“If you’re going to do something, do it right,” says Shelly Maneth, CFO at technology startup ConneXionsAsia. Here she explains how her ‘never regret’ attitude not only brought her from the US to Singapore, but also drives the way she manages the development of CXA’s finance function.
Shelly Maneth is the CFO of ConneXionsAsia (CXA), an employee benefits start-up based in Singapore. In addition to building a Regional Finance team with scalable systems and processes as well as supporting the integration of the Pan Group, Singapore’s largest home grown broker and a recent acquisition for CXA, Shelly also manages investor funding for the development and expansion of CXA throughout the region.
Shelly’s career spans 22 years, with 20 of those in the Asia Pacific region. During her career, she has taken on a variety of senior regional finance roles for multinational companies such as Cisco Systems, Sony Pictures Entertainment, PropertyGuru.com, Deloitte, Oliver Wyman and most recently AT Kearney.
Shelly is a US CPA, holding two degrees – BS in Accounting and Business Administration from University of Kansas. She is particularly passionate about education and has served on Boards and Audit Committees of various international schools in Singapore including United World College of South East Asia and the German European School of Singapore.
Do you feel that women respond to the needs of treasury in the same way that men do?
No, I believe that naturally men and women will respond to almost anything differently; it’s simply in our DNA. In general, unless a man’s EQ is quite high, men tend to adopt a more direct approach when it comes to finance/treasury decisions while women tend to adopt a more inquisitive and lateral approach. Ultimately, we will more than likely reach a similar conclusion, but our approach can be quite different.
Balancing professional and family life is tricky – is the business world progressing in the right direction?
This balance between professional and family life is becoming more challenging for both men and women. Traditionally, it has been the woman’s role to manage the family and if she could balance her career while doing that, she was a Super Woman. This traditional role for women still exists today. However, in companies and cultures where the equality gap between men and women is narrowing, roles and responsibilities have changed or have been forced to recalibrate, especially in dual-income households – although, admittedly, the woman still carries a disproportionate amount of the responsibilities!
What is the biggest challenge you are facing now, as a woman in a male-dominated sector?
Some of the business sectors I have worked in tend to be male-dominated, such as technology and consulting. I handled it by ignoring the gender aspect of my role. I truly believe the best qualified, most competent person should fill a role, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and so on. I respect gender differences, but in the Finance sector, my view is gender has little bearing on performance or effectiveness, as long as the management and culture of a company truly support hiring the best qualified people for a role.
Do you see a day when we will have true equality in the workplace, at all levels?
Honestly, and sadly, not in my lifetime. I believe equality in the workplace is improving, but even in the most progressive countries, companies or cultures, there is still inequality on a variety of levels. However, this does not stop me from removing inequality within the organisations I work in, or in how I interact with others.
In pure treasury terms, which regulatory initiative is currently the biggest concern for you right now?
Having joined a start-up, my biggest concern in treasury regulation is currently dictated largely by investors in our company – whether locally or overseas. Having said that, and having worked with MNC’s historically, a treasury regulation I find truly over-the-top is the US Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). It would behove the US Department of Treasury and the IRS to spend time with their counterparts in Singapore to understand the efficiency and simplification, yet transparency, Singapore achieves with much less administration and onus.
“It would behove the US Department of Treasury and the IRS to spend time with their counterparts in Singapore to understand the efficiency and simplification, yet transparency, Singapore achieves with much less administration.”
“Finance and accounting was a natural path for me,” says Shelly Maneth, CFO of Singapore-based employee benefits start-up, ConneXionsAsia (CXA). She may admit to being a “stereotypical accountant” to whom numbers come easy, but she feels her true strength lies with problem-solving and organisational management. Thus it is after more than 20 years working for firms such as Deloitte, Cisco Systems, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Oliver Wyman, AT Kearney and, currently CXA, she proclaims that “I couldn’t be happier with my career choice”. And there is still “immense opportunity” for career progression. Indeed, she notes, as part of a progressive start-up “infinite possibilities will avail themselves”.
Positioning oneself to take advantage of such a broad scope requires a broad outlook. To this effect, Shelly considers some of the best advice she ever received was from an unexpected source. “My husband and I were so focused on the arrival of our first child that during one of our last appointments prior to the birth, our doctor stopped our conversation and said: ‘You know, the birth is a moment in time. Whilst it is important, you should focus on your life as parents because this will last a lifetime.’” At first hearing this sounds far removed from career advice, but it does translate easily to Shelly’s professional life. “When a key decision is being discussed, I look hard at the foundation on which that decision will be supported, because that foundation will need to support that decision for a ‘lifetime’.”
Of course, the doctor’s advice still holds true as a parent; a role which can sometimes be very difficult to balance with professional life. In the Maneth household, Shelly and her husband have agreed both will be ‘involved’ parents, sharing the responsibilities for raising their children and managing the household. Much of the ability to balance life for many working parents, she feels, can be attributed to the adoption of technology. “In today’s world, regardless of your role, there’s more flexibility in terms of where and when we work. Technology, though, has also forced a change within traditional family roles, including our children’s, who are now expected to be a bit more independent and knowledgeable of the world around them than I was at their age.”
In her professional life, perhaps one of the most useful ‘tools’ Shelly would like is access to a simplified, common banking platform (as would most treasurers). Relationships with multiple banks, for example, typically means multiple login tokens. “Often the bank has to spend at least a couple of hours supporting your understanding of how their platform works. Then, as your needs or organisational structure change, you have multiple systems to update. This all seems unnecessarily challenging.”
Of course, challenges are par for the course at the executive end of the corporate finance spectrum. With Shelly currently building the foundation of finance at CXA, having the opportunity to set it all in motion is a lot easier working alongside “incredibly talented and smart team members”. The set-up is not without its challenges, though still “exhilarating”. Having worked in a male-dominated role such as treasury as well as male dominated sectors such as IT and consultancy, Shelly has learnt to “ignore the gender aspect” and instead focus on her own belief that the best qualified, most competent person should fill a role, regardless of factors such as gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. CXA has a diverse management team, led by Founder and CEO, Rosaline Koo, and together they have cultivated “a great working environment, with minimal politics and bureaucracy”.
When everyone is allowed their voice, treasury and finance is heard throughout the organisation. But Shelly knows this is not the case everywhere. “Treasury and finance people need to be able to clearly articulate the value of their role to the wider business, not necessarily by beating it into peoples’ heads, rather making poignant statements subtly.” With the common perception that treasury and finance are ‘cost centres’, she often takes the opportunity, in routine conversations or presentations “to sneak in a finance achievement that would otherwise be unknown to the organisation”. Key to this is the art of establishing and maintaining relationships outside of the finance team, moving out of one’s comfort zone and understanding other departments or facets of the business. “Basically, get out there and talk to people in your organisation!”
This sounds like a motto for Shelly but her guiding principles continue to evolve over the years. “Growing up, my father instilled in my siblings and me that ‘if you’re going to do something, do it right’. In my mid-20s to mid-30s, I lived to ‘never regret’ which is what brought me to Singapore. And whilst I still live by those two principles, I now strive to be ‘respectfully genuine’ in everything that I do.” Inspiration, she adds, comes from living life “with an open heart, open eyes and an open mind, with my husband, children, parents and friends integral to the fabric of my being”.