Better Treasury Through Innovation

As deputy treasurer at $156.7 billion General Electric, Dennis Sweeney has a string of technology achievements under his belt: He implemented the first Web-enabled treasury workstation, pioneered corporate use of SWIFT and has been a key advocate of the TWIST BSB standard for electronic invoicing of international bank fees.

These days he sees working to improve corporates' communications with their banks as his best shot at improving productivity. "Having access to information and being able to process that through my bank in a straight-through process is where I'm going to get value," Sweeney says. "These days, it's much less 'can I negotiate a better price to clear a check,' than 'can I get out of clearing checks at all, can I move people to e-payments.'"

Dennis Sweeney

The fact that GE's treasury workstation has users around the world piqued Sweeney's interest in Web-based software. Based in Stamford, Conn., GE's treasury has regional centers in Delhi, Dublin, Sao Paolo, Shanghai and Tokyo. Although many, including GE's vendor, were skeptical about Web applications, Sweeney says, "I was very convinced that as we got more and more global, having desktop software that had to be upgraded for every change was very inefficient. We thought the Web was the right way to go.

"It took a lot of convincing," he adds, but notes that now, "there aren't too many treasury workstations out there that aren't Web-enabled."

As SWIFT prepares to implement a set of errors and investigations (E&I) messages to automate corporate inquiries about payments, GE has already come up with its own solution, called direct-to-bank, that employs the company's internal query case management system, Support Central. Treasury identified categories of queries that could be routed automatically to a bank via e-mail. That eliminates treasury's role as a middle man, but Sweeney aims to make the system even more efficient by sending queries via E&I once GE's banks have adopted it. "We could automate more of these queries and it would be more efficient for our banks," he says.

Before joining GE in 1992, Sweeney spent 13 years at PepsiCo, where he worked on technology initiatives including the development of a numbering standard for paper invoices and then its shift to an electronic EDI standard. He was also involved in Pepsi's work on tying data from the POS terminals at chains then owned by the company, such as KFC and Taco Bell, with the stores' bank balance reporting and automatically reconciling the two.

While much of Sweeney's time is spent on day-to-day treasury operations and systems, he says that "the fun part of my job is looking down the road and anticipating what we need to be working on to drive productivity two, three, five years from now, because a lot of these efforts will take years."

For example, he says, getting corporate access to SWIFT involved several years of lobbying. "It takes time to persuade people and then get them to invest what they need to build out at their end," he says. "But this is how you change the industry."

His next goal is to get banks to substitute electronic statements for paper ones, a move that Sweeney says would be cheaper for both banks and corporates. "It's an efficiency and productivity play," he says. "You can move and transport and store data much more easily if it's electronic than if it's paper."

The effort is just getting started, he says. GE has met with several big banks. It plans to work with banks to come up with a standard way of naming files, and also plans to get other companies involved.

Companies need to communicate with each other about such efforts so that they don't end up forcing banks to come up with multiple solutions to the same problem, Sweeney says. "I think it's important we try to get together and speak with one voice, so that banks can develop once and develop right."

To read about GE's 2009 Alexander Hamilton Award for technology excellence, see Redirecting Payments Saved the Day.