As a finance professional in the logistics sector, Helen Toh progressed on a circuitous route before arriving in treasury and assuming the role of Treasury Director, Corporate Finance for Deutsche Post DHL’s Regional Treasury Asia Pacific office in Singapore. In this interview, she talks about treasury’s position as a ‘niche area’, and the challenges around global visibility and access to cash in a far-reaching business.
Treasury Director, Corporate Finance, Regional Treasury Asia Pacific
Helen Toh is the Treasury Director in Corporate Finance for Deutsche Post DHL Regional Treasury Asia Pacific. Based in Singapore, Helen is responsible for the management of foreign exchange risk of DPDHL Asia Pacific subsidiaries; this includes the centralisation of balance sheet and planned subsidiary risks at a group level, implementation of eFX solutions for spot FX transactions at a subsidiary and regional level which creates process improvement and greater transparency on FX deals, and providing guidance and support to commercial management on FX issues in customer contracts for margin protection. Helen also focuses on Corporate Finance issues including reviewing the appropriate debt and equity mix at a subsidiary level and driving where appropriate, the repatriation of subsidiary profits to the group via dividends. Helen has been working for DPDHL for 15 years, and has worked mainly in the finance organisation in various business divisions. She started her career in DHL as a credit control executive taking care of customer credit management and subsequently moved to a role providing regional billing solutions and implementation for DHL’s top 100 customers in the region prior to joining treasury. Helen holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from National University of Singapore. She is an avid runner and is passionate about motivating and coaching individuals who take to running for interest or health reasons. She also serves as treasurer at a faith-based charity, HOPE Worldwide, founded in Singapore.
Do you feel that women respond to the needs of treasury and finance in the same way that men do – or do they bring something different?
Generally, I feel that women’s strength lies in their drive to want to do well in their jobs. Women are often more meticulous and pay attention to details which bring a lot of clarity to the figures we handle in Treasury. Women also tend to be better at data preparation and analysis whereas men’s strength often lies in data presentation, though in some cases, both roles can be switched.
Balancing professional and family life is tricky – is the business world progressing in the right direction?
Balancing work and family life continues to be a conflict for working mothers. Although we are seeing more work/life balance in the corporate world today, women, especially in Asia, are sometimes hesitant to put family over work and often sacrifice family time in order to complete work obligations.
Do you see a day when we will have true equality in the workplace – at all levels?
I believe the day will come. We are already seeing it at middle management level where the new generation of women in the workforce has proven to be highly educated, more capable and more outspoken.
What is the biggest challenge you are facing now as a woman in a male-dominated sector?
I feel that women frequently underestimate what we can actually do and contribute. Often, we are able to offer more than we imagine. However, we lack self-confidence even though we are a hardworking lot. We believe that we must consistently strive to show the value that we can deliver in the space we are in. I am fortunate to have a manager who is very open, shares knowledge generously and values my work. In addition, Deutsche Post DHL is very committed to promoting equality in the workplace. Recently, we launched the DHL Women’s Network in Asia Pacific which brings together colleagues – men and women alike – in a community online and offline, to inform and inspire through leadership topics and is another step in our pursuit to advance women to the highest levels of leadership.
What is your greatest inspiration in life?
My greatest inspiration is my husband and my three children, being there for them and being a part of their journey through life.
“Recently, we launched the DHL Women’s Network in Asia Pacific which brings together colleagues – men and women alike – in a community online and offline.”
As a finance professional in the logistics sector, it seems appropriate that the career of Helen Toh progressed on a circuitous route before she arrived in treasury and assumed the role of Treasury Director, Corporate Finance for Deutsche Post DHL’s Regional Treasury Asia Pacific office in Singapore.
Helen, a graduate in business administration from the National University of Singapore, joined DHL back in 1998. She made her mark in a number of different business divisions, taking on a roster of finance roles that included Credit Control Team Leader and Regional Cost Control Team Leader. Prior to joining treasury, she was to be found developing and implementing centralised billing solutions for regional customers in her remit as Regional Billing and Credit Manager. “This role put me in touch with the Regional Treasury team; my first encounter with treasury piqued my interest,” she explains.
Describing treasury as a niche area, “very different from the usual finance operations”, Helen, undaunted by the prospect, spotted an opportunity in May 2007 to transfer her skills within the organisation. She would bring with her a unique perspective and understanding of the organisation’s wider finance function which has since served her well in her work at the company’s Regional Treasury Centre Asia Pacific. “The scope in treasury is very wide and while I am already in my seventh year in the profession, I am still picking up new knowledge every day,” she notes.
It is the “continuous learning environment as well as a great team” that keeps Helen’s professional inspiration fresh. But she knows too that within Deutsche Post DHL there are always opportunities for career progression, be it within or outside Treasury, globally or across Asia Pacific. Not least of the reasons for this is because of the sheer geographic scope of treasury in the firm’s Asia Pacific function, extending as it does to some 41 countries.
However, this broad sweep of the region has a more immediate impact on Helen’s work. “It means that we are continuously impacted by central banks and tax regulations,” she notes. Naturally, with such diversity, it is not always plain sailing ahead. “These regulations sometimes hamper the deployment of our in-house banking platform and the repatriation and deployment of trapped cash from highly regulated economies.” But treasurers are a valuable resource within any business when it comes to tackling issues such as regulatory impact and risk management. It is a good reason why Helen is adamant that the profession must maintain and even increase the strength of its voice within business.
Within many organisations, whilst there will be policies and guidelines to deal with risk, treasurers have a duty to “exercise flexibility” in their approach to management. “Our focus should also be highlighting and managing risk for the benefit of the business; we should not be the controllers or the policemen, but we can support the business in new initiatives and use every opportunity to bring value by applying business intelligence to the data and numbers we see every day.” In fact, the core reason for setting up the Regional Treasury Centre in Asia Pacific was that it could serve as the key contact for all treasury and corporate finance matters for the business, divisions and countries in Asia Pacific. As Helen says, “being close to the business is very important”.
As a corporate treasurer operating in a necessarily far-reaching business, the biggest challenge faced by Helen and her team is around global visibility and access to cash held locally in all the subsidiaries worldwide. With different sets of regulations in force in each jurisdiction, she acknowledges that it is a continual demand to maintain that visibility and access to cash in each country. “Within Deutsche Post DHL, we make great use of treasury tools,” she says.
The company has rolled out many solutions such as in-house banking, a cash pooling structure, centralised FX management, a payment factory, SWIFT gateway and electronic FX management. As part of its quest for clarity, Deutsche Post DHL is aiming high. “Ideally we would like 100% visibility over cash, bank guarantees and other financial exposures of our subsidiaries on a real-time basis – and at a click of a button.” In a perfect world, Helen continues, it would not only be able to bring on board mature markets like Singapore and Tokyo, but also exotic geographies such as Xi’an in the Shaanxi province of China or Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It is satisfying for Helen being a trusted source of information and advice for the whole regional finance function of a major multinational, but when it comes to career moves and personal growth, she has some equally solid words of wisdom to impart. “My best advice is not to give up, no matter how difficult the project is,” she says. In fact, she appreciates colleagues who add value to their work by taking on any project that comes their way – even if it is difficult or has been shunned by others – not least because that knowledge stays with them forever. “If they share their knowledge generously and continue to progress steadfastly in their career, they contribute value to their team, achieving deeper fulfilment in their own work,” she explains. For Helen, nowhere is this better summed up than in the old saying “the more you give, the more you receive”. For a treasurer in logistics, this somehow seems appropriate too.