From the September/October 2012 issue of Treasury & Risk magazine

Entrepreneurship Even in Treasury

Google wins the 2012 Alexander Hamilton Award for Overall Excellence.

Google wins the Alexander Hamilton Award for Overall Excellence for the first time this year, having collected awards in six of the seven categories, including two Golds for Best Green Strategy and Financial Risk Management.
 

The most notable thing about Google’s awards, aside from the sheer quantity, is the range of endeavors represented. Some of its winning projects involve such typical treasury activities as hedging investments, integrating the treasuries of acquisitions and streamlining treasury technology. But Google also won for its investments in renewable energy and for the credit card it is testing as a way of supporting the small and midsize businesses that buy ads.

Brent Callinicos, Google’s treasurer, and Patrick Pichette, the Internet giant’s CFO and senior vice president, say the range of work reflects the culture of the company as a whole and the premium it puts on innovation.

While the treasury group handles the traditional obligations of overseeing cash and managing risk, Pichette says, “every element of Google is expected to innovate and I expect the same out of the treasury group. It’s treasury-plus.”

Callinicos says part of what attracted him to Google was that the company rejects doing things a certain way just because that’s the way they’ve always been done. “Whatever’s logical is what we’ll do.” he says. “Logic I always say is the filter of what happens here, along with passion.”

One of the areas Callinicos is passionate about is clean energy, and for the second year in a row, Google has taken the Gold Award in the Best Green Strategy category. Its award last year was for an innovative method of purchasing energy from a wind farm. Now Google has moved on to investing in green energy generation, with commitments to date of $915 million.

Investing in renewable energy projects makes use not only of Google’s balance sheet, but its energy expertise, Pichette notes. “Because we have an engineering team at Google that understands these technologies very, very well, we have in a way a great advantage to analyze like very few people can, the real risk profile for these projects.”

The green investments are in line with Google’s desire to be carbon-neutral and to facilitate new technologies, Pichette says, but they’re also a financial plus, providing the company with power at favorable rates and investments that are likely to yield a higher return.

With regard to the credit card project, Callinicos notes that at a time when financial institutions are wary of lending, Google has a healthy balance sheet, as well as lots of data on its customers. “This is a good way to leverage treasury expertise,” he says, adding, “Treasury needs to think more broadly about what treasury can do for a company, whether they have large amounts of cash or not.”

Innovation can mean that the lines between different units of Google blur, Callinicos acknowledges, noting that in addition to overseeing treasury, he’s also responsible for accounting and tax. “At this point in time, I have the treasurer title and the chief accountant title. You wouldn’t see that at most companies,” he says.

A Blank Sheet of Paper

Callinicos recalls that when he joined Google in 2007, treasury had seven employees and no systems, a situation he characterizes as starting with a “blank sheet of paper.”

“The goal of the journey was to start out by building out a world-class treasury,” he says. “We said we wanted to be world class in systems. We went through area by area, cash management, portfolio operations, foreign exchange, you name it, and said here’s what we want to do, with the type of systems and the people we need.”

The hard part was doing everything at once, Callinicos says. “We did try to swallow a watermelon versus taking a big bite of apple, in terms of doing everything concurrently, but it’s worked out well for us.”

Google’s treasury staff now numbers 60, an amount of people power that would be the envy of many other companies. But Callinicos argues that the success of Google’s treasury isn’t about having a big budget.

“What we have done hasn’t been based on writing huge checks,” he says. “Honestly, when you’re managing $40 billion in cash, when you have tens of billions in foreign exchange, the amount of money we’re spending on people and systems is rounding error vs. the risks associated with not having the right resources.”

When it comes to funding treasury projects, “everything has an ROI and treasury resources are hard to come by just as any resources are hard to come by,” he notes. “We say, ‘Here’s what we want to do, let’s talk about what the value of that is.’ The good thing about treasury is that most things are pretty measurable, and success is not debatable.”

Google is also notable for its huge cash position, which totaled $43 billion at the end of the second quarter. Treasury manages about 70% of the cash internally, with a team of about a dozen handling investments such as Treasuries, agencies, mortgage-backed securities and foreign government bonds, while 14 external managers oversee the remainder of the investments, including any that require credit research.

Asked about the challenges he faces, Callinicos says it’s choosing among all the innovative ideas the treasury staff produces.

“It’s Google, so everybody has a slightly entrepreneurial nature to their DNA. Everybody’s coming up with good ideas, and this is a place that values them,” he says. “There are so many good ideas, so prioritization. It’s a nice problem to have.”

Another challenge is “building flexibility and optionality into everything.”

“The industry we’re in is unpredictable and it’s in its infancy to a large extent—not so long ago, the Internet didn’t exist,” Callinicos says. “Treasury can never be a hurdle to anything the company wants to get done. We want to be sure that we’re always available to help, but also build optionality in such that if we need large amounts of money, it’s there.”

 

 

Read about Google's winning projects in Best Green Strategy, Cash Management, Financial Risk Management, Liquidity Management, Working Capital Management and Technology Excellence.

 

 

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