Perspectives

Corporate View: Christopher Emslie, General Mills

Published: Sep 2019

Christopher Emslie, Asia Regional Treasurer, General Mills

Relishing the challenge

It goes without saying that treasurers are used to a challenge or two. Yet few challenges are tougher than being tasked with building a major regional treasury operation from scratch. Christopher Emslie, Singapore-based Asia Regional Treasurer at General Mills, enthusiastically obliged.

Christopher Emslie

Asia Regional Treasurer, General Mills

General Mills logo

General Mills is a 150-year old American multinational manufacturer and marketer of branded consumer foods sold through retail stores. Brands include Cheerios, Betty Crocker, and Haagen-Dazs. The company has sales of nearly US$16bn and a global workforce of 38,000.

“We started with pretty much a clean canvas,” he says. “The aim was to put all the working parts together so that we have a fully operational treasury centre within three years”. With General Mills having treasury in the US and one in Europe, it was felt it was time for the company to have one in Asia.

Emslie continues: “We’re also starting on a new centre for Latin America. General Mills is a pretty big ship and it really makes sense for us to have a broader global treasury footprint as we look to support future growth.”

Emslie’s focus on and commitment to the Singapore treasury project are readily apparent as he rifles through the many “moving parts” needed to bring into operation. Not surprisingly, many hurdles needed to be overcome to progress the project to its current stage, and many still remain.

“It’s not the easiest thing to go out and build a treasury from almost scratch anywhere in the world. There’s a lot of elements to consider to ensure they all work in harmony. It’s like a giant jigsaw. Inevitably there’s a lot of frustrations that come as well as you begin to crank up the machine and get it running. And the biggest frustration in Asia, as we all know here, is regulation.”

For Emslie, the APAC arena is forever changing, whether it’s China, Korea or India. “This causes difficulties for all APAC treasuries, but for a new operation like ours, still very much a work in progress, the constant flux of regulation can be especially challenging.”

While the new team considers itself as still working on the coalface in terms of implementing the various essential treasury functions, the project has already succeeded in rolling out cash management solutions across the region. As Emslie inherited 600 bank accounts and 50 different banking relationships, the main priority was to go back to the banks to find the best solutions for each market.

“We’re very intent on rationalising that structure. To begin with we needed to cut down 600 accounts to less than 100 in the first instance, then, going further forwards to less than 30. That’s certainly taking up a lot of our time.”

So, as the project moves towards the final phase of its initial three-year span, what does Emslie consider to have been the biggest challenges as he looks back on its development?

Without question it was the need to invest time and effort in educating and training the more inexperienced personnel amongst his team: “If they are not experienced it can be difficult for them to fully appreciate and understand what treasury is, and its role within the organisation.”

He appreciates that for some of these colleagues it can be a lot to get their minds around. “Of course, we as seniors are here to help them with everything – from looking at simple things such as policies and procedures and how to bank directly, to what the authorisation matrixes are while stressing the importance of not sharing their tokens.”

Whilst this doesn’t always work, he believes it is getting down to the simple basics to help build that expertise from the ground up. “A lot of our time has basically been spent on that aspect of things,” he says.

Adding value

With General Mills being a US multinational and all its satellite treasuries reporting to its HQ in Minnesota, there is also the fact that knowledge transfer and best practice requirements will overwhelmingly be directed out from the US to its global operations.

“It’s really about educating and training for treasury from a US perspective, sharing those ideas. Things are not quite like Europe; ideas, concepts and practices can take a little bit longer to instil here in Asia. As a result you do need to put a little bit more effort into education and training to get the results you’re looking for. From that point of view, the project is always a journey.”

One aspect that Emslie has spent considerable effort in was emphasising to his team the need for treasury to clearly show how it can support the wider business and generate value-added solutions. For Emslie, the more effort he and his treasury colleagues have put into this particular responsibility, the more they have worked themselves into a real team.

“Most of the training has been in-house – us imparting our knowledge on what we would like the team to do, and how we’d like things to move forward. It’s always difficult to go into new places where they don’t quite understand what your expectations are, and there can be a tendency among some to think you’re like the police, that you’re coming in to clean house and not to help.”

More than anything, for Emslie it has been reassuring to note that the more he and other seniors have stressed to less experienced personnel that they were there as helping hands, always available for advice, and not a threat, the better the project progressed. “That ongoing assurance from us definitely helped all of us. I think the more they saw us adding value in terms of knowledge, advice, mentoring, support and solutions, the better it became for everyone.”

Technology is always a great aid, but your banking partners and third-party suppliers can help enormously with knowledge transfer and intelligence in areas such as markets, regulation and geopolitics.

Reflecting on how he initially approached the project, Emslie recalls that his first nine months were spent speaking to his new colleagues and understanding the business, and then imparting knowledge on how he thought things could be done better. “Once we saw the kind of reactions and feedback that was generated, it became an easier process. But Asia is not an easy place for any treasurer – most will tell you that it’s a difficult place to come.”

Emslie found it very hard to be accepted at first. From initially believing the brand new operation could be built in two years, a reassessment concluded that three years would be more feasible. The fundamentals needed to be put in place and working smoothly so that a platform could be created to build further functionalities and processes.

For Emslie, the focus on ‘learning to walk before trying to run’ is exemplified by the big challenge regulation across APAC countries poses for treasurers. “It’s not just that rules are always changing, an even bigger aspect is that regulation in every country is very different. So, if you’re in India, or if you’re in China, they are just not amenable to anything remotely like copying and pasting as a total solution.”

He believes that treasurers operating in these regions need to look at each very carefully, to see where the nuances are and identify specifics that can be acted upon. “It’s no use having a great idea that you believe can work in all markets when it’s not going to be possible in six out of your 11, or six out of your 13 markets. You really need to be focused on what it is that you are trying to achieve in each market.”

An all-rounder

While Emslie wholeheartedly believes technology can help treasurers to become more efficient and free time for more strategic contributions, he is also keen to stress the importance of building solid relationships with partners.

“Technology is always a great aid, but your banking partners and third-party suppliers can help enormously with knowledge transfer and intelligence in areas such as markets, regulation and geopolitics. While us treasurers might tell you we know everything, sometimes we do need a little bit of help to get the right solution, an ultimate solution that we need per market or country.”

South African by birth and a graduate in accounting science, Emslie began his journey into treasury with roles in auditing, accounting and financial management. The big turning point was joining ABB as their SAP implementation specialist. After two years in that role however he felt he needed a new challenge.

“It was definitely time for a change for me,” he says. “The financial director at ABB offered me the credit management position as an additional role to try and fix his cash flow. And then through that I was offered the job of building the first treasury centre in Africa for ABB, and becoming their treasurer there.”

For a while at ABB Emslie wore three hats; working in SAP implementation, as a credit manager, and company’s treasurer. “What I knew about treasury in those days was very little. It was pretty much about learning from the ground up and doing exactly what I’m doing now – building a treasury centre from nothing, to something that we can all write home about and be quite proud of.”

When his wife Heather succeeded in securing a post in Singapore, and with the two keen to move to the city state, it seemed to Emslie that his time at ABB was finally at an end. But ABB was not letting go of their all-rounder that easily, and offered him the post of Country Treasurer in Singapore which he took up in January 2015.

“Eventually, however, I wanted a new challenge and that’s when the opportunity with General Mills came up. I had absolutely no hesitation, it was my forte and right up my street. To be offered something like that, to get to really work on the coalface, is me in a nutshell. And it’s been very interesting and fulfilling so far, but there’s still a long way to go yet!”

Sage advice

Being as bold and highly motivated as he is, it’s not surprising that Emslie’s prime advice to young people looking to get into treasury is ‘don’t be afraid to take a chance’. Emslie stresses: “I think that’s very important. Treasury is now evolving and changing at a real pace. There’s no right or wrong solution for treasurers at the moment – in order to be a successful treasurer you need to be well-rounded.”

He adds: “You also need to be an individual who’s willing to interact with most of the business and willing to put yourself out there to be able to give solutions and to speak to different people.” He believes that the ‘new treasurer’ should be really confident and go and build themselves up into the treasurer they want to be, and getting involved in everything that happens relating to the role will help them do that.

Emslie points out that the old days of a treasurer was pushing buttons, booking deals and looking at cash flow. “I think we’ve evolved quite far since then. We’ve become far more of a strategic partner to the business, have aligned ourselves far closer to our business partners in order to give them good advice and help them make better decisions. I think we’ve also now got that seat around the table where we can help our organisations and make a difference. If it had happened a few years ago, I’m sure better decisions would have been made.”

Indeed, Emslie believes that such has been the evolution of the treasurer’s role in recent years that nowadays many boast a skillset that is transferable to other senior management roles including executive. “I do think treasurers would make really great CEOs because they’ve seen and done everything in the business. They’ve been on the coalface, they’ve been at the cutting edge and they’ve been at that decision-making point many times.”

“Not everybody agrees with me, of course, but I really do think the new breed of treasurer can seriously look to move into executive roles at some point in their career. At the end of the day, treasurers love to be treasurers, but I think you’ll see many more of those treasurers take up these other roles in future and, moreover, excel in them.”

Only time will tell

When it comes to the merits or otherwise of the ‘Asian Century’ proposition, Emslie believes there is much that gives it credence. “Asia is a great place to be right now, there are vibrant, growing economies all over the region. It’s not just all about China and India, there are countries like Vietnam and Indonesia that have bright futures. But then none of us has a crystal ball; who knows if everything is sustainable enough to for the Asian Century to really evolve? When will everything be resolved with China and the US? And what lies ahead with Brexit?”

With these and many other geopolitical and economic uncertainties making financial headlines on an almost daily basis, Emslie says it’s vital that treasurers keep themselves up to date. “The more you know about what’s happening around you, whether its related to Asia or not, the better it is for you and the better it is for your organisation. As treasurers, we need to have a handle on developments, have our heads down to the ground to listen to what’s happening and analyse it for potential impacts.”

With his knowledge of Africa, Emslie recalls a time when expectations of that continent ran too far ahead of reality. “We always saw great things in Africa and still do, but it was always going to take a bit longer than people expected. I think we’ll see exactly the same in Asia. There’s going be good things, but it’s also going to take time – there will be many ups and downs.”

Away from the demands of work, Emslie and his wife Heather love playing golf, entertaining friends and travelling across the continent. “It’s always good to get away for the weekend,” he says. “Being based in Singapore, Changi Airport is a great place to travel out of – in just 90 minutes you can be pretty much anywhere in Asia. We’ve seen so many great places.”

It seems Emslie’s journey has only just begun.

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