Treasurers have long been accused of operating from an ivory tower, but when the financial crisis hit, all that changed. Today treasurers are more visible to the rest of the business than ever before, and they are expected to have a more strategic focus. But if the treasurer still has that ivory tower mentality—and if other departments still have no idea what the treasury actually does—this can be difficult to accomplish. Meanwhile, areas like working capital management, which treasurers are increasingly focusing on, cannot be tackled holistically without a good deal of interaction between treasury and the business.
While no one will argue with the fact that the financial crisis presented corporate treasurers with unprecedented challenges, it also came as something of an opportunity. With CFOs paying more attention to treasurers’ role and activities than ever before, many treasurers found that they had a chance to drive forward initiatives and policies that otherwise might never have gotten off the ground. However, as memories of the crisis begin to fade, this opportunity could start to slip away.
“People who have already suffered an accident are usually very receptive to implementing conservative policies,” says Damian Glendinning, treasurer at Chinese computer company Lenovo. “In this respect, the recent financial crisis presents a huge opportunity to treasurers: This is the time to make sure you get all your policies realigned, to incorporate the lessons of the crisis.
“Treasurers should hurry to do this while memories are still fresh,” he adds. “If history teaches us one thing, it is that people have short memories, and will make the same mistakes again—so we need to try to get this firmly embedded while we can.”
So far, so good. But what exactly should treasurers be focusing on? Glendinning cites foreign exchange management as one area where much can be gained by ensuring that “treasury’s problems” are also seen as the problems of the business.
“The most important single factor in managing FX is your pricing policy,” says Glendinning. “In the long run, all FX changes are passed on to the customer. The big question is whether you can adjust your selling prices in two weeks, or whether you need two years. Once the business leaders understand that the good management of FX begins with a coherent and well-implemented pricing policy, bearing in mind the realities of the market, they start to feel ownership for it. FX management moves out of the dim back office occupied by the treasury goblins and becomes an essential business management process.”
But how can this be achieved? One strategy that has proved useful in enhancing contact between treasury and the rest of the business is the movement of staff between departments. When Neil Peacock transferred from Alstom’s country treasury organization in Switzerland to a business-focused role in the company’s power division, the move helped to close this gap.
“It is so important that treasury understands what the business is up to and can be proactive, and vice versa, that the business understands what value treasury can add and involves them as soon as possible,” Peacock explains.
There have been very positive results, as Peacock outlines. “Take FX tender risk. If treasury is involved at the outset, it can help the business on its strategy. There can be major advantages from knowing how currency risk can be best managed that actually provide a competitive advantage. Sharing knowledge on currencies and their volatility, suitable solutions and where control regulations exist definitely helps the business benefit from the opportunities that exist, or at least avoid the pitfalls.”
The potential benefits of rotating staff between treasury and other departments are not limited to the area of FX risk. In 2008, Bart Ras, who’s now CFO of Philips Supply, a unit of Royal Philips Electronics, moved from treasury to purchasing, where he was able to draw on his knowledge of supply chain finance to tackle the problem of suppliers facing cash flow difficulties as a result of market practice payment terms. “Due to my treasury background, I knew about supply chain finance, which was absolutely helpful in terms of getting this whole project started,” Ras says.
Areas like supply chain finance, working capital management and cash flow forecasting can be problematic because by definition they involve a number of different departments across the company that have historically focused on different goals. A common example is inventory management: The procurement staff might choose to buy in bulk to receive discounts, but from a working capital point of view it may be preferable to reduce the amount of cash tied up in raw materials. Increasingly treasurers are taking a more active role in bridging these gaps.
“Treasury must be the agent to bind these working capital processes together and create awareness across team silos,” says Jack Spitzer, assistant treasurer at Starwood Hotels & Resorts.
“The first step is to make the argument to the CFO. Then discuss with the various business unit heads,” Spitzer says. “The message is simple: We all affect cash flow. Cash flow and the ability to predict its accuracy and timeliness are critical. Treasury is the most logical area to lead this cross-functional effort.”
If the rest of the business can feel the impact of efficiencies, they may be more motivated to work in harmony with treasury’s objectives. “One of the benefits of factoring receivables is that it turns the cost of payment terms into an expense line, which the business sees, and on which they get judged,” says Glendinning. “Again, the result is ownership by the business, instead of back office battles.” Other companies have achieved a similar result by introducing incentives, such as bonuses linked to working capital performance, to encourage employees to play their part in working toward these goals.
Successful communication can be difficult if the parties concerned speak different languages, and staffers in other parts of the business do not always understand the vocabulary of treasury. Some corporations have tackled this head on by introducing formal training programs to heighten awareness of financial topics across the business.
Electrolux, the Swedish company that makes home appliances and professional equipment, is currently setting up a finance academy to train its controllers in areas such as accounting rules and commercial finance, and give non-financial employees a better understanding of basic finance concepts, as well as the company’s financial goals.
Gitte Ahlsten, manager of the finance academy, has been tasked with running the program, working in conjunction with the business unit CFOs as well as the HR training and development team. “What we said was that this type of training should not just be ‘nice to have,’” Ahlsten says. “There should be an impact somewhere for people who have done a course. If you understand the company’s goals and its financial [key performance indicators], and how we measure them, it will make it easier for people to take the right decisions.”
It’s not only employees outside of finance who need to be kept in the loop. Sometimes treasury staff elsewhere in the business can benefit from increased contact with the central treasury. In addition to implementing online training sessions for non-treasury staff, ERP provider SAP established an internal treasury community to keep staff from subsidiaries and corporate functions up to date on treasury policy and the latest developments.
“This initiative includes periodic meetings with treasury contacts at the subsidiary and corporate level, knowledge sharing in collaboration rooms and via intranet, and benchmarking amongst subsidiaries,” says Jörg Wiemer, SAP’s head of global treasury and senior vice president.
Soft skills like communication can seem insignificant compared with the technical requirements of a treasurer’s job. But if treasury is to achieve its goals company-wide, business leaders first need to be convinced that they share the responsibility for achieving these goals. “This is easier said than done,” Glendinning says. “But it is easier today than it was before the crisis.”
For a look at how Gen Y staffers are influencing treasury departments, see Plugged-in Treasury.