My Life in Treasury
Irene Atkins, Head of Global Treasury, Specsavers
This month, Helen Sanders, Editor, talks to Irene Atkins, Head of Global Treasury at leading optical and hearcare company, Specsavers, based in Guernsey. In this feature, Irene shares her thoughts on the importance of personal and professional development, and the power of positive thinking, derived from a career that has spanned 35 countries and an enormous diversity of treasury activities.
How did you first get into treasury, and what attracted you to the profession?
Like many people, my treasury career started largely by accident. Initially,Â I was a trainee accountant for Grand Metropolitan plc (now Diageo following the merger with Guinness plc in 1997), involved with tasks such as accounts payable, receivables, bank reconciliations etc. with the view that I would pursue a career in accountancy. This experience proved very valuable later on in life when I became involved in setting up shared service centres, as I had a working knowledge of the tasks to be performed.
When I decided to make my next career move, I was offered two jobs at the same time: one accounting role, and one in treasury accounting. The treasury accounting role was in a more convenient location, so I opted for this position, but I quickly realised that my approach and attitude were very well-suited to treasury. While accounting is very valuable to every organisation, I liked the fact that treasury was at the sharp end of the company, making decisions on cash and risk that add significant value to a business.
How did your career progress to the role you hold now at Specsavers?
In the late 1980s, I moved to Eaton Corporation, a US automotive business, where I spent the next ten years. This was a formative stage in my career, both professionally with the help of an excellent mentor, but I was also studyingÂ Association of Corporate Treasurers (ACT) exams and had my children while I was there, but continued to work full-time. Initially, I was responsible for domestic cash management, but this evolved into a European-wide role. I was also involved in a wide variety of different activities including treasury management system selection and assisting with the implementation of a netting system.
After ten very happy years, I moved to Samsung as a finance manager in treasury. Although this was a relatively brief appointment, I thoroughly enjoyed the role as I was able to experience a very different business culture than the companies I had worked with previously.
As my time there coincided with the Asian crisis, I was concerned about job security, so I moved to EDS, now an HP company, as European cash manager, a role I did for the next eighteen months. During this period, EDS took the decision to centralise its formerly regional treasury structure into a single, global treasury centre in the US. This was a very interesting initiative to be part of, and ultimately I became a global treasury consultant to the business for the next eight years, involved with a mergers and acquisitions, divestments, global bank account structures, in-house banking, intercompany borrowing programmes etc. â€“ a tremendous opportunity to get involved in a really diverse range of activities. As EDS operated in 80 countries, I travelled all over the world, including setting up shared service centres in India, Hungary and Latin America, not only to support EDSâ€™ business, but as a service offering to other organisations.
My next career move was to Travelex, where I spent two and a halfÂ years as head of global cash management. Although treasury was centralised at a regional level, there was still some repetition of activities and infrastructure, so my time there was spent centralising and rationalising treasury to make better use of its tools and resources. Once this had been completed, I had really worked myself out of the interesting part of the job for me so I was looking for the next challenge, and with the children at university, the opportunity to move to Guernsey and run the treasury function at Specsavers proved unmissable.
Specsavers is a very different company to those I have worked for in the past. It remains family-owned, but is transforming into a global corporation, with strong growth not only in Europe but as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. The company is cash-rich, which is a different dynamic to other companies I had worked for. It was a complete about turn to the way I had previously managed bank relationships and counterparty risk. Itâ€™s a very privileged position to be in but still a massive challenge surrounding the safety and best use of the companyâ€™s liquid assets. The family are all involved in the business on a day-to- day basis and itâ€™s inspirational to be part of an extended family team committed to delivering the best for partners and customers whilst managing the requirements of an ever evolving corporation.
How do you think demands on treasurers have changed during your career so far, and what additional skills are required to meet these demands?
Although risk management has always been an important concern for treasurers, there has been a far greater focus on issues such as counterparty risk since the global financial crisis. In the past, treasury policies got dusted off and revamped every so often; today, they are working documents that constantly need to be reviewed and refined in the light of changing market and regulatory conditions, and the evolving needs of the business. In this context, banking relationships have never been more important. Both banks and corporates need to be comfortable with the risk that the other presents to their business, which often requires a regular dialogue.