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.”
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!”
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.