Corporate View: Ingmar Bergmann, NSI N.V.

Published: Oct 2014

Ingmar Bergmann

Corporate Treasurer and Head of Corporate Finance, NSI N.V.

NSI N.V. is a publicly listed real estate company headquartered in Hoofddorp in the Netherlands (next to Schiphol Airport). Its mission is to invest in offices and retail space in the Netherlands in “attractive, high-quality locations” and in offices and logistics real estate in Belgium. The company, which is listed on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, is an active landlord and manager of its own real estate portfolio with invested assets of around €1.7 billion.

Ingmar Bergmann is driven by a need to raise the profile and understanding of treasury. With his former chairmanship of the Dutch ACT and voluntary treasury work at a Premier League volleyball team, an innovative urban agriculture scheme and a popular local Judo club, he is certainly putting the profession on the map. How does his broad view of the role – and an obvious delight in working with people – influence his work at one of the Netherlands’ most active commercial real-estate firms?

What do a Judo club, an urban agriculture programme, a Dutch Premiership volleyball team and a commercial property rentals group all have in common? On the surface, not a lot it would seem. But for one individual, Ingmar Bergmann, the Corporate Treasurer and Head of Corporate Finance at Dutch real estate firm, NSI, the answer is easy; they all need treasury and organisational skills and for that task he is happy to oblige.

“I’m interested in working with different types of people in different environments and putting my work experience to good use in the community,” he explains. The seemingly random collection of bodies that he currently divides his time between on a voluntary basis are in fact a reflection of his own and his family’s interests. But in each case he just happened to be the right man, with the right skills, in the right place, at the right time. The roles found him, rather than the other way round, but he is nonetheless committed to helping each organisation take their financial status to the next level, “to make sure they can carry on their activities in the long term”.

Bergmann has good reason to help out where he can, being driven by the strong belief that he has personally benefitted from community resources that enabled him, through the education system for example, to achieve his own professional goals. “I feel that society is more than just family, friends and professional life; everybody has their own capacity, whether materially or non-materially, to help in some way; I do it this way.” In sharing the interests and being connected with these various organisations, he adds that it is also “a lot of fun to do”.

The experience that other treasurers could gain from volunteering their skills will of course depend on the environment in which they choose to work. Bergmann believes it would at the very least open an individual’s eyes to a different side of society, but it could also broaden their professional experience by working with many different people. New skills can be developed too, he notes. In a commercial environment, especially as a senior executive, it may be relatively easy to make a decision. In the voluntary sector, he notes that stronger arguments are often needed to bring together many more people from different backgrounds, each perhaps harbouring different agendas, to define a point on the horizon and then to work together with all these people to make sure everyone is willingly going in the same direction. “It can be seen as a challenge but I see it as an opportunity; it gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

From intern to chairman

Having studied business administration at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, Bergmann’s career kicked off with an internship at an investment bank in the Netherlands, the aim being to eventually become an investment analyst. During his internship he came across an advertisement asking for a cash manager at TNO, the Dutch institution for applied scientific research. “At that time I didn’t really have a clue what cash management was but the job description sounded interesting,” he recalls. Throwing caution to the wind, he applied, was offered the job, and thus started his long and winding journey into treasury. “On the way, I have had many opportunities to learn more and I now have a rather broad base of experiences to call upon. That is what gives me energy; if I only had one specific responsibility for a lifetime of work it would be too boring for me.”

The degree of experience that Bergmann has accumulated over the years is impressive. With two cash manager positions (TNO was followed by an EMEA posting at Eastman Chemical) leading into early corporate treasurer roles and a period as a treasury consultant, he soon became a board member and eventually chairman of the Dutch Association of Corporate Treasurers. With Group Treasurer responsibilities at Dutch utility business, Eneco Energie and then as Director of Corporate Treasury at cabling firm, Draka Holding, a more strategic focus was called upon, requiring closer partnership with other senior executives from a range of disciplines, and the Board. This is an aspect of the job that Bergmann clearly revels in and one which was about to become dramatically more important.

“Up to the point just before the financial crisis, treasury for a lot of my colleagues was seen as a niche function that worked in isolation,” Bergmann comments. “They were seen as doing some kind of ‘hocus pocus’ with bank relationships and then spending a lot of time ‘out of office’.” But as the worst of it unfolded, the voice of treasury needed to be heard loud and clear, not only by CFOs but also by other departments and the boardroom. It was, he notes, quite noticeable how the more communicative treasurers had started to embed their work deeper into the fabric of corporate life. “Some are better at it than others of course but if there is, for example, an investment issue or an acquisition, the other stakeholders invited into the treasury fold will not only ensure that treasury knows what is going on but they also genuinely appreciate treasury input on how a project can be improved and de-risked.”

The voice of treasury

External communication is important for treasurers too and Bergmann is a firm believer that the wider community of treasurers can help each other to do a better job. Certain aspects of the role are naturally bound by the rules of competition; he is not advocating passing on ‘trade secrets’. But he argues that some facets of the job – such as the administration of a SEPA project – are not necessarily in the realm of secrecy. Here, treasurers can often help each other by openly discussing project implementations, the pitfalls, the best expert contacts and so on. “The voice of treasury is definitely being heard and now it’s time to make sure within the inner circle of treasurers that we maintain the clarity of our voice so that people keep listening.”

The cornerstones of promoting the values (and value) of the treasury function are the Associations of Corporate Treasurers that exist in many countries. As a former chairman of the Dutch ACT (he handed over reins in June this year after five years in this position), and a member of the pan-European EACT, Bergmann notes that it is only a relatively recent event for the voice of treasury to be heard with any real interest in the discussions around setting international regulations such as those around IFRS and EMIR. “Corporates, together with the EACT, have been able to raise their voices and show these bodies, especially the European Union, that they should listen to the ‘voice of the real economy’,” states Bergmann. “Treasurers are willing to help work towards well-balanced regulation.”

Being able to form constructive relationships in this way is vital for the success of treasury as a function. In this respect, leadership skills – and the vision to know where to take people and processes – are an essential part of Bergmann’s armoury in his day-to-day role. He accepts that there are many people in treasury who just wish to focus on a specific aspect, to become a specialist, but he loves to work with other disciplines, to communicate and to learn their views and try to combine them with his own treasury perspective. “If you want to take treasury to a higher level then you definitely have to communicate and open up to others.”

Managing the crisis

The banking crisis and the subsequent rush to impose new regulations on the industry saw many international financial institutions retrench their positions. “In the Netherlands many non-domestic banks moved back to their home markets and out of the Netherlands, having reassessed their risk profiles,” notes Bergmann. This was also the case in the market in which his current employer, NSI, is active: “Suddenly real estate was not a top priority for them. When I started with NSI in 2013 we had a financing structure that relied mainly on Dutch banks, but as their number and size had decreased rapidly over the previous few years for a real estate firm it limited our funding and refinancing.”

A new more stable financing structure for the longer term was sought by the firm; this was Bergmann’s priority upon arrival. By working closely with other functions within NSI, particularly the Group Controller’s office and the commercial real estate teams, it was possible to collate and provide the vast quantity of information that the banks’ credit committees were asking for under the new regulatory regime. With a CFO that Bergmann cites as “a master of strategy and negotiation” at the helm, the combination of good teamwork inside an open and transparent business structure and the capacity to leverage long-term banking relationships, helped NSI through the worst of it. “It really worked out well for us,” he recalls adding that NSI was able to put in place €400m of refinancing in 2013 and, as part of a successful recapitalisation programme, also issue €300m in equity.

Although international banks are starting to return to the Dutch market, the lesson had been learnt that relying wholly on banks for funding “is too much of a risk”. As part of NSI’s restructuring programme it was agreed that 2014 should be the year it started work on a more sustainable funding structure. It will still focus on long-term bank relationships for up to 50% of its funding but the remainder will come from alternative funding.

‘Alternative funding’ is a very broad description that, in Bergmann’s definition, includes the German Schuldschein market, retail bonds (most likely in the more developed Belgian market) and private placements. He is no stranger to the latter, having arranged the largest ever non-USD private placement whilst at Eneco Energie; this is clearly now a strong contender for NSI. Bond issuance however is not directly on the agenda, Bergmann arguing that whilst it may solve refinancing risk “it then creates a maturity risk so in a few years’ time you have to refinance again”.

The way forward

With NSI’s funding stabilising as the refinancing plan runs its course, Bergmann’s intention is to start honing treasury operations. The company now runs a centralised treasury operation whereas before his arrival it had relied on the Group Controller and CFO to execute related tasks. Although he describes current treasury processes as “relatively simple” (it only has domestic payment transactions and most contracts are fixed, for example) Bergmann is very much aware of the need to accurately forecast cash positions – this process is scheduled to come under the spotlight first. “All plans, projections and business cases do give a view of what the future might bring, but at the end of the day, it is all about cash,” he states. “As I always have as a footer in my email ‘profit is for science, cash is for real’.”

Bringing this project to fruition will once more be a co-operative affair, treasury working closely with the Controller’s office, the operational real estate teams and other stakeholders. Life is made a little easier because the whole company is connected through the Yardi ERP system (a specialist real estate solution) so that whilst everyone can work on data as they wish, even in spreadsheets, changes are updated immediately and are circulated by a logical workflow system. This means everyone involved is working from the ‘same version of the truth’.

As a result of the funding programme, NSI now finds itself in a position to invest in new opportunities. Teams within the business are working on a new business strategy for the coming years which will require investment; of course, treasury is now much more involved in the early stages of such plans. This appeals to Bergmann’s sense of adventure: the new strategy, from his perspective, is more than just about funding; it will involve project management and the need to work alongside people with different skills and interests, “jointly building and improving the company”.

But then taking on different responsibilities is all par for the treasury course for Bergmann. During his tenure as chairman of the Dutch ACT he says there was a lot of discussion amongst members about the future of treasury and whether it should remain a pure discipline or encompass others. He comments that where in the past treasury was seen as a niche activity, sitting aloft in an ivory tower, it is increasingly needed to work alongside other business functions. “So if we continue explaining what we do and continue adding value to our organisations and operations, as treasurers we will see the types of responsibilities we have increasing.”

With the likes of insurance, pension fund management and even IT being subsumed by treasury, it seems like an ideal base for anyone starting out on a career in business. Bergmann advises all prospective and junior treasury staff on this route to keep their eyes wide open and to maintain a broad horizon. “Don’t specialise too early on in your career; you need to understand the business but don’t see that as your end goal,” he says. “Try to move responsibilities within your company from time to time. Don’t try to sit in the same chair for more than a couple of years; it’s good to move around, even to other departments of the company, because it helps you to learn about different disciplines and to gain different working experiences. After a few years you will know what direction you want to go in.” Bergmann is naturally a keen advocate of giving something back to the community by offering valuable treasury and business acumen to those organisations that need it. The personal enrichment, he feels, is more than sufficient payback.

A life in film

Of course, no article about Ingmar Bergmann would be complete without mentioning his famous namesake. The renowned (and deceased) Swedish director of film, television and theatre may have one less ‘n’ at the end of his surname, but the similarity has nonetheless been the cause of some merriment over the years for his treasury counterpart. “The shared name has not always been a good thing; back in high school whenever there was trouble it was me that they always remembered. But I’d say that since then it has definitely become a benefit. When I was applying for jobs after university it was always a good way to break the ice – and people remembered me. Now it’s often a great starting point for conversations.”

Whilst Bergmann the treasurer has never harboured any desire to enter the film business, he says he always intended to seek out an environment that presented complex issues and where he could work with different disciplines. “I want an active, high-pressure environment where I can add value – and that is what I see in treasury.” Maybe someone should make a film about it.

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