Perspectives

Corporate View: Suzanne Perry, RELX Group

Suzanne Perry, Assistant Group Treasurer, RELX Group

Open for business

Suzanne Perry
Assistant Group Treasurer

RELX Group

RELX Group is a global provider of information and analytics. It is headquartered in London and listed on the London, Amsterdam and New York Stock Exchanges. It covers four market segments: scientific, technical and medical; risk and business analytics; legal; and exhibitions. The company has offices in about 40 countries and serves customers in more than 180 countries.

 

Although treasury has remained a career-constant almost from the outset, Suzanne Perry, Assistant Group Treasurer at RELX Group, is driven by a need for continuous learning and tackling new tasks. This has assured her rise through the ranks of this vast global organisation.

“I like the variety,” says Suzanne Perry of her role as Assistant Group Treasurer at RELX Group. Based in central London but looking out across the company’s global operations, she is not short of opportunities for job satisfaction. In shadowing the work of the company’s Boston-based Group Treasurer, she oversees all of the traditional treasury functions but also focuses on group risk management and funding, with additional responsibilities for elements of insurance and UK pensions.

It’s a truly broad remit that requires her to take the lead on RELX’s term debt projects, steering its ad hoc internal restructuring plans and ensuring capacity for close involvement in major events such as the company’s recent corporate simplification programme.

At the ‘traditional’ end of the spectrum, cash management for example, Perry can be found directing enquiries to the right resource rather than working at the coalface. The ability to do this comes from a great depth and breadth of experience within the business.

It started in 2000 in her first role in the company (then Reed Elsevier) as a Treasury Analyst. After a period at Deloitte as a chartered accountant, Perry, naturally competitive and inquisitive, decided that RELX Group’s international profile was an exciting career prospect. Indeed, the thought of traversing a large and diverse business – and one that, as it transpired, respects the sanctity of work-life balance so important to her – was an opportunity not to be missed.

Having taken the plunge, she soon realised that, as a mathematically sharp philosophy graduate, the analytical and forward-looking nature of treasury and its demand for a strong technical base was the perfect fit for her.

To support her understanding of the role, she embarked on formal treasury study, heading directly for the more challenging MCT level. Being “very aware of only ever having worked in treasury at RELX” and needing to know she was on the right track, she viewed her professional studies as a way of formally evidencing her always-accumulating ‘best practice’ technical knowledge. It has also been a means of further developing the “art, not science” side of treasury, in which she believes the skill of balancing risk and reward enhances the role greatly. Furthermore, observing a willingness in some to “follow the numbers without questioning them”, Perry argues that the world is far too messy for such a rigid default approach. “Things can and do go wrong; flexibility is essential.”

Early involvement

As one who sees “getting involved” as an essential part of the job, Perry has undertaken an increasingly broad sweep of financial functions since her arrival at RELX Group. When accounting rules changes in 2004 (IAS 39) meant derivatives had to be recognised on the balance sheet, the value in getting involved at an early stage was clear.

Rather than seeing it merely as engaging with compliance, she viewed her input as a solid contribution to the bottom line. “I’m a practical person; I always like to feel I am doing something,” she comments. Having thus built a reputation for expertise, colleagues executing derivatives and hedging deals in the group’s Swiss treasury centre called upon her to help them correctly structure and administer their own deals.

Roll forward to 2009 and Perry, keen to take part in a benchmark-sized debt deal, headed off to Switzerland on secondment. An equity placement that concluded in July of that year, driven by concerns about the declining economy, presented a major new opportunity for her to get involved in the deal’s foreign exchange management, converting cash to pay down some of the facility.

However, this deal, of which she caught the tail-end, meant the company was now very well financed. She had to wait a few more years for the next one to come along. Although this meant extending the secondment twice, true to form, she took it as an opportunity in itself. “There was a lot to get to grips with,” she recalls.

RELX Group’s largest business – scientific, technical and medical – has annual subscriptions to its publications; these are mostly paid in Q4. Whilst cash is moved intra-group, consolidation of group cash (to the tune of around US$1bn) is always weighted towards the final quarter. To support its capital needs, RELX issues commercial paper throughout the year, paying it down at the end.

With Switzerland originating much of the commercial paper, Perry relished the challenges of this market-facing role, learning about negotiation, trading, guarantees, and its legal and administrative processes, through a number of bi-lateral smaller deals. “It was good to have a lead-in before tackling a benchmark bond,” she reflects. That came in 2012. “Whilst it was not a great market, we hit a sweet spot when we issued; it was a great teamwork experience.” This was followed in 2013 by a Swiss bond issuance which saw Perry fully involved in roadshow duties, helping it towards another well-received issue.

Building bridges

The Swiss experience ended in April 2014 but it has helped Perry build many relationships with finance team members. The fluidity encouraged in the business means many have since moved into the divisions, ensuring that she has become a familiar face right across the group. Although more of a strategic player now, having the wide-ranging background and contacts at ground level has proven advantageous in many ways.

Each division has its own finance team, often staffed by former members of the corporate finance function. Knowing that the door is always open, there is an easiness in approaching treasury with a problem; expert advice is always forthcoming. Whilst the units do not need to worry about financing, treasury’s “main ask” of them is that they regularly submit their cash flow forecasts.

With the full support of the CFO, treasury is keen to support the different entities, acting as a centre of knowledge, says Perry. Whether setting up a new entity or an online payments collections process, it is, she adds, “all about having the right dialogue with them”.

Know your treasury

Keeping in contact reduces the likelihood of a business “trying to do treasury without the knowledge,” she explains. “The Heads of Finance in each division are now cascading the understanding that anything treasury-related – including bank relationships – goes through treasury.”

Indeed, at a senior level, treasury is a well-known function. But as RELX Group is such a large business, it can be difficult to reach smaller entities. This is especially challenging where it has been brought onboard by acquisition or where it has minimal contact with the corporate team.

Perry’s response is to always take the initiative to promote treasury. She can often be found giving talks on internal finance forums, explaining how treasury can help the businesses. The key message, she says, is that anyone not sure about something should always ask.

It might mean explaining again why cash flow forecast data is needed, but she feels that the more people understand that what treasury does eventually flows through to the key metric of earnings per share (EPS), and that the function “is not leaking away all their hard-earned profits above the line by being inefficient”, the better it is for the whole business. It seems to work. “All the businesses now get EPS is very important – and we are getting them to understand the role treasury plays.”

Understanding the world

Of course, there are macro issues for treasury to manage. Current concerns amount to more of a watching brief for Perry though. Events such as LIBOR reform could impact the business; a lot of RELX Group’s derivatives reference it so “keeping an eye on the direction of travel” and having a plan is essential, she says.

Although Brexit is not a big issue for the RELX business model, again it requires steady monitoring. RELX’s banking partners are not forewarning of any issues making and receiving payments or anything around derivative counterparties in this context. But for Perry it is still necessary to keep an eye on developments.

It’s a pragmatic approach that has also informed RELX’s approach to technology. Of its 30,000 employees, around 8,000 are technologists. It’s in the company DNA, says Perry confirming that “we’re a big fan of technology but not for the sake of it”.

With a strong in-house technical resource at hand, there has been a solid focus on the systems side for treasury and finance, says Perry. This has mainly been about consolidation, uniformity and keeping processes simple. “If you have a simple process it is easier to automate,” she says. “Our biggest cost is people. If they can be freed from mundane processes, they can be applied to something with more value for the business. This is something we are constantly looking at and trying to leverage.”

Discipline

With that in mind it may seem uncharacteristic that, in addition to the forecast data, treasury still requests every business unit to provide their end-of-month bank balances, either via email or, preferably, as a spreadsheet. “It offers treasury a good control,” says Perry. “With these reports we are getting information which we can compare with the information extracted from our more sophisticated systems; it helps us to quickly spot any anomalies,” she explains.

It’s rare that anything is spotted but the reporting continues because it is a useful exercise and, although RELX Group is fundamentally a tech-company, “everyone is still quite focused on the accounting”. On the treasury side, this focus means, for example, that every interest rate derivative it does is designated. “We do not have anything speculative, so even if something would be a good economic hedge, if we can’t get the accounting designation as a hedge, we won’t do it,” states Perry.

In fact, she continues, the whole company is disciplined in terms of streamlining processes and accounting robustness. “It’s a culture that I like. Everything tends to be done by the book, but the book is flexible where it needs to be.”

This is clearly a mark of good treasury from Perry’s point of view. As a senior treasurer who employs many, she naturally looks for similar core qualities in candidates. But for those seeking to move to the upper echelons where, as she has said, treasury “becomes more art than science”, having a well-developed concept of risk and return is vital.

“Removing all risk can mean doing nothing but that in itself is a risk. Good treasurers need clarity of thought over all the possibilities, including doing nothing, and the strength to act,” says Perry. Structured thought is indispensable and although complex treasury outcomes can merge into grey areas, she feels deeper analysis often reveals binary solutions. “Then it is essential to have certainty.”

People skills

An often underrated but nonetheless essential treasury skill is that of being able to read people, she notes. Nowhere is this more evident than when doing debt deals. “We get feedback from the bank syndicate teams and they are always worried about giving too rosy a view, in case it cannot be achieved,” she explains.

It might be in their interests to have treasury accept as bad a price as possible because a low price is easier to sell to investors. “But they are trying to be fair,” notes Perry. But they won’t, she notes, advise a treasurer to be aggressive in their pricing “because they will then worry that if they can’t deliver, they will be blamed for failure”. Appreciating that the syndicate teams are caught in the middle, she advises that when on calls with them, “it is vital to listen closely, to read between the lines, and be able to develop the conversation to flush out where the cut-off is to get those last few basis points”.

In a more general context, similar to listening for subtle cues in a debt call, Perry is a keen advocate of listening to what people are really saying, rather than what you might want them to tell you. “Everyone is different and sometimes the individual’s real thoughts will only be revealed if your listening skills are well-developed, she explains.

With so much risk in treasury, she feels that there is no room for uncertainty or hesitancy in what people say; it needs it be managed as soon as possible. The workplace environment can prove helpful here.

With RELX Group’s dealing centre being open plan, Perry says it is easier to hear if a call is not going well and then deal with it quickly. It may be a simple misunderstanding between dealer and bank, for example, but whilst the dealer may not be willing to rock the boat, Perry being able to broach the subject with them afterwards can soon resolve the matter. A quiet word with the bank, for example, as a respected client, will quickly diffuse any tension.

In fact, although extremely rare, if ever there is a problem, especially with the volatility of the FX markets, she reiterates her earlier point about speaking up if there’s an issue. For that to happen, her own approachability is indispensable. “You are running a huge risk by adopting an autocratic leadership approach; operating a reign of fear pushes people into hiding their problems. I’ve always tried to be open.”

Happy treasurers

It’s what someone considering treasury as a career would surely want to hear of their future boss. But for those entering the profession with intention of staying for the long-term, Perry advises a dynamic career path. The best route, she advises, is often offered by large international firms, simply because a greater breadth of experience will be open to the individual. “And when you get there, never be afraid to ask to move around.”

Having risen up the ranks, she says she has reached a place where the work/life balance is about right. Family time, weekends, friends and socialising are what matter most to her. With RELX Group, she can do all that. As might be expected from a rational thinker, balance prevails. “If you are happy in your personal life, you can focus more strongly on your professional life.” It’s a cycle that can happily continue.

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