Treasury is a passion that runs deep for Amit Baraskar, Vice President & Head – Treasury, Thomas Cook (India) Ltd. In his current role, he is tasked with shaping the strategic vision of the treasury department and ensuring that it is well positioned to support the group as it enters a period of rapid expansion and spreads its wings across the globe.
Vice President & Head – Treasury
Thomas Cook (India) Ltd (TCIL) is the leading integrated travel and travel related financial services company in the country, offering a broad spectrum of services that include foreign exchange, corporate travel, MICE, leisure travel, insurance, visa and passport services and eBusiness. The company set up its first office in India in 1881 and today spans 21 countries across four continents with a combined revenue in excess of US$1.34bn. The group is today one of the largest travel service providers across the Asia Pacific region.
Corporate treasury is not only a job for Baraskar: it is a passion. He refers to himself as a “treasury guy” and says that throughout his career, no other role has brought the same satisfaction.
That is not to say Baraskar has not been tempted to venture beyond the walls of the treasury department. Indeed, he describes himself as being “professionally adventurous” and eager to “gain holistic exposure to the business”. Yet whatever route he has taken, eventually all roads lead back to the treasury department.
For Baraskar, this is not an issue. Indeed, with treasury’s increasingly growing strategic importance at TCIL, Baraskar is finding that his job is evolving, giving him exposure to all corners of the business. “I have always known that treasury is where I can offer maximum value to the organisation,” he says. “What I have realised more recently is that it is the role that will provide maximum value to me as well.”
SME to MNC
Baraskar is a qualified Chartered Accountant and began his career heading up finance teams for several SMEs across India. These companies spanned a variety of industries including food and beverage and entertainment.
Baraskar says that this part of his career was a great learning experience, especially because it exposed him to a variety of financial techniques. Most importantly, it was during these years that Baraskar developed his passion for treasury after recognising that he had a natural flair for the role. “I became very conscious that treasury was where my strengths lay and where I could work wonders for an organisation,” he says.
The chance to prove this came in 2007 when TCIL offered him a position in the treasury team. Baraskar recalls that he thrived in the environment, taking part in a variety of different value-adding projects that helped grow the status of treasury within the organisation.
Four years into his tenure at TCIL, the opportunity presented itself for Baraskar to move into a more commercial role. He recollects being torn at the time, with his passion for treasury pulling him in one direction and his adventurous side telling him to take on the Business Commercial and Credit role. “In the end, both sides won,” he jokes. “As I ended up taking on the Business Commercial and Credit role in addition to my treasury responsibilities.”
Corporate treasury is not only a job for Baraskar: it is a passion.
Baraskar managed both profiles for two years and it is a time he looks back at with mixed feelings. “I was essentially doing the job of two people and it took its toll on me,” he says. Indeed, Baraskar recalls working from ten in the morning to midnight most days. “Every day that passed it became increasingly difficult to work both roles, so I had to make a decision as to which one I wanted to continue with.” Treasury, of course, won the day. And the stars aligned for Baraskar and he was offered the role of Head – Treasury.
Despite the toll that working the two roles had on Baraskar, he does not regret doing it. He says that during this time he learnt many new skills, including what he calls a “Herculean ability” to manage pressure. Aside from being able to manage pressure, Baraskar’s time working in Business Commercial Credit exposed him to a different side of the business. “I was also able to sharpen my soft skills as I was constantly meeting with stakeholders inside and outside of the business. Also, this enabled me to understand business dynamics which helped in aligning business and treasury priorities,” he adds.
This range of skills has been very useful since taking on responsibility for the TCIL treasury, notes Baraskar. He explains that the treasury at TCIL is “unlike any other in India” because of the unique business lines it supports. This includes the Group’s treasury operations in India – TCIL’s key market – where treasury manages domestic liquidity, funding needs and banking arrangements, as well as providing strategic support to the business.
Baraskar is also responsible for TCIL’s foreign exchange back office and mid office in India, operating a dealing room akin to that of a bank. “We enjoy the status of an Authorised Dealer II – assigned by the regulators – meaning that we are perceived to be working somewhat akin to a bank and are regulated as such,” says Baraskar.
Finally, since TCIL’s acquisition of Kuoni’s global network of destination management specialists in 2017, treasury has provided cash management, banking and funding support for TCIL’s businesses in 20 markets around the world. This includes operations in South East Asia, North America, Australia and East and South Africa.
What is most impressive for Baraskar is that all this work is carried out by a lean but “incredibly talented” team of around 17 full-time employees. “Over the years I have worked hard to build a strong team with different skill-sets and experiences that work with one another,” he says.
This diverse range of skill-sets and togetherness of the team has proved especially important following the acquisitions in 2017. “The game changed overnight,” says Baraskar. “Aside from all the work that was required to integrate the new businesses into TCIL’s operations, we were suddenly a multinational company with operations that spanned the world.”
Baraskar admits that becoming a multinational posed some challenges for treasury at first, testing his management skills to the maximum. For one thing, he had to ensure the team’s time was managed effectively and that all work was completed correctly. “I solved this fairly quickly by assigning different countries to different people, empowering them to become specialists in that market to provide maximum value. Also, some of the team members work from home at night. All this helped manage the funding and support required by group companies scattered over different time zones,” he says.
Away from management issues, Baraskar has faced additional challenges. “Some businesses at TCIL are thin margin businesses and extremely cost conscious because of this,” he says. “As a result, a key KPI of the treasury team is to drive cost out of the business by consolidating, standardising and putting in place stringent controls globally.”
“If treasurers do not have the right soft skills, it can be very hard for a treasury team to be effective.”
However, Baraskar is finding that this is not always possible. For example, he explains that he has been looking for a one-stop collections solution that encompasses the variety of payment methods that exist today. “There has been a lot of evolution in the payments space, which has been great in allowing TCIL to reach more customers,” he says. “The challenge it poses is that it creates inefficiency when we are having to use a variety of different portals to collect these payments. Unfortunately, we have yet to find a one-stop solution that is commercially efficient and cost efficient. We are challenging our banks on this one, however.”
Elsewhere, Baraskar bemoans the fact that TCIL has been unable to put in place a global pooling structure covering all its geographies because the regulations prohibit cross-border pooling in certain markets. “We are working with our banks to make it work where possible and are ready to leverage regulatory change that allows us to expand the cash pool,” he says. “We are positive about getting this done soon.”
…and local challenges
Whilst these global issues have proved problematic, domestic issues have presented an even greater challenge for Baraskar of late. He cites the recent implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) as a prime example. “It was introduced in a hurry,” he says. “As a result, the financial services industry across India didn’t have time to implement GST properly before the July 2017 deadline.”
This has resulted in the delay of many financial transactions across India. “For TCIL, and the whole of corporate India, the biggest issue is the turnaround time for collections of receivables, which has increased greatly,” explains Baraskar. “This really hurts organisations, because every day that you are unable to collect your cash, you are incurring an interest cost that negatively impacts the business’ financials.”
There is not a lot that Baraskar can do to solve this issue, apart from waiting for India’s financial system to catch up with GST. However, he was able to do something about another regulatory development that has impacted the business: demonetisation, which Baraskar describes as a “rollercoaster ride”.
TCIL has a heavy rupee cash requirement due to its currency exchange business across India. “Demonetisation put extreme pressure on this business line as we were struggling to get the banknotes required to serve our customers,” says Baraskar. “Thankfully, we were able to work with our banking partners to solve this issue after a few days. This did mean going overboard and withdrawing a huge amount of cash from the banking system, but ultimately it kept the business going. It was a tough time, but my team managed it beautifully.”
The power of relationships
Since assuming responsibility for the treasury department, one of Baraskar’s main projects has been bank consolidation. To a degree, this is aligned with the treasury’s overall objective of cuttings costs out of the business. However, for Baraskar it is also a strategic requirement. “Strong and trusted banking relationships are vital to the success of any global business,” he says. “This is especially true in times of stress or volatility.”
Whilst this opinion has been shaped over more than a decade working in treasury, Baraskar finds that it is constantly reinforced. He cites a recent example where TCIL urgently required a letter of credit (LC) to be issued in the US. “LCs typically take a week to ten days to be issued by a bank,” he says. “We needed it overnight. Thankfully, given the strong relationships that we have with our banking partners, one was able to step up and issue an LC in less than 24 hours and business was able to continue. Even today I still can’t quite believe it happened. It just shows you that with strong relationships, you are able to move mountains.”
Baraskar’s deeply held belief in the value of relationships means that he believes soft skills are crucial for treasurers today. “If treasurers do not have the right soft skills, it can be very hard for a treasury team to be effective,” he says. “This is because the role is about managing people just as much as it is about managing cash.” As a result, Baraskar spends a lot of time working with his staff to hone their soft skills. “This isn’t necessarily a formal process,” he explains. “In most cases, it is simply a case of taking them to a meeting with a senior banker so that they can see how the conversation flows and how rapport is built over time.”
Away from corporate treasury, Baraskar is a keen athlete and has previously held a state record in the high jump. Today, Baraskar along with his daughter continues to involve himself in individual and team sports.
Baraskar’s sporting exploits have also seen him develop a keen interest in health and nutrition and he has recently launched an eBook titled ‘The Boundless Powers of Superfoods’, sharing his insights on how to stay fit and how foods can help. “I started writing about health and nutrition around two years ago, because I believe that after many years juggling an intensive professional career and numerous amateur sporting activities, I have a lot of experience that I can share with others,” he explains. “The aim of the book is to inspire people and remove any barriers that they might have to get on the right track when it comes to health and fitness.”
Professionally speaking, Baraskar is keen to continue the good work that he and his treasury team have been doing over the past few years at TCIL to support the business. And, with the company publicly stating that further M&A activity could always be on the horizon, he is acutely aware that a lot more hard work is to come. But, with his passion and drive, he is ready to take on the challenge.