Ping Chen traded in her aerospace engineer training for a career in corporate treasury. Seeing how international treasury adds a tangible value to business operations validates the change she made in her career.
Director, International Treasury
Ping Chen is Director of International Treasury at Pfizer. She manages capital structure planning, financing, liquidity, financial risk and cash management for Pfizer’s subsidiaries in Asia. Chen has worked in the banking industry providing financial services to multinational corporate clients. She holds a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree from Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from New York University.
What is your career-defining moment?
The moment I made the switch from aerospace engineering to finance. Seeing how international treasury adds a tangible value to our business operations validates the change I made in my career.
Which women in business most inspire you and why?
Two women that I have worked with immediately spring to mind as inspirations: Camilla Uden, Treasurer at Zoetis, and Cecile Guegan, Vice President Finance Oncology at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. Uden is inspiring because of her integrity, deep knowledge and strategic insights into the business operations; as my mentor, Guegan showed me how a non-American can make a successful career in a US MNC.
What is the biggest challenge you are facing just now?
Overseeing Pfizer’s operations in 15 Asian countries from the US. There are many different regulatory constraints in this region and continual changes. I have to make sure I am on top of everything so that our businesses have the support needed to thrive.
What couldn’t you manage without?
I couldn’t be without the support and mentoring from our treasury leadership, for example Neal Masia, Bob Landry and before them, Richard Passov. They provide me with strategic guidance and inspire me to expand my business acumen.
What is your next major objective?
We are looking into setting up an Asia regional treasury centre (RTC) to provide timely support in the region. In addition, we are focused on retaining talent, which has traditionally been quite difficult in Asia as there is strong demand for talent and usually a high turnover rate. We want to create a culture where employees are motivated, inspired and have a career path within Pfizer.
What advice would you give to other women in treasury?
Find your passion, strengths and unique skill set at an early stage in your career. Once you have established your career, then build up your networks, share knowledge with your peers and benchmark your performance against the best in the industry.
If there is one thing you could have done differently in your career path so far, what would that be?
I wish I had found my passion earlier and followed a more linear path to where I am now. But, then again, my training in science and engineering increases my logical thinking and analytical skills, so it definitely has not been wasted.
“When you find your passion and what you really like to do, you will continue moving forward.”
Although many corporate treasurers take unusual paths into the profession, switching from aerospace engineering to treasury puts Pfizer’s Director of International Treasury, Ping Chen, in a class of her own. The scientific method and logical thinking she employed when transforming the company’s treasury structure across the region is part of what won Pfizer the Asia Pacific Regional Award for Best Practice at the Adam Smith Awards this year.
Chen was following somewhat in her father’s footsteps (he was a battleship designer) when she began her undergraduate degree majoring in aerospace engineering in China and then received a scholarship to continue her studies in the US. Following two years analysing production data for a petroleum company in Houston, Texas, she got her first job on Wall Street working for a major global investment bank designing their currency and commodity trading systems.
“I was intrigued by capital market activities, the way the market moved and how it was possible to develop mathematical models to gain a deeper understanding,” says Chen. The bank sponsored her MBA (at night) at NYU, which she completed in three years. “I realised then that my passion lay in finance and I was determined to move to the investment banking side,” she explains.
She moved to the banking side and worked for two large banks in the capital markets arena. At that time, Pfizer treasury was one of the bank’s clients and she saw how her skillset worked better and contributed more on the client side.
“Finance is something I like and am good at, which really prompted me to make the switch,” says Chen. “What attracts me is the dynamism of the capital markets, where every day you could be dealing with something completely different. It is always evolving and is very powerful, especially in the US which is the centre of the global financial markets.”
The corporate side is where she could observe how financial positions are implemented and the change that the business experiences as it grows. “It fits my personality as well – I enjoy working on products, not just selling them. I want to see the process implemented and the result – and have ownership of the project.” She gives the example of the major project she is currently working on at Pfizer. “In Asia we embarked on a seven-year project to centralise the transactional treasury activities – and to date we have implemented the project, which is cross-division, cross-function and cross-region, in four countries. I have been able to see the solution implemented country-by-country and see how international treasury adds a tangible value to our business operations. That satisfaction I don’t think I can get anywhere else.”
As Director of International Treasury, on a day-to-day basis Chen oversees 15 countries in the Asia Pacific region. She develops and implements treasury strategy, including the subsidiaries’ capital structures, oversees cash management, hedging foreign exchange (FX) and financial risk exposure, through to managing all intracompany financing activities.
Much of what she knows, Chen learned on the job, especially in a field where the market changes so much. “I learned the basic foundations during the MBA, but to really add value to your business you have to learn from the market. The daily activities you perform with your peers and the interactions you have with your mentors is where you get new ideas and develop,” says Chen. “That is why I feel that when you find your passion and what you really like to do, you will continue moving forward.”
Pfizer has a formal mentoring programme available to all employees as well as a special subset of the programme for women mentor/mentee programme, which Chen believes works very well. She met Cecile Guegan, Vice President Finance Oncology at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, through the formal programme. They decided to continue the mentor/mentee relationship after the formal programme ended and meet at least once every other month.
“I think that it is excellent that the company has this kind of supporting infrastructure to give people career aspirations,” says Chen. “Cecile and I found a mutual benefit, which is why we continued on with the relationship outside of the formal programme.”
Mentoring and other support programmes are better ways to encourage women in treasury, she believes, than legislating a quota for women, something that has been discussed in Europe to increase the number of female Board members. “Pfizer is doing a great job – it is building the infrastructure through female mentor/mentee programmes. If we can leverage the infrastructure established in our company, for example, we could be on our way to improving diversity within the industry. It might take a while, but eventually we will get to where we want to be.
“A pipeline of women coming into the profession is important, and if you have the infrastructure you will develop the pipeline. But it has to be a merit-based system. If you are good, you will reach the top,” Chen says.