Corporate View: Mike Wallace, Marks & Spencer

Published: Mar 2012

Marks & Spencer is one of the UK’s leading retailers. It focuses on a wide range of upmarket products, from high quality food to clothing merchandise, and employs some 78,000 people in 43 territories globally. Marks & Spencer’s operations are largely UK-based where it has 721 stores, but in recent years it has sought to expand internationally. In 2011, despite difficult trading conditions, it increased its sales by 4.2% with a group revenue of £9.74 billion.

Mike Wallace

Group Treasurer

Mike Wallace joined Marks & Spencer plc as Group Treasurer in January 2006. Prior to that he was Deputy Group Treasurer at Exel plc, the international logistics company, having spent ten years there in various treasury roles. Before Exel Mike also held treasury positions at Samsung Europe and Oracle Corporation. Mike is a member of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants and the Association of Corporate Treasurers and holds a BA (Hons) degree in Business Studies.

Behind the smooth advertising campaigns and stylish store fronts of Marks & Spencer lies a hard-hitting retail company. Market conditions are difficult and consumers continue to pinch their pennies.

But the retailer has adapted to the tough new environment with a philosophy of doing more with less. A drive for efficiency underpins the overall business strategy of Marks & Spencer.

Underlying this efficiency, however, is a vast network of payments and receipts in addition to a global supply chain spanning several continents. This is where Mike comes in. Under his watch as Group Treasurer, payments confirmations have been automated and successfully integrated with accounting systems; deals are now electronic-based; and back office tasks have been outsourced, allowing his team to focus more on value-added activities.

It wasn’t always like this. When Mike first arrived at Marks & Spencer, he encountered a working culture that was out-dated in its approach to treasury. “It was quite challenging,” Mike recalls. “At the time I arrived, things within M&S treasury were largely done manually and with paper.

For example, we had hundreds of deal confirmations being signed in paper – in triplicate! We had a treasury system, but it was essentially just a simple deal database, with no integration with any payments, confirmation or accounting systems.”

Mike joined at the right time. With a new Chief Executive, Sir Stuart Rose, in charge, Marks & Spencer was in the midst of overhauling its business strategy. New practices and objectives were put in place; core areas targeted as key sources of growth; and inefficient processes weeded out. A new expansion plan was agreed upon.

The retailer was changing its ways, and so too was its treasury. “There was a lot that needed changing, but there was also a lot of opportunity as well,” notes Mike. Most urgent was the need to streamline and automate operations – a task easier said than done.

The attainment of Mike’s objective was complicated by the fact that his treasury consisted of just two team members – quite a difference from the team of twelve that preceded his arrival. He immediately hired a deputy treasurer, a position that still exists to this day, and set about bringing “the treasury department into the 21st century.”

In this interview, Mike talks about the past, present and his top priorities for the future of treasury operations at Marks & Spencer (M&S).

Why were operations so dated before 2006?

I think fundamentally it was a culture thing. The perceived role of the treasury department at the time was to essentially organise financing and to execute deals; and to act as a policeman rather than a business partner. It was just cultural. The business was going through a lot of changes to update itself, and treasury needed to be part of that process and change with it.

How did the M&S treasury environment differ from your previous experiences?

It was very much a corporate head office environment. This was in contrast to my previous company (Exel Logistics) – where I had been for ten years, finishing as Deputy Treasurer – where it was a more customer-focused operation; supporting the business in terms of identifying and managing the risks that they had; or solving treasury or banking issues that they might have around the world. Exel Logistics was far more international – so treasury was a combination of support and corporate finance roles.

You have now been M&S Group Treasurer for nearly seven years. How is your treasury structured today?

In terms of personnel: not a lot different. But in terms of the shape of the department, and the operating model that we work on, it is very different. So all back office aspects of the department have been outsourced, including confirmations, payments, accounting – all the critical but low-value stuff – to M&S’s shared service centre in Manchester. Soon after arriving, I appointed a deputy treasurer and that role still exists. So we’re actually still only a very small team of four people. But what we have been able to do is fully integrate systems. All dealing is now online, confirmations are all electronic and all deals interface directly with our accounting systems. Fairly shortly we aim to have integrated our payments systems as well. We have automated things – we had to – you can’t operate on a manual basis with such a small team.

But it sounds like it is a more efficient operation because it is small?

Absolutely, but not only that. With those four people the main focus of their roles is now on bringing value-add to the business. We have moved away from the – albeit critical – day-to-day stuff, that is lower in value to assessing what the business risks are. This means adapting to how the business is changing; and really bringing opportunities to the business – either to improve their profitability or efficient use of capital, or just bringing ideas about how things can be done differently. We are also looking at things like supplier relationships, getting more into the business side rather than the corporate side – although the corporate stuff has to remain there.

Can you talk about cash pooling at M&S?

At the moment we are still predominantly a UK-based operation, so most of our pooling is relatively simple in the UK. But what is very different is that we have to manage large amounts of cash. We have a unique way of doing that in that we have our banks who collect our cash, count and process it for us. This is something we call ‘prime count’. This means that we don’t have to have large cash counting rooms in our stores or allocate people to count, however once that is counted and collected into our UK bank, the actual cash pooling is pretty simple.

Internationally, we are going through a development phase with pooling, however because we don’t quite have the critical mass in the geographical coverage that we have, then we currently manage that fairly manually. Although we are developing solutions to try and address this because we recognise that will change over time.

What are your top priorities for the year ahead?

The priorities continue to be to support the business in relation to the strategy, and the financial risks that surround that. So I would categorise those as: continually looking at our FX risk management; and, as the business changes, how that changes and how we can adapt to that – so where our supplier base changes; where our new operations are being established; and how we are changing our distribution of supplier product.

Taking the supplier theme, in relation to the economic environment, we are very focused on ensuring that our supply chain, ie our suppliers, are well positioned to be stable going forwards so that our supplier product is stable. And we have been, over the last couple of years, getting a lot more involved with our sourcing teams on how we can ensure that.

The credit rating of M&S has had its ups and downs over the past decade. What are your views on credit ratings?

They are important. I am supportive in general with the credit rating process. And it is a good discipline for companies to have; and to be able to understand how the rating agencies view us. It is also a really good point of reference for a company – and for a treasurer – in terms of setting the appropriate capital structure for the company. But you need to be careful.

There are significant differences between how the ratings agencies assess companies, in terms of what their qualitative view is on sectors and specifics, but also on how they apply some of their quantitative adjustments. For example, how they treat operating leases can be very different. So I think you need to be careful of that and make sure you can provide as much clarity around how they should be looking at those sort of things and be as consistent as possible.

So it is fair to say that there is a certain amount of subjectivity?

Yes. But it’s not everything. They have a model, and that model is pretty rigid. They crank the numbers on that model and it produces an answer. They then apply their subjective views, and whether they feel that is an inappropriate answer or not. That means you have to invest and spend a lot of time making sure that they understand your business very well.

Because if they don’t – they will more than likely make the wrong decision. And the key thing for me on that is that there should be no surprises. So if you are giving guidance and you are talking about things, even if it is not particularly great, then it just needs to be consistent and you deliver it. If you continue to say, ‘well, we’re going to do this’ and then it doesn’t deliver, then they start to lose confidence.

And what are your opinions on the corporate bond market at the moment?

I think it is very fragmented and polarised. Unless you are a highly-rated non-cyclical organisation, then the power predominantly is with the investors at the moment rather than the issuers. This is due to the risk averse nature out there at the moment. It is interesting in that you have got those that are still able to raise funds in the A territory ratings, very efficiently and with huge amounts of capacity, and yet the investors are continually demanding yield. So it doesn’t appear to be terribly efficient right now.

Perhaps the question on every treasurer’s lips in recent months in light of the Eurozone crisis: what are your FX exposures and how do you manage them?

Our foreign exchange exposures are pretty normal. They are basically split into two areas. So we have transactional exposures, and those are represented by where we source our products overseas, and where we supply our overseas operations for our products as well. We are predominantly exposed to the dollar because most of our product, certainly from a general merchandise point of view, is sourced out of Asia. And those costs are predominantly transacted in US dollars. Albeit there is some underlying exposure to local currency – mostly the cost associated with it in terms of cotton, etc, are dollar-based.

We do also have exposure to euro, in relation predominantly to some of our more fast fashion product suppliers as well as some of our food products, but we have a natural hedge because of our reasonably large Irish operation, which buys products in sterling from the UK. Therefore we are able to offset those internally, leaving us with a relatively small net position. We also then have a translational exposure, and that is in relation to our net assets in our overseas operations. And again, that is predominantly in Ireland. Although we do have operations in Hong Kong, China and India.

What does the future hold for your treasury? What projects do you have in the pipeline?

I think the focus will continue to be on helping the business deliver its strategy and managing the risks within the business as a result of the changing environment or as a result of implementing that strategy. But I think we are seeing a lot more focus on things like commodities and hedging of those. Clearly the supply of our product is a fundamental requirement for us. And we are reasonably different to a lot of other companies in that we have relatively significant relationships with suppliers – certainly in the clothing area.

Because we sell our own brand goods, we have to have an investment in those products and the design, innovation, etc. And as such we have longer-term relationships with those suppliers. Therefore, if there is a financial risk, and the stability of the supplier is in question, that has a more serious impact on us. So we are quite focused on making sure those suppliers are stable. We source a lot of product out of China, the other south east Asian countries, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh – but also quite a lot out of Turkey as well.

Is M&S vulnerable to the Eurozone woes?

Nobody will be insulated from that. The importance for companies is to really look at where the potential risks are on the assets and liabilities. And rather than trying to predict what the outcome is going to be, just ensure that you have enough flexibility and have covered enough bases on those risks to mean you can deal effectively with whatever event does happen.

2011 has been a tough year; will 2012 be even more challenging?

There are not many tailwinds out there – and increasingly you have to contend with headwinds. The successful companies will be the ones that are run very, very well. So you have to make yourself the best at how you manage things and run things. And combine that with adapting to how the world is changing and trying to access growth markets globally.

What single tool would enable you to do your job more easily?

A mind-reading, crystal ball time machine.

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