My Life in Treasury
Paul Wilkinson, Head of Corporate Finance and Treasury, IWG PLC (formerly Regus PLC)
Paul has had a long and diverse career in treasury in both the UK and Switzerland, having qualified as a member of the Chartered Institute of Bankers (UK) and subsequently completed postgraduate studies at INSEAD in France. He is a Fellow of the Association of Corporate Treasurers. For the last six years Paul has been running the treasury activities at IWG/Regus the office services company. Over this period the company has tripled in size and is expected to continue to invest in growth. Managing this growth from a treasury perspective in a company that is now present in over 100 countries with over 3,500 legal entities is as much a challenge of operational efficiency as of pure treasury management.
How did you come into treasury and what attracted you to the profession?
I started my career in banking, and like many finance professionals who ultimately become treasurers, I hadn’t considered corporate treasury. However, I worked in a variety of banking roles, the last of which involved regular contact with corporate treasurers. I found it particularly interesting to understand the drivers behind treasurers’ decisions, and the wider business context in which they operate. My application to join the corporate treasury of a multinational brought me to London and was a defining moment in my career path. It was 1982. There were no PCs, no email, no portable telephones, and no internet. The most exotic derivative was a forward foreign exchange deal and the cashbook was still a book. Technology was a single fax machine in the mail room and the Reuters terminal in the boss’s office. More importantly it was a period when corporate treasury was emerging as a profession in its own right. Within five years we had PCs, or some of us did, and I had introduced one of the very first treasury management systems, which ran on a PC with a 10mb hard disk. They were exciting times as you had the exponential development of derivatives, technology, and deregulation in the City which led to the so-called Big Bang as well as Black Friday.
How did your career progress through to the role that you hold today?
My career has been driven by a combination of professional and personal factors. I have always been keen to gain new experiences and take new opportunities that were presented to me. I spent the first ten years or so of my treasury career in London with multinational mining and drinks companies that had quite different characteristics, therefore building up broad treasury experience. Not only is treasury a profession in its own right, but it also requires knowledge of other functions, such as accounting, tax and legal. You don’t need to be an expert in these areas, but it’s important to have enough knowledge to know when it’s time to call on the specialists. There are always new things to learn to become, and continue to be, a well-rounded treasurer. I believe I entered treasury at a particularly interesting moment in time, but I think anyone joining treasury now also has a very exciting outlook when I see all of the change drivers in and around treasury.
One of my banking contacts approached me about a treasury opportunity in Switzerland. I thought it would be a good experience for a couple of years. Twenty-seven years later I am still there, although I have changed jobs a few times on the way.
How have demands and needs in terms of treasury changed over the course of your career, and what particular skills does it now require?
When I started in treasury, there was no Eurobond market, and derivatives barely existed: we did our first interest rate swap in the late 1980s. Since then, the financial markets have been transformed, and one of the reasons that treasury has continued to be interesting over thirty or more years is the constant change. A solution you choose in one situation and at one time may not be valid or optimum in another, and this constant reinvention is very motivating.
We have also experienced enormous developments in technology and regulation over this time. Most of these developments have been positive, and although the regulatory burden has become very onerous, I believe the balance will either swing back to reach more of an equilibrium, or we need to find a better way of managing it. The increased focus on technology has affected treasurers’ role and the skills they need. While treasurers are not necessarily technologists, they need to know enough about what is required, what is achievable and what the constraints might be. As corporations have expanded geographically, connectivity and integration requirements often become more complex, so simplification through technology, rationalising bank relationships etc. becomes more important.
It is not only external developments that have influenced changes in treasury, but the relationship between treasury and internal counterparties has also changed. Treasury has become far more closely integrated with the wider business than in the past. One of treasury’s responsibilities is often to connect cash management, liquidity and working capital processes, such as order-to-cash and purchase-to-pay, and treasurers are often uniquely positioned to add value and oversight to these areas.
What qualities do you look for when you are recruiting for your department?
I look for people who demonstrate the ability to analyse and question rather than just doing things by rote, and actively look for ways to improve existing ways of working. This intellectual curiosity helps the treasury function to evolve and reinvent itself. People need to understand the connections between individual responsibilities, the overall role of treasury, and both internal and external counterparties. Academic or business experience is also important to show that people can deal with complexity and ambiguity.