Knowledge is power
As the Treasury Head at one of the largest multinationals operating in India, Sonam Donkar has reached the zenith of the profession. The road has not always been straightforward, but what sets Donkar apart is her self-belief and her drive to further the profile of corporate treasury. Her ambition now is to share this passion and knowledge with those around her in order to further the development of the profession in India.
Associate Director – Treasury Head
PepsiCo products are enjoyed by consumers one billion times a day in more than 200 countries and territories around the world. PepsiCo generated more than US$63bn in net revenue in 2015, driven by a complementary food and beverage portfolio that includes Frito-Lay, Gatorade, Pepsi-Cola, Quaker and Tropicana. PepsiCo entered India in 1989 and in a short period, has grown into one of the largest MNC food and beverage businesses in the country.
Throughout a varied career spanning a variety of different roles, industries and companies, Sonam Donkar, Associate Director – Treasury Head at PepsiCo India has sought to amass a wealth of knowledge and experience in order to become a well-rounded treasury professional.
Donkar’s position at one of the largest multinationals operating in India and her recent Treasury Today Adam Smith Asia Woman of the Year award suggest that this investment has more than paid off. But Donkar is not willing to stop there and has now turned her attention to investing in those around her by passing on her knowledge.
In doing so, Donkar’s primary objective is to boost the standing of corporate treasury, a profession about which she is unquestionably passionate, both within her company and across India as a whole. Donkar is committed to helping treasury achieve recognition as a key strategic partner to the business, and a source of knowledge and guidance for other departments on both operational and strategic matters. This isn’t a philosophy that was born overnight, but one that has been carefully curated throughout her career.
Donkar’s career began far from the world of corporate treasury: her first role was in teaching, which she began doing at only 14 years old. From very humble beginnings, driven primarily by necessity, Donkar also aimed to save at every opportunity in order to fulfill her dream of future studies.
Donkar was successful in her goal and attended Delhi University, with a Bachelor of Business Studies, Masters in Finance and Control, graduating with honours while also multi-tasking with multiple part-time corporate assignments/projects that gave her a flavour of the corporate world. She notes that these played a big role in helping her choose her future career path.
Treasury at PepsiCo does a lot more than most treasury functions I know. We are a strong and trusted business partner and involved across many long-term, enterprise-wide projects.
Following graduation, Donkar’s first full-time role was with Ballarpur Industries, one of Asia’s largest paper manufacturers. It was a role that Donkar describes as “hard core corporate finance” but it also provided a breakthrough in her career – not least because she was working directly under the CFO. “I was involved in all of the key projects that the finance organisation was undertaking, particularly in helping raise finance,” explains Donkar. “This was a great experience because Ballarpur is an extremely capital intensive company. We would raise funds from all manner of sources, and we very rarely failed to do so.”
After an enjoyable three years at the company, Donkar then went on to complete her post-graduation in Business Management from the prestigious Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore. IIMB was ranked the Best Business School in Central Asia in 2016 by Eduniversal, Paris, for the eighth consecutive year. The intense rigour and problem solving with real life business cases at management school helped her gear up further. As a student, she was always participating in various business case competitions to hone her problem-solving skills as a team leader.
Her next move was an interesting step change into a treasury sales role with Standard Chartered in India. While finding the bank an interesting organisation to work for, Donkar says that she began to develop her interest in the corporate treasury profession during this time.
“Working with corporates of all shapes and sizes, it was interesting to see the different challenges they had and the various strategies they put in place to address these,” she says. “What I found most interesting was the different policies that treasurers in India had to adhere to. It was clear that those that localised their policies to fit the domestic market were most successful. Yet not many were doing so, instead dogmatically following the policies set in Europe or the US.”
With this knowledge, Donkar decided to test herself in the corporate treasury arena and joined Dell as treasury lead for India. The experience, whilst valuable, left Donkar wanting to test herself further, especially in a strategic sense. As she notes, “the treasury at Dell was highly process orientated and helped me appreciate the benefits and demerits in a matrix world”.
Donkar’s expectations were met through her move to PepsiCo, which she joined in 2013 to lead the treasury team. In this role Donkar is responsible for the Group’s treasury operations in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. Her duties are far from typical. “Treasury at PepsiCo does a lot more than most treasury functions I know,” she says. “We are a strong and trusted business partner and involved across many long-term, enterprise-wide projects.”
Taking the lead
Donkar jokes that it would take up too much time to detail all of the projects that treasury has been working on. But one area that she talks about in glowing terms is her position at the head of an internal committee, charged with solving all the inefficiencies that exist throughout the finance function.
“There is a lot of non-value-adding operational work necessary in a business such as ours and this has traditionally required a huge headcount to execute,” she explains. “But in this day and age, it doesn’t make sense to have such a manual intensive process especially when we need to move into an era of digital revolution – automation is the key to removing all the no-value-add activities. The cross-functional team is therefore tasked with identifying labour intensive, non-value-adding activities and trying to utilise new technology to automate, simplify, or if need be, outsource them.”
To date, Donkar and her team have saved around 21,000 man-hours through various efficiency projects – a result she is clearly proud of. Donkar’s work in this field has also allowed her to test soft skills that she believes are becoming increasingly vital for treasurers. “There is always some resistance to efficiency projects,” she says. “This is natural: change is not always welcome. But I have found that once you begin to show the value that the changes can make and communicate these effectively, the business will react positively.”
Donkar has also been working on the company’s response to the Modi government’s recent demonetisation efforts that have seen the removal of 500 and 1,000 rupee notes from circulation. “This has had a huge impact on PepsiCo like many other FMCGs that have dependency on the retail segment/consumers,” says Donkar. “But thankfully, we saw it coming well in advance.” Donkar explains that some local authorities had been digitising payments and that the government had been opening up the market to digital money and wallet providers. “As an organisation, we have always been looking to remove the risk of physical cash from our operations, identifying alternate ways to automate and therefore had begun to move on these developments as soon we could,” she adds.
A relationship with one of India’s largest e-wallet providers was established and PepsiCo began raising awareness of this relationship with its distributors in November and December. “It is really at the grassroots of our operation that this solution will have a big impact,” she explains. “The problem is that many distributors are not equipped to accept digital payments. This is what we are trying to change by educating them and enabling them to take advantage of the various digital money options available in the market.”
What is clear through this project, and many others that Donkar is involved in, is that treasury is playing a far greater role within the business. This, in Donkar’s view, is the natural progression of the role. “Traditional treasury skills have become ‘old school’,” she claims. “Although they are a pre-requisite for any treasury professional, it has become increasingly important to grow a broader skillset that makes you more relevant to the business and brings more value to the table in this VUCA world.”
Only by taking this approach will treasurers continue to thrive. “In my view treasury should be a key business partner in every company, but that is not always the case,” says Donkar. “It is, therefore, incumbent on treasury professionals to develop their skills and show them off whenever possible. This is how you earn the mandate to be a trusted partner to the business.”
At PepsiCo and beyond, the evolving technology landscape is also helping treasurers unleash their full potential and Donkar says she is seeing a fundamental shift in the market. “Fintech companies are emerging throughout India and the world,” says Donkar. “And these really are a big driving force behind a lot of the innovation that is happening.”
Indeed, Donkar has been approached by numerous fintech companies offering solutions to niche challenges faced by PepsiCo and other corporates. But she believes that many of these solutions, while interesting, are not yet at enterprise standard and do not fit the profile of large multinationals.
The fintechs’ efforts are not in vain, though. “Fintech is forcing the banks to look differently at what they have been doing,” says Donkar. “They need to realise that there is a real threat to their business and innovate according. I am seeing this happening, and am even challenging my bankers to push themselves further.”
Donkar believes that we are yet to fully appreciate the full impact that this digital transformation will have on treasury, banking and society as a whole. But she does know that she wants to be ahead of the curve and seen as a leading light in the industry. “Understanding and becoming an expert in the digital space is something that is big on my agenda and I want to share the knowledge I have with my peers,” she adds.
Building the next generation
With such a passion for sharing knowledge, it is unsurprising to hear that Donkar is a keen mentor. “I often work with younger people, so it is important to enjoy being a mentor and helping their careers flourish,” she says. “I hold one-on-one meetings and a team meeting every week. My team know that my door is open, should they have any challenges or questions.”
Mentoring is as much about helping people grow as it is making sure they understand that they are representing themselves and PepsiCo – and must therefore act accordingly when dealing with counterparties. With the right discipline, they will become leaders of the future.
More broadly, Donkar believes it is important that the people in the team embody your own ethos and also that of the company. “Mentoring is as much about helping people grow as it is making sure they understand that they are representing themselves and PepsiCo – and must therefore act accordingly when dealing with counterparties. With the right discipline, they will become leaders of the future.”
Donkar’s passion for mentoring and helping people also extends outside the office. Acting as an Instructor at the Institute of Small Trade Learning in the town of Nelamangala, she provides workshops on basic bookkeeping, entrepreneurship and business management and sessions on personal development and interview preparation.
“Actually, it makes me very happy empowering young minds with the power of knowledge. In short, I teach as it makes me happy,” says Donkar. “I like to think that I can help somebody to flourish. I think it is important for people to give back and help others. No matter what your experience, good or bad, people can learn from this and that will help them and society as a whole develop.”
Reflecting on her career, Donkar admits that the path to her current position hasn’t been straightforward, but she has never given up. And when asked what gives her the drive to keep on achieving and help others achieve she has an eloquent answer.
“The moment you know you have options, you begin to take your purpose for granted,” she explains. “When I was growing up I didn’t have any option but to push myself to succeed. A supportive family, friends and organisation help, of course, but really it all comes down to your own self-belief. When you believe in yourself and act with conviction this is infectious and it helps those around you start to believe in themselves as well.”