Corporate View: Jarno Timmerman, AkzoNobel

Published: Mar 2015
Jarno Timmerman

Jarno Timmerman

Head of Treasury SEAP (South East Asia Pacific)

AkzoNobel, headquartered in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, has operations in more than 80 countries and is a leading global paints and coatings company and is also a major producer of specialty chemicals. Brands included in the company’s portfolio are: Dulux, Sikkens, International and Eka. The company is consistently ranked as one of the leaders in the area of sustainability.

At the age of 18, Timmerman fulfilled a childhood dream, signing a professional contract with Dutch professional volleyball team, Dynamo Apeldoorn. The team were the reigning Dutch A-league champions and also competed in the European Champions League with the best teams across Europe. “In football terms this was like signing for one of the big European teams like Ajax, Real Madrid or Chelsea,” says Timmerman.

In 1997 the sport was on a high in the Netherlands due to the national team’s gold medal victory at the Olympic Games in Atlanta the previous year. “This was a great time to sign my first contract,” says Timmerman, “there was more interest in the sport than ever before, from both the public and sponsors. This meant that I was playing in front of bumper crowds and also that the clubs could offer professional contracts that would support the players financially.” The rising profile of the Dutch league also meant that it was becoming a hotbed for volleyball talent from across the world as the best players from around the world joined the league. “It was an exciting industry for an 18 year old to start out in.”

Following his debut season in Apeldoorn, Timmerman moved to Amsterdam-based AMVJ, later the club’s name changed to VC Omniworld. The team was the most famous in the country and had a good reputation across Europe as a breeding ground for talent. Timmerman quickly began to be on the radar of clubs outside of the Netherlands. Eventually in 2001, top German team VC Eintracht Mendig expressed interest in Timmerman and offered him an opportunity to play in Germany – one that couldn’t be missed. “Germany is an amazing country to play professional volleyball in,” he says. “The sport is incredibly popular and I was frequently playing in front of crowds of over 5,000 people – and to an even wider TV audience. The pay was also significantly better,” he jokes.

A career in professional sport however, is often short and after just under a decade of playing volleyball at the highest level, Timmerman called time on his professional career in 2005. There were a number of reasons behind this decision, including the challenging economic environment the sport was operating in, as well as injuries.

Timmerman had reached the crossroads of transitioning from the world of professional sport into ‘normal’ life, something that is a well-documented challenge for many sportsmen and women. However, there would be no problem as he had always known where his life would lead after he had served his last ace – the world of corporate treasury.

Sportsman by night, treasurer by day

Corporate treasury had interested Timmerman for a number of years, even predating his high school education. “My father used to be a commodity and currency trader for a mixed feed company before later becoming the CFO. He used to bring home his trading portfolio and we would sit and look at the currency fluctuations,” he says. “As I got older we began to manage our own small stock portfolio and this facilitated my interest in trading and macroeconomics.

“I wanted to play sport for as long as I could, both physically and financially, but I have always been acutely aware that I needed to have something to do after,” says Timmerman. As such, the young sporting professional set his sights on the world of corporate finance and agreed to continue his studies when signing his first contract, enrolling on an economics course at the University of Amsterdam. This university was best suited for Timmerman because it offered a scheme designed to allow professional sportsmen and women to study alongside their careers.

“I was given a sports co-ordinator who helped me balance my studies alongside my sporting commitments, yet it was tough as I was often traveling across Europe to play matches and taking my books with me to study.” He admits it wasn’t the easiest of conditions to obtain a degree in, but with hard work and a lot of preparation, he graduated with a master’s degree in five years.

After graduation, Timmerman was presented the opportunity to step into a treasury department at Transavia Airlines. “I started off by working at least every morning and then two or three afternoons. This allowed me to continue playing volleyball because – although we practised every day – this was either in the afternoons or evenings,” he says. “I was lucky to have such a great manager who gave me his full support and understood my circumstances.” Aside from the flexible working, Transavia’s treasury department was also a great place for Timmerman to learn the basics of treasury as the scope of operations was limited, primarily to cash management and some FX and commodity hedging activity.

After three years at the airline, and with his sporting career beginning to come to a close, Timmerman joined Nike as Treasury Manager EMEA in 2005. Leaving a largely domestic operation to join one of the world’s foremost sports manufacturing companies presented a whole new side to treasury. “The number of activities that the treasury managed was larger and they were a significant step up in terms of complexity,” he says.

Having called time on his volleyball career, Timmerman moved back into the aviation industry assuming the role of Group Treasury Manager at Air France/KLM in 2007. His experience at the Nike treasury however had shown that there were many complexities that surrounded treasury operations that he wanted, and also needed to learn, in order to progress his career. To do so, Timmerman enrolled on a dedicated Treasury Management post graduate course back at the University of Amsterdam that ran alongside his work at KLM. “The course not only focused on core treasury skills, but also incorporated related subjects such as tax methods and financial law,” he says. “While we did not explore these in enough detail to become specialists, it did allow me to at least be aware of these concepts.” Timmerman says that taking this course was one of the most vital moments in his career. “The course certainly facilitated my move away from being a junior treasurer and to become a treasury manager and without it I don’t think that I would be able to be the treasury director that I am today.”

Asia calling

Timmerman joined Dutch multinational AkzoNobel as Chief Dealer in the summer of 2009 and held the role for just over four years before accepting the offer to head up the company’s regional treasury in Asia Pacific. “It was a natural career move, I had been in my previous role for a number of years and I wanted a new challenge,” he says. “The role as regional treasurer certainly presented that because the scope of responsibilities is greater compared to my previous role which was quite specialised in the front office dealing room. I am also now required to lead a large team.”

Of course, moving to an entirely new region was also a big change. “I believe it is always good to work in Asia from a personal development perspective. It is a fantastic region with a lot of growth potential and also presents a number of challenges that one would not encounter in Europe. In this sense it is a very good career step to make.”

As Head of Treasury SEAP, Timmerman is based in Singapore and responsible for AkzoNobel’s treasury operations in South East Asia Pacific, excluding China, which has its own dedicated treasury team. Reporting to the global treasury head office in the Netherlands, the seven-strong team have a wide remit of responsibilities that cover cash and liquidity management, corporate finance activities in the region and financial risk management. The team are also responsible for running a number of projects including installing a payment factory and a trade finance platform that have seen AkzoNobel develop one of the most respected treasury set-ups in the region. “One of the most satisfying aspects of my role is the autonomy that I am granted by the treasury head office. While they set the overall vision of where the company is going I am free to explore how best this can be done in the region and as long as all the objectives are met everybody is happy. This gives me the ability to exercise my treasury expertise to the fullest.”

Man management

In volleyball, teamwork is the key to success, and a key part of this is ensuring that each team member knows their role and responsibility. “It is important that each person in the team knows exactly what is expected of them, the deadlines they have to meet and to be disciplined in their approach,” says Timmerman. “To achieve this I am quite hands-on in the management of my treasury team. I allow them to carry out their roles and responsibilities without interference but I do like to be kept in the loop regarding what is happening. I believe lines of communication such as this are important to ensure that there is cohesion and consistency to our work.” Timmerman also protects his team from outside pressures so that they can achieve their best. “In sport you stand by your teammates and fight their corner and I think the same is true in the corporate world to instil the idea of a team.”

For Timmerman personally, one of the most challenging aspects of managing his team in Asia Pacific comes from the culture nuances across the region. “I had to quickly understand the different cultures, how best to communicate, how to motivate and how different cultures react to certain things,” he says. “People from the Netherlands, including myself, tend to be direct and blunt. That however, doesn’t necessarily always help in this region, so I needed to reshape myself and this is a constant learning process.”

The final piece in Timmerman’s management jigsaw, and something drawn from his sporting background, is celebrating success. “During my volleyball career we celebrated every victory together and supported each other after every defeat,” he says. “My team work very hard and I believe that if we do this and complete a project or achieve something within a deadline then we should celebrate our achievement together. This can be anything from lunch to dinner or even a night out, but as long as it’s together and the team feel rewarded then they will be willing to continue achieving going forward and the team ethos will be reinforced.”

Regional challenges

Aside from the challenge of managing his own team, Timmerman’s move to Asia Pacific also presented the challenge of operating in a very complex and fast moving region. Regulation, as many treasurers will testify, is one of, if not, the biggest challenge. This means that decision-making is that much more difficult for the Asia Pacific treasury team. “When we make decisions, we are not just making them for today but for the future,” says Timmerman. “When we set up a cash management or trade finance structure for example, we can only do this with the knowledge that we have today. But we know that regulatory change will be coming down the line and that markets will develop, so we have to also build a structure that we believe will continue to work in the future. This means decisions often have to be more careful – and comprises have to sometimes be made.”

The region’s restricted economies are also cited by Timmerman as being an interesting challenge when looking to obtain the most efficient cash management solution. “It is imperative that we work together as a team but also with our banks, internal stakeholders, and the financial controllers within the entities, to make sure that we find a solution that mirrors the optimal result as closely as possible.”

In regard to the region’s banking landscape, Timmerman is satisfied with the level of service that the treasury gets from its banks. And the banks play an important role in addressing the challenges that the AkzoNobel team face. “Around 90% of the information I have on changes within the market comes from my banking partners,” says Timmerman. “I like to have this verified by a number of the banks, but it is the easiest and quickest way to keep up to speed with what is happening across the region.

“Our banking group is comprised of a number of the world’s biggest banks including Citi, Deutsche Bank and HSBC and these provide an optimal service across the region, even in countries such as Pakistan and Papua New Guinea they have a presence and can support us,” he says. The pricing is also adequate for Timmerman and he pinpoints that the industry is become increasingly transparent in this regard due to all services being commoditised. “All the big banks provide similar structures so pricing has become very competitive and this trend is certainly favouring the corporates right now.”

High-tech treasury

In order to ensure that the AkzoNobel treasury can achieve all its objectives a heavy investment of resources has been poured into technology. “Technology is at the heart of what we are trying to achieve and is going a long way to make life easier across the board,” says Timmerman. “We are constantly looking at what we can automate and standardise our processes in order to achieve straight through processing and all the benefits associated with this.”

In recent years, the treasury team have rolled out a number of projects including an in-house bank system that is integrated with a payments factory. This allows the group’s entities to use a standardised process surrounding payments. As mentioned, the team is also implementing an innovative trade finance platform and setting up a FX trading on behalf structure. Despite the technology that sits within the AkzoNobel Treasury, Timmerman is quick to point out that people are still key. “People are still needed to bring intelligence to the technology and to stay on top of what’s happening, and this will never change.”

It’s not all work

And in an age when it seems people are expected to work all hours of the day to bring that magic, Timmerman delivers a refreshing message that counters this trend. “It is all about the quality you deliver and not the quantity of hours you are in the office,” he says. “Of course, in this region people work a lot of hours. But I always question this because if you start at seven in the morning and work until nine o’clock in the evening, what is your productivity going to be between eight and nine in the evening?” For Timmerman it is about ensuring that the job gets done and then going home to spend time with your family or do what you enjoy outside of work. In turn, this will ensure that you are fully energised and ready to tackle the next day.

Currently, family is Timmerman’s main priority outside of the office. However, once a sportsman always a sportsman and he still plays volleyball in Singapore and is also a keen tennis player. He does admit, however, that winning a grand slam may now be a little bit out of reach!

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