Also, Adient operates in Asia through wholly owned and partnerships, and Wong has been appointed supervisor or director of some of the company’s joint ventures in the region. His role, he says, is interesting because of the changes the company has undergone and some of the major shareholder restructurings he has been involved with. For example, Adient announced in September 2021 that it was ending a joint venture with a partner in China, which freed it up to strategically transform its business in China and independently drive its strategy there.
All this has kept him busy and with so much on his plate does he like his job? “I like it very much,” he says, without hesitation. “I get to do new things every day – that keeps me going and gets me up early,” he says. He adds that he believes it is important to have curiosity and be passionate about what you’re doing and feel engaged with your work.
He’s humble, however, about his talents and downplays the skills that are necessary to manage such a large and varied workload. “This is not brain surgery,” he jokes. He explains that understanding treasury, like other disciplines, is just about spending time on it and analysing what needs to be done. Like his treasury peers, one of his biggest challenges is dealing with the various restrictions across the Asian markets where Adient operates and ensuring he is able to effectively deploy the available liquidity to where it is needed. Another complication, he adds, is that in Asia – for example – he may be working with up to 15 currencies, which means he also needs to deal with multiple systems and regulations. In navigating all this he says, “The key is to keep learning and exploring what could be better and always improving the solution for the company.”
He adds that everything in the role of treasury can be learned. “It’s not rocket science; just spend time on it, we will figure it out. I learned that from a mentor – you just have to put your heart into it.” And even in the case of rocket science, people like SpaceX’s Founder and Chief Engineer Elon Musk have demonstrated that it is possible to learn anything, if the will and determination is there. “You have to put your heart into it and let people know that you are capable and want to contribute. Eventually people will know that they can work with you and do good things for the company,” Wong says.
Wong points out that in a regional role – outside the company’s headquarters – the treasurer does not typically have to deal with the capital markets, such as dealing with bond issuance, and so they have a different relationship with the business. In a regional role, the treasurer has to work harder to be more visible and demonstrate where they can add value. “I think especially for the regional treasurer, the interpersonal relationship with the business is very important.”
Having good relationships has served Wong well while the company has worked through major balance sheet transformation by repaying approximately US$1.5bn debts in the last 12 months and adapted to a changing environment. He comments that one effect of the transformation is that we need to manage our cash and liquidity more closely. Although there is sufficient cash and liquidity, this new situation means that they have to manage the positions in a more focused way, all of which relies on effective communication and healthy working relationships.
The external environment has also become more challenging. There are a number of factors at play, including the crisis in Ukraine, a shortage of semiconductors for the auto industry, and other supply chain disruptions. This means the treasury team has to be prepared for any further disruption and ensure sufficient liquidity while also preparing effective mechanisms to deploy it effectively.
Commenting on the chip shortage and the supply chain disruption that the auto industry has experienced, Steve says that the demand for vehicles is there, but the supply side has been beset with logistical challenges including chip shortages. “Automakers could not produce and deliver on time,” he notes. This in turn has impacted the sales of vehicles, and their various components – including seating – which in turn has an impact on the suppliers’ cash flow. In this situation, says Wong, it is important to be ready, understand the options available and put a plan in place.
Wong – like many of his peers – has witnessed a number of advancements in treasury technology, which makes managing liquidity like this more efficient. Also, there have been other mega trends that have unfolded over the course of his career, such as the use of artificial intelligence. Back when he was a broker, he saw the move to automation and the removal of humans from many processes. A constant question that hangs over the use of AI is to what extent it will replace humans.
Will Wong’s current role ever become obsolete? This is not something that he is concerned about. “That’s too far ahead,” he jokes. For now, he focuses on the task at hand: “I think that we need to be flexible, adjust ourselves and cope with the situation,” he says. With technology such as AI, where people have been predicting the demise of humans for decades, it is possible to get carried away with the possibilities of how machines will outdo humans. “I think you have to keep in mind that you have got to be flexible and curious and learn every day. Some things could be replaced and some things could evolve – we’ll just have to see…”
One area that could be improved for corporate treasury in the here and now, comments Wong, is making better forecasts. “I wish we could have these things done more automatically, more accurately, and have greater visibility of our cash position and cash flow. That would be helpful to every treasurer,” says Wong.
With the introduction of electronic trading, it could be argued that the technology freed up people to do better quality, more value-added work, rather than the time-consuming manual way of doing things, like speaking on the phone and shouting across a room. Technology, however, can often remove the need for people to speak to each other, and this is where the human connection can be lost.
Wong is a great believer in the importance of the personal relationship. “Some things can be done more effectively and efficiently, and decision-making can be more accurate, but what can’t be replaced is the interpersonal relationship,” says Wong. “I think humans need to be flexible, adapt, adjust and grow.” And, like the Adient mindset, they need to stay one step ahead of the latest technology trends.