Perspectives

Corporate View: Adesola Orimalade, Kiwi.com

Published: Mar 2021

Adesola Orimalade, Head of Treasury, Kiwi.com

Resilience, leadership and inspiration

Adesola Orimalade’s early treasury experience at a Nigerian telecoms group has given him a resilience and experience that is proving essential in his current role at travel group Kiwi.com. With aircraft grounded, hotels shut and borders largely closed, he talks about how he is navigating the current challenges and his sources of inspiration.

Adesola Orimalade

Head of Treasury

Kiwi.com logo

Kiwi.com (previously known as skypicker.com) is a Czech online tech travel group founded by Oliver Dlouhý and Jozef Képesi in 2012. The award-winning company provides a fare aggregator and booking capability for airline tickets and ground transportation. It aspires to build the world’s first ‘Virtual Global Supercarrier’ that combines air and ground transport, ride-hailing and micro-mobility. In 2019 and before the pandemic grounded the travel industry, Kiwi had a turnover of US$1.3bn, employed over 2,500 crew members and sold on average 40,000 seats a day. The company has branches in nine countries.

Never has Adesola Orimalade’s core treasury belief that cash is king been quite so relevant. Since joining Czech online travel company Kiwi.com as Head of Treasury last June, he has played a pivotal role in helping the company navigate some of the most challenging months on record. Having sufficient funds to enable Kiwi.com to both meet its financial commitments and navigate the risk of keeping those commitments, has been his guiding mantra. “For many organisations in the travel industry, it has come down to just trying to keep the business alive and that means meeting crucial commitments,” he says in a nod to the scale of a crises where at the time of writing aircraft remain grounded, hotels shut and borders around the world largely closed.

Overseeing all incoming and outgoing cash flows has placed his three strong team at the very heart of the company. This ability to really add value throughout the organisation is one of the few silver linings to arise from the challenges his team has faced, he says. “We are in constant touch with all parts of the business from sales to risk, and we really appreciate this.” For now, he says the business is “in a good position” and he says he draws a bitter-sweet comfort from the knowledge that the pandemic has grounded the whole industry, and that the benefits of opening up will be similarly widespread.

As the vaccines’ roll out gathers steam, his priority is to position the business for the recovery and for what he is convinced remains our innate desire to travel, unextinguished by the pandemic. “People are waiting for the opportunity to travel and we are lucky enough to be in an industry where the recovery will come. Flights will get booked up again, it is just difficult to predict exactly when.” That said, he doubts that air travel will come back overnight in the same way it disappeared. Logistical hurdles along the way to open skies could include COVID passports and flight corridors dampening demand and impacting travel for a while a yet.

Nigeria

The roots of Orimalade’s resilience and calm become clear when the conversation turns to experience garnered in his native Nigeria, where corporate upheaval and fast-changing environments are more commonplace. Orimalade joined the ambitious, venture capital-backed telecoms start-up Starcomms in 2005, one of the new mobile companies disrupting a market long-dominated by Nigeria’s state-owned and faltering fixed copper line network. Within three weeks of joining Starcomms as a deputy in the treasury department, Orimalade was catapulted into the top job as Treasury Manager. His task was to both build the balance sheet and nurture an investor friendly corporate culture ahead of the company’s IPO. “I’d never done corporate treasury before and it was interesting sitting on the other side of the fence,” he recalls. “A lot of things needed to be put in place to demonstrate compliance as we moved towards listing.”

His experience at the company also installed an early importance for cash. Starcomms required up-front finance to fund its nationwide roll out and brand building, buy masts and other heavy equipment as well as government licences. “It was very expensive, and we were paying out a lot ahead,” he says. “I believe it really did teach me a resilience that I can apply to any circumstance.”

Next steps

In a bold career step driven by his driving quest for change, despite it requiring “starting all over again”, Orimalade decided to move to the UK in 2006. He stepped back into banking with roles at ABN AMRO and RBS. For the latter, he managed and reviewed a £1bn annual budget for intercompany treasury products and banking transactions, and supported regional corporate treasuries in the Asia Pacific, EMEA and US. A three-year stint at Bank of America managing the bank’s EMEA trade finance client servicing team followed.

In 2008 Orimalade stepped back into corporate treasury in his first foray in the travel sector, joining Hogg Robinson, the corporate travel group bought by American Express in 2018. Here his role included overseeing a multi-currency treasury operation where he counts establishing controls to improve cash planning data and variance analyses from accounts payable, accounts receivable and commercial support as key roles. He also managed and audited the group’s global banking relationships leading to rationalisation of underutilised or dormant accounts and an ensuring 15% cut in costs.

Diversity and inclusion

Most recently, Orimalade’s passion for treasury has manifested in a new initiative to teach and share his expertise with students, especially those from ethnic minorities, many of whom he believes don’t think about a career in treasury and are often unsure what it involves. “Treasury is not a career that many people know about,” he says. “They know about accounting and finance, but they’ve never heard of treasury.”

Early last year he began offering treasury programmes at universities for business school students, holding his first seminar on the eve of lockdown for 30 post graduate students at Nottingham. His focus was on transactional finance, bringing the topic to life with exercises and by sharing real life experiences. “Once you start talking about transactional finance, how to manage credit operations, payments and accounts payable people get it. Unless students begin to understand treasury, they will always gravitate to other careers in finance like investment banking and asset management,” he says, adding that practical exercises shaped around everyday treasury challenges from FX to dealing with a banking partners over a late payment, lit up the room.

The initiative is also rooted in his ambition to try and help solve the diversity problem in finance, where he highlights a notable and enduring absence of people of colour in both corporate treasury and mid and front office roles particularly. “Treasury is not as diverse as it should be – it’s a challenge that should be a concern for everyone.” It is only by talking about difficult and uncomfortable subjects like unconscious bias and white privilege that things will change, he argues. “We have to be open and honest about these things.”

You can’t wait for a crisis to show leadership. If you haven’t built that relationship with colleagues, it comes much harder. It is about treating everyone as a human being from the start – people will see through it if it’s just rolled out in a time of crisis.

Leadership

Orimalade’s call to teach and show others from ethnic minorities that a career in treasury is infinitely possible mirrors another key tenet of his treasury philosophy – the importance of leading by example. A characteristic shared by his own leadership heroes and which was first learnt from a senior manager early in his career but still resonates today. “He showed me how to lead with empathy and by example. I learnt that it’s not just what you say – you have to put it into practice.”

It leads him to reflect that crisis and unexpected events have a tendency to reveal the best (and worst) types of leader, exposing their ability to react and engage with employees and goals to “get the job done.” For him, Arne Sorensen, the celebrated President and Chief Executive Officer of Marriott International and renowned advocate for sustainability, human rights, diversity and inclusion, is a standout corporate leader. “Sorensen appears to have such an ability to empathise with employees and never uses management speak,” says Orimalade. “You can’t wait for a crisis to show leadership. If you haven’t built that relationship with colleagues, it comes much harder. It is about treating everyone as a human being from the start – people will see through it if it’s just rolled out in a time of crisis.” He also counsels how good leadership also requires calm decisiveness. “It’s great to walk with passion and emotion, but people look to leaders to be calm and decisive and allow that calm to float through.”

Good communication is another leadership essential. He endeavors to nurture and build it by talking to colleagues and team members about their everyday life or, as he puts it, by “walking around the office and getting to know people, rather than just interrogating them in the meeting room.” Of course, working from home makes this much harder, calling even more on emotional intelligence and an awareness of “what to say, and when to say it.”

Indeed, today’s digital communication is going to become even more prevalent as hiring patterns change because of the pandemic, he predicts. Although it means the office and that type of easy communication will become more of a rarity, it also holds opportunities. “Companies looking to hire will now always ask if they need that person to actually be in the office,” he forecasts.

Giving back

It leads him to reflect how remote working could open the door for a career in treasury for a new generation of people who might never have considered it – just like himself. Orimalade’s first qualifications from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, were in town and country planning and real estate. Back then he wanted to work with Shelter Afrique, the pan-African finance organisation that supports housing development, where his ambition was to help re-design Lagos’s sprawling slums. As it was, a series of unexpected “opportunities” that he quickly seized led him first into corporate banking and then corporate treasury.

Today, Orimalade still harbours that early 20’s ambition to work in the area and says he wouldn’t rule out an opportunity to use his treasury skills in the charity housing sector. “It would be appealing to work for an organisation where you can track how you are helping others,” he says. He is already dedicating much of his spare time to helping others, dividing his time between board roles for two charities, and mentoring immigrant children in the London area. He is also a published author – most recently of a colouring book for children which was published late last year, and before that a comedy reflecting on his experience as an African growing up in Nigeria and the broken political system. The book explores the subject of why political leaders find it difficult to give up power. “It addresses the immense pressure some of these politicians can be under, to do the right thing. Pressure from family and friends who want to maintain the status quo,” he says. “I want to give back,” he adds, highlighting his own fortunes. That said, he doesn’t believe this will take him back to Nigeria just yet. “It’s a beautiful country and I have been offered things, but I don’t have plans to go back. There is still so much of the world I want to see.”

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