Wei Li-Tuomela, VP, Treasurer China at Stora Enso, thrives on challenges. Indeed, her career has been defined by two major projects that have redefined the role of treasury in China at Stora Enso. Now her ambition is to build upon this foundation and future-proof the department.
VP, Treasurer China
Part of the bioeconomy, Stora Enso is a leading global provider of renewable solutions in packaging, biomaterials, wooden constructions and paper. We believe that everything that is made from fossil-based materials today can be made from a tree tomorrow. Stora Enso has some 26,000 employees in over 30 countries and sales in 2017 were €10bn. Stora Enso shares are listed on Nasdaq Helsinki (STEAV, STERV) and Nasdaq Stockholm (STE A, STE R). In addition, the shares are traded in the USA as ADRs (SEOAY).
Wei Li-Tuomela, VP, Treasurer China at Stora Enso, is a firm believer that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Throughout her career, she has lived up to this mantra by taking on the tough challenges, raising the profile of the treasury department in China and attempting to add value to Stora Enso as a whole at every available opportunity.
This has seen Li-Tuomela build two treasury departments from scratch and transform a decentralised treasury operation in China into a world-class centralised department. She has also worked hard with her team to forge a cross-departmental bond between sales, sourcing and finance that has helped push treasury up the value chain.
Li-Tuomela is somewhat unique in today’s fluid labour market in that she has been with Stora Enso her whole career. Some may regard staying in one company as a conservative career choice. Li-Tuomela has a different view, however, believing that working for a large multinational company brings plenty of opportunities to try different roles and gain new experiences.
She joined the firm after graduating from Helsinki University with a degree in Forest Economics and embarked on the company’s Pathbuilder programme – a partnership between Stora Enso and IMD business school focused on leadership and development. Since then, she has held multiple roles across the company, including positions in marketing, sales, finance, M&A, business intelligence, communications and, of course, treasury.
“The modern treasurer must intimately understand the business and its strategic direction, targets and values. You also need to understand the industry, which cannot be achieved overnight. Having worked at Stora Enso for almost 20 years I understand the business quite well – and this helps greatly when I run projects and drive change within the organisation.”
Indeed, Li-Tuomela believes that working for just one company has benefited her career and her ability to add value as a treasurer. “The modern treasurer must intimately understand the business and its strategic direction, targets and values,” Li-Tuomela explains. “You also need to understand the industry, which cannot be achieved overnight. Having worked at Stora Enso for almost 20 years I understand the business quite well – and this helps greatly when I run projects and drive change within the organisation.”
Of course, a successful treasurer also requires first-rate treasury skills. Li-Tuomela honed her craft working under the Group Treasurer in Stora Enso’s Helsinki headquarters for five years. During this time, she worked on the day-to-day running of the treasury, as well as playing a key role in several large transactions and transformational projects.
“The more I worked in the treasury department, the more fascinating I found it,” she says. “As the internal bank of a large corporation, you really get to experience the power of capital.”
In 2013, Li-Tuomela took the career opportunity of a lifetime to set up a new project treasury office with full-scale treasury operations for the company’s new mill in China. The €800m project in the Guangxi Beihai region’s Tieshangang industrial zone is the largest Nordic direct investment in China and a significant investment for Stora Enso.
One of Li-Tuomela’s key responsibilities as Project Treasurer was to ensure that there was enough funding at a reasonable cost to finance the construction phase of the project. To say this was a challenge is an understatement, especially given the size of the investment required. Li-Tuomela notes it taught her about the importance of a balanced funding portfolio when operating in China.
“The Chinese banks have huge balance sheets and deposits, which make them the most competitive CNY lenders,” she explains. “The international banks, on the other hand, are more reliable – but their lending ability can be hampered by the regulators. It is, therefore, crucial to diversify risks and use a variety of lenders when operating in China.”
Aside from ensuring the project was funded, Li-Tuomela also put in place all the elements required in any treasury department. This included bank connectivity, payment processes and risk management systems. “This was incredibly hands-on but very exciting as I had my own sandbox and the ability to shape the treasury in my vision,” she says.
Three years on, the mill is up and running and a huge success for the company, “It was one of the highlights of my career and it was a privileged to work on the project,” she says.
With the Guangxi Mill completed in 2016, Li-Tuomela was at a crossroads in her career, looking for a role that could provide her with the same professional fulfilment as the project she had just worked on. Thankfully, Stora Enso’s growth in China meant that she didn’t have to wait long and was soon tasked with another exciting project: building a centralised regional treasury department in Shanghai.
This was to be a stimulating challenge because most of Stora Enso’s operations in China are carried about by joint ventures. “The level of treasury being conducted by these joint ventures was basic,” says Li-Tuomela. “For example, some operating units didn’t do cash flow planning and few had controls or standardised processes in place. Some didn’t even have account payables ledgers, meaning they had little idea how much cash they had, or needed.”
To rectify this, Li-Tuomela set to work on several transformational projects. The most important of these was the formation of an RMB cash pool to centralise liquidity and enable treasury to act as an in-house bank for the business units.
With the cash pool in place, Li-Tuomela and her team then spent significant time analysing cash flow patterns to increase the accuracy of the cash flow forecast and facilitate better liquidity planning. “There is always room for improvement in this area, but I think we have done a great job,” she says. “We now have one of the most sophisticated treasury operations in China.”
Despite her success centralising the treasury operations, Li-Tuomela admits that it has been a challenging process, testing her change management skills as much as treasury abilities. “Convincing the business units to give up their power and decision-making ability to a treasury department they didn’t know was not an easy process,” says Li-Tuomela. “It required lots of conversations and reassurances that this would be a positive step. Eventually, we were able to convince them that this was a positive change that would enable them to focus on their core competencies and better meet their KPIs.”
Today, Li-Tuomela is focused on adding value to the organisation. This aligns with her view that the modern treasury department must be more than an operational centre; it must also help drive the strategic objectives of the organisation. Li-Tuomela provides many examples of where treasury has added-value and influenced the strategic direction of the organisation. One that stands out is her work around credit management and controlling counterparty risk.
This is easily an area fraught with difficulty due to the differing KPIs of the treasury and sales departments, which, as Li-Tuomela explains, “creates a natural conflict”. “Selling as much as possible is rightly the main objective of the sales team,” says Li-Tuomela. “Sales tends to offer longer payment terms and bigger credit limit than what the company’s credit profile allows.”
“As a treasury leader, you need to understand the fundamentals of the role. But cross-departmental and interpersonal leadership, networking and management skills are equally important, if not more important. The way I see it is that IQ can get you so far, but it is emotional intelligence that sets you apart.”
To tackle this, Li-Tuomela followed a course of action similar to the one she had taken when setting up the treasury centre, engaging with the sales team rather than dictating to them. This involved reaching out to the sales team to build a standardised credit analysis process which would enable to the sales team to continue selling while mitigating the risks.
Li-Tuomela has also put in place a process that sees the credit team issue reminders to the sales representatives regarding due receivables. “This enables the sales team to proactively reach out to our customers and ensure they pay on this,” she says. “In my experience, this is a unique relationship between treasury and sales, and one which helps the company thrive in a sustainable manner.”
Passing it on
As a stalwart of the company for over a decade, Li-Tuomela has a deep connection to Stora Enso and wants to see the company succeed not just today, but in the years to come. To that end, Li-Tuomela is very keen to pass on her knowledge and experiences to her team members and anyone in the company with an interest in treasury.
They would do well to listen. Throughout her career Li-Tuomela has not just demonstrated excellent treasury skills; her approach to solving business challenges through discussion and understanding is a trait that every modern business leader should have.
This is something that Li-Tuomela is acutely conscious of. “As a treasury leader, you need to understand the fundamentals of the role,” she explains. “But cross-departmental and interpersonal leadership, networking and management skills are equally important, if not more important. The way I see it is that IQ can get you so far, but it is emotional intelligence (EQ) that sets you apart.”
This explains why Li-Tuomela is keen for members of her team to spend as little time in the treasury department as possible. “I want my team to go out and be curious about the business, the people in it and what makes it all come together,” she says. “This is why I tell them to take every opportunity that comes up and learn from other people. Doing so will make them better treasury leaders in the future.”
Li-Tuomela is especially keen on staying abreast of the latest trends shaping the financial industry. In her view, treasury and finance more broadly are on the cusp of a change that will completely redefine the profession. “Fintech is changing everything in the retail space here in China and this is slowly making its way into the commercial space,” she says. “The future will look very different.”
In light of these changes, Stora Enso’s treasury is actively looking to adopt more technology. Li-Tuomela notes that technologies which help treasury harness and interpret big data are of particular interest. “These will help treasury drive greater operational efficiency, as well as better supporting the business with detailed insights and analysis,” she says.
Incremental improvement is on the agenda for Li-Tuomela and the Stora Enso China regional treasury for the years to come as the company continues to grow in the country. On the technical side, Li-Tuomela plans to spend more time understanding the potential big data could bring to increase capital efficiency. Most crucially, there are plans to build a cross-border cash pool and thereby bring the China operation into the Group’s global liquidity structure.
Finally, Li-Tuomela plans to foster more cross-departmental relationships – thereby solidifying the position of treasury as a strategic leader and ensuring that it can continue to add greater value to the organisation.