Corporate View: Christopher Emslie, General Mills

Published: Jan 2021
Christopher Emslie, Asia Regional Treasurer, General Mills

Recipe for success

Building a treasury from scratch is always a challenge – and doing so for a regional treasury spanning 11 markets in APAC is undoubtedly a complex undertaking. But for Christopher Emslie, Asian Regional Treasurer at General Mills, taking on a project of this nature is also a labour of love, despite the difficulties presented by the global pandemic.

Christopher Emslie

Asian Regional Treasurer

Headquartered in Minnesota in the United States, General Mills is a food company that incorporates over 100 brands including Pillsbury, Yoplait, Nature Valley, Cheerios and Häagen-Dazs. The company operates in over 100 countries across six continents and has annual sales of over US$17bn. General Mills has 35,000 employees around the world, including 3,000 in Asia Pacific. The company first began operating in China 30 years ago, and now also has offices in Singapore, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

For Christopher Emslie, Asian Regional Treasurer at General Mills, treasury is above all an opportunity to learn something new every day. “It’s multifaceted. There are so many things you can do, and so many ways you can look at it,” he says. “We’re dealing with the banks, who are always innovating and looking to make our lives better. And we’re dealing with the business people, who are looking to innovate and grow their businesses as well. As treasurer, you’re the one with the chequebook – you’re the one that needs to make sure there’s enough money in the bank, or find a solution if the need arises.”

While Emslie is passionate about treasury, it isn’t where his career began. After spending some years in the audit field, Emslie says he “had the big wide world of corporates open up, and funnily enough took a job with one of my customers.” He then moved into general finance and took on roles in a number of different industries. When he felt it was time for a change, he accepted a role at ABB as an SAP consultant. “From there, the CFO asked me to look after the liquidity and receivables,” he says. “And after that, we built the first treasury organisation in Africa for ABB.”

Given the challenges involved in doing business in Africa, Emslie says he spent a lot of time planning the project, selling the idea internally, and making sure the organisation would continue to fulfil a valuable role for years to come. “For me that was a great experiencing: coming into a treasury environment, without understanding all the mechanisms and dynamics, and learning as we went along.” Following the project in Africa, Emslie was tasked with undertaking a similar project for ABB in Asia, which resulted in a move to Singapore.

During his early years in treasury, Emslie says that he benefited greatly from input from several mentors, who shared their knowledge and helped him to progress. “In those days I didn’t know much about treasury – I was very much a finance guy,” he says. “But treasury was far more fun. It was about being on the coalface: interacting with third parties, looking at projects and looking at ways to make business better.”

Joining General Mills

Then, in 2017, the opportunity arose to work for General Mills as the company’s regional treasurer in Asia. “It was pretty much a clean sheet of paper to build a treasury for them in Asia – and I’ve been doing that now for the past three years,” he says. “We’re not quite finished yet, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

The Singapore-based regional treasury covers 11 countries in Asia Pacific, from India and China to Australia and New Zealand. The team’s responsibilities include liquidity and cash management, bank relationship management, foreign exchange and managing inter-company loans, as well as ensuring that short-term and long-term facilities are in place when needed. The treasury also maintains close relationships with the legal and tax departments, as well as with third parties.

“It’s quite a diverse business, and quite a diverse region, because of the different regulations and the different way things work and the different ways that people look at business,” comments Emslie. “It’s also quite challenging because the environment is continually changing. You can have new regulations announced in India or China, and then you have a day to react before the new rules come into effect. So you really need to be on your toes, and have trust in your partners to give you the right information so you can overcome these challenges.”

Labour of love

Setting up a treasury organisation in Asia is not without its challenges, although Emslie has been able to draw upon his experiences in Africa along the way. Initially he had hoped to carry out the project within two years – “And now we’re three years in, with another two years before we finish it all, and make sure we’ve got a fully-rounded treasury operation in the region.”

Nevertheless, much has been achieved in that time. “It took us six months to do our networking, build a base and get people to understand what treasury was – what we were able to do, and how we were going to help them,” he says. “And it was sometimes quite slow – but now the phones are ringing, which is great, because people are now asking for advice and wanting to speak to us. Which is great.” Meanwhile, the company has also begun implementing a similar project in Latin America.

Looking back at his achievements at General Mills so far, Emslie describes the project as a labour of love. “It’s been a great journey,” he says. “We’ve learned from our mistakes, and we’ve continued to build on the foundations that we’ve set. Now we want to see it through to the end and make sure that the final product is something that we can be proud of, and that will fit into the group organisation as a whole.”

Adapting to the COVID-19 environment

Last year, like treasurers everywhere, Emslie had to adapt to the disruption brought by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic – a development that resulted in some additional challenges.

For one thing, he notes that a key objective of the regional treasury is to partner effectively with the business, both by supporting decision making and creating process efficiencies. While General Mills doesn’t have dedicated treasurers in every APAC market, it has local finance people who help with treasury operations – and before the pandemic began, Emslie would frequently get on a plane if any issues needed addressing. “Now, during COVID, it’s not so easy to do that, and so we rely very much on those finance people and really build that trust,” he says.

Instead of having meeting after meeting, there was a lot more decision-making going on, especially with third parties. So I think that’s one of the positives.

Reflecting on the challenges of recent months, Emslie emphasises that “most of us had never been through that before – even with SARS, or with the financial crisis, people were still in the office. Now it’s about trying to get things done by any means.”

That said, as a food business, General Mills has had a different experience to companies in other sectors during the crisis. “Food is an essential service, so the business has continued to move forward and grow, both here and abroad,” says Emslie.

On the receivables side, Emslie says the business hasn’t seen much of a downturn, as customers still wanted to receive stock. And where payables are concerned, he says the company has focused on making sure that suppliers receive payments on time during this challenging period.

In addition, the work that Emslie had already carried out in the last couple of years meant that the Asia treasury was well positioned to withstand the turbulence. “The fact that we went to RFP last year, and put our new banking partners in, really held us in good stead,” he says. “We were well prepared – we had all the new authorisations and limits; we were pretty much set for online capabilities in every market. So coupled with the business doing really well, and still having the cash in the bank, we’ve had a good experience.”

The challenges of remote working

But while treasury activities have fared well during the crisis, the new work environment is not without its challenges. “One negative for me is that I’m very much a people person – I like to sit around a table and have a cup of coffee and speak to people face to face,” Emslie says. “And I miss conferences and industry awards, and the ability to meet people and grow my network. In a small community like Singapore, people are always doing something new, so it’s good to reach out to other people and find out what’s going on.”

He also feels that in a remote working environment, “virtual fatigue” can be a challenge, as can the tendency for meetings to be booked in back-to-back. “There are far more formal limits on my time now – my diary is very full.” But on the positive side, Emslie points out that people have become better at making decisions more rapidly during the crisis. “Instead of having meeting after meeting, there was a lot more decision-making going on, especially with third parties. So I think that’s one of the positives.”

Next steps

In the months ahead, Emslie expects the treasury community will spend time reflecting on their experiences during the crisis – including the frustrations people have experienced if they were not able to adapt as quickly as they would like. “People will say, ‘What did you learn from COVID? What are the takeaways?’” he says. “I think one of these will be the importance of being as agile as possible and adapting quickly in order to make things work. We’ll see a lot of conversations this year when everyone gets back into the virtual conferences.”

In addition, there is still plenty of work to do for the Asia treasury project. Emslie says the team is now in phase three of the initiative: “We’re now running the TMS and getting the integration into SAP, and getting all our banking partners in that as well,” he says. “So that will be the focus for the next 18 months.”

In the meantime, Emslie is planning to adopt a follow-the-sun approach to cash management, whereby the day is divided into three blocks of eight hours, with Asia accounting for the first eight hours of the trading day. He is also working on a rationalisation project in China in order to consolidate the company’s banks as far as possible. “And then we’re trying to implement a cash pool bringing it all through Singapore and then onto the States,” he says. “So those are our biggest projects for the time being – and then of course there are the day-to-day activities and everything else that we’re working on.”

Evolution of treasury

Looking at the role of the treasurer more broadly, Emslie remains enthusiastic about the multifaceted nature of treasury, particularly given the way the role has expanded in recent years. “Treasury has evolved to have a proper seat at the table and be part of that decision-making process,” he says. “So you’ve got your fingers in all the pies – you can get involved in things that excite you and know that you’re going to make a difference at the end of the day.” Equally, he appreciates the opportunity to interact with people and hear new ideas, both within the business and externally.

Looking forward, Emslie predicts that the role of the treasurer will continue to change in the coming years. “I really do see this position being elevated, and the treasurer being one of your big decision makers in the organisation,” he says. “For one thing, they have that whole view of what’s going on. But they’re also well connected both internally and externally, which is also good.”

Consequently, he predicts that more treasurers will move into CFO and CEO roles in the future. “The treasurer is an individual who knows what’s going on in the organisation,” he says. “We also have our fingers on the pulse of the economic situation and everything else that’s going on outside the organisation. So I definitely see the treasurer of the future having far more of an important role to play in organisations.”

And while many smaller and medium sized organisations do not have dedicated treasury staff, Emslie predicts that this may also change. Indeed, he says more SMEs are already beginning to engage with the importance of the treasury function, and look for individuals who are able to step into this role.

Out of the office

While Emslie has plenty to focus on in the months ahead, he is also well aware of the importance of finding a work-life balance. Of course, what switching off looks like has had to change somewhat in recent months as a result of the COVID-19 environment. “It’s amazing how people have changed their interests,” Emslie observes. “Our CFO has taken up running during lockdown and ran his first 21K the other day. A lot of people are doing things they never thought they would do.”

For Emslie, the pandemic has meant that travel plans have had to go on the back burner for the time being. “My wife and I love to travel – we used to be on a plane on a Friday afternoon going somewhere, which was always nice. Hopefully this will come back in the future.” But in the meantime, his other interests include golf, tennis, enjoying red wine and walking the dogs – and he and his wife have also recently learned to sail.

“When you’re working 12-hour days, you sometimes just need to destress,” Emslie concludes. “We were on leave last week, and of course it wasn’t quite the same as in normal conditions. But we tried not to answer our emails too much, and to make sure we were able to switch off from the business environment.”

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