According to Lelaina Lim, to work in treasury you need to be both “brave and firm”. Brave because today’s world throws up changes incredibly quickly; and firm because you need to do what you have to do for the company’s best interests, “which is not always easy”. Lim exemplifies both attributes.
Chief Financing Officer
Lelaina Lim has more than 30 years of financial and accounting experience in various commercial sectors with a strong track record reinforced by regional exposure in China and the ASEAN countries. After receiving her Bachelor of Accountancy from the National University of Singapore in 1983, Lim joined Ernst & Young (E&Y) as an auditor, specialising in oil and gas. When she received her Certified Public Accountant (CPA) from the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Singapore (ICPAS), she moved to Trans-Island Bus Services (TIBS), a public bus transport operator in Singapore. In 1989 Lim joined Oakwell Engineering, an oil and gas company, as Senior Accountant. She worked there for 11 years and moved to Finance Manager and then Regional Controller. In 2000 she joined another oil and gas company, GRP Limited, to sort out their non-performing loan (NPL) status. In 2003 Lim was headhunted to join International SOS (ISOS), a medical evacuation company, based in Shanghai. After three years, she left ISOS to become Financial Director for a US company called Electronic Arts (EA), a gaming company which wanted to go into online gaming in China. In 2008, Lim returned to Singapore to join RSH as CFO.
What is your career-defining moment?
The day I decided to move to Shanghai to head up the Greater China operations for International SOS (ISOS), a provider of medical emergency services. I think that was the hardest decision to make, but it made a massive impact on my career.
Which women in business most inspire you and why?
Olivia Lum, Group CEO at the water management company, Hyflux, is a remarkable woman. She grew up orphaned in Malaysia and then came to Singapore. She has achieved so much and is very successful – she won the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year in 2011.
What is the biggest challenge you are facing just now?
Not in work, per se, but the general public’s acceptance of gender diversity in the boardroom. Singapore has one of the lowest percentages of women as Board members – only making up 7.1% of listed companies’ Boards in 2011.
What couldn’t you manage without?
Definitely my laptop and BlackBerry – I must have connectivity. Also, daily FX rates; if I don’t know what the current exchange rates are, I get very nervous. For me it is akin to missing breakfast.
What is your next major objective?
Succession planning is something that is uppermost in my mind. I am 52, and although retirement is still a way off, it is a good time to start planning for the next person to power up into my position. I would view myself as being successful if I can get someone ready for when I have to move on.
What advice would you give to other women in treasury and finance?
In treasury you need to be brave and firm: brave because today’s world throws up changes incredibly quickly; firm because you need to do what you have to do for the company’s best interests, which is not always easy. Finance, on the other hand, needs steady hands and back up, whether that is from your boss, banks or several key players on the team.
If there is one thing you could have done differently in your career path so far, what would that be?
Wind back the clock ten years and I might have moved into operations, which I have always found interesting. Effectively using my financial background, knowledge and ability but on the operations side.
“In a crisis, you need to remember that cash is king.”
Celebrating 30 years in finance and accounting, Lelaina Lim has had a fascinating career, culminating in her current role as Group CFO of RSH Limited, the single largest retail company in Singapore with more than 100 shops and operating regionally in ten countries. However, immediately after she joined RSH, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the global financial crisis ensued.
In 2008-2009, RSH was in the midst of expansion into Dubai, with a commitment to open 25 shops in the newly-completed Dubai Mall. Lim proposed a multi-prong strategy to tackle operations in a new economic paradigm. “In a crisis, you need to remember that cash is king. In order to have more cash, we shortened our credit period, reduced inventory and marked down some items, to encourage people to buy even though the economic situation was quite dire,” explains Lim.
RSH’s shareholders went through a difficult period due to Dubai World’s debt problems in 2009, which saw the banks pull back credit lines. As a result, the company tightened its expansion plans and returned to its core business strategy. “In 2009 we worked with our banks to make sure our FX exposure was limited, because currencies were fluctuating wildly and our FX exposure is quite high on a monthly basis,” Lim says. The shareholders decided to change RSH from a listed company to a private one, so at the end of 2009 and in early 2010, Lim worked on delisting RSH from the Singapore Stock Exchange (SGX). This occurred in 2010, and in 2011 new shareholders came in to buy out part of the existing shareholders’ equity. This deal was completed in March 2012 and RSH is now part of the Al Futtaim Group, which also owns the Robinsons Group.
Lim outlines four “hot topics” she is working on today:
Tax planning, which has grown in importance because of complex and ever changing cross-border tax regulations, especially in South-East Asia.
Intellectual property (IP) rights and ensuring that the company has IP protection for its strong brands. IP rights are “intangibles” that the company wants to protect for many years to come.
IT and data protection: ensuring the data is secure but also that there is a single instance of the truth. Since Lim joined, RSH has spent much more money on IT because she believes that “if you have a good set of data and analyse the data properly, then you probably can earn more money than you otherwise would.”
Risk management and ensuring that RSH is sufficiently insured in terms of assets and material operations.
In relation to the fourth point, Lim gives the example of the 2010 Bangkok riots. RSH had a few shops in the mall where the riots took place. When the Thai government announced the riots were perpetrated by “terrorists”, then the insurance companies could claim existing policies did not cover terrorist activity. “Because of Bangkok, we started to look at insurance in a very different way. I have started implementing a global insurance policy that covers us as much as possible for every foreseeable risk.”
Her move to RSH followed a five-year stint in China. In 2003 Lim was headhunted to join International SOS (ISOS), a medical evacuation company, as Regional Financial Controller to head up ISOS’ China business based in Shanghai. “I took the opportunity to move to China because I thought it was a now or never situation to move out of my comfort zone in Singapore.” ISOS was very different from her previous financial experience in the oil and gas industry, so the learning curve was steep – coupled with the fact that her move coincided with the after-effect of the SARS epidemic. “The business was not performing well because people were afraid to go to the clinic as a result of SARS,” she explains. But she decided that since she was there she had to make the most of it and ensure the company made money.
Therefore, together with the General Manager and several doctors in Shanghai, they revamped the business model and collection process, effectively managed to turn the company from a big loss-making to a profit-making company, with positive cash flow and receivable turnover reduced from 350 days down to 120 days – in just two years. “It was hard and people thought I was very harsh,” says Lim. “But after two years people realised that it was a do-or-die situation. A business that doesn’t collect cash can’t survive.” The company continued to grow up to 40% every year, which was quite common in China in the early days because of the sheer number of people needing services.
After three years, Lim was approached to create a new set-up in China for a US company called Electronic Arts (EA), a gaming company which wanted to go into online gaming in China because of the growing market potential. She joined as Financial Director to oversee government tax incentive applications, drive electronic payments (e-payments) and online wallets, and to partner with a local Chinese game company to integrate their already large membership. In 2008, Lim was contacted by a headhunter to see if she wanted to return to Singapore to join RSH as CFO. “Maybe it was fate, but at the same time my father fell ill, so I took the opportunity to come home to be with him,” she says.