Reflecting on the challenges of recent months, Emslie emphasises that “most of us had never been through that before – even with SARS, or with the financial crisis, people were still in the office. Now it’s about trying to get things done by any means.”
That said, as a food business, General Mills has had a different experience to companies in other sectors during the crisis. “Food is an essential service, so the business has continued to move forward and grow, both here and abroad,” says Emslie.
On the receivables side, Emslie says the business hasn’t seen much of a downturn, as customers still wanted to receive stock. And where payables are concerned, he says the company has focused on making sure that suppliers receive payments on time during this challenging period.
In addition, the work that Emslie had already carried out in the last couple of years meant that the Asia treasury was well positioned to withstand the turbulence. “The fact that we went to RFP last year, and put our new banking partners in, really held us in good stead,” he says. “We were well prepared – we had all the new authorisations and limits; we were pretty much set for online capabilities in every market. So coupled with the business doing really well, and still having the cash in the bank, we’ve had a good experience.”
The challenges of remote working
But while treasury activities have fared well during the crisis, the new work environment is not without its challenges. “One negative for me is that I’m very much a people person – I like to sit around a table and have a cup of coffee and speak to people face to face,” Emslie says. “And I miss conferences and industry awards, and the ability to meet people and grow my network. In a small community like Singapore, people are always doing something new, so it’s good to reach out to other people and find out what’s going on.”
He also feels that in a remote working environment, “virtual fatigue” can be a challenge, as can the tendency for meetings to be booked in back-to-back. “There are far more formal limits on my time now – my diary is very full.” But on the positive side, Emslie points out that people have become better at making decisions more rapidly during the crisis. “Instead of having meeting after meeting, there was a lot more decision-making going on, especially with third parties. So I think that’s one of the positives.”
In the months ahead, Emslie expects the treasury community will spend time reflecting on their experiences during the crisis – including the frustrations people have experienced if they were not able to adapt as quickly as they would like. “People will say, ‘What did you learn from COVID? What are the takeaways?’” he says. “I think one of these will be the importance of being as agile as possible and adapting quickly in order to make things work. We’ll see a lot of conversations this year when everyone gets back into the virtual conferences.”
In addition, there is still plenty of work to do for the Asia treasury project. Emslie says the team is now in phase three of the initiative: “We’re now running the TMS and getting the integration into SAP, and getting all our banking partners in that as well,” he says. “So that will be the focus for the next 18 months.”
In the meantime, Emslie is planning to adopt a follow-the-sun approach to cash management, whereby the day is divided into three blocks of eight hours, with Asia accounting for the first eight hours of the trading day. He is also working on a rationalisation project in China in order to consolidate the company’s banks as far as possible. “And then we’re trying to implement a cash pool bringing it all through Singapore and then onto the States,” he says. “So those are our biggest projects for the time being – and then of course there are the day-to-day activities and everything else that we’re working on.”
Evolution of treasury
Looking at the role of the treasurer more broadly, Emslie remains enthusiastic about the multifaceted nature of treasury, particularly given the way the role has expanded in recent years. “Treasury has evolved to have a proper seat at the table and be part of that decision-making process,” he says. “So you’ve got your fingers in all the pies – you can get involved in things that excite you and know that you’re going to make a difference at the end of the day.” Equally, he appreciates the opportunity to interact with people and hear new ideas, both within the business and externally.
Looking forward, Emslie predicts that the role of the treasurer will continue to change in the coming years. “I really do see this position being elevated, and the treasurer being one of your big decision makers in the organisation,” he says. “For one thing, they have that whole view of what’s going on. But they’re also well connected both internally and externally, which is also good.”
Consequently, he predicts that more treasurers will move into CFO and CEO roles in the future. “The treasurer is an individual who knows what’s going on in the organisation,” he says. “We also have our fingers on the pulse of the economic situation and everything else that’s going on outside the organisation. So I definitely see the treasurer of the future having far more of an important role to play in organisations.”
And while many smaller and medium sized organisations do not have dedicated treasury staff, Emslie predicts that this may also change. Indeed, he says more SMEs are already beginning to engage with the importance of the treasury function, and look for individuals who are able to step into this role.
Out of the office
While Emslie has plenty to focus on in the months ahead, he is also well aware of the importance of finding a work-life balance. Of course, what switching off looks like has had to change somewhat in recent months as a result of the COVID-19 environment. “It’s amazing how people have changed their interests,” Emslie observes. “Our CFO has taken up running during lockdown and ran his first 21K the other day. A lot of people are doing things they never thought they would do.”
For Emslie, the pandemic has meant that travel plans have had to go on the back burner for the time being. “My wife and I love to travel – we used to be on a plane on a Friday afternoon going somewhere, which was always nice. Hopefully this will come back in the future.” But in the meantime, his other interests include golf, tennis, enjoying red wine and walking the dogs – and he and his wife have also recently learned to sail.
“When you’re working 12-hour days, you sometimes just need to destress,” Emslie concludes. “We were on leave last week, and of course it wasn’t quite the same as in normal conditions. But we tried not to answer our emails too much, and to make sure we were able to switch off from the business environment.”