Perspectives

Corporate View: Cathy Fields, Hitachi Vantara

Published: May 2021

Evolution process of a butterfly

Transformational change

Hitachi Vantara’s Cathy Fields talks to Treasury Today about the importance of cash and how she drives transformational change. Education and communication are key to her celebrated approach.

Portrait of Cathy Fields, Assistant Treasurer and Director of Global Risk Management, Hitachi Vantara

Cathy Fields

Assistant Treasurer and Director of Global Risk Management

Hitachi Vantara logo

Hitachi Vantara, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hitachi, Ltd., guides its customers from what’s now to what’s next by solving their digital challenges. It applies its unmatched industrial and digital capabilities to their data and applications to benefit both business and society. Hitachi Vantara helps its customers develop new revenue streams, unlock competitive advantages, lower costs, enhance customer experiences, and deliver social and environmental value.

When Cathy Fields joined Hitachi Vantara seven years ago, she was tasked with creating a best-in-class treasury for the subsidiary of the Japanese IT conglomerate. Hired back then as a senior manager for treasury and risk management (she has since made assistant treasurer and senior director of global risk management) her remit was to transform the division’s banking infrastructure and cash management processes which comprised around 300 different bank accounts and some 45 different banking partners.

Today the division has 120 bank accounts with three main partner banks and two liquidity structures or cash pools. “We have created a finely tuned machine with respect to how we manage cash. It’s definitely one of the things I am most proud of,” she says in an interview from Singapore where she moved 18 months ago from her Californian home as part of her current assignment, a two-year stint helping to lead a global treasury transformation project for parent company, Hitachi Ltd. That pride still rings out as she begins a sweeping conversation of her long and distinguished treasury career by recalling the details of that overhaul and the skills it required, a recollection that captures both her view of treasury’s role within a firm – and an enduring passion for her profession.

For decades, in-country treasury heads at Hitachi Vantara ran and controlled their own banking relationships and cash strategies. It was a fragmented structure that resulted in pockets of cash accumulating in multiple countries around the world. Under the pooling process, local teams handed over their cash management to regional pools. “They no longer needed to worry about managing cash or liquidity.”

However, convincing colleagues of the benefits didn’t happen overnight and required a year of groundwork prior to implementation. Fields and her team reached out to internal in-country teams in a marketing process, selling the strategy and vision. “We had to explain what we were doing, why we were doing it and how it would make all our lives better,” she recalls. “It was about getting people to understand the value of what we were selling.”

We have created a finely tuned machine with respect to how we manage cash. It’s definitely one of the things I am most proud of.

Robust communication and educational skills were vital in ensuring everyone got onboard. “Our in-country treasury teams were used to managing their own cash and would say ‘this is my cash.’ My role was to educate them, explaining it wasn’t their cash but the cash of the parent company and that it was my responsibility to make sure it was well-managed.” Without this educational process, which included ensuring colleagues also understood the workings of the new pooling structure, smooth implementation down the line would be jeopardised. “The last thing we wanted was to move down an execution path and have stumbling blocks, personalities or issues that might prevent us from moving forward. You have to solve all the hurdles up front.”

As to what constituted good communication then, and is just as relevant today, she says understanding counterparties, or “knowing where your partners are coming from,” is key. This means having a grasp of colleagues’ key interests and concerns before that first meeting. It meant she could address each concern upfront and hone relationships founded on mutual trust, transparency, and confidence from the start. “Partners have to get comfortable and trust that I will address their concerns. They have to understand that my team will do what we say we will and follow through.”

Of course, the ability to listen is just as important – and Fields is a good listener. “When I come into a new environment I sit and listen. I ask questions to make sure I have a clear view of who the leaders are and who has the capability to get things done. You need to know your internal business partners and understand the personalities you are working with, and the environment you are in. This helps guide you to understand how to effectively communicate.”

Along with communication and education, the banking overhaul captured another element of her job which she finds particularly thrilling and is often unique to treasury. Driving transformational change is a collaborative, cross functional initiative that places treasury at the very heart of a firm. More so at Hitachi Vantara which, she says, has a reputation for its divisional silos. “Treasury is in a great position to break down silos. We are constantly attacking silos; our team is known for this. We will bring all participants or stakeholders to the table at the beginning of a project, big or small. Not everyone does this, so we are happy to lead by example.”

The perfect fit

Fields never set out to work in treasury. She initially wanted to be a doctor, but her career path took a different direction when she found herself a young, single mother in the late 80s. “I needed a job. I had another person to take care of and med-school is tough on your own. I had to change my career objectives.” When a friend flagged a vacancy as an accounts receivables clerk for computer drive manufacturer and data storage group Western Digital, Fields grabbed the chance to join the corporate world.

It wasn’t long before she turned a job born out of practical necessity into a fulfilling passion. Witness the important career milestones Fields has celebrated en route, like earning an MBA at National University and making assistant treasurer at Western Digital within ten years. “Within a couple of years, I was managing different credit regions. I soon realised if I wanted to get anywhere, I had to go back to school. I earned my MBA in International Business which helped prepare me for what was to come. Treasury is not always a concept people grasp, but treasury made sense to me and everything fell into place. It was really the perfect fit.”

The element of treasury she has always found easiest to understand is its role in supporting an organisation in what she calls a “fascinating” relationship. For example, at Western Digital her small department was key to supporting an increasingly acquisitive, global business, integrating technology, growing the treasury function, and preparing the organisation for the future. “We were doing acquisitions and integrations which propelled the need to find better ways to do things. Additional resources were not an option,” she says. It forced her to learn how to network, talk to banking partners and quickly get across new technology. “I was mastering the treasury world and really enjoyed creating a best-in-class treasury organisation,” she recalls. Prowess Hitachi Vantara sought when it came knocking with a new opportunity. Although leaving Western Digital after 25 years was a wrench, she says a new challenge was essential for her career progression. “I knew Hitachi was the perfect opportunity to use my skills.”

It leads her to reflect on the difference between banking and treasury, and why at career junctures she never went down the former route. The reason, she reflects, is because working in-house for a corporate gives ‘skin in the game;’ a connection to a company that can be impossible when working for a bank or as a consultant – something she also briefly tried. “When you are connected to the company you have a deep-rooted need to make sure things are executed properly. I need this connection, goal and vision. It is the driver behind my commitment to do the best job I can for my company. As a consultant, I lost that connection.”

When you are connected to the company you have a deep-rooted need to make sure things are executed properly.

Mentorship

Despite her emersion into corporate life, Fields doesn’t trace the inspiring leaders and mentors who have helped shape her career in treasury to the business world. They are found closer to home and have contributed particularly to her ability to mould treasury as both educator and communicator. “My mum was a teacher; my grandfather was a teacher. I have aunts and uncles who are teachers; my brother and sister are teachers, and my sister married a teacher,” she lists, laughing.

It is no surprise to hear that she also thought about being a PE teacher (she is passionate about sport) until she realised she lacked the patience to teach children. Alongside learning how to communicate and educate from her own “family of teachers,” she honed her own skills early on in her career, citing a lesson she’s never forgotten. At Western Digital one of her roles in Credit was to support customers in challenging markets like Latin America, the Middle East and APAC. “I had to find better ways to communicate. I quickly understood the importance of clear communication and how being clear with both words and intent makes things easier. I have applied this throughout my entire professional career. Knowledge is power, and communication makes things work.”

Clear communication is certainly central to her leadership of a five-strong treasury team at Hitachi Vantara, all with different strengths and weaknesses incumbent on her to harness. She describes her team as comprising personalities that “just fit,” each individual “bringing something to the team we were missing.” Nor can she hide her pride in the fact her treasury organisation has one of the lowest attrition rates in the company. Her own mentorship and support for colleagues is offered through the prism of recognising there is no one size fits all. “Everyone has different needs, and everyone is motivated by different things,” she says.

She is particularly conscious of diversity of thought within her team. “Different perspectives are critical to optimising solutions, everyone sees things differently and must be allowed to share their views,” she says, adding that ensuring good communication through lockdown and remote working has involved talking one-to-one to each member of her team, every week. “Sometimes we talk about work; sometimes we just talk about how we are getting through this crazy time.” They also meet online as a team twice a week, and she communicates with her boss daily. “We are diligent about staying connected. These conversations are important to ensure nothing falls through the cracks; on getting feedback and rounding out the teams current activities.”

It’s late in the evening (9pm) in Singapore, and before Fields winds up a typically long day the conversation comes full circle to her current role, overseeing a digital transformation and putting in place better liquidity tools and payment structures at a global level. “One of my aims is to try and minimise the amount of cash movement necessary between entities,” she explains. “We are building out a global treasury management system that will support all the different group companies for Hitachi Ltd around the world.”

In a candid glimpse of the complexity afoot, she describes the transformation as a “massive undertaking;” a project “on steroids” compared to all she has undertaken before. The process involves designing new functionality from bank account management to cash visualisation and cash forecasting to pooling and netting processes. “The majority of standard treasury functionality will be implemented and executed by Hitachi companies globally. With my background and desire to effectively communicate the project status to the companies, it’s not surprising I have been dubbed the change management person,” she jokes.

I had to find better ways to communicate. I quickly understood the importance of clear communication and how being clear with both words and intent makes things easier. I have applied this throughout my entire professional career. Knowledge is power, and communication makes things work.

The project, which comes with the added challenge of bridging cultural and linguistic barriers with partners in Japan, has drawn more than ever on her skills of planning, educating and good communication. Her job, she says, is to ensure that all group companies understand why they are being asked to do certain things and to drive the desire for change into the organisation. “We need to put in all the work up front before trying to kick off the implementation and system build,” she reiterates.

Cue her most recent initiative to help the communication juices flow: a newsletter updating all users of the company’s TMS on how the digital project is moving forward. “There is an education corner in the newsletter which always details a specific function related to the TMS and how group companies will be engaged.”

Fields huge remit, coupled with the lingering impact of Singapore’s strict initial lockdown (when she only left her apartment once or twice a week for groceries) has left her out of the habit of being active. As things return to normal, she is most looking forward to kick-starting her twin hobbies of sports and travel. “I love to travel; I have been travelling with work for so many years and I really miss it.” As for sports, although she says she is mostly a spectator now, her younger passion for all team ball sports where she excelled because of her height, as well as dancing, endure. “I enjoy being active. That is one of the things I’ve missed most with the pandemic. It’s been a challenging year. On the bright side, it sparked my hobby of crocheting. I am working on my third pandemic Afghan!”

The conversation draws to a close with a reflection on the common thread that has woven through her rich treasury experience. Treasurers can only understand a business when they have a firm grip on cash, the one thing, she says, that never lies. By following a company’s cash performance (good or bad), a treasurer can trace back and find out what is driving all corporate behaviour. “I tell people that cash will always tell you what you are doing, and what is really happening in a business. It will always tell you the truth.”

And cash, just like its treasury warden, is also the one seam that ties and brings an entire business together. “To be truly effective, a good treasurer needs to understand how the entire organisation comes together,” she concludes.

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