Rising to the challenges thrown at her during the financial crisis in Greece, Marianna Polykrati, Group Treasurer, recently moved from Greek food conglomerate Vivartia to Chipita Group, which is a food company of Greek origin but with a strong international footprint.
Marianna Polykrati joined Chipita S.A., a confectionary company of Greek origin with a strong international footprint, as Group Treasurer in June 2013. Most recently she was Head of Group Treasury at Vivartia, which is one of Greece’s largest food and beverage groups, consisting of 125 companies. At Vivartia, she focused on strengthening cash and liquidity management, improving corporate financial management, investigating new capital markets funding, managing risk and controlling treasury operations. Prior to joining the Vivartia Group and working for the corporate side, Polykrati has worked for eight years in financial services. Her career started as an account officer for Emporiki Leasing (member of Credit Agricole Group), where her clients comprised of medium-sized Greek companies, ranging from small retail stores to large manufacturing plants; she then moved to Emporiki Venture Capital (member of Credit Agricole Group) as an investment manager, with responsibility for projects in Cyprus, Russia and distressed Greek companies. Her transition from the financial services to the corporate sector was initiated through the assignment of the role of deputy general manager in one of her distressed projects, Polychromo, a small printing unit in Greece and Romania, which was accomplished at Vivartia.
What is your career-defining moment?
The moment I decided to switch from the banking to the corporate side. I found it challenging at the time, but it proved invaluable in broadening my experience and knowledge.
Which women in business most inspire you and why?
I think that women who are in executive level positions and also have families are admirable. In Greece, those women are a minority – making up less than 10% of corporate executives. However, the fact that they are able to effectively handle a family and work at the same time inspires and motivates me.
What is the biggest challenge you are facing just now?
Managing and safeguarding the group’s purse is a challenge because of the difficult economic conditions in Greece. Bank funding in Greece is scarce, so most Greek companies are now tackling working capital management on a daily basis. Since Chipita has the majority of its business outside Greece, financing is not an issue; therefore treasury is focused in optimising the current debt capital structure and investigating different cash pooling methods.
What couldn’t you manage without?
Working with people that are both professional and show their human aspect is very important to me. I have been extremely lucky to date in that the people I report into and those that report into me are professional and their work is excellent, while at the same time they haven’t lost their human side in a business context.
What would you like to do more of in your job?
I like to work more globally, hence the move to Chipita, because there are so many things that can be engineered in treasury, in terms of banking and financing, trade finance and supplier finance, which are currently limited in the Greek market.
What advice would you give to other women in treasury?
Keep calm and be patient. Taking into consideration that there are few women in treasury positions, we have to keep calm because – due to their female nature – women are best equipped and quite resilient to handle the current difficult and stressful conditions.
If there is one thing you could have done differently in your career path so far, what would that be?
I consider myself lucky because I have worked with excellent people throughout my career. I have learned many lessons in previous jobs and I hope I will learn many more from future ones.
“Bank funding in Greece is scarce, so most Greek companies are now tackling working capital management on a daily basis.”
Marianna Polykrati has the difficult – some may say unenviable – job of protecting a Greek company’s balance sheet in extreme market conditions, which have not eased since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. It is a good thing that she thrives on challenges. She has recently made the move from Vivartia, a food production conglomerate brand in Greece, to Chipita Group, which is a food company of Greek origin but with a strong international footprint.
She began her career in 1996 in the banking sector, working for a Greek leasing company. After four years, she moved to a venture capitalist (VC) company within the same bank group and through the VC switched to corporate finance. Polykrati says that she has “never regretted nor looked back”. In hindsight, it was a good move at the right time because today the banking sector in Greece is quite weak, whereas the corporate sector has proved to be more resilient to the crisis.
The corporate side is also more interesting, with a unique set of challenges. “In treasury, we work as a partner with many business departments including production, distribution, marketing and sales, which allows us insight into the different sections of the company. In addition, we interact with the banking sector. As a treasurer you never really leave the banking sector, but you are a part of something that is much more intriguing and challenging.”
Polykrati’s day-to-day job as Group Treasurer at Vivartia had undergone a major transformation since the onset of the crisis. Pre-crisis, when there was a lot of available credit, treasury was not overly focused on cash management because food production conglomerate Vivartia had excess cash. In addition, the company’s large size meant it could help support its suppliers’ and clients’ credit terms. The company had no problems accessing credit and financing its working capital. “We were offered facilities by both Greek and international banks – up until 2010 we had a lot of loan syndication with foreign banks,” she says.
Although the crisis started in September 2008, Greece was more affected in late 2009. Vivartia was one of the last corporates to feel the impact – this happened in mid-2010. Treasury had to reorient its activities because credit became more difficult to obtain; as a result it began renegotiating terms with both clients and suppliers in order to improve its working capital cycle.
At the same time it focused much more on cash management. “We started really working on our cash flows,” says Polykrati. “Previously, we looked more at indirect cash flow methods. Since 2010, and especially 2011 and 2012, we focused on direct cash flow reporting and implemented an in-depth analysis of our actual trend year-to-year. Every month we do a rolling forecast for the remainder of the year.”
Vivartia has 95% of its operations in Greece, with very few exports but some of its suppliers sit outside the country. “Within the country, consumption is falling and unemployment is rising, and with bank funding almost non-existent we have to tackle working capital on a daily basis. We are tackling payments almost like cash-on-delivery (COD). All of these areas are very challenging right now in order to cope with daily cash flows in Greece,” says Polykrati. Insurance companies still don’t insure receivables that are 100% based in Greece, which is another big issue for treasury.
Chipita, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Due to its international presence, with the majority of its operations outside Greece, the Greek crisis has only remotely impacted the group’s operations compared to other Greek companies. Hence for treasury, funding is not the major issue; instead it is split between optimising the current debt structure and tapping into alternative capital and debt markets, while at the same time proactively strengthening cash management in each country and assessing cash pooling methods, as well as monitoring foreign exchange (FX) risks.
Although a number of networking groups have cropped up in Greece specifically to promote a more optimistic view of the market environment and develop new business initiatives, there are currently no organisations that are looking specifically at women and the challenges they face. Polykrati believes that it would be a good idea to create networks of women because they have a greater propensity to be able to handle the current difficult and stressful market conditions by developing creative solutions.
On an individual company basis, a corporate mentoring programme could also help promote new ideas and ways of thinking. More importantly, it could put in place a pipeline of female treasury professionals that could help change the gender balance from the bottom up to the executive level – in Greece less than one in ten Executive Board members are women. Polykrati believes this will prove to be a better solution than a quota system. “I don’t understand why you should have a quota for something that should be self-explanatory. If you have a quota for the Board but you don’t have one in the lower echelons of the organisation, then I don’t believe it will make a difference. If you don’t have women at executive levels, then the women on the Board will not have the necessary experience.”
In terms of career development, Polykrati believes that there is a role for both on-the-job training and professional qualifications. “There are always things you can gain with professional training that you can’t find on the job. However, for me it is more preferable that junior staff have on-the-job training because when they come out of school they usually lack experience as to how things work in the real world. Better to have on-the-job experience at the start, and then as you go on have more training outside the job.”