody’s and S&P, managed the growth of the business and its debt profile, and also assisted in building governance policies and behaviours across the business. “The role was exactly what I was looking for when moving away from public policy and it has been a great experience being so involved in the transformation of a business.”
Unsurprisingly for Strang, the greatest tool at the treasury department’s disposal during this transformation was communication and networking. “I encouraged my team to develop techniques to communicate, listen and influence others across the business. No matter what level someone is, no matter what gender or nationality, it it is about finding a style that reflects you and resonates with your audience. This is how treasury gets a voice in the organisation.”
Ensuring the treasury has a voice also reflects her key motto in life – ‘life is 10% of what happens to you and 90% of how you react to it.’ “I actually have this on a plaque on my desk in the office. It is essentially saying that life is all about the attitude that you approach it with. Ultimately, you are in charge of your outlook on life and what you make of it.”
So far Erin has made the most of her career in roles that she has not only loved but that have also allowed her to gain a wealth of experience. None more so than her current role at Aurizon which she describes as being an “amazing journey” given the changes the organisation has been through. So what is next for Erin? “I am happy in my current role, however, when the time arises to move on I think that I have positioned myself to have a number of choices. Of course, my role at Aurizon incorporates more than just treasury and working with both tax and governance has widened my skillset and offered me a solid grounding for a next step. I feel that with this experience I could seamlessly move into a different role within finance or even utilise my business knowledge and relationship management skills and move into a commercial role. Both of these are options in the future”.