Staying steady in the storm
Throughout his career, Gopul Shah has weathered the storms of various crises and challenges. Here he explains how his personal values, financial discipline, and work ethic have kept him steady and kept his mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health in check in order to cope with uncertainty and change.
Director, Corporate Treasury and Structured Trade Finance
Established in 1996, Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) now has operations across 13 countries, and its products are delivered to around 100 countries worldwide, including China, India and the United States as well as various destinations in Europe and the Middle East. GAR was listed on the Singapore Exchange in 1999.
GAR is a global leader in palm oil production, producing more than 2.35m tonnes of crude palm oil in 2021. It manages about 536,000 hectares of plantations, including smallholder farms, across Indonesia. Its downstream refining and specialty product facilities manufacture high-quality products for the global agronomy, food, oleochemical, and bioenergy markets. GAR’s operations are innovation-driven and sustainability led, to ensure that GAR remains a global leader in sustainable palm oil production and a partner of choice.
Strength in adversity
When major world events happen, there are the big headlines and defining moments that shape an era. Events like the Asian financial crisis, 9/11, the collapse of Lehman Brothers (and the ensuing global financial crisis), COVID-19, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have all produced attention-grabbing news stories and global energy and food insecurity. And then there are the more normal, personal stories: the plans that were disrupted, the priorities that changed, personal values that were reassessed and the triumph of human spirit.
For Gopul Shah, Director of Corporate Treasury and Structured Trade Finance at Golden Agri-Resources, these major events form the landmarks along the journey of his career in which he also experienced diverse culture and geographies.
These days, Shah is reflective about the lessons he has learned about staying steady through such times of turbulence and change. He remarks that the pace of change in the external environment is increasing, and we all have to learn, relearn and unlearn to remain resilient, adaptable and to improvise. “The next few years are going to be challenging as geo-politics, energy and good security, and government actions that shapes the global socio-economic systems and business actions – we need to be on the ball and be mentally, physically and spiritually alert to remain agile and improvise,” he says.
Personal roadmap and journey
Shah has a personal roadmap for navigating through the crises, which he puts down to his upbringing and the unwavering support of his mentors. He was raised in a modest family in India, and his family instilled in him certain values that he holds to this day. “A strong progressively entrepreneurial philosophy, personal ethics, and work ethic were high on the agenda in my family and that has brought me to where I am today,” Shah says.
He was raised and educated in India, and from there he had the opportunity to work in Thailand for the GP Group. He moved to Singapore with the same company and intended to become a commodity trader. However, the Asian financial crisis hit, and Shah’s future – as he had envisioned it – changed overnight.
This was the first of the major headline crises that Shah experienced in his career. “I went through a transformation,” he says. He was now at a crossroads and took the brave step which is his best investment – along with the support of his wife and his family – of going back to school. After two years, he’d completed his MBA at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and, armed with his new degree, knowledge, network, and conviction, was ready to take the next step in his career.
The universe, however, had different plans. Another crisis hit: this time it was 9/11. Although he wasn’t immediately impacted by the tragedy, the major event had implications for his job hunt as many companies around the world put their plans on hold. “It took six to eight months before I gained a role,” Shah explains.
When he was offered the role, at Cargill Trade Structured Finance, it was one that was well suited to his skills, aptitude and experience, and was both commercial and entrepreneurial in nature. From 2004, he spent seven years in Singapore in various roles and as Cargill’s Head of Asia Structuring and South East Asia Origination. And then from October 2010 he was the Treasurer and Managing Director of Trade Structured Finance at Cargill India.
From there, in January 2014, he joined the company where he is today: Golden Agri-Resources. In this role he has had the opportunity to set up the profit centre – structured trade finance (STF) business and upgrade to commercial treasury. One of the highlights of his time in this role has been directing a product and geographic portfolio to gain an annual value addition of about US$50m by integrating, collaborating, cross-pollinating, and leveraging the treasury, money markets, and STF capability.
Another achievement has been developing and managing a multi-currency global funding book of US$5bn and the money market hedge book that is well supported by banks, capital markets, credit insurers, rating agencies and alternative financiers. Also, in supporting Golden Agri-Resources palm oil business, he has executed structured financing solutions for commodities, shipping, barging, joint ventures, and acquisitions.
Shah describes his role as also being entrepreneurial and commercially profit oriented. “I have been doing this for the last many years. The scale, scope, complexity and challenges on the job keeps me interested and engaged it’s never a dull moment,” he says.
He adds, however, that there have been peaks and troughs in this role as well – which have followed the waves of the markets – and also in his personal life. “What has kept us going and steady is the passion, courage, conviction, the financial discipline, work ethic and the values,” he says.
And what exactly are his values? “The first is a work ethic that means you give your best in whatever you do with conviction and make sure that you add value and purpose to whatever you need to deliver,” explains Shah. And personal ethics, he explains, are about acting with courage and the long-term in mind, always considering integrity, reputation and longevity in whatever you do.
Shah also values continuous education, something he has put into practice in his own life. As well as studying for the MBA in Chicago during the first major crisis of his career, he also studied during Covid. In this time, he took more accountancy exams (adding to the accountancy qualification he already has from India) and became a fellow of CPA Australia, the professional accounting body. He explains why he did this: “If you look at the changing landscape and what is demanded of you, you have to maintain good health, reskill, and engage in continuous education,” he says.
On a personal level, Shah was able to improve his skills during Covid. And on a professional level he was challenged in other ways. The COVID-19 crisis posed a number of challenges for Shah and his company. He had to deleverage, derisk, and ensure the company had enough liquidity. Also, he had to make sure that the company’s vast supply chain was functioning properly.
In times of difficulty such as the pandemic, delivering value to customers, risk management, collaboration, innovation, stakeholder management as well as team play is effectively paramount says Shah. He adds that he opts for doing this with a “soft glove and fortitude”.
During this difficult time, the company’s banking relationships also needed to be managed well, and Shah explains that transparency and honesty was key in ensuring that the company had the ongoing support of the banks. This involved making sure the banks understood the company operations, liquidity situation, management actions, and its strategy, he says.
Continuing volatility and uncertainty
Since then, there continues to be much uncertainty and volatility in the global socio-political and economic environment, which impacts long-term decision making and investments. Shah comments how this has changed over the last ten years; now there is volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity that he hasn’t witnessed in his career before. It goes beyond the moral hazard issues of the global financial crisis or the uncertainty that prevailed with Covid-19. Now there are new factors at play that challenge the economic order, socio-political structure, and the financial system as a whole, says Shah. “It’s not only the war between Russia and Ukraine and an assertive China; there is a war on the economic system and the established world order that has been the foundation of international trade, investments and peaceful co-existence. The concepts of globalisation, free markets and petrodollars are all being challenged,” he says.
In recent years there has also been a lot more government support to stimulate business, incentives for investments, and regulatory arbitrages which is eventually going to increase taxes, inflation and reduce healthy competition, says Shah. Many mergers and acquisition (M&A) and expansion plans have recently failed denting expansion opportunities due to sky high valuations, talent scarcity, liquidity issues, compliance, anti-competition laws, and integration challenges, he adds.
This kind of uncertainty and changes in the current geopolitical environment keeps Shah alert, and he keeps himself agile and adaptable so he can face the challenges head-on and find solutions. “So far we have done well – we have survived COVID-19 – and all these experiences make us even better today, and they also make us better human beings. These experiences teach us to be more humble, people, purpose and planet oriented,” says Shah.
Long-term bigger picture
In considering that bigger picture, Shah was asked to reflect on the major trends that have affected his career to date. Firstly, he comments on the inability to make medium-term forecasts, major shift from manual processes to digitalisation, and the importance data, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, digital currency and cybersecurity.
Also, another significant trend is how diverse Asia and other emerging markets have developed and the culturally rich and diverse impact that this has had on multinationals doing business there. This includes the outsourcing and cross-fertilisation of high value-added services, innovations, the access to local currency capital markets and the increasing use of local currency in international trade and investments. When Shah started out, Asia was just becoming a manufacturing hub and China was emerging as a major player in the region.
“A lot of sourcing started to happen in Asia and China, and that started the trend of globalisation, global collaboration, specialisation, and a free market taking place everywhere,” explains Shah. “And now we are somewhat seeing a reverse trend of decoupling and localisation resulting from trade wars, protectionism, collapse of global collaboration, a technology war or economic war. I would say we are going to see supply chains become fragmented and localised, and the decoupling of global economic systems around the world which could somewhat benefit reduction of carbon emissions,” comments Shah.
Another change that Shah – and the rest of the world – has had to adapt to is around climate change and achieving net zero emission targets. “When I started my career, the focus was on profits and growth, and now it is about good governance, doing it right for the greater good and building reputation. Now there is also a focus on people, purpose and the planet,” he says.
With all that is happening in the external environment, and the frequency of events that cause volatility and uncertainty, Shah comments: “We have to accept that we have lost control; we have put things in place while we can make plans, but we have to make sure that we remain flexible and agile,” he says. “We need to be able to quickly adapt and improvise,” he adds.
Delivering on promises
“Also, we need to make sure that we collaborate, trust, and engage with our customers, stakeholders and talent well so that we deliver on our promises and become a partner of choice for us and they will be supportive during the good times and the bad,” says Shah.
Navigating this volatility in part relies on going back to basics and doing more with less, remain agile, innovative and trustworthy. Shah adds that it is also about doing it with humility and empathy. Shah comments on the elements that he thinks are important to running a business and keeping pace with the demands of the changing environment. “Having the right talent, foresight, the right approach, the right attitude, the right frame of mind, delegating and trusting people – these are the things that are important in running a business and being able to remain resilient and adapt to its changing needs,” says Shah.
The treasurer’s role
On the treasurer’s role, treasury is being increasingly recognised as strategic stakeholder and a partner within the organisation, says Shah. With a finger on the pulse on the internal and external economic situation, the engagement and collaboration with treasury is upfront when it comes to risk and liquidity management, rating agency engagement, M&A financing and integration, digitisation, and managing financial institutions and its expectations, he adds.
These are just some of the changes that are afoot in the corporate world, on top of the volatility and uncertainty in the wider world. “These are interesting times,” says Shah. In adapting to the challenges that all this brings, Shah makes sure that he stays strategic, agile, manages risks, convinced of a better future, and turns risk into profitable opportunities. On a personal level, he says he has been able to find strength in adversity and has been able to maintain a fine balance between his professional and his personal life. This, he adds, has kept him on the ball mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and kept him steady through the storms and crises of his career so far.