Ellen Cornelissen, Director Treasury Europe, Aleris, moved from linguistics to treasury early in her career and never looked back. Today she oversees European operations, but also supports the new treasury set-up in Zhenjiang, China. The migration to Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA) is the biggest challenge facing her this year.
Director Treasury Europe
Ellen Cornelissen has been Director Treasury Europe of Aleris since 2009 and has held several positions within treasury at other multinationals including Adtranz, Bombardier abd Invista. In addition, she has a background in banking, having worked for ABN Amro and HSBC. Cornelissen has worked in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland, and is currently based in Switzerland. She holds a Masters degree from Radboud University (Nijmegen, NL) and is a CertICM.
Aleris is a privately-held, global leader in aluminum rolled and extruded products, and recycling. Our company is based in Cleveland, Ohio, with approximately 7,200 employees in regional offices and more than 40 production facilities around the world.
The company is an industry leader with diversification across geographies, products and end-use industries, including aerospace, building and construction, defense, distribution, heat exchanger, industrial products, molding and tooling, packaging and transportation.
What is your career-defining moment?
There were two moments. The first was being able to move into finance without a finance background – I studied languages at university. The second was creating a cash management structure at Adtranz, an ABB and Daimler-Benz joint venture, which opened up my eyes to the world of treasury and is where my love for treasury was born.
Which women in business most inspire you and why?
My boss at Bombardier, Colleen Sidford, who I found inspiring because she is a professional, yet never lost sight of the fact that she is also a woman. She is an extremely knowledgeable treasury expert and I am eternally grateful for having learned so much from her.
What is the biggest challenge you are facing just now?
It is a combination of the ongoing Eurozone crisis, general market instability and currency fluctuations. Also, as we have built a new state of the art rolling mill in China, one of my main objectives is to set up a treasury function there. It is challenging but also very encouraging to be able to set up a new structure that supports our growth in a strategically important region for our company.
What couldn’t you manage without?
My husband who is always there to lift my spirits when I am feeling low. After all these years, he still supports my commute between Germany and Switzerland.
What is your next major objective?
An imminent goal on my horizon is migrating to the Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA). I have set up a working group to cover all areas involved (legal, IT, accounting etc) but our treasury team leads this project for Aleris in Europe. In China, I am setting up a solid treasury function that can function autonomously within the global group and support our customers in China. Another main item there is to implement – with my US colleagues – a credit and collection structure. This is especially interesting as payment and collection structures differ much from Europe or the US.
In addition, a big item on my to-do list is increasing understanding of trends in our business in credit and collection. It has become increasingly important to ensure that the team is fully up to speed in adapting to changing market conditions.
What advice would you give to other women in treasury?
Go to conferences, network, make contacts and don’t be shy in asking others for advice or a chance to brainstorm for fresh ideas. That is what I have done in the past and the vast majority of people have enthusiastically responded to me.
If there is one thing you could have done differently in your career path so far, what would that be?
Looking back, even though I enjoyed studying languages, I would have done something more in the financial space. It would have been easier to have more knowledge before I started.
“An imminent goal on my horizon is migrating to the Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA).”
When asked what she would be if she wasn’t Director of Treasury, Ellen Cornelissen quickly responds: “Unhappy?” She loves the work because of its diversity, which includes handling cash as well as liaising with banks, legal teams, suppliers, etc. “A long time ago I considered becoming a musician – so that is another love I have. I play the violin and viola. But if I really think about changing jobs today, I would probably return to my old job as an interpreter.”
Interestingly, Cornelissen began her career as a linguist. She has a Masters degree in languages, but made the switch to finance in her early 30s, mainly because a Dutch bank in Germany was looking for someone who could speak three languages fluently. “They hired me with the comment that since I had gone to university, I was smart enough to learn the rest,” she laughs. She decided to give the job a chance because she had always been interested in finance.
Cornelissen completed an internal trainee programme with the bank to get up to speed and also did a lot of external training herself. She had the opportunity to move into treasury when a client of the bank, who needed in-house help to deliver on a cash management project, hired Cornelissen after a six-month secondment. She observes that the trend today is to move from banking to treasury – despite much movement in both directions historically – because the latter is considered to be “much safer” than the former.
Looking back, Cornelissen thinks that, even though she enjoyed studying languages, she probably would have studied in the financial discipline because of the many weekends over the years that it has taken to complete her financial education. “It would have been handy to have had more knowledge before I started,” she admits.
However, it is true that her language skills have proved to be a huge asset. “In my job at Aleris, it helps me tremendously. The company has a production site in Duffel, Belgium so I can speak Dutch with colleagues, but if I go to the production sites in Germany I can speak German. This is a huge advantage because communication is key. I have noticed quite often in my career that things don’t go well if there is a communication problem, and that can also be from misunderstanding or misinterpreting items if the language is not your native tongue.”
Today, Cornelissen is Director of Treasury Europe at Aleris, which is an aluminium producer with a proximate revenue of $2 billion in Europe. She also oversees the treasury function and supports the new set-up in Zhenjiang, China.
“From a daily perspective, it is a typical treasurer’s job,” she says. “I communicate with my banks and keep them happy. I have a small team to do the regular cash management items, such as the cash position and FX. We are responsible for the guarantee side, so ensuring that letters of credit (LCs) guarantees are issued on time and if necessary. Another part of the team is responsible for collections in Europe. Of course one of the main items remains cash forecasting.”
In treasury, Cornelissen has two employees reporting in to her, whereas for collections she has 15 people across Europe that work locally. She has dedicated one of the treasury team to work on the Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA). “It is a slow process but we are getting there,” she says.
She is also responsible for the liquidity in Europe, including inter-company financing, loan terms and bank agreements. “This is one job that I do myself because of the importance of liaising with the teams to make sure we have enough liquidity and are using it appropriately.”
Operating in China presents specific challenges. “It is difficult to get money into the country due to regulations or get money out if you need to repay inter-company items. And capital injections can take days,” she explains.
Although Aleris does not have an official mentoring programme, the finance team gets together to identify who needs mentoring and the best person to do the mentoring. Cornelissen believes that there is much to be learned from mentors, as well as having the support and help from others who have more experience in avoiding common pitfalls. “I personally think that many women could benefit from mentoring, because in my experience women are much more reluctant to promote themselves. Therefore, some coaching and support in how to present yourself and how to make your achievements known within the company could be a great benefit.”