Guillermo Gualino, Vice President and Treasurer has never been one to shy away from a challenge. This, in fact, has been the hallmark of his career to date. Here, Gualino shares how this desire to take on the tough tasks combined with a philosophy rooted in the art of consulting has brought success and fostered a rather unique approach to treasury management.
Vice President and Treasurer
Agilent, created when it spun off from Hewlett-Packard Company in 1999, is a leader in life sciences, diagnostics and applied chemical markets. The company provides laboratories worldwide with instruments, services, software, consumables, applications and expertise.
“What was the title of the person you have been filling in for over recent months?” asked the then CFO of American supply chain solutions firm Flextronics. “I have been filling in for the Assistant Treasurer,” replied Guillermo Gualino, who was Flextronic’s then Corporate Finance Manager. “Well that is your role now, go and do what you need to do,” said the CFO. And just like that Gualino was given the responsibility for rebuilding the treasury department at the headquarters of a global corporation.
The somewhat unspectacular conversation bookmarked a remarkable point in the career of Gualino, who had only been working in the treasury profession for less than a year. During this time he had to step up and help keep treasury operations afloat over the holiday period after a painful restructuring saw the entire US treasury team exit the firm.
“I knew very little about cash management and the other areas of treasury, but somebody needed to take ownership of the function during this time,” says Gualino. “I made a lot of mistakes during those first months. But more importantly, I got a lot of things right and the operation survived the crisis.”
This short tale says a lot about Gualino and his approach to his career which has been characterised by jumping in at the deep end, learning from both successes and failures, being resourceful and thinking outside of the box, taking difficult decisions and, perhaps most importantly, tackling every challenge head on.
A consultant’s view
In some respects even Gualino’s choice of degree emphasises these attributes, having decided to study electrical engineering over business at the Universidad La Salle in Mexico City. “I knew that I wanted to go into banking or business following my degree and that both of these degree options would provide me with the necessary skills, but I selected electrical engineering because it would provide the greatest challenge.”
Having successfully completed his electrical engineering degree, Gualino took a consulting job with Andersen Consulting as his first full time role. And whilst only being with the company for a year he believes that it played a pivotal role in shaping his working philosophy today. “As a consultant you have to become an expert in a topic very quickly, often with no prior experience of that area,” he explains.
“This was a very difficult job, I was underpaid and overworked, like many graduates looking to make their way,” he adds. “But the role proved to me that you can take on any challenge, even if you don’t have any prior knowledge or experience.”
Gualino’s next challenge was working as a private equity associate for Orange Country venture capital firm, Ventana Capital – his first step into the financial arena. “This was a very challenging role because I had to marry the problem solving skills acquired during my engineering degree whilst also learning about finance,” he explains. “I had little experience in this area but was able to learn very quickly by building financial models and business plans for the companies we were working with.”
Utilising his newly-found financial skills, Gualino moved back into financial consulting roles with both EY and PwC. Whilst enjoyable roles, he admits that he felt a longing to move into industry. “Throughout my career I had always been a consultant on the outside looking in, but I could see that the real challenge was being on the inside and working in a corporation,” he says. “The question was where do I go in order to utilise the skills that I have and also learn new ones?”
Having analysed the financial operations of large organisations, Gualino spotted a function which he perceived as being the best fit: corporate treasury. It was the role’s mixture of operations and finance which attracted him the most and also the flexibility of the function enabling him to be creative and utilise his problem solving skills.
As previously documented, his first few months were relatively turbulent given the structural changes at Flextronics, and he admits that it was a steep learning curve and that he was probably doing a little more problem solving than he should have been at this nascent stage of his treasury career. But, as his previous experience has highlighted, Gualino is not one to step away from a challenge. Once he had helped steer Flextronics Treasury out of danger, he was ready to commit himself to the profession and assumed the role of Assistant Treasurer.
“I stayed at Flextronics for seven years before joining Agilent Technologies,” he says, “and it enabled me to get exposure to every corner of the treasury function, many of which I was looking at without any previously knowledge or experience. In Agilent, I have worked on a number of major deals and transactions, including the spin-off of Keysight (Agilent’s former electronic measurement business) which was especially challenging. But all of this provided me with the treasury foundation from which my career is now built on.”
Yet, despite his 13 years in treasury and his senior position with Agilent, Gualino is not one to rest on his laurels. “I feel extremely comfortable now talking treasury with anybody, but it has taken me a long time to get to this position and I am still learning about new ideas and concepts every day,” he says. “I never say no to any opportunity to learn something new in treasury.”
The art of creating a cross-functional team
Given his rather unique experiences throughout his career, it is unsurprising that Gualino runs the Agilent treasury department slightly differently to that of many of his peers. The most notable trait being that despite its rather large size – 18 individuals split between the US and Singapore – Gualino treats it as if it was a much smaller team, with each individual involving themselves in many different tasks across the department.
“I run the department as a reflection of how I got to this position,” he explains. “I still consider myself a consultant in life and I expect this from every member of my team. We therefore have a cross-functional team with no specialists.”
“Throughout my career I had always been a consultant on the outside looking in, but I could see that the real challenge was being on the inside and working in a corporation.”
Gualino is keen to point out that his approach is not akin to the rotation system utilised by many large companies. “These rotations do not give people long enough to get a good understanding of a function,” he explains. “I don’t want my staff just to be aware of a few areas of treasury, I want them to have a stake in it.”
In his view, this provides many benefits including the ability to continue functioning as normal should somebody be on holiday or leave the company – avoiding a similar situation to which he found himself in at Flextronics. But, more importantly, it also creates a forum of new ideas. “The people who currently look after FX are extremely smart finance professionals, but they had no previous experience in this area,” he explains. “They had to learn quickly, but in doing so they were able to provide a fresh perspective and ask questions about what we did and why – just like consultants. In doing so, we have discovered many things that we have never seen before and been able to achieve many process efficiencies as a result.” For Gualino the results of the approach speak for themselves. “Today we run one of the best FX programmes in our industry.”
A belief in mentoring
Whilst Gualino has certainly seen many benefits derived from his management philosophy, he admits that it certainly isn’t the easiest approach. “With the team structured how it is I cannot simply delegate tasks,” he explains. “Instead I have to be constantly engaged with the team and act as a consultant and mentor. I have a project that I am working on at all times with every member of the team and spend a lot of time working with them one-on-one and also in groups.”
But, having had the benefit of two mentors playing a big role in his career to date, Gualino is more than happy to do this and believes it is an important part of managing a successful team – and producing the next generation of treasury leaders. “My team are very motivated because they are always challenged and constantly learning, but they know that should they come into difficulty with anything they can come to me and I can help,” he says. “I became a treasurer by learning while doing and I want to give my team the same opportunities that I have had. All I ask is that they are fully committed.”
The dynamic supply chain
Keeping with the trend of taking on the hard challenges, Gualino made a name for himself in treasury circles through his work in the somewhat tricky area of supply chain finance (SCF). Today he is considered one of the foremost experts in the topic having built a number of successful SCF programmes at Agilent and Flextronics.
One of the most challenging aspects of SCF programmes widely expressed by treasurers is its cross-functional nature and the need to get buy-in from both internal and external parties. And Gualino agrees: “Obtaining internal buy-in, from my experience, is the most difficult aspect of getting any SCF programme off the ground,” he says. “Often SCF is new for the company and it is therefore of the imperative that the treasurer sells the solutions to the different business units.”
To do this, Gualino recommends looking no further than simply outlining the benefits each business unit can achieve by supporting the programme. “Finance for instance will be interested in the fact that it can receive a higher return on its cash than just simply investing this in short-term funds. Of course, to do this treasury needs to have a detailed understanding of each units objectives in order to show them the benefits. This is often made harder due to the fact that to begin with your arguments are largely theoretical.”
On the supplier side Gualino has taken a similar approach in respect to selling the benefits to the suppliers – rather than simply forcing or manipulating them to on-board. “There is little benefit in forcing their hand. From what I have experienced when suppliers are forced into these programmes, they will simply raise their prices at a later date to compensate for the lost revenue,” he explains. “SCF should be seen as a service to a supplier, not a way to exploit them.”
Again, Gualino has used his consultancy background to sell the programme to suppliers. “If you are going to make it optional you have to sell it to them, this includes spending lots of time meeting with them and explaining the benefits. It is hard work, but when they join the programme it is a win-win for both us and the supplier.”
Streamlining processes with technology
As with many aspects of treasury, technology has played a big role in making a SCF programme easier to operate. “The proliferation of SCF platforms has made it a lot easier to reach out to suppliers and give them the option to use the service,” he explains. “In my view, the integration of e-invoicing into these platforms has been the biggest development because the suppliers need to go into the portal to download the invoice. They can decide there and then if they want to take the early payment.”
“My team are very motivated because they are always challenged and constantly learning, but they know that should they come into difficulty with anything they can come to me and I can help.”
The integration and automation which technology has brought has also proved an advantage for Gualino. “Our platform is fully integrated into the ERP, the cash management system and the e-invoicing portal,” he says. “Therefore when a supplier takes an early payment it just happens, and everything is updated seamlessly – this has transformed it from a difficult service, to an easy service to offer our suppliers.”
Unsurprisingly, given his committed approach to his work, Gualino is a busy man, and he admits that there are just not enough hours in the day to get everything done. That being said he is a firm believer in the need to maintain a healthy work-life balance, where possible.
“I try to carve out an hour every day to work out,” he says. “Some call this a hobby but for me it is more a necessity,” he jokes. “I used to be a black belt in taekwondo and now I do a lot of kickboxing at the gym. This is how I maintain my balance and keep my stress down, it also enables me to stay healthy and work the hours that I do.”
Being a family man, Gualino also ensures that he spends as much time with his wife and two children as possible. Again these provide a great remedy for the stresses of treasury. “I describe my little one as my medicine – she calms me down and the stress just dissolves when I am with her,” he says.
Combined, these out of office activities provide Gualino with the drive to prepare for his next challenge, wherever that may arise. “I really enjoy my work right now and the challenges it presents,” he says. “And when my bosses ask me what I want to do next I don’t state a function or title, I simply say if there is something that needs to be fixed or improved that nobody wants to do, I will do that. In my view to get where you want to be just focus on the challenge and the rest will follow.”