It’s no wonder that Séverine Le Blévennec, Senior Director Treasury, EMEA, at Honeywell is an advocate of treasury technology. Heading up treasury across 55 countries, over 450 affiliated companies and the group’s in-house bank, is the perfect driver for digital efficiency.
But where many would be content to bring in partners to piece together the operational and technological jigsaw, Le Blévennec takes the subject to heart. Not for nothing is she Honeywell’s global lead for treasury technology. Driven by the ‘lean’ spirit of kaizen development (she is a Six Sigma Green Belt), she is leading the group’s ongoing treasury transformation and digitisation programme, assessing and selecting the most beneficial projects.
Never afraid to roll up her sleeves, in June 2018, as part of this agenda of continuous improvement, she obtained her RPA Developer certificate before launching the Honeywell Treasury Robotics Initiative. In 2019, Le Blévennec and Honeywell won the Treasury Today Adam Smith Award for Best Fintech Solution in addition to the Top Treasury Team Award.
All this, of course, is in addition to the ‘day job’ of keeping the company’s EMEA region’s finances running like clockwork. Building up the requisite skills has seen Le Blévennec take progressive steps in the corporate finance space.
Joining Honeywell in 2006, Le Blévennec was first charged with managing transactions in the in-house bank. Within one month she had implemented her first technology improvement, delivering enhanced connectivity between various trading platforms, enabling a more data-driven process.
As the responsibilities grew, so too do Le Blévennec’s team’s responsibilities. Today she manages eight FTEs, a large treasury by most accounts, but then spreading those across 55 countries and 450-plus affiliates (Honeywell having made a number of acquisitions over the years), she is entirely justified when she comments: “I don’t feel over-staffed”.
Indeed, with some of those newly on-boarded businesses centred in high growth markets such as parts of Africa and Eastern Europe, their integration has been challenging from a treasury perspective.
Adapting and thriving
But being able to adapt is all par for the course for Le Blévennec. Throughout her career, she has learnt many important lessons, not least to step out of her comfort zone in order to achieve greater things. “I never want to miss an opportunity to learn,” she explains of the benefits of exploring new and unexpected avenues.
She also acknowledges the importance of social interaction for knowledge progression, recognising that treasurers must also now be socially adept. As well as formal education (she holds a bachelor’s degree in Business and Finance from ICHEC Brussels Management School, and certification from European Federation of Financial Analysts), and study of the panoply of whitepapers and research, she argues that discussing interests with peers at seminars and conferences is an entirely valid source of knowledge for anyone in this profession.
Critically today, she also feels the need to grasp how disparate elements, such as regulation and technology, impact treasury’s response to business needs. “We all work hard,” she says, “but it’s important to know that what is taking most of our energy will actually add value to our corporate strategy.”
Although she scorns wasting resources “on something nobody cares about”, she is at pains to point out that effort should not be focused on highly visible projects alone. “It can be something for which you know no one will say thank you, but you also know it is an important step towards a greater achievement,” she explains.
Refusing to “let her ego drive career moves”, Le Blévennec has declined to pursue career opportunities that did not offer the chance to learn or progress. It is, she adds, important for her always to understand what value the role brings “today and tomorrow”.
Of course, understanding both the value and technicalities of the role puts the treasurer in good stead to mitigate the rapidly evolving risk landscape. And aside from the ongoing challenge of COVID-19, one of the greatest challenges faced today is optimising resources in alignment with the needs and demands of the market.
In light of a host of seemingly disparate considerations such as regulatory compliance, economic pressures and developments in technology, this, for Honeywell, means frequently re-assessing its priorities and re-balancing the needs of strategic corporate activities (such as M&A) with the needs of its ongoing internal transformation project. “It’s an environment in which we sometimes have to contemplate conflicting priorities,” notes Le Blévennec. It seems that treasury today is all about balancing the tension between providing day-to-day activities in support of the company, being able to leverage opportunities that may exist in the wider ecosystem, and retaining the agility to execute large projects such as an M&A.
Through diligence it is achieved. But then with Le Blévennec’s commitment to Six Sigma practice, the idea of stripping away all but the essentials to enable clarity and the rapid development of solutions, is embedded throughout the function, and indeed the company.
“I find it a great way to formalise what I would perhaps do naturally but not perhaps so systematically nor exhaustively,” she comments. Through Six Sigma, Honeywell has established a common set of concepts, or ‘ways of doing’, across the company. “When we design processes, it helps us to make them robust; the thinking is meticulous so we don’t overlook some hidden aspect.”
Of course, technology is moving at a fair pace. Keeping up with the right developments can be a challenge in itself. But for Le Blévennec, “there is no magic here; I just have a natural curiosity about technology in the treasury environment”.
She concedes that at times it may feel like “a job in itself”, and even “a struggle” to find the time to explore new ideas while attending to the day job and the raft of ongoing projects. But she then adds that having a good understanding of strategy and processes, what is optimal and where the frustrations exist in the ecosystem, help expose the gaps.
Then as long as a pragmatic approach to technology deployment and implementation is maintained, she says it becomes easier to focus on the right solution. And by “keeping an open mind” when speaking with banks, attending seminars and conferences, reading articles and generally talking with peers (treasury is a “very positive community”, she believes), new and sometimes surprising avenues of exploration begin to reveal themselves.
In a company such as Honeywell, where an overarching programme of improvement, and a supporting mindset such as Six Sigma, is in place, each success tends to make it easier for projects to get the green light. But what is the approach to technologies that are deemed cutting edge in treasury?
Firstly, says Le Blévennec, there is no one technology that will resolve all of treasury’s issues. Secondly, for treasury purposes, every solution needs to demonstrate its value-add, and even then, she adds, its adoption depends on where the company is on its technology journey. The most sophisticated technology solution can’t be effective unless you’ve done your homework to clean, manage and connect your data.
Some longstanding providers, like SWIFT, also develop some meaningful new technologies, such as SWIFT gpi or SWIFT KYC for corporates, with the benefit that they are easy to access, secure and deemed to become bank-agnostic.
With most banks having published at least some APIs to enable deeper connectivity with third parties, Le Blévennec understands their potential but rightly points out that “there is still a challenge around standardisation”. This is especially an issue for large corporates dealing with multiple banks. On this, she states that she’d favour a bank-agnostic solution, plainly throwing down the gauntlet to the banking sector.
Perhaps one of the most talked about new technologies though is AI, but it is not for everyone. “My team doesn’t manage payments and collections, and we are not in charge of detailed cash forecasting, so I see fewer opportunities for AI at this stage,” she comments. However, she certainly believes that for cash forecasting, AI could be a “very powerful” tool, with also strong potential in FX management.
That other mainstay of techy conversations right now is blockchain. On the bank side, especially in trade finance, Le Blévennec sees strong possibilities. Honeywell is no stranger to the concept, already using a blockchain-based platform to manage multiple suppliers and sales of components of its aerospace division.
“When we see a new technology, it’s important that we assess its advantages and disadvantages and find out precisely where it can help,” she says. For her, technology for the sake of it is a wrong direction; it must have a purpose, and that purpose must ultimately benefit the wider business.
Taking the holistic approach to treasury processes and solutions has given treasurers more influence beyond their domain, many now being considered strategic partners. Le Blévennec explains that technology has aided this boost to status. “We are seen as entry portals by many technology providers. I think we must now be the catalyst for progress, giving options to other departments, trying to resolve their problems, breaking down silos and being ambassadors for a new approach.”
She feels that treasury is key in supporting other parts of the business when entering new and difficult markets, helping them to understand different approach models and risk management strategies. “The role of the treasurer is evermore strategic as we gain in agility and add value to the finance function,” she comments. “We want to provide real-time information so we are making ever-shorter cycles for all that we do.”
One of the greatest requirements of the modern treasurer in this milieu is a well-honed set of communication skills. It is important to be able to understand the needs, and speak the language of, a diverse set including, for example, professionals in legal, tax, IT and procurement.
“We need to identify what drives these people and what their concerns are, but also what they can offer treasury, as we try to build a win-win partnership,” offers Le Blévennec. To this end, she argues the case for rolling up those treasury sleeves and getting involved at a practical level with other functions. Only this way, she believes, is it possible to fully explain the benefits to these functions of what treasury can do for them.
There is an undeniable necessity for today’s treasurer to keep learning and pushing the boundaries too, she insists. As recipient of no less than 15 industry honours and awards to date, Le Blévennec and her team are no strangers to success in this respect. Always grateful for the recognition, she knows that every project is nonetheless undertaken because the team knows it is right for the company and that it will resolve an issue and add value.
But awards also signify a team heading in the right direction. “When we have created something new, and the benefit is being felt after lots of ‘blood, sweat and tears’, we can step back momentarily and feel pride in what we have achieved,” she exclaims. “By talking about our successes, through events like the Adam Smith Awards, we generate a community effect, where we can discover further possibilities, sharing and helping each other.”
One additional advantage brought by the awards bestowed upon Le Blévennec and her team is that they help leverage the expectations of business partners who can see that creative thinking is embedded within the team. Not only does this afford it “credibility”, it also means that those partners now anticipate a “quite demanding” approach from Honeywell with respect to improvements, happy that any challenges will be productive. “Now, when we ask a bank or vendor to develop a certain feature, we are often the first to do so, and they know that what they build with us could, at some stage, become market practice.”
Of course, it’s this level of confidence that many new entrants to treasury are yet to develop. To help build a successful career, Le Blévennec suggests seeking out organisations that offer sufficient complexity to allow early exploration of different disciplines.
She also urges newcomers to make a point of understanding how their role fits with the corporate strategy. “It’s important to trust yourself and not be afraid to get involved and ask questions,” she advises. “Showing interest in the work of others helps you progress.”
A project management course is a good way of raising prospects too, she continues. However, she urges the inexperienced to ensure wherever possible that when the time comes to take on a live project, that it will add value, blending the strategic with the operational.
Ultimately, she feels it’s all about “investing in yourself”. It’s about never missing an opportunity to learn, making contacts across many different levels, and building an understanding of how treasury is evolving.
Those with a grasp of how the company itself is shifting, and how investors and other stakeholders are responding to change, will have an advantage over those that just consume the information they are given. But then Le Blévennec has long since worked out that those who can keep an open mind are always going to be the real leaders.