A need of technologically savvy people
Fast-growing technological developments are accelerating the pace of change for treasury. Zanders and Citi have produced a whitepaper that reflects perspectives on the future of corporate treasury.
Ron Chakravarti, Citi’s global head of treasury advisory, and Zanders partner Laurens Tijdhof discuss some of the key themes.
What are the main changes influencing treasury’s added value within corporates?
Laurens Tijdhof (LT): “Business models are changing. In the decades since the introduction of the internet, ‘digital natives’ – new multinational companies such as Uber and Google – have emerged to disrupt all industry sectors. These companies have less legacy than traditional multinationals. Treasury plays an important role in that digital native environment, for example with payment innovation in ecommerce. Traditional multinationals are typically dealing with a lot of legacy because of mergers and acquisitions throughout their history. For them, the change is more transformational in nature, as they are doing something different than they have done in the past decades or even in the past century. This is one of the elements where treasury can add significant value; to understand from a financial point of view where the business is in the current cycle and to see what things need to be changed, updated or optimized to add value.”
Ron Chakravarti (RC): “Firstly, the pace of change in commerce has picked up, driven by new technologies and new ways of doing business. These are shifting the timing, value, and volume of cash flows and, of course, that impacts treasury. Secondly, while treasury always has to manage regulations and the cash flow impact of changes in global taxation, the pace of change in these have also picked up. Finally, geopolitical uncertainty has created additional considerations at this point in time. Corporate treasurers, therefore, need to ensure their teams are increasingly nimble to deal with all of these issues. The good news is that the availability of new technologies, data and artificial intelligence have the potential to change how treasury works and to create added value.”
At what point are companies ready for new technology?
LT: “Before a company can enter the next stage of treasury maturity, it first needs to get the basics right. This means having a focus on centralization, standardization and automation, typically using traditional technology like a TMS or an ERP system. And if you have these systems in place, be sure you’re using and benefiting them optimally from that environment first. Once you have the basics right, you can go to the next stage of a smart treasury, using the new digital or exponential technologies. Then you can benefit from the good basis and use more of the data in analytical ways, with algorithms or newer technologies like robotic process automation (RPA) or artificial intelligence (AI).”
RC: “I completely agree that getting the basics right, by completing the journey to an efficient treasury comes first. Treasury is on an evolution path of becoming first efficient, then smart, and finally integrated. Getting to efficient means that you must standardize, centralize, and automate. Even among multinational companies, not all have mature, centralized treasury models. Getting to a best in class model is key. In most industries that includes a functionally centralized regionally distributed treasury model, with operational treasury on a common infrastructure and processes. Once you are substantially there, you can work on the next step change, in making the move to a smart treasury. And ultimately to an integrated treasury.”
How should a treasurer deal with the continuous change driven by these exponential technologies?
RC: “Well, an issue is that – as The Future of Treasury whitepaper indicates – only 14 percent of corporates have a digital strategy at the treasury level. Why is this so low? One reason is the availability of the right resources. While treasurers have previously adapted to technology change, this change is all happening a lot faster now – for treasury and the broader business. Ultimately, treasury is all about information. Today, more than ever, the treasury function needs to include people who are technologically savvy. People who are able to comprehend what is changing and how to best deploy technology. That will become increasingly important to create value for the business. Treasury teams recognize that they need to have a digital strategy, but many of them are not fully equipped to define one. They are looking for help from industry leaders with a treasury framework to define their digital treasury strategy. That is one of the reasons for this collaboration between Citi and Zanders; in many cases we recognize that we can better do it together, creating added value for our mutual clients.”
LT: “If you compare the current situation to ten years ago, a treasurer would only buy new technology if there was a real requirement. Today, there’s new technology that many treasurers do not fully understand – in terms of what problems it could potentially solve for the company. What you often see now is that treasurers start with small projects, proofs of concepts, to test some innovative ideas. You can compare it with the iPhone; when Steve Jobs invented it, it took some time before people really understood what to do with it, what value it would add in their life. First you need to see what it is, what it can do for you, whether it can solve a real problem. That’s the exiting stage in which we are now. Some treasurers are trail blazers, others are more followers that first want to learn from others about how it has brought them forward.”
Where can these latest technologies really improve treasury? Are there any issues they cannot solve?
LT: “Treasury is all about information and data. There’s a lot of information available in a treasury environment and you sometimes need new technologies and standardized processes to unlock the value out of these data. Treasury covers a large amount of structured data in all kinds of systems. If you want to translate that data insight into valuable conclusions, then technology is probably the right enabler to help; with data analytics and visualization, for example. But, if you don’t have your data centrally available in a data warehouse or data lake, then that’s the first part you should work on; you first need to have your data centrally available to be able to do something with it. Unfortunately, many large multinational companies are still in that stage, they still have data that’s very fragmented and decentralized. For those companies, you could say that the newest technologies have come too early.”
RC: “What will improve treasury? We should first consider what treasurers are seeking to do. Today, we are seeing an increasing appetite from corporate treasurers for integrated decision support tools going beyond what treasury management systems can provide. To that end, we at Citi are running a number of experiments, collaborating with our clients and fintechs, and enabling our clients’ journey towards smart treasury. This is about moving beyond descriptive analytics to decision support and decision automation, and offering opportunity to realize the full automation of operational treasury. What won’t be solved? Well, we won’t get there in 2020 but we will certainly soon start seeing the foundational steps in this transition to a fully automated operational treasury and that’s what is so exciting.”