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Cindy Lee, BASF - Women in Treasury

Cindy Lee’s career-defining moment was when she built the company’s cash management platform in Singapore – running across 15 countries – and took on the cash management duties of nearly 35 companies. The treasury platform now supports 52 companies across 18 countries.


Cindy Lee

Regional Head, Treasury Asia Pacific

Cindy Lee is the Regional Head, Treasury Asia Pacific for BASF, a global chemical company with a production network covering 100 sites in Asia Pacific with more than 16,000 employees in the region.

Lee heads up three different divisions – credit management, finance and treasury platform, as well as a service centre for all the local companies in Asia Pacific.

She joined the regional controlling and reporting team in BASF Southeast Asia in Singapore in 1996 where she moved up the ladder and progressed to her current position in 2010.

Born in Singapore, Lee is married and has one son.

What is your career-defining moment?

It was when I built our cash management platform in Singapore, running across 15 countries and took on the cash management duties of nearly 35 companies. I had to hire, teach, build and talk to the authorities and local companies, basically from scratch. The treasury platform now supports 52 companies across 18 countries.

Which women in business most inspire you and why?

All my bosses inspire me. But amongst them, I had two very inspiring female bosses. The first was Odine Hanley-Steemers, who introduced me to treasury, and then Gabriele Spies from Germany took over the same role. These two women taught me everything that I needed to know, especially how to be a leader.

What is the biggest challenge you are facing right now?

Every day is a challenge. Each day I am racing against the clock because I have to juggle three different major functions which I oversee. There are many new things in the business world. The good thing is that I love challenges. When I look at changes occurring in the treasury world, particularly in China, India and Indonesia, I am amazed.

What couldn’t you manage without?

I definitely cannot manage without my team members. They are the backbone of the whole department. Their hard work contributes greatly to my success. I also have to say that I can’t manage without my BlackBerry – although it is a love-hate relationship. I love it for the convenience. If I am on the road, which I am a lot because my teams are in three different locations, it allows me to stay in touch with the office. But the hate side is that because of the convenience, I have to be very disciplined when it comes to personal holidays. I try hard not look at it but that usually proves to be quite difficult.

What advice would you give to other women in treasury?

Stay updated with the changes in the financial world, be very focused and always challenge the status quo. Also always build up a network, especially within the treasury community, because you can learn a lot from your peers.

What would you have done differently if you could?

To be honest, nothing. The journey has not always been easy, especially when I had to learn everything from scratch without the theoretical background, but I wouldn’t change anything.

“I definitely cannot manage without my team members. They are the backbone of the whole department. Their hard work contributes greatly to my success.”

When Cindy Lee first started in treasury, she didn’t know much about the profession. Unlike the accountancy or finance sector, she hadn’t heard of treasury before. She has come a long way and is a proponent of the fact that treasury is a crucial department for most companies, not least BASF. Although Lee started in the industry as a total novice, she now heads up BASF’s treasury operations in Asia Pacific.

Lee joined BASF South East Asia Pte Ltd in 1996 as part of the regional controlling and reporting team for BASF Southeast Asia, based in Singapore. She entered the treasury world in 2001 as an analyst in the regional finance and treasury centre. BASF picked Singapore because the government offered a number of incentives for companies to start finance and treasury centres there.

“My initial year at BASF was mainly learning on the job,” explains Lee. She had a degree in corporate communications from the University of London and when she first started the job, it was a bit of a struggle. “To be honest, I had second thoughts.”

However, she had great mentors and bosses, who were very supportive as she learnt the ropes in treasury. Her first treasury boss, Odine Hanley-Steemers from New Zealand and her subsequent replacement, Gabriele Spies from Germany, were both an inspiration to her. “I have to thank Odine for putting me here,” she says. BASF gave her access to training and workshops, and was also quite forgiving when she made mistakes.

In addition to learning on the job and working full-time, she also did her Masters in Corporate Finance with the City University of New York, as a long-distance student. “So while I was learning on the job, I was also learning the theory side,” she explains.

Lee gradually moved up the ladder from an analyst to assistant manager, and in 2005 was made Manager of the Treasury Cash Management Platform in the Regional Finance and Treasury Centre in Singapore. Two years later, she became the Regional Manager for the platform and in 2010 was promoted to her current post as Regional Head, Treasury Asia Pacific in Hong Kong.

Her role has also widened well beyond cash management. Lee now leads Treasury Asia Pacific which consists of three different divisions – credit management, corporate finance and the cash management platform, which serves as a professional platform for front office duties of all the local companies in Asia Pacific. The three divisions are based in different cities – Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai for strategic reasons.

When Lee built BASF’s cash management platform, she had to do everything from scratch, as well as build her knowledge on the many regulations in the different countries she manages.

“This is how treasury has evolved within BASF in Asia Pacific and shows how important it has become within the company,” she explains.

She loves her job and is constantly facing challenges, racing against time, deadlines and various projects. “I love every challenge that comes along.” She believes in always challenging the status quo and instead of waiting for regulators to list the rules, she believes in engaging with them. “The central banks always want to hear from treasurers, especially from developing countries,” she says.

Her current role in BASF requires her to travel constantly to her three divisions, although she is technically based in Hong Kong.

How does Lee cope with all the travelling that is required of her job? There are times, in the middle of the night, when she wakes up, and has to ask herself which city she is in. “But somehow I can cope, especially since I have a supportive husband and son.”

Lee will be moving back home to Singapore in June for strategic business reasons. “There will be lots of focus on credit management targeting to deep dive into understanding customers’ behaviour, mitigation of risk on high risk portfolios and also further improving cash flows. Credit management sits in Singapore where our Asia Pacific Trading Centre is set up and has the highest transactional volumes.”

Despite her travelling, Lee has managed to build and maintain a network within the treasury community, both in Hong Kong and Singapore, as she believes strongly in “learning from peers”.

“I meet up with peer groups on a regular basis, in order to exchange ideas, see how things are being done, how central banks are dealing with certain issues and what other companies are doing.”

In addition to her networking with peers, Lee also meets up with BASF’s banks on a weekly basis to “hear their ideas and how their products are being developed to tackle market changes”.

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