To establish best practice and help our community to learn from each other’s experiences, we have launched a new series: Community Voices. The Treasury Today Group, along with our series partner, Association of Corporate Treasurers Singapore (ACTS), have reached out to corporates across the world to hear how COVID-19 is affecting their roles as treasury practitioners.
Seng Ti heads the FP&A, Treasury & Accounting; and the Human Resource departments in Isuzu Motors Asia Limited. He has over 15 years of corporate and market experience spanning from sell to buy sides. He is the current President of the Association of Corporate Treasurers (Singapore) and is a member in the MAS SC STS Committee. Seng Ti holds a MBA from Nanyang Business School and Executive Programme from IMD Lausanne.
When COVID-19 first appeared in December 2019 – and even when cities in China were placed under quarantine and lockdown – like most people, things were business as usual for us. In fact, we were still optimistic about 2020 and that seems to be the common sentiments amongst peers. When things turned drastic and financial markets collapsed, we were caught up on many fronts – operational, markets, business flows, and even regulatory calls!
In my day job at Isuzu Motors Asia, we have been in a strong position concerning cash and FX risks management – so these risks were very manageable. Due to the pandemic and the lockdowns, we could see disruptions to our business flows, and some of our trading volumes ground to a halt. Financially, there was an impact on us, thankfully the group has been in a strong position and that helps. However, as our operations were largely manual and we were just about to embark on a digitisation project, it was very painful for us to implement working from home.
As the President for the Association of Corporate Treasurers (Singapore), the pandemic disrupted our plans for 2020. In October 2019, we just completed our successful ACTS Treasurers Asia Summit and ACTS Business Case Competition and we were already planning for another eventful and busy 2020 with many engaging activities and interesting events. In view of the risks and for the safety and well-being of our members, friends, and guests, we had to cancel the physical events.
All these plans were derailed. What we initially thought were short temporary measures morphed into a complete standstill that affected everyone we knew in Singapore and beyond!
The pandemic has effected change almost overnight, with countries going under lockdown and in Singapore we started our Circuit Breaker in April, and this has been extended to June 2020. We were finalising our digitisation project to adopt OCR technology and implement workflow systems for the entire entity in Singapore, from the business units to finance and to treasury. We moved to e-workflow and 100% work from home set-up, and we started the digitisation project concurrently. It was particularly painful at the start, with staff confused and frustrated over changes and new processes. However, open and frequent discussions along with candid and frank exchanges helped to iron out differences and smooth the process. In hindsight, I wished that I could have started this digitisation project earlier in 2019, but I am glad that this COVID-19 experience helped to move the departments and staff closer and forward.
For ACTS, it was a strange new world with working from home. For our day jobs, we are swarmed from all directions and coping with the transition. For ACTS, without physical events, we had to turn digital and online. It was not easy to create meaningful content online and engaging audiences over the virtual world. For us, finding speakers for webinars became a challenge in comparison to our physical events. It was really strange at the start; over time we understood the challenges that many faced at home and that came with working from home. We tweaked our plans fast, and struck up many collaborations (like this Community Voices series with Treasury Today) and co-created a few webinars, a series of online articles, and hopefully we will be launching our ACTS Traineeship Programme.
At the onset of the pandemic, it was really difficult to verify news and get updates on the developments in the different countries in Asia Pacific that we have operations and businesses. The fact that this is indeed a novel virus, and many governments were grappling with the situation during the initial phase, was not helpful. However, as time progressed and governments gained control of the situation, it was easier to obtain information from official websites and from our entities in the different jurisdictions. In Singapore, we are blessed to have an amazing set-up and open communications with the government and related agencies.
The ACTS has over 200 members and represents more than 100 organisations. We have been a very tightly knitted group, and I think this pandemic brought the best out of us, and also from our partners and friends. When we needed more information, or if we had gaps in understanding – we always had kind assistance and pointers from our network. In fact, we were also approached by the government bodies in Singapore and conducted a few surveys with good responses from our members during the circuit breaker period. It was a difficult period, but we overcame it with the strong connections in our community.
Now that we are due to step out from the circuit breaker in Singapore, and with many jurisdictions ending or considering stopping their lockdown, this period certainly taught me many things.
3 Cs – Crisis, Change, and Community.
Crisis in Chinese is made up of 2 characters (危机) which individually have meanings that are of polar opposites, 危 – means danger while 机 – means opportunity. It sums up the situation very aptly and drives the point that one needs to be aware of the risks – present and future – and equally that one needs to be mindful of the opportunities that a crisis presents!
While COVID-19 has struck and disrupted many of us in different ways, it has undeniably opened up new ways of doing business and presented novel ideas and solutions. As trained finance and treasury professionals, we are taught to assess our positions and manage our risks. In many areas, we are usually reactive and retrospective, however, the COVID-19 crisis has forced many of us to be pre-emptive and forward-looking. Some of us have come up with innovative solutions at work, and our daily lives, and these have brought about improvements and opened up new ways of doing things.
Change – the only constant is change. The pandemic has brought about change to new levels; both in intensity and in speed. Like my workplace, the circuit breaker brought about digitisation immediately. I had spent many moons selling my case to stakeholders and persuading end users on the benefits and efficiencies. COVID-19 did that in less than a week and everyone from top to bottom implemented it! Before COVID-19, many of the technologies now made popular were already available, but many sceptics dismissed them as disruptive and unproven. E-commerce, e-meetings, e-working, and many digital and virtual solutions, were not taken seriously and were not adopted seriously by many corporations and individuals. The pandemic forced everyone to go online and digital – there were many disgruntled voices and much dissent. However, “e” is now the buzzword. How things have changed in a short period of fewer than three months. The world is now hooked on “e” solutions. There are no alternatives to “e”, apart from the potential change in the future that is probably generations away. We are in the new digital normal.
Challenging as it might have been, with the crisis and the changes, we are adapting and adopting new ways and arguably we are going to overcome it – not by ourselves but collectively as a community. The last ‘C’ that I have learnt from this episode is Community. Strength in numbers, or as the common saying goes “to move fast – go alone, to travel far – move together”, like many others I have learnt the value of the community. No man (woman) is an island. No matter how brilliant, we all need a network of good partners, friends and family to support us in our journey. Some need help for daily chores, some need assistance on problems, some need advice for issues while some need support to create new ways and solutions. Through this pandemic, I found many new friends and partners who share the same beliefs and goals, with mutually respecting and beneficial outcomes. Together, we connected, collaborated and co-created.
This crisis has made me yearn for new challenges and aspire for greater heights.