‘To get to the top of the corporate ladder, requires hard work. But in working hard, do not neglect your health,’ is the advice of Latifah Mohamed Yusof, Treasurer at Astro Group. In this interview, she explains the importance of a strong work ethic in treasury and the challenges still facing women in the profession.
Latifah Mohamed Yusof
Latifah Yusof is Group Treasurer at Astro Group. Based in Kuala Lumpur, she is responsible for the group’s cash management operations and foreign exchange and interest rate exposures. She has played an instrumental role in managing the group’s financing requirements and was part of the key working groups for corporate exercises such as the company’s listing, credit ratings and privatisation.
She started her career at accountancy firm Coopers & Lybrand, located in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, before moving to Malaysian-based UMW Group, where she championed the set-up of an investment unit. She joined Astro Group in 1997, and has led its treasury group for 12 years.
Latifah holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Bath, UK and a CIMA Business Accounting Certificate. She is a member of the Harvard Business School Alumni Club of Malaysia and she recently became the Secretary for the Malaysian Association of Corporate Treasurers.
What is the biggest challenge you are facing now, as a corporate treasurer, and as a woman in a male-dominated sector?
Of course there are challenges in the economy, and the day-to-day work of the treasurer, but one factor that I’m really working hard to achieve right now is enhanced visibility in the boardroom and in meetings between business units. This is not a result of being a female treasurer, but more that treasury is still seen as a mere support unit and not part of the core business.
That said, I do believe that female treasurers need to work harder to stand out and be acknowledged by our superiors – not necessarily through any fault of our own, but because of legacy approaches to business.
Do you feel that women respond to the needs of treasury in the same way that men do – or do they bring something different?
Personally, I believe that women bring passion and empathy into the profession. We are perhaps more likely to guide our team members in mastering treasury skills than our male counterparts – in the same manner that we nurture our children. Also, women often seem to believe more strongly than men in the power of collaboration, not least when it comes to achieving the company’s goals – be it working in partnership with our internal or even external stakeholders, such as bankers and shareholders.
How much opportunity is there for career progression within your current role?
With sound experience and understanding in the treasury space, as well as a positive attitude and commitment towards taking on more challenges, I believe opportunities for career progression abound. When I joined Astro, I was just an associate with barely any specific experience in treasury – I’ve now been heading up the company’s treasury department for 12 years.
Balancing professional and family life is tricky – is the business world progressing in the right direction?
I absolutely agree that getting the right mix of personal and professional time is difficult. The good news is that awareness of this tricky balancing act is definitely more apparent among employers now than it used to be. As such, I believe the business world is progressing in the right direction in providing the relevant support systems for parents in the workplace. For example, the ability to continue to work from home and also to have flexi-hours has become more common in companies of all sizes. In bigger organisations, play schools and day-care centres are also made available.
Who or what is your greatest inspiration?
Without doubt, my family is my greatest inspiration. But I aspire to be a role model for successful career women and mothers – excellent at work and at home!
“Women often seem to believe more strongly than men in the power of collaboration, not least when it comes to achieving the company’s goals.”
Driven by a desire to leverage her university studies and the experience she had gained during her formative working years as an audit assistant, in 1997 Latifah embarked upon a career in corporate treasury at Astro, a leading integrated consumer media entertainment group in Malaysia. Describing the attraction of the treasury function, she says: “I see it as a stepping stone towards gaining a deeper appreciation of an organisation’s financial position as well as the financial markets.”
Working her way up through the treasury department at Astro, within just four years, Latifah was put in charge of the function. In her role as Treasurer, Latifah has an extremely varied remit, driven in large part by the dynamism of the business. Domestically, Astro has operations in four key areas of business, namely: pay-TV, radio, publications and digital media. Regionally, Astro Overseas Limited (AOL) is an investment holding company with investment portfolios mainly in India, China, the Middle East, Australia and South East Asia.
Latifah plays “an instrumental role in managing the group’s financing requirements, which includes participation in the key working groups for corporate exercises such as the company’s listing, credit ratings and privatisation.” Of course, cash management operations and the oversight of foreign exchange and interest rate exposures also fall under Latifah’s watchful eye.
“True equality is too idealistic, but it is not impossible to narrow gaps within a corporate organisation through structured functional and behavioural training programmes and job rotations.”
Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 2010, Latifah championed the implementation of SAP’s Treasury software in order to automate manual processes within the department. “During my time at Astro, I have also developed appropriate treasury policies, as well as surplus cash investments and a treasury risk management framework for the group,” she adds.
In many senses, Latifah’s career embodies what she believes is the best piece of professional advice that she’s ever been given: “To get to the top of the corporate ladder requires hard work. But in working hard, your health must not be neglected.”
Obviously progression in the treasury profession, just as in many other fields, requires a certain work ethic. But getting the right balance between handling the rigours of a career in corporate treasury and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can be a challenge, with the former often favoured at the expense of the latter. This is not the only difficult balance to strike in the corporate world. Inequalities in the workplace can be a significant barrier to certain groups, and Latifah believes there is still progress to be made here. “I believe true equality is too idealistic, but it is not impossible to narrow gaps within a corporate organisation through structured functional and behavioural training programmes and job rotations,” she says.
In many senses, equality is not the biggest challenge facing treasurers today. Many still struggle to even make themselves heard amid the cacophony of voices within the corporate environment. Latifah has a three-step plan to help enhance the treasurer’s visibility in the organisation. The first is setting up a treasury committee, comprising relevant members of the senior management, to oversee treasury activities. Ideally this committee would sit at least quarterly. “This way the treasurer has the platform to recommend ways to narrow gaps in the organisation that can affect treasury areas such as cash and foreign exchange management,” explains Latifah. She also recommends making components of the finance costs and income part of treasury’s KPIs, and finally, with endorsement from the management, that the treasurer supports or participates in treasury events and forums.
Latifah is by nature a forward-thinking person and she always has an eye on how she can improve the way she operates as a treasurer. The one tool she covets more than any other would be a mobile application that can store treasury-related positions and exposures and simulate upside or downside scenarios, “so that I don’t have to lug my laptop around everywhere,” she says.