As the genial, thoughtful managing director of SKF’s APAC treasury in Singapore, Jonas Falk is evidently as passionate about his leisure interests as he is serious in helping to ensure the responsible and effective stewardship of the Swedish ball bearing manufacturing giant’s finances.
In choosing to commit time in pursuing his interests, philosophy and photography in particular, Falk is adhering to advice he would readily offer to others, young and old: “Always try to stay curious and learn new things outside your profession – it’s one way of getting a perspective on things. It’s so easy nowadays to do so as well, there are many wonderful things available online that can provide support for learning, and much of it is free.”
On the philosophy front, he has been very taken by Justice, a free, online introductory course in moral and political philosophy offered by Harvard University. Recently he began exploring Philosophize This!, an entertaining podcast series focused on the works of the world’s greatest philosophers and hosted by 28-year old Stephen West.
So what drew Falk to philosophy? “I am very much a beginner but it appeals because many of the skills and abilities you pick up are transferable to other areas. It touches on so many subjects and I think it makes me a better thinker. It uses logic and reason to analyse the ways in which we humans see the world. It is about critical thinking and logical analysis but also communication skills, critical reasoning skills, and problem-solving skills in general.”
“Another value of learning philosophy is that it helps one frame hypotheses, do research, define problems. It helps you to develop the ability to be convincing, build and defend your own views, but it also asks you to understand other perspectives. These capacities are highly valuable to have in any walk of life, especially in your interaction with people of different political, ethnical and cultural backgrounds.
“René Descartes defined philosophy as ‘the use of reason in understanding such things as the nature of the real world and existence, the use and limits of knowledge, and the principles of moral judgment’. I like that.”
Falk is even more passionate about photography – he is an accomplished lens-eyed observer of animals such as deer, snakes and all types of winged creatures but his main interest is landscapes. “When I want to really relax, refresh my mind, I just go out to take pictures. It’s my biggest hobby. Most people do something creative – painting, writing, singing, or just play golf or exercise. For me its photography, I find it totally absorbing.”
As head of SKF’s treasury in Singapore, Falk’s responsibilities cover the company’s operations across APAC. His department’s work compliments that of SKF’s Europe and Americas focused treasury at group headquarters in Gothenburg. Key responsibilities for his team include funding, collection of surplus cash, FX management, hedging and making sure an effective cash management structure is in place.
The department is only four strong, which Falk says is the “bare minimum we can do with to keep things running”. He adds: “We always look to take on challenges, question everything. We try to keep adding value for the group – that is very important. And that means staying sharp and aware of external events that can impact us and figuring out how we can handle them.”
External factors that are constantly on his team’s radar screen include macroeconomic developments, geopolitical issues; global financial factors, industry trends and regulation. “We need to be aware of everything that can potentially affect our cash flows. We are not future proof but we do try not to lock ourselves into a certain way of being or managing, and that helps us to be prepared for the uncertainties of tomorrow.”
With treasury functions cutting through other parts of the SKF business, Falk says it is vital his department liaises effectively across the group. While it’s not always the case other SKF departments will know exactly what they are looking when they turn to treasury for help, his team stands ready to provide ideas backed up by its access to an array of information including market intelligence, market outlook, detailed data on listed SKF suppliers and peers: “There is a lot we can leverage to help devise solutions.”
Payments is one area Falk is especially keen to stay ahead of the curve: “In the future customers may come and say, for example, they want to pay using PayPal or crypto… we are not there yet but who knows? Payment rails wise, it’s a very fast evolving environment, especially across Asia. There is a lot of virtual banking coming up as well so we have to be on our toes on that front too.”
Buy and sell
An economics graduate of Gothenburg University, Falk joined SKF in 2000 and focused on risk control but from the outset his eye was on front office and FX trading. In 2003 the company offered him to trade for a couple months out of the Singapore office. A few months later he was offered relocation to Singapore for his first international assignment: “It was a very big thing for me back then. I moved there with my girlfriend, Jenny – we are now married – and stayed for two years. It was a very good experience, not just because of the work but because of the impact it had on me as an individual and a person. You learn a lot about yourself when you are posted overseas at an early age, especially about living and working in a different country with a different culture. You have to appreciate and respect cultural differences, which is very important in understanding how the world works.”
The couple moved back to Sweden in 2006, a year after their first son, Jack, was born. Falk left SKF a little later that year and joined Ekman & Co AB, one of the world’s oldest trading houses – it was founded in 1802 and, remarkably, is still in the hands of the Ekman family. The company today trades in pulp, paper, packaging, recovered materials and bioenergy and Falk’s role when he joined the firm was to head up the derivatives unit that traded wood pulp with futures on NYBOT with physical delivery of the contract. “It was all pit traded for one hour a day. I sat in an office in Gothenburg and used a broker firm in New York, sent all my bids and offers on excel sheets and watched the trades via Reuters, calling New York to tweak my prices…it all seems so incredibly ancient now but it was really good fun, exciting.”
By 2007 NYBOT delisted the contract with physical delivery of wood pulp. The CME group launched a cash-settled softwood pulp index futures contract in September 2007. “It was very enjoyable but then of course we had the financial crisis in 2008 and liquidity dried up completely. The market just collapsed. It was an extraordinary time and definitely the worst period of my life.”
As luck would have it, in 2009, with the aftershock from the crisis still reverberating strongly globally, Falk was contacted by a bank he had been trading with, Nordea, which offered him a senior sales manager role in the markets division with a focus on FX. After six years at Nordea he was contacted by SKF, ten years after having left the company. “They had this idea of sending me to Singapore again and being responsible for the same department I worked for as a trader there ten years earlier. I was very interested in doing that because we felt after the previous two year posting we weren’t really done with Singapore. I wasn’t actively looking for opportunities to move back but when this offer came from SKF it was an easy decision to make.”
Now, three and half years into his second sojourn in Singapore, Falk is very grateful for the experience gained and lessons learnt over the ten years away from SKF. “Most treasuries want to have people with banking experience but for me, when I joined SKF again, it was also about timeliness. Banking has changed very much during the last ten years so fresh, recent experience of banking helps a lot.”
“I joined Nordea in 2009 and left in 2015 and over those years banking changed dramatically due to things like all the new regulation and the fact that many banks had to repair big holes in their balance sheets, forcing them to review business models and make changes. Coming directly from that environment was very helpful when I arrived back in Singapore, especially in dealing with the bankers here. I think they appreciated my experience as it meant they could be open with me, they knew that I knew how it now works for banks.”
Gaining experience of both the buy and sell side over the ten years without SKF was another big positive: “I guess this goes for all professions but moving from one side to another side of any role can be very instructive and useful. I’ve been on the buy side, then sell side with a bank, and then changed company again and am on the buy side again. You learn so much from doing that. It helps to give you a much broader understanding of roles. That’s especially important in a managing director role where you have to be more generalist. That is my experience at least.”