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Women in Treasury: Yang Xu, Kraft Heinz

Published: Jul 2019

Yang Xu, VP & Global Treasurer, Kraft Heinz

This much I know

Yang Xu, VP & Global Treasurer at Kraft Heinz explains to Treasury Today why it’s so important to opt for the harder career choices and have a set of values to define one’s personal and professional life.

Yang Xu

VP & Global Treasurer

Kraft Heinz logo

Yang Xu is the Vice President and Global Treasurer of Kraft Heinz, a US$26bn publicly listed global food company. Having worked in various roles across treasury, M&A, strategy, finance, sales and marketing and operations in many different countries, Yang believes the best treasury professionals drive value through business partnership and cross functional acumen, and differentiate by defining and delivering the optimal capital structure of a company. Yang holds a Masters degree of Business Administration from HEC School of Paris and London Business School, and is a native of China.

How did you arrive in your current position?

I studied finance for many years. After my MBA, I started my career with Whirlpool as an analyst in a treasury centre for Europe and Asia, based in Belgium at that time. I was working on cash management and FX. It’s a fascinating area to apply financial market knowledge and to understand business fundamentals. After a couple of years, I was transferred to the US for pension/401(k) redesign after a transformational M&A.

Following my debut in treasury, I asked for and was given many different roles in general finance including M&A and FP&A in different functions in the US. Thereafter, I was further assigned with overseas positions in the EMEA headquarters in Italy, sales and marketing roles in China, and operations roles in Hong Kong and Taiwan. I returned to the global treasury function back in the US, and a couple of years later I decided to make a big jump and joined Kraft Heinz to take on my current role, which focuses heavily on strategy and leadership. I deeply appreciate the intellectual challenges of leading our global treasury function.

What is the biggest challenge you are facing now as a corporate treasurer?

My passion resides in joining the force to shape the future of Kraft Heinz. I love the company’s speed of decision-making and the culture of ownership, which means that employees at all levels feel empowered to make meaningful contributions.

I love being able to discuss and plan capital structure and allocation with senior executives and the board of directors. This requires deeper understanding of the industry, business trajectory, cash projections, and optimal cost of capital structure. Once those directions are set, it’s fulfilling to see the effects unfold.

All industries and companies today have phases, and the macroeconomy is constantly evolving. It requires clear direction, alignment and fine tuning of the plan, as well as constant communication with the rating agencies and investors.

I also define and drive major transactions. Billion-dollar transactions require collaboration with tax, accounting, legal, and various business functions. They enable learning and understanding far beyond the treasury function.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given in your career?

To give less than your best is a waste of talent. When you have multiple career choices, choose the harder one that pushes you out of your comfort zone. It’s important to build a set of values because that’s what ultimately defines you. My own maxim for life is ‘never stop learning’.

When you have multiple career choices, choose the harder one that pushes you out of your comfort zone. It’s important to build a set of values because that’s what ultimately defines you. My own maxim for life is ‘never stop learning’.

Team builder

One of the major objectives for Yang is to continuously build a stronger team and improve processes. In the past, she says treasury has been characterised by its technical expertise. This will remain the foundation of the function. But she also wants to balance this, serving the business more effectively by encouraging a broader outlook.

“Connecting the dots,” she says, can be achieved either by bringing in people who have “lived in the business”, or by rotating treasury professionals out to the business, using cross-functional initiatives as a platform, building on their organisational understanding and experience, and developing a wider set of contacts.

“It’s good to be proud of our function but sometimes we can be so focused on what we do that we build barriers,” she comments. “I tell people that first we serve the good of the whole company but then our key stakeholders are the other functions.” Engaging in open discussion is vital in any cross-functional initiative because taking the narrowed view of one function can have unintended up- and downstream consequences. Yang believes treasurers with wide exposure to their business will be better positioned to examine the potential wider consequences of their actions, and better serve the organisation.

This willingness to learn is part of what makes Yang successful – and no source of learning is off limits. Throughout her career, she has carried with her a notebook. She has populated these (she’s on her third now) with the wisdom of others and also with her own thoughts, and those of her colleagues. As each role within her career draws to a close, she puts aside a page for reflection. Likes and dislikes, points for improvement and personal successes have all found their way into this review. Yang uses this to help direct her next steps.

Strength in people

Yang has a talent for making connections and better understanding the motivations of her colleagues. It helps her management style and, at the junior end of the spectrum, has helped her “take a risk on talent” to great effect.

Indeed, in her view of millennials as “more vocal, more open to learning, and more willing to challenge” than her own generation, she recognises in them the need for encouragement, offering it in the form of genuine ownership and independence. But she also knows to set clear parameters to offset their lack of experience.

Yang recognises vaulting ambition in herself and admits that in a previous role, she wasn’t quite ready. Although recognised as an emerging talent, she felt she lacked the “maturity and experience”. Surrounded by vastly more experienced people, she found the environment slightly intimidating.

As an Asian woman moving into Europe, where experience and longevity is highly valued and difficult to relinquish, “it was a struggle,” she confesses. “At times I was not assertive or artful enough. I didn’t push back or properly prioritise.” Nonetheless, she sought out opportunities and brought much-needed clarity to a complex environment. This was appreciated at head office.

Fortitude is a characteristic in which Yang excels. Having been born and brought up in China, in the one-child policy era, where almost 80% of women participated in the workforce, she “always had the impression that women were at least equal to men”.

However, in her transition to Western culture, she was “shocked” by the realisation that many women did not work. She rails against socially- or self-imposed ideas that women and men may not be equals, yet having toured many countries, she identifies a problem. “When I was expecting, the conversation always turned to my personal rather than professional life. Having had my daughter, I felt pressure to return to work early and then needed to work so much harder to prove myself.”

Yang was fortunate in having a couple of strong senior role models to demonstrate the reality of working motherhood. “They taught me not to judge by presence in the office but by the level of engagement and quality of work. It forced me to make better choices and to be flexible.”

Yang is understandably keen to impart her view to new talent that a work/life balance is possible. “It requires more prioritisation, advanced planning and higher efficiency, but it can be done. It’s not a single choice question.”

To read all the interviews in this series go to treasurytoday.com/women-in-treasury

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