Corporate View: Debbie Kaya, Cisco Systems

Published: Nov 2022

The route to treasury

Debbie Kaya, Senior Director Treasury, Global Cash and Stock Operations at Cisco Systems, discusses how her unconventional career path led her to the treasury of one of the largest technology companies in Silicon Valley.

Debbie Kaya

Senior Director Treasury, Global Cash and Stock Operations

Cisco Systems is a multinational technology company headquartered in San Jose, California. With over 80,000 employees, and revenues of over US$51bn, it is one of the largest technology companies in the world. Best known for its computer networking products, Cisco is responsible for the design and manufacture of much of the technology that powers the internet, as well as solutions which are the foundation of most corporate, education and government networks around the world. In 2022 Cisco Systems was rated number one in Fortune magazine’s annual rankings of the 100 Best Companies to Work For, topping the survey for the second year running.

For Debbie Kaya, the appeal of treasury lies in the balance it offers between predictability and variety. “I love the way that treasury has a certain structure to it. The deadlines are fixed, the markets are open at certain times,” she explains. “But at the same time, every day brings something different. It presents different challenges. You get to be involved in new aspects of the business and develop new skills.”

While Kaya is enthusiastic about the opportunities treasury presents, her route into treasury was somewhat unconventional. In fact, she decided at an early age her career would be in the world of medicine and healthcare, and never really considered any other options. But after gaining a Bachelor of Science in Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, Kaya had growing doubts about whether it would be the right career for her.

In her opinion, the ever-increasing cost of healthcare and its lucrative financial rewards were leading away from a focus on care, with a greater emphasis on profit. So, when it came to choosing her next step, Kaya says she “had to think long and hard if that was what I really wanted to do.”

Kaya’s sister mentioned that the company she was working at needed an administrator. Following a successful application, Kaya started working at the company, which was a small networking start-up firm. “I worked in the technical support team, with responsibility for handling the pre-sales and post-sales support,” Kaya adds.

Although a degree in biology may not have seemed directly relevant to the role, the fact that it was a science discipline meant it was heavily weighted towards maths – and Kaya had always had a great affinity for numbers. As such, she was able to impress her manager with her abilities in that area. Recognising her potential, he arranged for her to learn as much as she could about spreadsheets and databases. “Before I knew it, I was managing the team’s budget,” Kaya recalls.

Her manager, who had become both a friend and mentor, then encouraged her to pursue her career further and to consider studying at business school. So, after four years with her mentor at two different firms, Kaya enrolled at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, where she gained an MBA in Finance.

Next stop: Silicon Valley

Having enjoyed working in a technology company, Kaya realised that was where her future career lay. She therefore decided to move to the heart of the sector in Silicon Valley. After a spell as a financial analyst at a technology networking company, she landed a position at Cisco Systems in September 1999, starting in sales finance.

When Cisco started a recruiting programme at the business school where Kaya had gained her MBA, she had the opportunity to get to know the manager of global investments in the treasury department. When asked whether she would consider working in treasury, her first reaction was that having little experience of the investment side of finance meant she was hardly qualified for such a role. “He told me – ‘you’re smart, you’ll figure it out’.”

After working for two years at Cisco’s investment operations in Reno, Nevada, Kaya was ready to move back to California. Rather than take another role within treasury, she decided it was time to learn another side of the business. With her boss suggesting she could do a lateral move, she decided to take the opportunity to learn cost accounting and gain an insight into the manufacturing supply chain side of the business.

With Kaya accumulating a wide breadth of experience from the various financial areas of the business, it was perhaps not surprising the Treasurer at the time asked if she had set her sights on becoming a CFO. “I told him that probably 80% of graduates coming out of business school would have that ambition,” she remembers. “But I told him that I didn’t know if I would be willing to make the personal sacrifices necessary, but I was not ready to rule it out, at least not at that time.”

Then, after spending a year in manufacturing finance, Kaya realised that she was ready for her next role – adding that she had been “bitten by the treasury bug.”

Cash management

Kaya’s previous manager – who was running the global investment team and cash management at the time – asked if she would like to return to treasury. In particular, he asked if she would be interested in cash management.

“I told him I had never done that before, but he pointed out that I hadn’t done investment operations before either,” she recalls. “And then he asked me if I would consider moving to Europe as well. We had the conversation on the Thursday, and he told me he needed my answer on the Monday.” After making many phone calls and having just that weekend to make her decision, she agreed to make the move.

Kaya spent nearly three years in Europe, based at Cisco’s treasury operation in Amsterdam, where she was the Cash Manager for EMEA as well as Acting Cash Manager for the APAC region. She subsequently returned to the United States to become the Americas Cash Manager, a position she held for almost four years. “After that, I became Head of Global Strategy and Director for all the cash centres, with more of the treasury operations reporting to me, and more recently was asked to lead stock administration and mergers and acquisitions stock and payroll,” she recalls.

In her current role, Kaya is the Senior Director of Global Treasury and Stock Operations, which includes core treasury responsibilities such as global cash management, investment operations, 401(k) operations and treasury systems and compliance. In addition, she has responsibilities for stock administration and mergers and acquisitions stock and payroll. “So, when we acquire new companies, we bring the employees onto payroll and handle the stock transition for the target company,” she notes.

The company’s traditional treasury activities are handled by a 35-strong team, which focuses on five major functions of treasury – namely cash management, investment, foreign exchange, corporate finance, and risk and insurance management. “We also have responsibility for integrating acquisitions and mergers, and we deal with accounts receivable, accounts payable and sales,” says Kaya. “We’ve built a great team, and I’m really proud of them.”

She notes that the company has centres in some of its key geographical locations. “In the United States we have two, one here in San Jose, California, and one in Raleigh, North Carolina. In Europe, we have our centre operating out of Rolle in Switzerland, which handles EMEA and the Asia Pacific regions. And then we have team members in China, and in Bangalore in India.”

Evolving role of the treasurer

With today’s environment characterised by geopolitical risks, as well as by rising interest rates and levels of inflation not seen for decades, Kaya notes that risks to financial stability have increased substantially – and that adjusting to this new landscape requires quite a shift for many of today’s treasury professionals.

“For the past two and a half years we have had to deal with a lot of challenges, and we’re currently going through a big economic shift,” Kaya notes. “It’s such a changing environment, and a lot of people have never had to deal with these kinds of situations before. What keeps me up at night is thinking about all the situations that we haven’t encountered yet, even after the past few years.”

Consequently, Kaya sees the current environment broadening and deepening those parts of a treasurer’s role that go beyond the remit of traditional treasury, not least because in the present financial climate, the definition of risk is expanding.

“The treasurer needs to be the steward of the financial assets and manage risk,” she explains. “But for a treasurer, there is always an ‘and’ to that role. They also need to be strong internal partners, and build strong external relationships, and make the greatest possible use of technology.”

With real-time data becoming a reality, Kaya points out that having a strong understanding of technology presents an opportunity to use data to look at risk in different ways, and at a deeper level – “Be it to assess risk due to changing economic conditions, compliance or global external forces.” In addition, says Kaya, fraud and cyber risk has become much more sophisticated. “Teams have to be able to address and mitigate these risks, from the day-to-day transactions and movements of money to the area of insurance management.”

Significant achievements

Kaya has achieved much in her career – but as she points out, sometimes not doing something, and steering away from the usual path, can be an achievement in itself. “I would say that one of my greatest achievements was having the courage to stop a project,” she recalls.

Some years ago, with treasury in the process of adopting a treasury management solution, Kaya says she realised the new solution was not going to be able to fulfil its purpose. “We were six weeks away from going live with the treasury workstation,” Kaya recalls. “There was a list of functionalities we viewed as core, but the vendor regarded as customisation. And the vendor provided costs for two of the items on our list.” These two items were going to cost three times the annual licensing fee.

Realising the solution might prove to be a “money pit”, Kaya went into the Treasurer’s office to inform him what they had been expecting would not be delivered, and to suggest the project be cancelled. “I told him we were not going to get what we wanted, and so we needed to pull the plug on the project, to which he agreed.”

With the support of the IT manager, treasury opted for a different approach – namely to rebuild the company’s existing in-house solution. The discussions that followed proved fruitful, and with Cisco’s internal expertise, it was straightforward to reengineer and repurpose the solution to provide treasury with the necessary functionality. “We had implemented SWIFT, so we could access a lot of really interesting data,” says Kaya.

With the solution producing more comprehensive access to data, and in a more streamlined and standardised way, Cisco was also able to build a data warehouse which became a resource not just for treasury, but for other partner organisations too. “That’s one of the achievements I’m really proud of,” Kaya notes.

She adds: “When I discuss this in larger forums, the reaction from other companies is usually that they wouldn’t be able to do it themselves, because they wouldn’t have the resources. And if I were at a different sized company at a different period of growth, I would take a different approach now, because the technologies available are different.” Nevertheless, says Kaya, treasury continues to revisit and improve the solution, with a recent enhancement including the addition of an off-the-shelf tool.

Moving treasury forward

Kaya believes in the continuous assessment of treasury operations – and working for a technology company means she is always eager to evaluate new technologies and systems. Acknowledging that nothing stays the same for long in the technology space, she says: “You can’t just stay stagnant and remain in the same place. You must look at it in terms of a cycle, to find out what technologies are currently available and how they can address the present needs of the business.”

With technology providing increasingly powerful tools for treasury to use, she sees real-time data – and the ability to gather information about transactions and operations as they occur – as a major goal for treasury, as well as for businesses generally.

Where other developments are concerned, application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow data transmission between solutions are another exciting area of development. “I think we’re still trying to figure out bots and artificial intelligence (AI) and where best to use them right now,” Kaya comments. “And personally, I’m really interested to see how real-time payments roll out. There’s a lot of talk about it, but it’s a question of how it really works in practice.”

Turning to current and upcoming projects, Kaya says Cisco has recently implemented an intercompany loan solution in light of changes to the company’s structure. “We’re also looking into multilateral netting,” she says. “We’re looking at some tools to help with compliance, and we’re also looking at some of our regional set-ups that have been in place for many years to see if we need to make changes.”

Keeping all of this in motion is no small task. Nevertheless, Kaya says she enjoys good food and wine when she is off duty. She also enjoys long distance running and mountain hiking and loves to travel to different places around the globe.

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