Women in Treasury

Women in Treasury: Sophia Porcelli, AkzoNobel

Published: Jan 2013
Sophia Porcelli, Director Treasury, Asia Pacific, AkzoNobel

This much I know

The challenging global economic situation is also a great opportunity to thrive, says Sophia Porcelli, Director Treasury, Asia Pacific, AkzoNobel.

Sophia Porcelli

Director Treasury, Asia Pacific

Sophia Porcelli is the Director Treasury Asia Pacific for AkzoNobel, the world’s largest global paints and coatings company, and a leader in specialty chemicals. Sophia was born in Hong Kong and educated in the UK. During her tenure with the company, Sophia has worked in various regional and global financial roles on several international assignments. Taking on diverse posts across both emerging and mature markets has given Sophia variety in her work and makes her a seasoned financial professional. She believes that career progression and success comes from being customer focused, clear about what you want and ensuring there is balance in your life. Sophia shares her passion for cooking and travel with her French-born Italian South African husband.

What is your career defining moment?

There have been several exciting challenges but the most recent was the opportunity to move into treasury without a specialised treasury background. Apart from the valuable chance to learn, it opened a whole new discipline up to me while continuing to engage businesses internally. Plus, now I work with people outside the company and have expanded my external peer network cross industries.

Which women in business most inspire you and why?

Women that contribute beyond their own expert function and are leaders in a wider corporate or community context. These women give more than their technical knowledge and concentrate their passion, energy and drive on helping others.

What is the biggest challenge you are facing just now?

Part of treasury’s challenge is to understand the business environment. In AkzoNobel, we like to position ourselves as close partners with the businesses. That creates a window conducive for cross-learning: we can learn more about the businesses and at the same time share our knowledge on treasury products and services. The challenge is to cultivate cross-learning whilst embracing change and delivering sustainable benefits at the same time.

The other challenge is the global economic situation, so treasury needs to be mindful of external risks. We are based in an emerging market with pockets of good news, which we need to capitalise on. Change is constant and that gives us greater opportunity to thrive.

What couldn’t you manage without?

The first thing that comes to mind is being part of a supportive and diverse team in the workplace. To work with collaborative colleagues and learn from each other is fantastic.

What advice would you give to other women in treasury?

Be clear about why you are in treasury – that means understanding your own contribution to the discipline, your team and vice versa. It’s not always explicit. And you should have one eye out for the next move. Be in control of your career development is my advice.

If there is one thing you could have done differently in your career path so far, what would that be?

I have thought long and hard on this question, but I can’t think of anything. If you are asking whether if I had to replay what I did, would I do the same? Yes, I would, absolutely.

“I had the opportunity to visit different parts of the company, talk to all levels of management and see best practices first hand.”

Sophia Porcelli has been involved with the transformation of AkzoNobel’s Asian treasury operations as an integral part of the group’s mandate. This includes implementing new treasury platforms, setting up a shared service centre starting with payment factory and streamlining the number of banking partners.

“We are on a journey,” she says. “We have increasing visibility and control over our treasury processes and liquidity.” With the technical design established, treasury is now on-boarding business units in a phased manner in order to operate more centrally using standardised tools and processes and realise cost savings.

The other exciting part of the journey has been building the treasury team. “When I first returned to Singapore in mid-2009, I was the only one here and today we have eight people. In addition, the team in China has grown from two to six,” Porcelli explains. “We went through a recruitment drive, partly to staff the new operating model, but also to gain more expertise in the team to serve our growing businesses.” She herself chose treasury after an internal audit role because it allows room to grow in terms of knowledge and also greater interaction with business, especially at senior management level, both in and outside the company. She considers this key to being a seasoned finance professional.

Porcelli began her career with a Big Four audit practice in London. After qualifying as a chartered accountant, she was recruited by Courtaulds, a former UK listed manufacturer of coatings and chemicals, now part of AkzoNobel, to work as an internal financial consultant. This meant being a global trotter filling in temporary vacant financial positions in the group and working as an extra pair of hands for specific projects.

“This proved to be an excellent entry point from the Big Four into the corporate world,” says Porcelli. “It was fun to travel up to a few months at a time. I gained a lot of exposure and attracted the interest of different people within the organisation.”

Courtaulds’ development programme involved recruiting people and then placing them into more permanent “proper jobs”. At the end of an 18-month stint, Porcelli was offered a regional finance manager position based in Singapore. In that role, she worked on financial consolidation and also led an ERP implementation project. This led to her next position of heading the internal audit team. She cautions, however, that moving around as a female lead spouse has its challenges as well as rewards, and this is something young women looking for international careers need to consider.

At that time AkzoNobel, a Dutch-owned company, acquired Courtaulds. “I was in a great position, leading a growing young talented team. I had the opportunity to visit different parts of the company, engage all levels of management and see best practices first hand. I even visited selective customers. As AkzoNobel has a diverse business portfolio, such cross-business unit exposure is invaluable,” says Porcelli. “In 2007 I was offered a job in treasury, based in the Netherlands, and I took it.”

Porcelli identifies the move into treasury as a career defining moment. She also values being able to move around in different positions within a multinational company. “I really encourage employees and hiring managers, in whatever function, to maximise that,” she says. “Being in different work settings meant the need to adapt, overcome challenges and develop attributes. It is enriching.”

Career development is an important focus for Porcelli. She encourages people to find their own mentors, within the company or outside of it. “I think the relationship (internal versus external mentors) could be different and I have been fortunate to have both at different stages of my career,” she says. “It is important to have someone you are comfortable with but who challenges your line of thinking. They should be able to give you a different perspective that you are not able to see for yourself.” She points out that the strongest mentor-mentee relationship is one of mutual benefit and perspective sharing.

When asked where to find a mentor, she suggests looking for people that you aspire to be, not necessarily from the corporate world, and then be “thick skinned and just ask them”. “Compare where you are and where they are – and work out what needs to be done in order to get there,” she explains.

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