Treasury Talent

Upgrade or delete

Published: Feb 2015

At a time when the role of treasurer has taken on a new level of importance, up-to-the-minute technical knowledge is vital. But, as the rest of the business wants to hear what the treasurer has to say, it is time to evaluate the so-called ‘soft skills’ too.

Snow level lift

For fans of the long-running UK sci-fi drama series, Doctor Who, the phrase “upgrading is compulsory” will summon images of the fearsome Cybermen. Their intention is to delete all human memory and emotion, turning victims into highly-focused cybernetic killing machines. The notion that humans can ‘upgrade’ by improving their knowledge to specialist status is nothing new and is one to which many would readily subscribe, especially in a professional context.

Indeed, as the treasurer’s role diversifies, there is an increasing demand for in-depth training in specialist areas such as tax, covenant loan agreements, accounting standards and technology. But as treasurers move further into the business the need is for highly intelligent professionals who are also able to communicate clearly with colleagues from other functions. Ruthless ‘cybernetic’ efficiency is one thing, but the value of the so-called ‘soft skills’ of relationship building and people management must also now come to the fore.

Expanding horizons

The perception that treasury is a highly specialised function hidden away from the rest of the business was never a helpful view, said Jan-Martin Nufer, Director Treasury & Funding for multinational petrochemicals firm, Borealis Group, speaking at the 2014 EuroFinance conference in Budapest. He has watched the role develop with growing confidence since he started his first assignment back in 1994 when “hardly anyone knew what we did”. Now, as it sits astride risk management, funding and cash management, Nufer sees treasury as “one of the central functions in the company”.

It is, he argues, high time treasury practitioners started positioning themselves even closer to the business so that they can take advantage of every opportunity to expand their understanding of the wider organisation. Those that have the technical and personal skills and who can combine broad market experience, contract negotiation experience and a lot of analytical know-how will, he believes, find themselves in a very good position to take their careers forward too.

Learn from the locals

Progress may involve tackling assignments requiring skills not covered by traditional academic and professional study. These can be loosely incorporated under the banner of ‘cultural awareness’. Hennie de Klerk, CEO of South Africa-based treasury services provider, Treasury One, says treasury and finance functions entering the country for the first time will really need to get to grips with the diversity of approaches likely to be met when tackling fundamentals such as cash management, forecasting and bank operations. The norms of banking in Germany or Spain, for example, are often quite different from those of South Africa. There are, he comments, “many technicalities around the South African market which corporates from outside will not be used to”.

South Africa is increasingly the stepping stone for corporates moving into other parts of Africa and the country’s Big Four banks (Absa, Standard Bank, Nedbank and FirstRand) provide services across much of the continent. Despite this, for any business seeking to expand beyond South Africa, de Klerk notes that it is unwise to expect basic treasury functions to be handled in the same way as their European or US operations. Whilst more sophisticated economies such as Kenya and Tanzania may meet treasurers’ needs, the level of technology and connectivity may be less well-established in other jurisdictions. “Every country is different,” he states. Even South Africa is not as standardised as the European market, he notes. “But if you then work with a different bank, such as [the pan-African] Ecobank to reach further into Africa, it becomes a whole different ball game.” In many cases, he warns, “as soon as you cross the border from South Africa there is a ‘technology cliff’”. A means of working around each situation must be found or cash and liquidity management and forecasting quickly become major issues.

In terms of everyday operations, de Klerk also warns of a steep learning curve, even for experienced corporates, when building up their understanding of processes and procedures as they move out across sub-Saharan Africa. For those that are new to the region, the curve is far steeper and seeking help on the ground is advisable, either from the Big Four banks that dominate the transaction banking space across the region or from well-versed local consultants and solution providers.

Never forget the soft skills

Despite near-constant development, the principles with which treasurers work have broadly remained the same over the years, noted David Dunkerley, former Group Treasurer of Cable & Wireless Communications in the UK, another speaker at the 2014 EuroFinance Budapest conference. Its best exponents have always possessed a mix of business skills, people skills and technical knowledge. But where in the past the emphasis was on the technical, in recent times, particularly since the financial crisis, he feels treasurers have had to be “more front of house”, becoming “a little more outgoing” in their approach.

The ‘soft skills’ of building relationships, managing people and expectations are, it seems, in demand in the treasury space. Nufer refers to the nurturing of these relationships as being part of a “business partnering” exercise where the expansion of treasury can be explored.

Soft skills, for Nufer, are “extremely important”, especially when working in a culturally diverse operation. Borealis’ centralised treasury operation deals with people from many cultures and countries across the world. There needs to be “sensitivity” to those differences but the company’s leadership supports the notion of inclusivity and is keen to develop its staff. It has invested a lot of time and effort in personal development and has a programme that primarily encourages leadership skills and the raising of individual profiles within the organisation. People from across the business meet to exchange ideas and get to know each other, developing the all-important softer skills. “It’s one of the ways in which we can come out of our Ivory Tower,” acknowledges Nufer.

“Communication is the key to success,” states Karen van den Driessche, Director Treasury EMEA at Avnet Financial Services in Belgium. “A computer can crunch the numbers better than most people but as treasurers we can build relationships – with the CFO, with the business, with the team – and I don’t think anything can replace human contact and communication.” But, she adds, regardless of the industry or company setting, people need to feel “at home” with the process because if there is any discomfort the communication quickly breaks down into“noise” and. “Being open and transparent is vital, not just in treasury, but in any function.”

Communicating in an open and honest fashion can bring together a wider view and appreciation of the finance agenda. A critical mass can be attained within a larger operation where this approach becomes the norm. It may be that treasurers feel they do not have the time to reflect on the context and position of their function within a business; the demands of consistently delivering a high quality service are surely many. But, says Dunkerley, “if we are blessed with that time, then we should step back and look at the development of our role and that of our treasury team” because doing so can yield some worthwhile results.

Live the brand

One of the career buzzwords currently doing the rounds is ‘personal brand’. Many people don’t know what their personal brand is or what it says about them – or even that they have one. The fact is that, in one way or another, everyone has a brand and yet few do anything to develop it (Gene Simmons, bass player with the rock group KISS – and a serial entrepreneur – once famously said: “I don’t want to be in a band, I want to be in a brand”).

Perhaps the concept of developing a ‘personal brand’, as espoused by many career gurus (and Gene Simmons), may be too much for some people. But if ‘brand’ is substituted with ‘reputation’ then a clear-cut case can be found for taking up the challenge because reputation and success are tightly bound together.

According to author and entrepreneur, Kevin Daum, there are three key steps to building a powerful personal brand. Daum urges followers of the programme to remain authentic, consistent and harmonic. Being authentic requires the individual to be true to themselves, sticking with their core values, skills and history. “Being self-aware helps a lot here,” he suggests. Consistency requires the individual to decide what is truly important to their image and then to “give concerted effort to practice what you preach”. Finally, an individual needs harmony. This may be achieved in a professional context by managing time, activities and the people around you. Living in chaos may suit some, but he advises the individual to “surround yourself with people who celebrate and enhance your life”. In this way it will be possible to carefully manage your time and resources “to support the reputation and lifestyle that will result in your preferred future”.

If that still sounds too much like New Age nonsense, Dunkerley has a more prosaic approach. “In establishing a notable treasury reputation there is a need to deliver on the short-term goals of the treasury and the business but there is also a need to take on increased responsibility and to develop that too.” Reputation-building is, he says, “about constantly chipping away at the stewardship role”. This is what got him interested in treasury in the first place; that principle remains the same. “What gets most treasurers out of bed in the morning is the knowledge that the buck stops with us. We are in charge of those risks and financial assets, and their stewardship is at the forefront. In building upon your reputation, take it back to basics and work on that.”

Understanding other people and processes is important, but the ‘authenticity’ that Daum talks about plays an important role for van den Driessche too. “Throughout my career, the companies have changed but I haven’t,” she says. Of course, she has learnt and developed personally but the core of who she is remains intact. “What you see is what you get; I’m open, honest, I work hard and build on trust,” she asserts. This approach has seen her rise up the ranks. But it is not an approach she has cultivated per se; it is simply the firm acknowledgement of who she is. “It’s too difficult to play games, trying to remember what you said to play a role.” Although an individual’s rough edges may be filed away over the years, van den Driessche ultimately promotes the need “to be vocal, be yourself and deliver what is expected of you”.

Building a solid personal reputation (or ‘brand’ if you prefer) is obviously beneficial, but then Nufer argues the case for avoiding being “labelled”. Rather as some actors risk being type-cast in a particular role and then forever struggle to be taken seriously in any other part, it may not be healthy in career terms for treasurers to specialise too much, at least not too early in their careers. In smaller organisations it may be possible for individuals to shape the space around them, absorbing many skills, but for many it may be more prudent to find a point somewhere between ‘specialist’ and ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, “without compromising the authentic self”. Indeed, van den Driessche points out that it is advantageous to have a level of cross-functional knowledge that enables the treasurer to be able to talk knowledgably with colleagues from other departments.

For Dunkerley, “an emphasis on flexibility”, where the individual is able to adapt to unforeseen changes and disruptions, is the key to progression. “As treasury professionals, we have an inherent skillset,” he notes. “While some people are happy to remain in a transactional role for their entire career, others want to become specialists or adopt a more general outlook; we all know where we sit on that line,” he says.

Follow your heart

Treasurers can end up being the victims of their own success. They take on a new position, build a professional treasury around them and deliver a host of efficiencies by streamlining processes and implementing systems that automate many activities. But, after a few years, some reach a point where boredom sets in and they need a new challenge and the cycle begins again. It may be possible to move to a multinational where the scope of possibilities is wider, but most people in treasury work in smaller organisations where opportunities for spreading their wings may be few and far between. But even when you have risen up through the ranks, you have attained seniority and a decent salary but it is still not enough, what happens then?

A computer can crunch the numbers better than most people but as treasurers we can build relationships – with the CFO, with the business, with the team – and I don’t think anything can replace human contact and communication.

Karen van den Driessche, Director Treasury EMEA, Avnet Financial Service

In the case of Netherlands-based treasurer Philip Wielenga you start your own business. With more than 15 years’ high level international treasury experience under his belt, Wielenga had reached a point where he had pretty much “seen it and done it”. Repeating the pattern over and over by moving to yet another company did not appeal; being the master of his own destiny certainly did. Following a discussion with a career coach he realised something significant: “All my life I had been following the money, not my heart.” Trying to find a position outside of treasury mostly resulted in rejection on the grounds that he was a long-haul finance specialist.

Wielenga decided to get out of that “never-ending cycle”. In establishing Wieltec Treasury Services he felt he was now in a position to continue using his specialist skills but satisfy his own agenda and personal work ethic. Whilst he wishes he had made the move earlier, he acknowledges that he had to undertake many different treasury roles over the years in order to build up an understanding of ‘real-world treasury’ that would give his company credibility. To this end, he also undertook a range of academic and professional studies. But Wielenga has also had to work hard to build a contact list from across and beyond the industry.

“When I started, I had a phone, a Macbook and a piece of paper and started calling people in treasury 40 hours a week non-stop. Nine months later, I signed my first deal. When you call someone for the fifth time, people will start to respect your perseverance.” But having developed the business he says he still takes the time to go back to basics. “We pick up the phone to find out what the key challenges are within our business relationships. This underlines one of our core values: keep a personal approach.”

Many successful treasurers have a natural inclination towards the risk-averse; the kind of viewpoint that insists on return of capital not return on capital. Going it alone is a risk too far for some and Wielenga admits that in the beginning it can be difficult. “I’ve seen an empty refrigerator at home,” he reflects. This is a scenario that would dissuade many, especially those with a family to support. Everything he read about people who started companies said the same; there will be difficult times. But, he asserts, in the end it is worth it. “I used to read about how entrepreneurs have a vision of what they do,” he says. “For 15 years I didn’t get it. Now I know exactly what they mean.”

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