Corporate View: Helen Hanby, Biogen

Published: Mar 2018
Helen Hanby, Director, International Treasury

When life presents opportunities, take them. This is the unofficial motto by which Helen Hanby, Director, International Treasury at Biogen, lives. We discover how this has translated into an award-winning career – and a mammoth cycling challenge.

Helen Hanby

Director, International Treasury, ACMA, AMCT


Biogen Inc is a US$11bn US multinational biotechnology company headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts. It develops, markets and manufactures therapies for people living with serious neurological, autoimmune and rare diseases. The business employs over 7,000 people in locations across the Americas, Europe and Asia.

“I love working in treasury,” says Helen Hanby, Director of International Treasury for US multinational, Biogen. It’s a bold statement. But it’s one that, once the reasons for it are revealed, becomes abundantly clear.

Today, Hanby, supported by one treasury analyst, has treasury responsibility for all Biogen entities outside North America (which itself has just three treasury personnel). With a geographic remit that stretches from Europe to Asia to Latin America, the UK-based function, under her leadership, covers all aspects of treasury including cash and liquidity management, FX trading, balance sheet hedging, bank relationship management, pension plan governance and the company’s ex US corporate cards programme.

Despite the depth of responsibility placed under Hanby’s control, her arrival in treasury was never part of a detailed long-term plan. Instead, she describes her whole career as “opportunistic”.

This may sound like events have been left to chance. In reality, her progress has always been about grabbing opportunities when they are presented, regardless of any misgivings she may have had.

It has all worked out well.

Travel options

Unsure that she wanted to go to university, she left school mid-way through A-Levels, to work for a bank. She then switched jobs when a chance to considerably increase her pay arose, in the employ of a national newspaper publisher, where she qualified as a management accountant. She then moved to a manufacturing organisation to gain experience of working in a different industry. After a couple of years, alongside her then husband-to-be, the chance to live and work in Germany came up with her employer, an opportunity she seized, albeit nervously.

On the journey to Germany – where she had secured the opportunity to run the finance and administration functions of the German sales company, she admitted to herself that she had “not thought it out fully”, even describing the decision as “rash”, having effectively sold up and moved out on a whim. But she also knew it was the right thing to do.

The three-year experience saw Hanby running the team as the only woman manager amongst a group of men. “I was a bit of a shock to them and they were a bit of a shock to me,” she recalls. With only school-girl German language skills to support her endeavours, this was truly a bold move. But it was also one which was to prove pivotal in the development of her career.

Indeed, the “brilliant couple of years” she spent there proved to be the life-changing experience upon which she would build once she returned to the UK. But first, within four months of returning, and driven by a taste for life-experiences, Hanby and her by-then husband and one-year old son were off again, this time spending 18 months in the frozen wilderness of Arctic Norway.

I love the fact that it’s ‘real’; it has an impact on the business, looking at present and future rather than historical data. I love the interactions with external stakeholders, meeting with banks, investment companies and other providers – and the interactions with the many internal stakeholders, across different functions and geographies.

Helen Hanby, Director, International Treasury

Following her permanent return to the UK, Hanby began laying the solid foundations upon which she would build her successful career to date. It was at this stage that she first encountered Biogen, at that time a relatively small business that was rapidly expanding its international operations.

The company was looking for someone to take on both UK management accounts and international treasury. Hanby believes that the company looked beyond her lack of treasury experience, seeing her transferable skills, openness to new experiences, her language skills (she speaks German and French) and professional qualifications which together “unlocked the door to treasury” for her. Shortly after joining, Biogen realised that the two roles would be more successfully managed separately, eventually dividing them. This presented Hanby, who had clearly demonstrated a capacity for both disciplines, with a choice. She immediately opted for treasury. “I much preferred it from the outset,” she states.

Love the job

Internal progress via the positions of manager, senior manager, associate director and, since December 2017, director, has seen Hanby arrive in a place that few achieve and most desire: a job she genuinely loves.

“I love the fact that it’s ‘real’; it has an impact on the business, looking at present and future rather than historical data,” she explains. “I love the interactions with external stakeholders, meeting with banks, investment companies and other providers – and the interactions with the many internal stakeholders, across different functions and geographies.”

It’s a role, Hanby says, that allows her to meet with a diverse range of people, nourishing her natural interpersonal skills and offering variety and opportunity at every turn.

Growing together

Having never worked in treasury prior to joining Biogen, Hanby’s professional skills and experience have naturally grown over time, indeed, as the company has grown. Studying for her ACT exams with Biogen – something that she chose to do, with the full support of the company – has helped create a solid career platform, alongside her CIMA qualifications. She admits the return to learning “was a bit of a slog at times” but now looks back acknowledging the benefits. Indeed, she adds that it is relatively rare for a treasurer to hold both CIMA and ACT qualifications, amply demonstrating a balance of skills and understanding from across the corporate financial spectrum.

However, Hanby feels that it has been the hard-won hands-on experiences of “several major international events” (not least the global financial crisis and some extreme rate volatility) that have really served to sharpen her capacity to deliver as a treasurer, and with it, her professional standing.

She takes such events in her stride, believing not only that “the longer you are around, the more likely you are to face these situations” but also that, even if these events seem at the time like grave challenges, “the world does not end”. She remains similarly sanguine about the furore that is Brexit.

“I think more than ever it is imperative to have strong professional relationships in order to stay abreast of developments.”

The company’s international treasury was previously located in Paris before switching to the UK, in part to exploit proximity to the global banking infrastructure. This may suggest that the UK’s exit from the EU could be an issue for Biogen. But with the US global institution, Bank of America Merrill Lynch as its main relationship bank, Hanby believes the separation will, in reality, have minimal impact on her international duties. She adds that her role is one that does not rely on her being geographically tied to one region or another, declaring that “I can do this almost anywhere”.

In any case, although a cash-rich company, Biogen does not tend to hold a lot of cash internationally. Its aim is to try to repatriate to the US whenever possible. Treasury delivers support to around 50 entities across 25 currencies through a purposefully lean technology infrastructure. Where cash is trapped in certain jurisdictions it may, for example, deploy an internal dividend approach to move cash.

The structure of its treasury today is such that it can rapidly optimise decision-making. With the company’s corporate tax department in the US literally sitting next to treasury, both can collaborate easily on the most efficient cash management structure. And now, in light of the Trump administration’s recent tax reforms, repatriation is likely to be of even more interest, says Hanby.

Collaborate for success

Whilst Biogen’s international treasury function is not directly involved in corporate treasury policy-making, the effects of HQ decisions require it to be up to speed on core matters such as financial product development, regulation and technology. Says Hanby: “I think more than ever it is imperative to have strong professional relationships in order to stay abreast of developments.”

With people playing such an important role in Biogen, she feels interpersonal skills should now be to the fore; in fact, she believes every treasurer should be able to demonstrate strong communication skills as the role becomes more connected with the business.

“With so much change in the world, it is important for us, as treasurers, not only to build a network of other treasury professionals but also to develop strong relationships with our banks,” she says. By communicating effectively, the banks can be aware of what is going on in Biogen’s business world, enabling them to better serve the company’s needs. It is, she notes, very much a two-way street.

A winning approach

The corporate card programme put in place by Biogen’s bank is a good example of how this collaborative approach works. Where once corporate cards were outside of treasury, many different programmes had been set up. In conversation with treasury’s main relationship bank, Hanby, armed with her understanding of the bank’s cash management footprint, was able to build a new consolidated programme.

Starting from the UK and rolling out to the rest of Europe, the programme’s success eventually won support in the US too. “We’ve gone from a fragmented programme to a fully global approach,” she says. This started with T&E and has now expanded into other corporate card products include a standardised lodge card. The implementation is such a success that it won a Highly Commended Winner award in the Adam Smith Awards 2017.

“I have previously won internal company awards but was thrilled to be externally recognised and to be a Highly Commended Winner in the Adam Smith Awards 2017,” says Hanby. “It was the first time I had ever applied. I know the competition is strong, so the resulting sense of achievement is tangible. I’m proud of it, and it was internally appreciated too.”

The best advice

Where young professionals are starting a career in finance, Hanby is happy to impart her wisdom. “I would suggest embracing all the opportunities that come your way, even if they don’t seem obvious at the time.” Indeed, she adds, “had I not rather nervously accepted the overseas position it would never have led me to where I am now.”

However, although she acknowledges she speaks from a position of advantage – in that she loves what she does – Hanby is keen to promote the idea that young professionals try to move towards things they enjoy doing. “We spend so much time at work that it would be a shame not to.”

Taking the challenge

Of course, it’s not all about treasury. “I enjoy spending time with friends and family. I love holidays to warm climates, and I practice yoga – it’s good for the mind and body,” Hanby comments. She also enjoys a challenge.

As a keen supporter of charitable causes close to her heart, this November will see her cycle 450km in five days in Rajasthan, India. As a self-confessed “non-cyclist”, she says she had signed up in “the post-ride euphoric madness” of last year’s challenge that was the 100k Women V Cancer Ride the Night. True to form, Hanby is looking forward to her forthcoming venture. “It will probably be awful at times but at the end we will have a great sense of achievement. It’s all about what is possible if you put your mind to it.”

If all of this suggests Hanby has achieved an ideal work/life balance then she is in agreement. “I feel very blessed to have a job that I love, working in a fascinating industry for a very supportive and flexible company and manager,” she reports. “After 14 years I still get up in the morning, and look forward to coming in to work. There is a lot to be said for that.”

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