Corporate View: Marianna Polykrati, AVRAMAR

Published: Jul 2023

Making waves

Marianna Polykrati, Group Treasurer of aquaculture firm AVRAMAR, explains why flexibility is a critical quality for treasury professionals, how treasury can benefit from digitalisation and automation, and why the transformation of the CFO’s role is opening up new opportunities for treasurers to become strategic partners within the organisation.

Marianna Polykrati

Group Treasurer

AVRAMAR was born in January 2021, when four leading companies Andromeda, Nireus, Selonda and the fish feed company Perseus, joined their collective expertise into one unified company. Today, AVRAMAR is the biggest aquaculture company in the European Union operating across the Mediterranean from Greece in the east to Spain in the west, and offering a wide species portfolio consisting of Sea Bass, Sea Bream, Pagro Maggiore and Corvina. Its vertically integrated value chain provides full traceability and ensures superior quality of every fish, from egg to plate. With an annual production of around 80,000 tonnes of fish per year, and exports to customers across 40 countries, AVRAMAR is an employer of around 2,300 people, with annual revenues of approximately €500m.

Today, Marianna Polykrati is a highly experienced treasurer with an impressive career history which includes roles in the banking sector, as well as key treasury roles at several major Greek food companies. But while Polykrati is passionate about the opportunities and challenges that come with a career in treasury, the world of finance wasn’t always on her radar. Polykrati originally considered careers in medicine and psychology, but it was when exploring alternative options that she found that corporate finance was a much better fit for her skills and interests.

“This was one of the best lessons I’ve had in my life – realising that you have to be flexible and constantly investigate alternatives that might suit you better,” she comments. “This has helped me in my career as a treasurer as well, because when you’re in a tight situation you have to be able to think outside the box and consider a wide range of options, rather than focusing on one single solution.”

After completing a degree in accounting and finance at the American College of Greece, Polykrati moved to the US to do a master’s degree in finance at the Boston College Carroll School of Management. “And when I came back, I was ready to start exploring a career in corporate finance,” she recalls.

Like many other finance professionals, during the period, Polykrati’s career began with a focus on the banking sector. Her first role was that of relationship manager at Emporiki Leasing, where she worked with medium-sized Greek companies that ranged from small retail stores to large manufacturing plants.

“During that time, I familiarised myself with the criteria that banks used for financing corporates,” she says, noting that this is very critical when operating as a treasurer today. “Next, I explored venture capital, learning more about how investors evaluate companies and enter and exit investments.”

Working for Emporiki Venture Capital, Polykrati was responsible for projects in Cyprus and Russia, as well as restructuring Greek companies. Her role included overseeing the complete cycle of investments from deal flow generation and preliminary screening to due diligence coordination and exit formulation. Subsequently, however, Polykrati decided to make the leap from a career in banking to the world of corporate treasury. “In the corporate world you are in the heart of the real business, with production, people and facilities,” she observes.

Polykrati says she felt very strongly about making this move, which has proved instrumental in shaping her subsequent career. “I switched to the corporate side, and I’ve now been in treasury for 16 years,” she says. “And every year, I am still learning new things, which means my job is never monotonous.”

Embracing M&A and corporate restructuring

Starting as an assistant to the general manager for a small corporation, focused on accounting and bank relationship management, Polykrati later joined the major Greek food group Vivartia, which was formed in 2006 by the merger of Delta, Chipita, Barba Stathis and Goody’s. “I was involved in the merger process that involved bringing together all these different entities and cultures, supporting a lot in the transformation,” she recalls.

During her time at Vivartia, Polykrati’s focus was on financing new acquisitions, strengthening the company’s cash and liquidity management, as well as exploring capital markets funding and improving risk management. At a later stage, and after another corporate restructuring involving the demerger of all the entities, the task changed to redesigning the group treasury function and training and educating the four new entities to be more autonomous in cash and liquidity management, corporate financial management, capital markets funding and risk management and controlling, while optimising treasury activities across those areas.

Corporate restructuring has been a recurring theme in her treasury career: “I have managed to be involved in a lot of corporate restructuring during my time in treasury. M&A is one of the areas that intercorrelates a lot with treasury, and treasurers can really add value and make a difference.”

Embracing new challenges

Following the demerger, and the split of Vivartia’s operations to its original form, Chipita was sold back to its previous shareholders in 2010. “I remained at Vivartia initially, but three years later I joined Chipita,” says Polykrati. The Greek confectionary company specialised in selling packaged croissants and other snack brands, with a presence in over 50 countries. As Group Treasurer of Chipita – a role that she held for nine years – Polykrati was responsible for the group’s capital structure and liquidity management, including financing arrangements, managing foreign exchange risk and coordinating cash management across the group.

Polykrati’s other responsibilities at Chipita included ensuring compliance with the relevant regulatory, legal and tax frameworks, managing overseas trade financing activities, and evaluating and implementing supply chain finance and trade finance projects.

In 2022, when Chipita was acquired by American multinational food giant Mondelez International in a US$2bn deal, as the treasury function became centralised, Polykrati decided to take the opportunity to have a sabbatical. “I was initially planning to stay out for one year, but as it always happens when making plans, it was cut short because I had some very interesting proposals,” she recalls. “Several opportunities actually came up, but the most challenging and interesting role came from AVRAMAR.”

In particular, says Polykrati, she was interested in continuing to work in the food sector and aquaculture was a good fit, particularly as it is a sector she feels that Greece should be developing. “I believe that Greece needs to continue growing and developing in the field of agriculture and aquaculture, as this is something that Greece has quality products to offer, alongside with tourism and shipping,” she comments.

Nevertheless, she also points out that aquaculture is a challenging sector to work in. “The role also reminded me of my early time in Vivartia, because AVRAMAR was created with the merger of companies. We have a great mixture of people and cultures, with new ideas coming into the group and doing some fascinating things.”

Harnessing digital opportunities

In April 2023, Polykrati joined AVRAMAR as the Group Treasurer. The company’s treasury team consists of 13 people located in Greece and Spain. Within the company, treasury is responsible for cash management, liquidity management, debt management, accounts payable and accounts receivable.

Today, says Polykrati, the focus of the treasury is on reorganising the department to improve the way that treasury works, while also increasing the strategic role of the department within the organisation. “The areas that I’m focusing on today, alongside capital structure, are debt management, cash management, improving costs, supply chain finance and in general finding other areas of improvement,” she adds.

At the same time, there is a significant focus within the company on using technology to improve and automate treasury’s day-to-day activities, for example with the use of treasury management systems and cash flow forecasting tools. Polykrati notes that modern treasury management systems offer a lot of solutions for treasurers looking to streamline their day-to-day activities, while data analytics are also playing a key role in enabling treasurers to collect and use data in a more meaningful way, for taking more strategic decisions and adding value to the company.

“Technology is not only having a TMS or cash forecasting system – there is also the option to use APIs that connect directly with the banks to receive all the data,” she explains. “And with data analytics tools, you can then start to see the behaviour and patterns that will help you prepare your cash flow forecast.” Nevertheless, says Polykrati, “all these tools are efficient and reliable as long as you keep a well-maintained ERP.”

In general, says Polykrati, treasurers often find it difficult to gain buy-in for digitalisation projects within their organisations, typically for two main reasons. “Firstly, only a few really comprehend what treasury does due to the role’s specialised nature. Then there is the question of convincing people of the need to digitalise activities.”

Fortunately, she says that AVRAMAR has proved very proactive when it comes to understanding the need to digitalise cash management and cash flow forecasting. “We are currently evaluating this, and one of our next projects will be to digitalise and automate treasury.” This may include the use of APIs to improve and speed up bank connectivity, as well as using technology for cash and risk management.

Facing down challenges

The last few years have brought more than their fair share of challenges for treasurers around the world, and like many of her peers, Polykrati cites risk management as one of the most significant challenges she faces in her role. “Knowing how to manage risk effectively is an ongoing challenge,” she notes. “It’s important to understand where interest rates are going, and how you can minimise your borrowing costs when interest rates in Europe are rising. Then there are FX fluctuations and the increases in raw materials and commodity prices due to the extraordinary circumstances we’ve seen over the last three years globally, from COVID to the energy crisis. So for sure, trying to manage financial risks is one of the things that keeps treasurers awake at night.”

In addition, says Polykrati, safeguarding cash flows in this unstable environment is always a major challenge, as is the growing concern about counterparty risk – not least because of the effects of the recent turmoil in the banking system following the failure of US banks Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank. “Checking on all the positions and bank exposures that you have is particularly important in times of uncertainty,” she adds.

Role of the treasurer

Where the role of the treasurer is concerned, Polykrati says that in recent years, “things have changed a lot, from being an accountant – a cashier, as it is sometimes described – to having a much more strategic role.” She argues that one of the reasons for this shift is the fact that a lot of CFOs are transforming their own roles while more specialisation is needed within organisations, especially for handling risk factors, which is “creating much more space for the treasurer to transform as well.”

At the same time, says Polykrati, treasurers are increasingly being invited to join executive committees and advisory boards within their companies. “I think the fact that we are able to evaluate the risk of a project as a board member means that treasurers have a valuable role to play here.”

Alongside the transformation of the CFO’s role, Polykrati notes that treasurers are increasingly responsible for leading different types of transformation. Blockchain, though quite complex and ambiguous in its use, still needs to be investigated and regulated prior to being a tool for treasury, but it does have the potential to help simplify several aspects of treasury operations. Digital transformation is one – and in addition, Polykrati highlights the role treasurers are playing in advancing the focus on ESG and sustainability within their organisations.

“We hear a lot about sustainability and about ESG,” she reflects. “I believe treasurers are the ones that first took a lead in focusing on the impact of ESG coming from the market and from financial institutions. We started to build checklists of how our companies are engaging in ESG and sustainability. And now, with the growing focus on ESG financing, we are taking the lead here as well.”

Indeed, sustainability is a key focus for AVRAMAR. Polykrati says: “We adhere to a business strategy that is committed to using sustainable and responsible aquaculture practices. This commitment is to our customers, our community and our planet. We systematically implement policies developed for the purpose of sustainable development, enhancing the social, governance and environmental awareness and responsibility of our employees and, indirectly, other stakeholders. In this way, we embed sustainability in how we do business.”

Building networks and embracing downtime

Beyond her role at AVRAMAR, Polykrati is also a board member of the Hellenic Association of Treasurers (HAT), a professional association formed in 2020 for treasury professionals and related professionals in Greece and abroad. “We are counting 185 members today, out of which 75% are located in Greece, and the remainder work outside of Greece – predominantly in the UK and the Netherlands,” says Polykrati.

She notes that the initiative has proved successful in creating a professional network for its members and enabling the treasurers of Greek corporations to share ideas and gain insights from their colleagues overseas. HAT also provides a range of training and education opportunities, as well as holding annual summits with expert speakers in Athens. “It’s a great initiative that I believe will benefit treasury professionals for years to come, and I’m glad to have been amongst the first to get involved,” Polykrati comments.

She adds, “As I was lucky in my professional career and had mentors myself, mentoring young professionals, students in universities and high schools has been, and shall always be, one of the areas in which I enjoy spending a lot of my free time as well.”

Last but not least, while much of her time is taken up by professional commitments, Polykrati nevertheless emphasises the importance of downtime and relaxation. “When I’m off duty, I enjoy playing tennis and taking part in athletics and exercise,” she comments. “I also enjoy socialising with friends and colleagues from my professional network – those two things help a lot when it comes to striking a balance and relieving oneself from the work stress.”

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