Corporate View: Steve Wong, Adient

Published: May 2022

Focusing on interpersonal relationships

Steve Wong, Asia Treasurer at Adient, began his career when processes were manual and humans essential. Now, as a future with more artificial intelligence beckons, Wong explains why it’s still important to build interpersonal relationships and stay one step ahead of the latest technology trends.

Steve Wong

Executive Director and Asia Treasurer

 Adient logo

Adient (NYSE: ADNT) is a global leader in automotive seating. With approximately 75,000 employees in 33 countries, Adient operates 208 manufacturing/assembly plants worldwide. It produces and delivers automotive seating for all major original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). From complete seating systems to individual components, Adient’s expertise spans every step of the automotive seat-making process. Its integrated, in-house skills allow it to take its products from research and design to engineering and manufacturing – and into more than 20 million vehicles every year.

Adient may be a company you’ve never heard of, but you have probably sat on something it makes. As a major automotive seating company, it supplies seats to most of the key auto companies in the world. It operates in an industry that is constantly changing and keeps one eye on the future and always has in mind what the car of tomorrow looks like. With its ‘one-step ahead mindset’, Adient is already working on autonomous vehicles, and soon you could be sitting on its seats in driverless cars.

In a world where artificial intelligence makes many human actions obsolete, Steve Wong, Executive Director and Asia Treasurer at Adient, believes it is important to keep building human relationships. He has done this throughout his career while he has witnessed the evolution of automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. He has also adopted a one-step ahead mindset himself and has stayed curious so that he can stay on top of – and ahead of – the latest technology trends.

After graduating from university in the United States, Wong took a job in Hong Kong as a currency broker. This was back in the days of manual trading, where orders were shouted across a room, written down, and confirmed with a phone call. “That was how I started – it was all human,” he comments. Then electronic booking systems came along, making the manual, and human, way of doing things a remnant of the past.

Was something lost with the move to electronic, non-human, methods? “Yes! Something has definitely been lost with the interpersonal relationships and the skills,” Wong says. In that job, he explains, he learned to be accurate and work under pressure, and it was essential to maintain good relationships with people in order to do his job effectively. It also gave him a good memory and instinctive feel for numbers, which he continued to develop.

While Wong’s role as it had existed became obsolete, he was already one step ahead and had his eye on educating himself further. He gained the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designations and embarked on a career working for a range of companies in corporate finance and treasury. He has worked for multinationals in various industries, all with different customer bases and ways of doing business. The companies he has worked for include paint and coating manufacturer PPG Industrial Coatings, clothing company Esprit, and musical instrument company Gibson, which is most well-known for its guitars.

Wong has had two stints at Johnson Controls, with the first from 2008 to 2013. He rejoined the company in 2016, albeit in a different form. At that time Johnson Controls was in the midst of spinning off its automotive seatings and interiors business, which at that time was known as Johnson Controls Automotive Experience. In January 2016, the company announced that it would be creating a separate publicly-traded company. And by October of the same year the transaction had been completed and Adient was created as a separate, independent company. The company is based in Michigan, United States, and is legally domiciled in Ireland.

The separation gave Adient the freedom to become a global automotive seating leader on its own terms, while also enabling Johnson Controls to focus on its core growth platforms around buildings and energy. At the time of the spin-off, the new name was explained: Adient is a Latin word that means accepting and advancing a situation or a stimulus, and represents the company’s drive to engage, compete and always improve. The company has the vision of “improving the experience of a world in motion” and the company’s CEO Doug Del Grosso has spoken publicly how he is focused on the company’s principles of customers, quality, people, community and financial discipline. He elaborated further on the financial discipline by explaining that every person in the company should feel empowered and responsible for the performance of the company. And this means treating everyday decisions and spending as if it were the employees’ own money.

Wong echoes that view on financial discipline and says that money should be managed in a company just as if it is your own. And he also has an attitude that fits well with his company’s ethos of advancing and improving. Throughout his career he has focused on staying curious, learning what is going on around him, and being ready to pounce when an opportunity has come his way. He comments that he finds the treasurer role interesting because he can solve various problems and bring changes that positively impact the company.

He has been keen to take on challenges as they have presented themselves. Recently he had the opportunity to fill in for the acting China finance lead when the position became vacant. This kind of decision wasn’t made on a whim, however. Wong has been preparing himself, always learning and improving so that when opportunities come his way, he is ready to take them on – and perform well. “I think that it is good to prepare yourself and be ready. You have to earn trust so that the people you’re working with know there is someone there who is ready to step up,” says Wong. He adds that he hasn’t just prepared himself by improving his treasury knowledge; throughout his career he has kept wider issues in mind and considered how he can contribute to the companies he works for.

Also, he explains, it’s not just a case of putting your hand up and volunteering yourself when an opportunity comes your way; you have to be ready when the opportunity presents itself. “You have to prepare by not just doing your work, but also keeping your eyes and ears open. This should not just be focused on treasury, but you need to build business relationships with others internally and externally. Those interpersonal relationships are important for your career and taking on new challenges, especially in higher ranking positions of responsibility,” Wong says.

In his role as Asia Treasurer, Wong now has plenty of responsibility. In Asia, Adient operates in nine countries and aside from his regular day job managing liquidity, cash, FX, banking partners and so on, he also has other duties. He is based in Hong Kong, which is also where Adient’s holding companies are incorporated for Asia investments, and he is appointed board chairman of the holding companies.

I think especially for the regional treasurer, the interpersonal relationship with the business is very  important.

Also, Adient operates in Asia through wholly owned and partnerships, and Wong has been appointed supervisor or director of some of the company’s joint ventures in the region. His role, he says, is interesting because of the changes the company has undergone and some of the major shareholder restructurings he has been involved with. For example, Adient announced in September 2021 that it was ending a joint venture with a partner in China, which freed it up to strategically transform its business in China and independently drive its strategy there.

All this has kept him busy and with so much on his plate does he like his job? “I like it very much,” he says, without hesitation. “I get to do new things every day – that keeps me going and gets me up early,” he says. He adds that he believes it is important to have curiosity and be passionate about what you’re doing and feel engaged with your work.

He’s humble, however, about his talents and downplays the skills that are necessary to manage such a large and varied workload. “This is not brain surgery,” he jokes. He explains that understanding treasury, like other disciplines, is just about spending time on it and analysing what needs to be done. Like his treasury peers, one of his biggest challenges is dealing with the various restrictions across the Asian markets where Adient operates and ensuring he is able to effectively deploy the available liquidity to where it is needed. Another complication, he adds, is that in Asia – for example – he may be working with up to 15 currencies, which means he also needs to deal with multiple systems and regulations. In navigating all this he says, “The key is to keep learning and exploring what could be better and always improving the solution for the company.”

He adds that everything in the role of treasury can be learned. “It’s not rocket science; just spend time on it, we will figure it out. I learned that from a mentor – you just have to put your heart into it.” And even in the case of rocket science, people like SpaceX’s Founder and Chief Engineer Elon Musk have demonstrated that it is possible to learn anything, if the will and determination is there. “You have to put your heart into it and let people know that you are capable and want to contribute. Eventually people will know that they can work with you and do good things for the company,” Wong says.

Wong points out that in a regional role – outside the company’s headquarters – the treasurer does not typically have to deal with the capital markets, such as dealing with bond issuance, and so they have a different relationship with the business. In a regional role, the treasurer has to work harder to be more visible and demonstrate where they can add value. “I think especially for the regional treasurer, the interpersonal relationship with the business is very important.”

Having good relationships has served Wong well while the company has worked through major balance sheet transformation by repaying approximately US$1.5bn debts in the last 12 months and adapted to a changing environment. He comments that one effect of the transformation is that we need to manage our cash and liquidity more closely. Although there is sufficient cash and liquidity, this new situation means that they have to manage the positions in a more focused way, all of which relies on effective communication and healthy working relationships.

The external environment has also become more challenging. There are a number of factors at play, including the crisis in Ukraine, a shortage of semiconductors for the auto industry, and other supply chain disruptions. This means the treasury team has to be prepared for any further disruption and ensure sufficient liquidity while also preparing effective mechanisms to deploy it effectively.

Commenting on the chip shortage and the supply chain disruption that the auto industry has experienced, Steve says that the demand for vehicles is there, but the supply side has been beset with logistical challenges including chip shortages. “Automakers could not produce and deliver on time,” he notes. This in turn has impacted the sales of vehicles, and their various components – including seating – which in turn has an impact on the suppliers’ cash flow. In this situation, says Wong, it is important to be ready, understand the options available and put a plan in place.

Wong – like many of his peers – has witnessed a number of advancements in treasury technology, which makes managing liquidity like this more efficient. Also, there have been other mega trends that have unfolded over the course of his career, such as the use of artificial intelligence. Back when he was a broker, he saw the move to automation and the removal of humans from many processes. A constant question that hangs over the use of AI is to what extent it will replace humans.

Will Wong’s current role ever become obsolete? This is not something that he is concerned about. “That’s too far ahead,” he jokes. For now, he focuses on the task at hand: “I think that we need to be flexible, adjust ourselves and cope with the situation,” he says. With technology such as AI, where people have been predicting the demise of humans for decades, it is possible to get carried away with the possibilities of how machines will outdo humans. “I think you have to keep in mind that you have got to be flexible and curious and learn every day. Some things could be replaced and some things could evolve – we’ll just have to see…”

One area that could be improved for corporate treasury in the here and now, comments Wong, is making better forecasts. “I wish we could have these things done more automatically, more accurately, and have greater visibility of our cash position and cash flow. That would be helpful to every treasurer,” says Wong.

With the introduction of electronic trading, it could be argued that the technology freed up people to do better quality, more value-added work, rather than the time-consuming manual way of doing things, like speaking on the phone and shouting across a room. Technology, however, can often remove the need for people to speak to each other, and this is where the human connection can be lost.

Wong is a great believer in the importance of the personal relationship. “Some things can be done more effectively and efficiently, and decision-making can be more accurate, but what can’t be replaced is the interpersonal relationship,” says Wong. “I think humans need to be flexible, adapt, adjust and grow.” And, like the Adient mindset, they need to stay one step ahead of the latest technology trends.

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