Nora Baker’s treasury and finance experience seems to touch every part of corporate life. In the last five years, she has led an international expansion and grown increasingly knowledgeable on doing business in China. Elsewhere, she has helped support her finance department through two corporate sales and most recently, a SPAC transaction. Speaking from her Connecticut home where she has been working remotely since March, she describes a sweeping career marked by opportunities, challenges and constant learning that is still rooted in the key treasury principles of analysis, research and execution learnt in her first role in the early 90s.
Since Baker joined brand building group Daymon Worldwide six and a half years ago, the company has changed ownership twice. It was most recently acquired by Advantage Solutions, the California-based provider of marketing solutions to global consumer goods manufacturers and retailers. Despite a series of wide-ranging corporate changes, she has remained a constant figure in the finance team where her current role involves restructuring international operations, selling businesses, and serving as the finance lead for Asia.
International finance is one of her many areas of expertise. When Baker first joined Daymon she was tasked with overseeing the company’s new business development process and expanding international operations into new markets. Today it is her knowledge of China in a role that spans new business development and strategic advisory, treasury and tax management and team building, that particularly stands out.
Building the Chinese business has appealed to her energy and problem-solving ability. None more so than ensuring customer payment and getting money both in and out of the country, especially in the early days. “Having a cash strategy is essential to ensure successful business operations. You can’t just quickly wire money in and out of China,” she says, noting similarities in South Africa, Brazil and Russia.
Indeed, her experience in the 90s in Russia with United Technologies’ Carrier Corporation, a heating and refrigeration company, formed much of how she analyses investments today. Those early lessons now shape how she decides to operate more efficiently to support the core business.
Early treasury travails in Russia also marked her first real test of applying creativity and innovation to solve near insurmountable problems – in this case not being able to trade the currency. “The ruble was a closed currency and we had to find a way to conduct business in a country where you can’t trade the currency. You can’t run a business without cash, so we set up a barter exchange programme.”
As for any business operation, her overarching advice is scrupulous cash flow management and analysis. It involves a deep knowledge of a company’s customer base, drawn from asking probing questions, she says. “You need to understand who your customers are, and structure your contracts so you’re not exposed. Strategies could include working out if you are best positioned to have large or small customers or ensuring cash on delivery and upfront payments before delivering the service.”
She also counsels on the benefits of insourcing treasury in challenging new markets. “When we were outsourced, I couldn’t even get a receivable ageing report from our accounting firm. I used to have this quite exhausting weekly call with our accounting firm before I had staff on the ground.”
Today, however, doing business in China is getting much easier compared to those early, hairy days. “The banking, treasury, and liquidity situation in China has evolved over my career, and I have noticed that the rate of change has increased,” she says.
It leads her to reflect on an aspect of her job she has always loved most: the rewards of supporting a business operation in challenging environments when markets and countries are rapidly changing or in a state of flux. “It’s really fun working in China and globally because markets change so quickly. I think one of the things companies have struggled to understand is that element of negotiation within a structure, coupled with relationships and trust.”
Closer to home
Baker thrives in the rough and tumble of doing business in new and challenging markets, but her expertise is just as sought-after closer to home. Here her experience has helped reshape businesses for acquisition, growth or sale at Praxair, International Paper, and PepsiCo, and Daymon, which was a global ESOP, or privately employee-owned company before it was sold. Much of the work, which she describes as “super hands on” involved preparing and then presenting key information regarding the international side of the respective business to the buyers. “Essentially, I have had to ensure that businesses can be sold,” she says. “It involves explaining the business to the buyer, shoring up compliance, tax and treasury strategy, putting in place new processes for the sale. For acquisitions, achieving a satisfactory valuation, zeroing in on strategic fit and thinking ahead to post-acquisition integration increase the likelihood of success.”
As director of corporate development at International Paper she played a lead role in the company’s corporate transformation, overseeing numerous M&A transactions and processes that included liaising with deal teams including bankers, tax advisers, accounting firms, and legal counsel. “During the sale process things can go wrong if something is overstated or understated,” she warns. “If you don’t know what you are selling, or don’t do the proper due diligence, concluding a win-win deal for the buyer and the seller becomes challenging and can ultimately cause a deal to fail.”
Whether advising senior leaders on the nitty-gritty of a deal or thrashing out wider strategy and growth, she has learnt to make tough calls – and deal with hard knocks. Looking back, she says it is the defining moments of taking a stance or making a mistake, speaking up and receiving candid feedback, that have built out her career. One lesson that still resonates today was advice from one of her “great” leaders that she treat corporate financials as if they were her own. “We were evaluating a multi-million-dollar investment where there was the potential for a US$1 million variance. I was reminded that a million dollars is a lot of money and encouraged to adopt a sense of ownership when creating business plans,” she says.
Today, her main advice for treasury and finance teams working across M&A deals is advanced planning and strong communication. She believes that success depends on transparency, open dialogue and creating an environment which enables the business to proceed but is also considerate to the stress of change and transition. Post-deal, she flags the importance of collaboration to facilitate new leadership. “This is critical to ensuring success in a positive, constructive work environment,” she says, adding that her early career experience in eliminating silos within a company still drives how she goes about enabling communication and decision-making. “The company I was working for at the time needed to perform better and operate more efficiently, and there was a critical need to break down barriers between areas like marketing, manufacturing, finance and support.”
Baker, who normally spends half her time travelling, is eager to get back out to the field once COVID-19 restrictions lift. She says not travelling this past year has made building new relationships forged over dinner conversations and personal contact tough. That said, silver linings include seeing much more of her children, both in their 20s, and she has found more time out of her “crazy schedule” to catch up with friends and practice the beach yoga and hiking in nearby hills that she loves. It has also given her time out to run and swim.
She sees competitive sport, where previous accolades include competing in track and field events at university and playing tennis for her club at the US national tennis championships, as an important contributor to her professional life. “I am definitely not someone who wins and am now more likely to be the person who comes in toward the end. But I enjoy the camaradarie, the training and the personal challenge and will continue to push myself. I truly believe sport and teamsmanship help in problem solving, gaining resilience, and also collaboration which is so important in achieving success.” Her belief in mentorship and giving back to her community is just as strongly rooted. Baker has served as treasurer of a local organisation and is currently on the Investment Committee of Impact, which provides grants to local women-led not-for-profits. She actively volunteers for her alma mater including mentoring students, chairing Class Reunion Fundraising and serving on the Development Fund Committee.
As she casts back over the years, she is struck by how her first role in treasury at UTC, fresh from a year working for the World Bank’s IFC and armed with an MBA from Yale and a French literature major from Barnard College, became her gateway to such a rich and varied career. Given treasury is so closely intertwined with business success, her core skills have remained front and centre despite her career travelling in new and different directions.
For Baker, treasury is both execution-orientated and highly strategic; it involves solving complex problems, managing risk and constantly learning. “Core treasury skills include analysis, the ability to understanding trends, and being able to see ahead to plan in the shorter term. Treasury needs a certain attention to detail and perseverance, especially operating in a changing environment. It involves generating sufficient cash, understanding risk factors, and ultimately providing a return on that capital.”