Strength in partnership
Last Christmas, Angel Cheung, Assistant Treasurer at the John Lewis Partnership, volunteered to swap a few days at her desk in treasury for a stint on the London shop floor at the UK’s famous department store and Waitrose food hall. She loved the front row seat it gave her on the seasonal scramble for everything from children’s shoes to toys, teas and biscuits, as well as insight into the camaraderie at the company, the UK’s largest employee-owned business which divides its profits among its staff, known as partners.
The John Lewis Partnership is the UK’s largest employee-owned business and parent company of two retail brands – John Lewis and Waitrose, which are owned in trust by 80,000 partners. The Partnership began life in 1864 when John Lewis opened a small draper’s shop on Oxford Street, London.
Equally important was the window it gave on how issues in treasury play out on the ground, none more so than today’s tight supply chain impacting goods on the shelves. “When you spend time on the shop floor you feel much closer to the business,” enthuses Cheung, speaking to Treasury Today in between long hours finalising the annual funding plan before year end.
Cheung, who joined the partnership eight months ago, has a hands-on remit that spans managing the loan book to broad responsibility for risk management and working capital solutions. She looks after treasury governance; works closely with banks and internal stakeholders and once year-end is out of the way, will focus on treasury policy updates and various new treasury projects. “Much of my work is strategy and project-based, besides overseeing our day-to-day treasury operations,” she says.
She’s currently taking a fresh look at investment strategies and solutions to enhance the company’s return on cash at the same time as protecting a buoyant cash position and managing counterparty risk – as there are no equity shareholders, it is important to ensure there is sufficient liquidity and funding available to support the business in all times. The partnership currently invests surplus cash in short-term deposits and other short-term investments, but she’s exploring other alternatives with the company’s banks and service providers to optimise the company’s investment strategy.
Elsewhere, a typical working day currently involves preparing and executing the company’s energy and FX hedging strategy. Inflation is also an increasing focus for treasury. Particularly because of its implications on consumer buying choices that could change current demand. “I am mindful of the knock-on impact of inflation – on both customers’ buying power and consumption sentiment,” she says.
Alongside John Lewis’ cash balances, the business maintains a £420m committed revolving credit facility (recently refinanced for five years with ESG targets) with seven relationship banks, on hand should additional financial resources be needed. Like the company’s plans to invest to transform and grow John Lewis and Waitrose also plans to diversify into areas such as financial services and rented housing. Elsewhere, everyday typical bank support comprises multiple accounts and FX management.
I am mindful of the knock-on impact of inflation – on both customers’ buying power and consumption sentiment.
And in a reflection of the extension of the partnership ethos that defines the company, John Lewis’ banking relationships extend beyond just service provision. “We really do treat banks as our partners,” she says. For example, calls on banks for advice and insight increasingly encompass requests for innovative ideas around managing the treasury function, streamlining financial operations, seeking advice on market and regulatory expertise, and building out the risk management strategy. She also looks to banks for good advice on opportunities with treasury fintechs. “There is so much development that we need to be aware of, it’s very helpful when our banks notify us with what is going on and presents us with suggestions.” She also counts on partner banks to share treasury ideas, latest market development and keep the company up to date with treasury practice amongst industry peers.
For the last six months Cheung has been involved in a TMS upgrade, part of which included accommodating LIBOR transition and introducing straight-through processing so that the company’s different treasury systems like money market and FX trading platforms can now talk to each other. “It’s an important achievement and saves a great deal of time,” she says. “It also reduces the chance of human error.” Reflecting on the experience, a key learning has been the importance of ensuring internal IT teams are also across ambitious TMS projects as they possess the technology expertise and internal IT systems knowledge. “Ensure internal IT teams are engaged from the project planning stage so they are fully onboard to provide advice and support,” she advises.
Going forward, she hopes the new system will allow the company to use and analyse data in a more efficient way and support the team in preparing analysis. She also wants to increase efficiency in various treasury processes, while maintaining adequate internal control and governance. “It’s all about fostering a better understanding of our business and helping us to further enable processes and performance.”
Cheung had only been at John Lewis for four months when she helped close an inaugural ESG financing facility at the company. Last October, working with the sustainability team, she oversaw structuring of a new £420m five-year revolving credit facility linked to environmental targets that will replace existing facilities of £500m due to expire at the end of 2022. Integrating ESG targets was a natural step given an already engrained ESG ethos in the Partnership, she says. Under the structure, the interest rate John Lewis pays on the facility will vary depending on whether it achieves three key ESG targets.
When you spend time on the shop floor you feel much closer to the business. Much of my work is strategy and project-based, besides overseeing our day-to-day treasury operations.
The facility is linked to the company achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2035, a reduction of food waste by 50% across Waitrose by 2030 (against a 2018 baseline) and ending the use of fossil fuels across the company’s transport fleet by 2030. With the benefit of hindsight, they seem like obvious targets, but Cheung says that choosing the right KPIs was one of the most challenging aspects of the process. “The Partnership has done so much work on the ESG front and there were quite a lot of ESG targets to consider,” she says.
In the end, the team opted for KPIs that provided a good mix in different ESG areas. Looking to the future, she notes further opportunities to integrate ESG in treasury. Like ESG supply chain finance, investment options, as well as FX where she highlights the growing prevalence of banks offering preferable exchange rates skewed to sustainable endeavour, an avenue to be explored.
Cheung was born and raised in Hong Kong where she lived until leaving for university in America to study economics at the University of Chicago. After graduation, she joined Citi in Hong Kong, working in investment banking across the capital markets and in mergers and acquisitions. Three years later, responding to her growing ambition to see through an entire project and be part of a company’s evolution, she jumped into the corporate world and joined Tesco’s treasury division in Hong Kong. “I wanted to get away from just executing deals for a bank and want to see the continuity of the projects I managed,” she says. At Tesco her focus was corporate finance, leading capital markets transactions across Asia while also working on deal targeting, board approvals, helping the company appoint external advisors and liaising with investors. She also led on leading property sale and leaseback.
Two years later she moved to focus on treasury, first managing Tesco’s Asian treasury operations before moving to the UK where she made Group Treasury Manager, Europe. “So many people end up in treasury who never started out there,” she says.
Even though I was happy at Kingfisher, these opportunities don’t always come along, and working for John Lewis was an opportunity I wanted to try and do.
Reflecting on that attraction she highlights the fact that treasury is always changing, offering the ability to step into a myriad of different roles spanning funding to risk management; sustainability or working capital solutions. Treasury also combines her passion for technology and numbers and brings a proximity to the business she loves, given its fundamental role in corporate growth and success. The icing on the cake is the treasury community where everyone seems to know each other, and a willingness to share experiences defines relationships. Whether it is upgrading a TMS or overseeing the LIBOR transition to new risk-free rates, there is an opportunity to share and exchange knowledge. “Treasury skills are transferable, and even more so in a retail environment because the main focus is quite similar,” she says.
After a six and half year stint with Tesco she moved to Kingfisher, arriving in treasury operations at the global home improvements group a year before the pandemic started. During the pandemic, Kingfisher’s business roared ahead on the Europe-wide surge in lockdown-induced home improvements and the business was blessed by a strong cash position. “It was a very exciting two years, and we had a great team,” she says.
When an opportunity at John Lewis came knocking, she felt compelled to seize it. “Even though I was happy at Kingfisher, these opportunities don’t always come along, and working for John Lewis was an opportunity I wanted to try and do.”
When she is not working Cheung enjoys hiking, art, visiting museums and travelling. She is also keeping busy with a new love and passion for health and well-being, born in lockdown but which has turned into a rigorous and enlivening daily regime. “It was difficult at the beginning, but I now feel I am missing something if I don’t do exercise,” she concludes.