Corporate View: Irene Thng, Toll Group

Published: Mar 2023

Embracing life’s challenges and opportunities

Irene Thng has been fortunate through her career with a number of opportunities coming her way. Never one to shy away from a challenge, she explains how she likes to keep things interesting and gives some career advice for those climbing the corporate ladder.

Irene Thng

Executive Vice President and Group Treasurer

Toll is more than just logistics – it moves the businesses that move the world. Its 20,000 team members can help solve any logistics, transport or supply chain challenge – big or small. The company has been supporting its customers for more than 130 years. Today, it supports more than 20,000 customers worldwide with 500 sites in 27 markets, and a forwarding network spanning 150 countries. The company is proudly part of Japan Post.

If you look at Irene Thng’s LinkedIn page, you’ll see that she has one eye on the future and is constantly learning – and also takes the time to be grateful in the present moment. At an event on digitisation she is honoured and glad to be there, and on completing a Harvard Business School course on disruptive strategy, “Disruptions could create the next positive opportunities – do make the best out of them!” she writes.

There are also references to good fortune: a photo of the auspicious lion dance at the beginning of the Lunar New Year, and a picture of her willow plant that signifies wealth and good luck. When she speaks about her career, she often says she was fortunate. And while some of her big breaks could be put down to good fortune, she has also embraced every opportunity that has come her way – and cherished every moment.

An accidental treasurer

She is currently the Executive Vice President and Group Treasurer at Toll Group, one of Asia Pacific’s leading transport and logistics providers, and over the course of her career she has accumulated experience in forensic audit and process re-engineering, mergers and acquisitions, corporate restructuring as well as her treasury skills. Like many treasurers, however, she didn’t set out to have this career path: “I ended up in treasury by accident,” she jokes.

Thng grew up in Singapore and spent a lot of time in Australia, and graduated from Curtin University in Perth with a Master’s degree in Commerce. Her undergraduate degree was in accounting, and on graduation it seemed a natural choice to apply to one of the Big Four accountancy firms. She landed an audit role at KPMG and she was soon involved in the company setting up a new Corporate Finance team. At this time the Asian financial crisis was brewing as she worked on a number of mergers and acquisitions.

From there, she moved to the French tyre company Michelin where she started as a Financial Analyst. The company was in the process of creating its Asia Pacific headquarters in Singapore and was looking to acquire a few tyre companies and set up alliances in the region – instead of building its own factories from scratch. And so Thng’s expertise in mergers and acquisitions came into play. The first acquisitions were soon completed and within a couple of years the regional treasurer had left the company. She was asked to take on the role, and help stabilise newly-acquired businesses by making sure the subsidiaries followed the group policies of the parent company back in France. Her understanding of treasury, however, was limited at that time. “I had no clue!” she jokes. “But if someone gives me an opportunity, I will take it,” Thng adds. And so, she became Michelin’s Treasurer for South-East Asia and then later the company’s Head of Treasury for Asia Pacific.

Like her recent LinkedIn updates, where she is constantly learning and building her knowledge, Thng set out to understand as much as she could about treasury. She sought the advice of her counterparts in the banking industry, quizzing them about the treasury fundamentals. She was a quick study and soon got up to speed with what she needed to know. Those people who helped her at that time are still her friends today, and many of them have risen to senior positions in corporate and transaction banks. “We have grown up together in the corporate world – they are old friends,” she says.

Building a network

This network of peers who have risen together provided Thng with a strong network of people she can call upon and trust when she needs advice. Many people when they set out on their career path tend to focus on networking with senior people who are perhaps more ‘useful’ to them than people at the same level. When asked about this approach, Thng comments, “A few people think that to climb up the corporate ladder they need someone senior to pull them up, but I have a different view,” she says, explaining that she likes to have a broad network of people with different experiences. While she thinks it’s important to have a mentor, she also likes to source a range of perspectives. This also extends to her team. “Now when I recruit people, I deliberately make sure there are some in the team who are very junior, young and energetic because they can grow and bring different perceptions. That also means that I have a portfolio of different views – they think in a totally different way. It is important to have that holistic view and a group of people with different viewpoints. Also, these junior colleagues are the people who will be future leaders,” she says.

Thng notes the importance of having a good mentor, and she was fortunate to have a good one for ten years during her time at Michelin, who helped her navigate the complexities of working in Asia for a French company. At times she found it was difficult to build trust and get the credit for the work she was doing. She was also caught between the needs of the people on the ground in Asia and the wishes and policies of the head office in France. She found a way to do this – “a hybrid approach” that pleased both sets of colleagues – where she was not forcing things on her Asian colleagues that were unreasonable, but then also explaining certain limitations and restrictions that were in place at the group level.

A few people think that to climb up the corporate ladder they need someone senior to pull them up, but I have a different view.

Challenges and opportunities

During her time at Michelin, Thng says she was also fortunate because she was given many opportunities. These included working in France, working in Switzerland at the company’s in-house bank, and she was also sent to China to make use of her Mandarin-speaking skills. After ten years with the company, however, things were starting to get comfortable. “I love challenges.” Thng explains, and she was looking for the next adventure. She was asked what she wanted to do next and she was keen to understand what working for a listed company was like from the perspective of investor relations and how the company represented itself to the market. For this reason, she decided to move to Hyflux, which provided her with this opportunity as it was listed on the Singapore Exchange. In this role she was Global Head of Treasury and had a focus on a range of countries including Algeria, Libya, Singapore, Australia, China and India.

From there she moved to 3M, which, she jokes, most people know from its Scotch tape and Post-It notes. The multinational is headquartered in Minnesota, United States and she was hired to build a regional treasury team from scratch. She uses the metaphor of a house to describe her work: she says she built the foundations, put in the pillars and created a beautiful building. But once she had completed her mission, she found that she was spending her time fussing over minor details and painting scratches on the walls. For someone who thrives on new challenges, excitement and opportunity, she was starting to get a bit bored.

Fortunately, a new opportunity came knocking and she was hired – after a lengthy interview process – by Toll Group. It was like things had come full circle for her from her days of doing mergers and acquisitions at KPMG during the Asian financial crisis as many of the companies that were buying and selling at that time were in the logistics business. This time round, however, she is working for an Australian logistics company.

Toll Group was founded in 1888 by Albert Toll who started his business by transporting coal by horse and cart, which he grew into a transport business with a fleet of trucks by the time he died in 1960. The company continued to grow, going public in 1993 and from there developing into an end-to-end logistics solutions business and becoming one of Asia Pacific’s leading providers of integrated logistics services. In May 2015 the company was acquired by Japan Post, and today Toll continues to have dual headquarters in Singapore and in Melbourne although it is a subsidiary of the larger Japanese parent company.

Navigating different cultures

In her current role, Thng is the Executive Vice President and Group Treasurer for Toll Group across 27 countries. This provides interesting challenges and opportunities for cultural understanding. As an Australian company with a Japanese parent, the communication styles of these countries could not be more different. Thng describes the Japanese style as “more subtle” that needs more interpretation; the lack of a ‘no’ does not necessarily mean a ‘yes’, which is quite different when compared to the typically straight-talking Australian style of communication. From her experience of working in other multinational companies, Irene has become expert in translating between different ways of working. “With culture there is no right or wrong – you have to blend the cultures together,” she says.

She often has to work across various expectations of the markets where Toll has a presence, which includes understanding various banking regulations in the jurisdictions where Toll has a presence. She thrives in this role. She explains that she took this job because it had plenty of potential for her to do more and grow. She relishes a challenge, and as she reflects on the roles she has had over her career, she comments, “If someone said to me ‘we have had a brilliant treasurer who has now left and we’re looking for someone to continue their work’ – I would honestly not pick that kind of job.”

At Toll, she explains, the foundations of the treasury function are in place, and she has been able to step into the role to build and grow the function. These days she is focused on transformation and making the treasury operations more efficient and robust. Another aspect of the work is implementing SAP, and its enhancements which will lead to greater automation. With this there will be less need for manual intervention which will free up staff to do other things with their time. “With automation they can do something else, something that has added-value so that person can develop and grow,” Thng explains.

The nature of the work is also different because Toll is no ordinary logistics company. It’s no longer just the fleet of trucks from Albert Toll’s day – now things are a lot more exciting. For example, Toll is an experienced provider of specialised mission-critical helicopter services that are involved in emergency medical services, search and rescue operations and airborne law enforcement. This end-to-end solution, where Toll provides all aspects of these services, means the company has specific financing needs. As a result, Thng has the opportunity to be involved in negotiations with the equipment manufacturers as well as the leasing companies for a range of fleet and equipment, including helicopters.

Another aspect of her role is that she has been able to write the company’s group treasury policies. Now she can set the rules from the outset, rather than having to work with something that was set by head office that may not be appropriate for the situation on the ground in Asia.

The next generation

These days she is also focused on training the next generation and mentoring, and she hopes to pass on the advice she received during her career. For example, when she was at 3M, her mentor for eight years often pointed out her mistakes and advised her how to be more assertive in meetings, especially in negotiations. “In terms of the corporate world I have lived through different eras and have met different people. At this stage of my career, I want to pass on my knowledge and groom the next generation,” she says.

While she was at 3M she had six mentees, all of whom had specifically requested her. She was happy to do this, she says, and often these mentees shared experiences and problems that they wouldn’t be able to with their line managers. Were there common themes with the issues and questions they had? No, she says, it was different often depending on the country and gender. “With my mentees the issues can range from very serious to very small things,” she notes. Sometimes the advice could be about how to be more presentable and professional in order to command attention, or how to ensure that meetings stay focused on the topics they want to discuss.

Reflecting on the course of her career, and the lessons she has learned, she often speaks in terms of good fortune. “I have been fortunate to have a lot of opportunities to explore. For me, it has been a great learning experience and I encourage everyone else, when given an opportunity, to try your very best – that is my motto,” she says. “And also cherish every single moment,” she adds.

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