It is unlikely that you will ever find Cale Bennett, Group Treasurer at the Australian lottery and gaming giant Tatts Group, sitting idly at his desk. If running the treasury department for a heavily-regulated company with a vast retail presence and corresponding transactional banking footprint wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Bennett is driven by an insatiable desire to find new and ingenious ways to add value to the organisation.
This drive to deliver more is fuelled not only by personal ambition, but by a deeply held belief that treasury is not entitled to a seat at the table for strategic conversations, but must earn it. Indeed, Bennett believes that there is typically little understanding outside of treasury departments about what treasury actually does and the value it can add – a state of affairs that he is determined to change. Bennett’s treasury department therefore strives to highlight the worth that treasury can add to the business.
The success of his approach is there for all to see. “During my time at Tatts, the treasury department has been a significant contributor to net profit after tax (NPAT) uplift – which is very satisfying,” he explains. This has been realised through a variety of different actions, including the renegotiation of debt lines and the implementation of a successful and innovative hedging strategy. “Overall, we have brought tens of millions of dollars of added value to the company over what the market has offered naturally through targeted activities,” says Bennett.
Making of a modern treasurer
Despite his success as a treasury professional, Bennett admits that his path to the profession was far from calculated. “I have never really had a plan and instead just chose roles that captured my interest,” he says.
Bennett first was drawn to financial markets after graduating from Griffith University in Queensland with a degree in international finance. After initially working in a variety of risk management, trading and dealing roles, in 2006 Bennett joined the Bank of Queensland where he managed international and domestic debt capital market issuance. After two years, he moved to the Macquarie Group, managing a suite of capital-guaranteed, tax-effective, structured investments. “All of these experiences provided a good base for a move into corporate treasury, but that was by luck more than design,” he admits.
A move to Brisbane from Sydney provided Bennett with the chance to reassess his options. He explains that he was fortunate to be offered his first taste of corporate treasury with a role at QR National (now known as Aurizon). In this role he utilised many of his banking skills, primarily working on structured cross-border leases and the financing that supported the company’s IPO – the largest in Australia for some time.
Despite this being, as he describes it, a “fantastic role”, Bennett wanted to pursue other options and paused his treasury career after four years at QR National to launch a financial services start-up. “I wanted to test myself,” he explains. “I knew I was a capable finance professional, but I wanted to see if these skills could be used in a broader context without the support of a large organisation.”
Bennett claims that the experience highlighted that he is “not a very good entrepreneur”. Although, having raised funding from Steve Baxter – a well-known investor in Australia and star of the TV show Shark Tank – with little more than a slide deck, and leaving the company through a financially positive exit, one could argue that he is doing himself a disservice.
After experiencing start-up life and arming himself with a host of new skills, Bennett decided, with the encouragement of his wife following the birth of their first child, to find a more stable job. With extensive experience in both the banking and the corporate world, he had numerous options – but there was really only one choice.
“There is something tangible about working in corporate treasury,” explains Bennett. “In banking it can often feel like you are making money from thin air – you can’t touch or feel your work. In corporate treasury, however, you can see the physical impact of your work. At QRN I could ride on the trains that we financed, and at Tatts I see the positive impact we have literally making people’s dreams come true. This brings me a satisfaction that banking could never deliver, so joining Tatts as Group Treasurer was a great opportunity.”
Taking on the best
Leading a treasury team for the first time, Bennett was excited to apply his philosophy to the department. In essence, Bennett’s vision of what a treasury department should be is quite simple: it should be technically astute and willing to push beyond the status quo – two principles that he embodies.
“To be a great treasurer you need to know the technical details inside out and be respected for your professional knowledge,” he says. When dealing with the banks, Bennett believes this is especially important. “I don’t want to sit in a room with highly incentivised bankers and not be respected as a peer,” he says. “The smartest people in the room can’t all be on one side of the table or the outcome will be similarly one-sided.”
The recent wave of regulatory change sweeping over the banks has made it even more important for treasurers to be fully in command of their work. Bennett’s experience working in banks provides him with an insight of how they operate and this has led him to treat their complaints about the cost of regulation with a healthy dose of cynicism.
“Banks complain that regulation is making their lives more difficult and more expensive,” he says. “But really it provides a big opportunity for them to use regulation to make more money. Information asymmetry has always been a source of income – if the banks know more than the corporates about these regulations then they can use this to get the outcome that they want. This is why I believe it is so important to keep abreast of changes in regulation and the different ways that banks implement them.”
Tackling regulation head on is, in fact, something that has brought Bennett lots of success. “I have spent a lot of time myth busting within the organisations I have worked for,” he says. “In heavily regulated businesses, a lot of myths exist around what can and cannot be done. If these are not challenged, they are accepted as fact.”
Bennett has therefore set out to trawl through legislation and agreements in order to understand the constraints under which the business is operating, and find opportunities within established frameworks to drive positive change. “I won’t dismiss any good idea until I read in black and white that we are unable to do it,” he adds.
It is clear that Bennett is a deep thinker and one who is not willing to accept the status quo. And he admits that his success in treasury, in part at least, has come through his unconventional and innovative thought process that looks beyond the obvious and stretches the imagination. “A very supportive CFO also helps,” he jokes.
But he doesn’t see himself as unique in a world of highly-skilled treasury professionals – just perhaps one whose focus is slightly different. “I’ve observed a trend in treasury of late, which has seen departments simply look to be compliant – and companies looking to hire primarily for compliance,” he says. “And whilst being compliant is of the utmost importance it shouldn’t exclude treasury professionals to be creative, think outside the box and challenge what they are being told – doing so can add enormous amounts of value. I think this is something that all treasury professionals should look to strive towards; to be a differentiator from our cousins in accounting, not a subset of them.”
Another key tenet of Bennett’s success is his investment in himself. “To be a consummate treasury professional, and to add to your overall operational effectiveness, you need to have skills that translate beyond the realm of treasury,” he says. Although Bennett managed to pick up lots during his years working in financial services, he has also sought to learn skills in his own time as well – most notably the ability to program.
“I am no expert, but I would class myself as a skilled amateur,” he says, although his interest has served him well in his current role. To cite just one example, he explains how he had been talking to the group’s merchant gateway provider about creating a portal that would enable the treasury team to access its numerous merchant gateway accounts they operate with one login. “We got nowhere so I just built a solution myself,” he says. “It didn’t take long and has enabled us to streamline our process, saving considerable man hours per annum.”
Interestingly, Bennett recommends that anyone serious about a career in treasury should focus on their technical understanding and learn to program. “Basic coding will make you a much more valuable asset to your organisation,” he says. “Also, early in your career your bosses are going to think you are magically capable of extreme productivity!”
A changing landscape
With such a keen personal interest in technology and how it is changing the world, it is unsurprising that Bennett has plenty of views on the emergence of fintech and its disruption in finance. “I am watching this space closely, but development is slow in the corporate treasury world,” he says. “I still seem to spend a crazy amount of time filling in paperwork for the banks, for instance. It amuses me to the point of distraction, especially when I talk to the banks and they enthuse over their innovations. For the corporate treasurer, the banks taking a step back and removing some of these paper processes would be a great innovation.”
What frustrates Bennett more is that all of this paperwork is typically based on very simple processes that could be easily digitised. “Adding and removing signatories from bank accounts, for instance, takes a lot of time,” he says. “But I can electronically give access to someone to release a payment. There is no alignment of process here and both lead to the same outcome.”
The greater acceptance of APIs and the better integration of technology amongst different systems should lead to further improvements, but Bennett believes this will take time. “I have sympathy for the bank because Tatts runs a similarly complex technology environment,” he says. “It is very difficult to implement change because of the complexity of systems and the requirement for uptime, amongst a host of other issues.”
Focusing on fintech
Nevertheless, Bennett believes that banks may be forced to be more nimble and adaptive in the coming years due to the emergence of fintech. Exactly how this will develop and how long it will take remains to be seen, however, especially in the corporate space.
“At present, the vast majority of all fintech is in the business to consumer space,” explains Bennett, adding that this is mostly due to the complexity of the commercial banking business. “Take a peer-to-peer lending platform, for instance. The level and depth of financial knowledge to set up is quite low – if you can calculate simple interest, you are half the way there from a financial point of view. To set up a company that helps corporates in a meaningful way is incredibly complex and requires deep understanding of the financial system and how it operates.
“One big challenge then for fintech is to attract people who have the financial skills to cut through this complexity,” he adds. “Many fintechs are great at ‘tech’, but lacking the ‘fin’. This will change in time, though. Ironically, it is likely to come from banks continuing to downsize – they will be disrupted because they couldn’t disrupt themselves.”
Bennett’s interest in fintech goes beyond simply observing how it is impacting the banks and corporate treasury. He is an active participant and the co-founder of a fintech start-up, FairDealFx. The company, as Bennett explains, seeks to enable companies who cannot afford Reuters or Bloomberg terminals to be able to access live FX derivative pricing, enabling them to better manage their foreign currency risk. “Many SME’s executing derivatives for risk management have no idea whether they are getting a good deal. We have therefore built FairDealFx to eliminate the information asymmetry that makes SME’s a very profitable segment for the banks,” he says.
Room for legacy technology
Given Bennett’s belief in automation and emerging technology, it may come as something of a surprise that Bennett remains a fan of spreadsheets. Where some see spreadsheets as a tool that should be consigned to the scrapheap, Bennett jokes that he will be clinging onto them no matter what.
Indeed, the idea for FairDealFx was born off the back of a spreadsheet that Bennett created for a friend, saving her business over AUD$11,000 in one month. He has also designed other spreadsheets, both financial and non-financial, including one that helps small charities target their contact list more efficiently.
“Spreadsheets are incredibly powerful tools,” he explains. “Their functionality is unmatched, but the issue is that humans make errors in them. But as APIs become more prevalent it will be easier to integrate these into treasury and banking systems and automate the data input and management, mitigating the risk of human error. I don’t foresee the demise of spreadsheets – connecting them to cloud-based systems will only see them become more powerful and embedded within finance departments.”
Bennett is just as active in his personal life as he is in the workplace and even with three children he still manages to find time to indulge in his hobbies, which range from cycling and surfing to reading and learning new skills. Notably, in 2015 Bennett was selected to represent Australia in the gruelling sport of triathlon – a race comprised of a swimming, running and cycling section. “I have retired now – 18 months without a beer was long enough,” he says. “I still enjoy challenging myself but I like to think I am a little more balanced now.”
When looking ahead to the future, Bennett remains cognisant that even the best made plans can be disrupted, so he is reluctant to form too much of a blueprint. “Working abroad and seeing more of the world is something that I would certainly like to do,” he says. “But what is most important, professionally at least, is that I can continue to push the boundaries, try new things and not be an ‘ordinary treasurer’.”