The quality lessons from treasury
With over a decade of experience in corporate treasury, Zarine Swamy is branching out to explore other ventures. As her time as a corporate treasurer draws to a close, we spoke with her to discuss her experiences, and what wisdom she wants to pass on to others.
Founder, Success Valley
Zarine Swamy began her career in treasury as an intern at Indian conglomerate Larsen & Toubro in 2003. Working directly under the treasurer at the time, she worked on several projects which sparked her interest in corporate treasury.
For the next four years, Swamy held roles outside of treasury, including as a Management Trainee at Larsen & Toubro and a Senior Research Analyst at IntegraScreen. Swamy then moved into the finance space in 2007 as an Assistant Manager at ICICI Bank.
Her break into treasury came when L&T Infotech, a Larsen & Toubro company, had a vacancy. Swamy became a Treasury Executive before rising to Treasury Manager within five years, after which she moved to SOTC Travel Ltd as Head of Treasury. Five years later, in May 2020, she left the company to pursue two start-ups of her own: Success Valley and Beyond Abilities.
Explore all the finance functions
Swamy’s wide array of treasury knowledge made her the perfect fit for the position of Head of Treasury at SOTC. Her career in Treasury at L&T Infotech initially started out handling FX transactions and after around six months she moved onto banking relationships and fundraising. After a short period working on the investment desk, Swamy began running the funding of the organisation with another employee reporting to her.
But she says her favourite treasury function is financial modelling. She has devised quite a few financial models during her treasury roles, including cash flow projection models and calculation models. Additionally, Swamy has worked on projects which do not strictly fall within the remit of treasury, such as spearheading the establishment of a division for currency exchange. SOTC is a travel firm and so also provides foreign currency for Indian travellers. “I headed the establishment of this division by entering into agreements with service providers, negotiating rates and establishing agreements for currency purchase, getting the people in the department, and just basically getting things going from the ground up,” she explains.
Swamy was also involved in the restructuring and amalgamation of the corporate entities when Kuoni India was purchased by Thomas Cook and re-named SOTC. This meant establishing fresh funding lines, setting up an entire bank account structure for the new entities, and handling any regulatory issues that occurred.
It’s this type of extra work that Swamy thinks is a necessity for treasurers – especially those in more senior positions. “These extra responsibilities helped me gain a broader perspective, which is so important when one handles a department. You need to know what’s happening in other departments as well as in the finance function as a whole,” she says.
Going digital in an analogue world
When it comes to progressing treasury departments, Swamy cannot emphasise enough the importance of digitalisation and automation. This is something she has struggled with in her roles as in India, the uptake of automation has been slow. “All those models I built in the early stages of my career, I had to do on Excel spreadsheets. There was no treasury software available at the time,” she says. But she notes that this also gave her a lot of valuable hands-on experience in financial modelling for treasury, and is part of the reason she finds it so gratifying.
This hands-on experience is something that Swamy believes is essential for all treasurers. She has found that as she has grown in her positions, she’s often kept further away from the day-to-day work as she manages the team as a whole. To combat this, she made the effort to handle the work of employees on leave to keep her knowledge fresh and to keep her up to date on what was happening on the ground.
“The future is tech though, and when I joined a treasury, making the case for automation was really high on my agenda,” says Swamy. Automating processes means that treasurers don’t spend a lot of time on time-consuming manual processes, and so can instead focus on innovation, franchising and becoming a truly strategic partner to the business.
The treasury evolution
Like many, Swamy has noticed the role of the treasurer evolving into a more executive function. She believes several factors are responsible for this, including regulations evolving and becoming tighter, and the increasing use of a wider range of metrics to evaluate the merits of the business.
The rise of increasingly onerous regulations is something that Swamy has seen happening for many years, and has led to the modern treasurer joining the CEO and CFO as a decision-making partner. Whilst the 2008 financial crisis sparked a considerable volume of regulatory changes, Swamy notes that similar events happened in 2000 and 1990.
India, Swamy notes, has its own insolvency and bankruptcy code that came into place after 2008, and so for her, treasury became a much more specialised function. “It was no longer a small function that was limited to one department within the organisation and called upon whenever a banker was demanded,” she says. Instead, it became central to the running of the organisation.
Naturally, post-financial crises brought more risk for businesses as well. This, too, meant that the role of treasury in risk management increased. “Today, banks in many countries are very keen to share their risk mitigation responsibilities with corporate treasuries,” says Swamy. “Now, the functioning of the entire organisation centres around the treasury role.”
Jumping through regulatory hoops
Regulatory changes may have prompted treasurers to become more central to the organisation, but they also present some of the largest challenges. Regulations are very tight in India, Swamy explains, and so there are a lot of things that are not allowed – for example, cash pooling.
The partial convertibility of the Indian rupee can also present significant hurdles for treasurers to overcome, and can also cause higher exchange rates. This means that borrowing is more restricted to the larger trading currencies, such as the US dollar and the euro.
To overcome these challenges, Swamy says innovation is a necessity – within the scope of legality, of course. “If there are branches overseas where I can get in some products or services that I cannot in India, I would be quick to jump at the chance,” she explains. Again, cash pooling is a key example. “If I can do the cash pooling at one of our overseas branches in say, a London office, I can cash pool various offices into that London branch and then invest from there into an organised product.”
The gender divisions
For Swamy, another key challenge for her is the inaccessibility of certain networking events – on account of being female. “I think a lot of women can relate to this globally,” she says. There is often a ‘men-only’ culture in corporations: for example, Swamy cites the smoking sessions that would happen every day outside the office building – not just at her companies, but many others as well.
“The men would gather and smoke, and typically women would be excluded from the session – especially if they were non-smokers,” she explains. Those sessions would really help with informal bonding between colleagues, and Swamy notes that whilst this still happens, such situations are becoming less common. “The feedback I receive about the diversity and inclusion space is extremely encouraging now,” she says.
Do you have what it takes?
When it comes to the skills needed to be a treasurer, soft skills are at the top of Swamy’s list. “The ability to listen is so important for negotiations,” she says, adding that the ability to understand other people is necessary for forming and maintaining relationships both outside and within the organisation. This leads to the equally important ability to collaborate and work with all stakeholders where necessary.
In fact, says Swamy, a key lesson she has learned is to never refuse the opportunity to collaborate and work with others. “Even if you are busy, if you have the opportunity to work with people you wish to learn from, you need to fit it into your schedule, because the opportunity may not come around twice,” she explains. Learning from others, and actively seeking to do so, will serve a treasurer well – no matter their seniority. Swamy says that treasury’s vast and complex nature means that no one can know everything, meaning it is important to be open to new learning opportunities.
An obvious treasury skill, says Swamy, is attention to detail – but another is the ability to think quickly. “Market numbers can change every second, currency fluctuates every second, stock rates are fluctuating, commodity prices are fluctuating, and so sometimes decisions need to be made incredibly quickly.”
Equally though, these rapid decisions can lead to errors. Swamy explains that whilst errors are undesirable, they do offer excellent learning opportunities – as she discovered in her first treasury role. “I was so nervous when I started in treasury that I didn’t even take bathroom breaks until after the investing cut-off,” she says. “One day I made a mistake. It was only one extra zero on an investment template, and somehow the transaction was overlooked and it went through.”
Luckily, she spotted the error and was able to reverse the damage. But a key turning point for her came when her superior at the time didn’t reprimand her for it, and instead taught her how to handle such errors – a lesson that she has carried through the rest of her treasury career. “Learning that a mistake isn’t something we need punishment for but rather an opportunity to learn was my biggest life takeaway from corporate treasury,” she says.
Qualifications – are they worth it?
When it comes to learning, Swamy notes the importance of professional qualifications and certifications alongside on-the-job experience, particularly for those who wish to move further up the corporate ladder. “Sometimes senior professionals can get a little complacent, especially when spending a long time in one role, and so studying for new qualifications can be a way to rock the boat a little and get going,” she explains.
However, Swamy does note that before deciding to undertake any qualifications, it’s important to evaluate carefully which one is most appropriate. “The importance of qualifications varies from country to country,” she says. “For example, in India it’s not mandatory to have a treasury qualification, and sometimes one like a CTP or an ACT-provided one such as the AMCT or CertICM, which is not especially well-known in India, might not even give one that big an edge.”
Nevertheless, Swamy undertook her CTP because she loves learning and wanted a challenge. “I wanted to go in for an examination and pass it, and it’s opened up plenty more doors for me,” she says. Since completing the qualification, she notes that she’s been speaking regularly at finance forums and that those types of events are excellent for “getting your rusty brain cogs moving.”
It might be difficult to picture why Swamy has decided to leave treasury when she obviously has such a great love for it. However, she explains that she’s always been inclined to work on social issues and on making the world a better place – and she believes her new ventures will allow her to do that.
“The inspiration behind Success Valley stems from my teen years. I read Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and became a big fan of her idealist capitalist society. Unfortunately, capitalism and leadership as we see them today are far from the idealistic Ayn Rand world. That is something I wish to work on – do my bit to transform the employability space by building future ‘ethical’ leaders,” she explains. Swamy has implemented a framework – the FAIRPLAY model, that mentors working professionals to take charge of their careers and become better leaders.
Meanwhile, her second venture, Beyond Abilities, comes from a place that’s a little more personal. “My father is physically challenged, and I have seen him go through a very tough time in his professional life,” she explains. Despite his qualifications for roles, he was denied opportunities because of his disability. “I think my country is progressing rapidly and that now is the right time for India to lead the professional world into inclusion and acceptance – not just of women in the workplace, but of other sections of the population as well.”
As Zarine moves away from treasury to pursue her own ventures, she recognises that the skills she has learned will continue to serve her well. “Treasury has given me a lot of tools to succeed in absolutely anything,” she says. The need to monitor market developments has honed her drive and curiosity, whilst her people skills have been developed over time – something she believes will serve her well as an entrepreneur.
The obvious one she notes, is money management, which she knows she will need to run her new businesses. “It has taught me cost-benefit analysis which is needed almost daily when one is planning to make an expenditure in a business,” she explains. Lastly, she says her active exploration of external opportunities and networking within treasury has enabled her to build many personal relationships in the corporate world. “My takeaways from this field have been immense, and I’m really grateful to the treasury world for what I got from it,” she concludes.