Corporate View: Rahul Daswani, Microsoft

Published: May 2020

The art of paying attention

Dubai-based Rahul Daswani, Senior Manager, New Solutions – International, Global Financial Services (GFS) at Microsoft, develops strategies for payment solutions in the company’s developing and emerging territories. He talks to Treasury Today about his motivations, experiences and Adam Smith Award winning solutions.

Rahul Daswani

Senior Manager, New Solutions – International, Global Financial Services

Needing little in the way of introduction, Microsoft, founded in 1975, is a worldwide leader in software, services and solutions that help people and businesses realise their full potential.

Microsoft remains one of the world’s best-known corporate names because it responds rapidly to market changes. Naturally, Rahul Daswani, the company’s Dubai-based Senior Manager, New Solutions – International, Global Financial Solutions, shares this approach, ensuring business with the firm’s partners continues to flow freely.

With responsibility for developing solutions that enable sales financing, Daswani, working with the company’s banking partners, is at the heart of Microsoft’s customer payment offering. His geographical remit alone is a test of his capacity for innovative thinking. With an area that covers Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and large swathes of Asia, he is engaged with what may be loosely categorised as developing and emerging markets. His Asian territory excludes Japan and Australia, for example, because where the bulk of his work requires highly customised solutions, these financially advanced territories are able to use more standardised financing solutions.

Microsoft’s stated aim is to reach every person on the planet. Whilst developed economies have consumed its technology with great enthusiasm over the decades, the level of demand for innovative solutions in many emerging territories is rapidly gaining ground.

With consumption of Microsoft’s services rising, it is down to professionals like Daswani to facilitate growth, ensuring commercial customers in his territory have the right funding solutions available to them when they need them. But for Daswani, an undertaking of this nature is far removed from his intended early-years career trajectory.

Moving ahead

Having qualified in India as a chartered accountant, he started his professional life with GE Capital’s shared services organisation. Although far from his eventual career path, he was exposed early on to a globalised mode of operations. In this position, he consciously involved himself in the ‘lean’ world of Six Sigma and what he describes as its statistically evidenced, data-driven notion of continuous process improvement.

He followed with a move into Citi. Keen to take on a client facing role, he reflects on this as one of the best decisions of his career, with Citi having encouraged him to take on a range of different roles. “The learning curve was steep but I was gaining skills across a broad range of functions, from customer services, credit risk underwriting and business development; this helped me build core skillsets that I would use later on,” he explains.

From Citi, Daswani took another leap forward, managing the customer financing function of Nokia’s Indian division. Success here afforded him the opportunity to expand his geographical coverage into Asia Pacific. Subsequent corporate re-organisation saw him take on the role of Regional Treasurer for the Middle East and Africa, relocating to Dubai where he remains to this date.

“Those years in Nokia were both incredibly exciting and stressful,” he recalls. Having joined the firm when it was the global leader in device manufacture, it gave him “incredible opportunities” to work on new initiatives, such as mobile wallets, in support of rural business development, often in places where most banks would not go.

However, rapid technological catch-up by Nokia’s competitors brought the company near to bankruptcy. This pushed its treasury and finance function to the fore as it worked to accelerate cash flows and liquidity in “a highly resource-constrained environment”.

Such experiences had presented Daswani with the perfect training ground for what came next. With Microsoft’s acquisition of Nokia’s Devices and Services business in 2014, its entire treasury operation was integrated, moving him into a senior corporate finance role before casting him as a key player in its structured finance sub-group.

Many of the core skills Daswani has developed across the years have naturally benefitted his current position. When in 2015 Microsoft, under its new CEO, began its ongoing programme to revamp its product and customer engagement processes, it brought the opportunity to encourage amongst all personnel the development of multiple skills and competencies. The level of support offered has allowed Daswani to continually pursue new specialisations and interests as he increases his exposure to different markets. This has been a conscious decision throughout his career.

Open to options

Indeed, with many experienced professionals tending to focus either on subject matter expertise or on broader people management skills, Daswani feels that opening up as many options as possible from the outset is the wisest course of action. “I always tell people that it’s very important to experiment with different roles early on. Not only do you get a broader perspective, but also you get clarity on what you enjoy doing and where you would like to specialise later on in your career.”

What broad-based experience also brings is confidence – and thus resilience – when it comes to tackling professional challenges. For Daswani, this is an important quality. “You can back down to diffuse situations and fight another day but don’t give up too quickly,” he says. The resilient mindset, he adds, is vital at a strategic level where issues are tackled on a larger scale and can take longer to resolve because working at scale and at speed are often mutually exclusive.

That said, although he acknowledges that time and effort is sometimes required to explain to non-finance functions how his team is creating value, Daswani feels that external partners can be more challenging.

Needing to work with multiple financial institutions to build a framework in which all parties can collaborate equitably, he admits that it is not always easy to find partners with the standards, scale and depth of operations and flexibility which Microsoft requires to meet the needs of its own clients. This, he believes, is more a symptom of dealing with emerging market territories, and is an effect which, at times, is exacerbated by the somewhat fragmented regulatory environment to which he is exposed across his territories.

Keeping pace

Another concern for Daswani is what he perceives as the “lack of pace” at which some domestic financial institutions have shown in keeping up with technology. This is most evident in how customers expect to transact with those institutions, and the speed with which credit risk approvals are handled.

Technology is progressing rapidly in the payments space, and it will continue to accelerate with the development of telecoms technology and the emergence of 5G, but Daswani believes that it is “just unacceptable now for any customer – retail or corporate – to be in a state where they cannot send a payment instruction virtually on mobile, or not be able to receive confirmations in real-time”.

Microsoft can build and offer customers new real-time technologies, only for those customers to face downstream process delays. The need to pick up the pace at every touch point is, he feels, essential if customers are to experience the fast and smooth execution they want and need.

Emergence of the fintech community is forcing the progress within financial institutions. Daswani’s team is driven to keep up the pace, and cut transaction times, with every one of its partners, including the banks. Those that make the cut, he notes, are encouraged to constantly explore and deliver solutions “as rapidly as is possible”.

Award winner

As evidence of Daswani and his team’s commitment to finding the right customer solutions, he collected the Treasury Today Adam Smith Award in 2019 for Best in Class Treasury Solution in the Middle East (Microsoft has submitted for and won several awards in different categories over the years).

Through the Microsoft GFS group, an innovative solution was developed that allows customers, when purchasing via resellers, to make monetary commitments to Microsoft’s cloud and simultaneously sign up for extended, multi-year payment terms backed by Microsoft’s banking partner.

This is an innovative trade finance solution, using non-recourse assignment of receivables and is combined with Microsoft’s sales offering to customers who purchase cloud products from any of its resellers. The end result effectively removes friction from purchases, kicking in even before a deal has closed. “We no longer think of it simply as a working capital solution; we now organise the whole structure of receivables and payables flows as a sales-enabling tool,” comments Daswani.

Strategic moves

Daswani’s GFS function was born in treasury but now has been carved out in a separate vertical that reports into commercial finance. Microsoft’s activities in this space represent “a different evolution” from many other large corporates, and yet still remain connected to the treasury organisation, notes Daswani.

GFS works closely with treasury – not least to keep its multiple banking relationships on an even keel – whilst with deeper specialisation treasury has become more focused. Daswani sees treasury’s strategic role as an opportunity for it to remain well-connected to the entire value chain of cash flow across the organisation (including GFS), whilst still developing its specialist role.

“Being well-connected allows treasury greater visibility over what is happening at an enterprise-wide level, which in turn allows it to better plan its response to future activities,” he explains. It means the function can leverage technological advances to develop and offer new tools to the wider business. “Unless treasurers spend time understanding the broader organisation, they may not realise the full value of all of those tools which are becoming available. Having that strategic view helps with this supply-and-demand match.”

Being strategic of thought and action requires certain skills though and Daswani sees finely tuned collaborative skills as crucial. It would always have been the case within the team, he says, but now the need is to be able to work beyond even the walls of the business.

Collaboration, he feels, is borne out of the ability to listen and to communicate without pre-conceived notions. “It’s about taking a step back and walking through ideas; you may have dismissed something out of hand but as you explore it, aspects may emerge that could become workable.” It’s not easy, he admits.

“Often in corporate life we are short of time and need people to get to the point quickly, but that’s where you can miss the detail.” Of course, having the ability to decide what to focus on, and then finding the time to listen and explore fully, is something else that comes from experience – for which he knows there is no shortcut.

Training ground

That said, Daswani is convinced of the value of formal professional training and education, seeing it as “investing time in strategic knowledge development”. With the AMCT qualification from the Association of Corporate Treasurers (“the gold standard”) complementing his professional accountancy exams, he believes the experience has been beneficial.

Daswani chooses to supplement his formal treasury knowledge by attending courses normally pitched at other professionals, like the Fixed Income Money Market Dealers Association of India course on bond mathematics; highly specialised but nonetheless useful for understanding valuations on bond purchases, he says.

It’s this kind of learning that underpins his everyday work, but Daswani has also come to realise that there is a lot of training available for free that many do not often consider. There is a wealth of educational content on LinkedIn, for example, and the Massive Open Online Course facility is available for anyone to enrol on. He also advocates attendance at relevant conferences, where even casual conversations with peers can prove invaluable.

Whilst his formal educational experience has obviously introduced new facets to his work, sometimes courses have served to refresh his understanding of the fundamentals. Ultimately, he feels that his studies – formal and informal – have allowed him to execute his current work “in a much more enhanced manner”, and he urges all busy professionals “to make time for them”.

Starting out

For those just starting out in their career in corporate finance and treasury, Daswani not only advises familiarisation with the latest technologies, but also encourages going further, learning coding for applications in the worlds of AI, machine learning and data analytics, for example. “Our environment continues to become more automated. Having a basic grasp of coding will be a valuable asset for anyone coming into treasury now,” he comments.

Another useful asset for newcomers is the ability to stay grounded. “It’s very easy to get lost in the buzzwords and technicalities of the role. You need to get out of your workspace and meet with other people in the organisation. That way you can begin to understand the different perspectives and be able to respond to the wider business needs more sympathetically and effectively.” Indeed, he adds, with careers taking many different turns these days, an enhanced and broad personal understanding of corporate activity is highly prized.

It may not come to everyone naturally, continues Daswani, but understanding at an early stage that treasurers do not undertake treasury for the sake of treasury, but for the sake of the organisation, helps give younger professionals a more rounded approach not just to their work and colleagues, but also to their careers.

One factor that is often ignored at an early age but which most experienced professionals say is vital, is achieving an acceptable work/life balance. For Daswani, this means moving away from the traditional ‘9 to 5’ regime and embracing flexibility.

Mobile technology means employees can be ‘always on’ if allowed to go unchecked, but it also means many can manage the time as they wish within the working day. “To me, work/life balance now means being able to use my time in ways that I want to. I use technology to be more effective and productive,” he explains. If that means drafting brief responses to emails in the evening or taking time out during the day to attend his children’s school events, so be it.

Personal reflection

The latter is particularly important as outside of corporate life, Daswani is very much a family man. With young children, he is keen to be a big part of their development, something which many professionals do not always find easy. Providing dedicated family time is important to him and he aims for “at least two good relaxing holidays” – and at least one new country – every year.

Personally, he enjoys nothing more than sitting on his balcony and watching ships go by. For someone who clearly relishes the pace and thrill of the new in his working life, the ever-changing yet unhurried seascape before him offers the perfect counterpoint.

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