Corporate View: Anita Bubna, Senior Director, Treasury, Flex

Published: Nov 2020

Agent of change

In just a short time with Flex’s treasury, Anita Bubna’s rise has been meteoric. An astute technologist, agent for change and financial professional, it’s easy to see how she has positively transformed Flex’s treasury landscape. She talks to Treasury Today about her experiences and approach to life.

Anita Bubna

Senior Director, Treasury

Flex is a diverse multinational technological manufacturer and a leader in hi-tech manufacturing supply chains serving some of the world’s best known names. It started life in 1969 as a family business but today has a global workforce of 160,000 in over 100 manufacturing and service sites across 30 countries. Flex revenues in 2019 were over US$26bn.

From her office in San Jose, California, Anita Bubna, Senior Director, Treasury, Flex, is located within the heart of the cultural, financial and political centre of Silicon Valley. It’s an appropriate location for a business and finance-minded individual with very strong leanings towards technology.

Originally from India, Bubna trained as a software and systems developer before launching her own successful web design and development company. On moving to the US, she initially worked as a project manager in a web design and development firm. The dot-com crash saw her change career paths and transition to finance.

A degree in finance kick-started her move into banking as a financial analyst before joining Flex in 2010 as Treasury Analyst. Rising rapidly up the ranks of this hi-tech specialist, through five different roles, Bubna’s obvious blend of technical and personal skills propelled her into her current position as Senior Director of Treasury in October 2019. Today she holds responsibility for FX, Debt Capital Markets and special projects.

Being ready

The fact that Bubna has studied well before taking on new positions suggests someone who likes to be prepared. But experience has taught her that study is just the beginning. “You can never be fully ready for a new role; you learn most by doing it, by not being afraid to take on something new and knowing that in each role you will pick up something different.” It’s this cumulative experience, and the ability to ask the right questions and learn quickly, that has allowed her to contribute optimally to any new undertaking.

Although this is part of the secret of her success, enabling her to work on some very large and complex cross-functional teams over the years, Bubna acknowledges that in some instances where she has not necessarily had the authority to get everyone on board, she has had to resort to persuasive powers to influence progress.

“In big projects, there is often a reluctance in the initial stages to move forward. I’d not always understand why when I could clearly see how a certain path would lead to positive results. But then I would realise that not everyone has the same information that I have, and so their conclusion may be different.”

From thinking that people would at some point catch up if she just left them to it, she soon realised that sharing information and understanding in the early stages is one of the most effective ways of overcoming resistance. Even if it means slower progress initially, she believes adopting this approach can prevent far more painful failure at the later stages.

With her success breeding more responsibility, often Bubna was expected to be more productive with the same resources. This made her think about the choice between taking on more but potentially being less effective, or focusing on perfecting the job in hand. Here she admits to making an early mistake.

“I thought it would be better to do a job really well, rather than take on a lot and maybe not do justice to that role.” Later she felt this was not the right conclusion because although the extra work may feel overwhelming at first, it’s possible to develop “systems that enable progress”.

Bubna’s training as a software and systems developer enables the right mindset to apply to any challenge, taking apart and re-assembling its components, rather than allowing herself to be overwhelmed by the bigger picture. “There’s almost an algorithmic thinking behind it,” she says.

By looking at every task computationally, with process inputs and outputs, her framework can be applied to almost any situation. It helps her to break down most complex projects and not take things personally when they don’t go well; very useful when other people start with different information or assumptions, she notes!

Inclusivity and connectivity

However, Bubna has also managed to move away from a totally results-driven approach, giving her a far better grasp of the human aspect of her work and how her actions affect others. “I’ve realised that it is important to slow down and check at every stage in a project to make sure that everyone has had a chance to speak up,” she explains.

Of course, she adds, the kind of environment where individuals feel comfortable commenting, and can enjoy the progress and results, needs to be created within the team; “it doesn’t happen automatically”. That sense of inclusion extends from treasury into the rest of Flex, ensuring the work of Bubna and her team has a far-reaching impact.

Its treasury department consists of connected groups covering cash management, corporate finance, FX and credit control. Combining these groups forms the heart of the organisation. But the work only begins in earnest when treasury has the right data to analyse, enabling different scenarios to be used as guidance for the whole of the business.

In a previous role in cash management, for example, she was receiving global cash balances (from Flex’s 50 banks) just once a week. Collaboration was required with the many different treasury teams dotted around the world. Throw in a holiday or a transmission issue, and a fully accurate view was not possible.

With global treasury shouldering the responsibility for providing accurate figures to senior management, change was necessary. Bubna knew that accuracy could only be assured if cash data came from connected systems. She describes this awakening as a “game-changer”.

Under the potentially crippling restrictions imposed by COVID-19, she knows that if Flex had relied upon its old fragmented processes, its cash positions (impacted by suddenly highly unpredictable revenue streams) would be largely unknowable. This could have presented a huge working capital and liquidity risk to the business. With cash positions visible in Flex’s connected global system, that risk is mitigated.

By making sure efficient ecosystems and processes are in place, treasury enables the business to secure additional liquidity. Having worked in Flex’s corporate finance group, one of Bubna’s contributions was to double the funding within its ABS and receivables financing programmes, identifying new opportunities and speeding up the onboarding of new banks.

With all the work done at that time, Flex is now reaping the benefits of scaled-up liquidity, especially in its supply chain finance programmes. Indeed, with its own suppliers facing extra financial stress at the hands of the pandemic, many more are leveraging this solution, ensuring both their business survival and the continuity of Flex’s supply chain.

When things are going well, treasury can sometimes disappear into the background. It’s only when the risk levels rise that the function comes into its own, notes Bubna. Now is such a time. “Our CEO has said she will not take any critical decisions without having the CFO in the room.”

Data front and centre

All the work put in, in terms of making sure granular-level data is available for detailed scenario and what-if analysis, has helped the team provide essential insight. This is why treasury has also been a key part of every current conversation on risk management.

Quite understandably, given her background, data is seen as a kind of lifeblood by Bubna. In another interview (following her Highly Commended award as Woman of the Year 2019 in Treasury Today’s Adam Smith Awards) she has said: “in the future, I see treasury as the organisation that will be the stewards of data, insight and the glue that will bring all the other organisations together to drive strategic decision making”. Data and treasury, in her mind, are clearly bound tightly together.

Believing that most treasurers will have to evolve “at some stage” into the position of strategic advisor, she argues that this is not possible if all the transactional work is not subject to continual streamlining. This is why Flex’s pre-existing FX systems and data sources, for example, are now being augmented with the greater accessibility by treasury of granular data.

Doing so enables the function to add value far beyond its traditional remit. In the case of FX, Bubna’s team has used system streamlining to build new modelling that is enabling Flex’s business teams to assess the FX risk component in the contracts they are negotiating. These evolved solutions, along with and an appropriate level of coaching for users, are helping business colleagues understand and mitigate a far wider range of risk types and levels, as is essential in today’s volatile world.

Working with and for others

Of course, balancing the technical and analytical with the softer human skills is what makes Bubna stand out. Her motivation to mentor, for example, stems from a desire to move beyond the fully hands on, do-it-all approach of her formative years. She now adopts a more mature, reflective stance where, within a project, she understands the benefits of empowering others to define and reach their own goals. Evaluating personal success, she says, becomes less about individual projects and more about the achievements and growth of the team. Essentially, it becomes a more selfless activity.

“It can be hard to ask even more of the team, and challenge them to do the best work they are capable of. But in going through this process, they each learn so much more,” she says. The positive effect can be startling, with some of her mentees becoming firm friends, appreciative of what they have learnt over the years and of how they have been able to grow in their careers.

Building a team in her own image though is not what it’s about. “I want diversity and I want people to challenge me. As long as we do so respectfully, and the criticism is constructive, this is healthy.

Lifelong learning

Alongside technical know-how, personal skills are an essential part of successful treasury today. For Bubna it all starts with the “right attitude”. Treasurers must accept that they are, to all intents and purposes, a service operation. “But it’s essential to not look at our role in a narrow way, continuously expanding it, and identifying how we will add value in the organisation.”

There is a real need to ensure treasurers are engaged in continuous learning, she adds. A natural curiosity will help bring order to a rapidly changing world. As well as the early acquisition of razor-sharp analytical and modelling skills, it’s vital for today’s treasurer to be asking the right questions from the outset. Only then will they have the capacity to drive progress in cross-functional teams, and be able to build and present a compelling business case to colleagues from across the board.

Of course, data is key here, and whilst some may deem this unnecessary, the advantage of coding skills in treasury cannot be overestimated by Bubna. “It gives you an edge,” she states. “Most treasury teams are heavily dependent on IT, but with the new tools it is possible to take on a lot of that work ourselves.”

The reason she offers for doing so is simple: treasurers can find it hard to translate their highly technical knowledge to those outside the function such as IT. Combining coding skills and specialist treasury knowledge allows the incumbent to push ahead with simple modelling and connecting data sources, making them “so much more effective”. She goes so far as to say that treasurers with coding skills will soon become the equivalent of Excel power-users, now that spreadsheet mastery is a given in the profession.

Career development

Acquisition or development of all these skills at an early stage is as much a career investment as the considered choice of the first few jobs, Bubna believes. “Those initial choices should not be based on the salary, glamour or status of the role, but on how much you are able to learn in those positions.”

On the basis that young minds find it so much easier to learn new skills, making best use of the formative years is the advice from one who knows the value of time well spent. “Don’t worry about rapid promotions; they will come for the right person.” Bubna has never been motivated by career progression at any cost, but more by the knowledge that she is doing “work that is meaningful”.

By purposefully filling in the skill gaps, she has let her career evolve outside of the self-imposed constraints of a defined career plan. In doing so, she has avoided the stagnation that can come from being too comfortable in a role, instead allowing herself to leverage learning opportunities as they arise. Fortuitously, Flex offers a biennial rotation programme to fast-learning employees, nurturing the depth and breadth – and professional empathy – required in more senior roles. It’s something Bubna has exploited to the full.

Balanced approach

Creating a skillset that meets the dynamic needs of the organisation certainly explains how she has risen through the ranks, becoming a much-valued contributor to the wider treasury community. The challenges have been varied on the journey, and Bubna admits that in her formative professional years it had been difficult to find the right work/life balance. That’s changed.

Having extensively proven her credentials, and having formed a talented and trusted team around her, her role now is more about guiding and mentoring others.

The lockdown period has been an eye-opener. For a manufacturing company, homeworking is not the norm, but in many cases Bubna reports that team productivity has been higher. “If you have your day littered with meetings, you just don’t have that block of time to get on with it,” she explains.

This is why, post-pandemic, a new treasury structure may prevail, with the team taking time at home each week, grouping meetings for office time only and, in doing so, “unleashing greater efficiency”. Of course, even in the worst of times an effective agent of change will continue to learn and make improvements. It comes as no surprise then that Bubna is doing precisely that.

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