My Life in Treasury
An Interview with Christof Nelischer, Global Group Treasurer, Willis Towers Watson
Christof Nelischer, Global Group Treasurer of Willis Towers Watson, is well-known to many readers following an illustrious and varied treasury career both in Germany and the UK. In this feature, Christof shares some of his experiences so far with Helen Sanders, Editor.
How did you come into treasury and what attracted you to the profession?
I joined treasury really by chance when I left university in 1991/2. I came across a position in a relatively small corporate treasury function at Heraeus in Germany where the treasurer was looking for a ‘right hand man’. Although I hadn’t really considered treasury before, I enjoyed the role and it marked the start of my career in treasury.
How did your career progress through to the role that you hold today?
I spent around four and a half years developing well-rounded treasury experience across risk management, cash management, capital raising, trade finance etc. at Heraeus but I realised that I had reached the end of my learning curve with the company. I therefore made the decision to move to Kellogg’s where I became European treasurer. Although the role was a new, regional treasury function, it was an opportunity to develop a broad and diverse role combining both operational and strategic responsibilities, including cash and banking, treasury technology etc. However, there was no real opportunity for career progression after three and a half years, so I moved to a treasurer role at Novar plc in the UK, where I reported to the director of tax and treasury. This position had a broad scope, including strategic risk management, senior management reporting, board advisory as well as capital raising at a group level. Novar was acquired by Honeywell in 2005, and treasury was absorbed by Honeywell, so I managed the wind-up of Novar’s treasury function and the transition to Honeywell.
I then spent the next two years as group treasurer of Fiberweb plc, which once again involved building a new treasury function, this time at group level, as well as managing an independent stock listing and funding the organisation. The company went through challenging times and two years later I moved on and initially took on a series of interim roles and in 2010 joined Willis Group and became global group treasurer of the company in London. Although Willis had a treasury function in place, the business had moved on, so we effectively rebuilt the treasury from scratch, including policy, processes, technology and skills. Following the merger with Towers Watson this year, to create Willis Towers Watson, our treasury has joined forces with the Towers Watson Treasury team to become the treasury function for the combined group, so we are now working to integrate the respective activities of both predecessor companies: twice the debt, twice the turnover, more than twice the complexity, but not twice the number of people in treasury!
How have demands and needs in terms of treasury changed over the course of your career, and what particular skills does it now require?
I think the perception of treasury has changed. Before the global financial crisis, treasury was often - wrongly – perceived as a ‘black box’ in the corner of the finance function, and considered to be mostly a technical function. All of a sudden, the financial world as we knew it fell apart, and companies quickly came to recognise that their implicit assumption that the markets would always be there was unfounded. Treasury’s role in managing capital and risk therefore became in far greater demand, particularly as market liquidity became less readily accessible and subject to more stringent controls. Since that time, company boards, as well as external bodies such as credit rating agencies, have been far more closely engaged with treasury and developed a greater familiarity with its role.