In conversation: Philippa Foster Back and Fiona Crisp

Philippa Foster Back CBE and Fiona Crisp both had an early involvement with corporate treasury and the ACT. Here, they discuss their careers

Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) director Philippa Foster Back – former group treasurer of Bowater and Thorn EMI – was involved with The Association of Corporate Treasurers (ACT) from its earliest days.

She recalls being introduced to a very positive group of like-minded people united by a common purpose: to put corporate treasury on the map.

As she says: “There was a real will around that task. You could see how important it was to create this new profession.”

In this conversation, she and ACT President Fiona Crisp compare notes on their career experiences.

Tell us about your career background.

PHILIPPA FOSTER BACK I started my career in banking via the Citibank graduate training programme, but soon realised I really wasn’t cut out to be a banker. I moved into corporate treasury at Bowater and never regretted it.

I did think I could always move back to banking, but actually it was so much fun on the other side of the fence that I never did.

I joined Bowater in 1979. Having come from a family of business people, working in an organisation that made tangible things – in this case packaging – was fascinating.

In 1988, I moved into a finance director role in a training company, DG Gardner Group, gaining M&A experience. I then had two or three years out, which is when I redesigned and redeveloped the ACT examination process. In 1993, I joined Thorn EMI as group treasurer and left in 2000 to join the IBE as director.

 I did think I could always move back to banking, but actually it was so much fun on the other side of the fence that I never did 

FIONA CRISP I started in treasury very early on in my career. I did an MBA after my degree and fell into treasury when I was invited to join the treasury team at BICC, the cable company, working for John Grout, the ACT’s former director of policy and technical.

I had a great grounding with BICC and got a chance to do just about everything in corporate treasury, and took three of the ACT exams at that time. I left BICC after about four years to find out what happens in other companies, joining Deloitte as a consultant.

I loved that experience and went to join a client, Barings Securities, as treasurer. From there I went to SG Warburg and set up a central treasury function, but the hours just expanded ridiculously and I had three young children, so I left there fairly quickly, setting up as an independent consultant.

I have done an enormous amount of different things, mostly treasury-related, over the past 25 years that I’ve been independent.

What’s been notable about those treasury experiences?

FC Diversity of experience – BICC was doing a very large number of projects internationally, so we had M&A, corporate finance, FX and big debt issuances.

We used derivatives and were the first corporate to use the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange (LIFFE), which was really exciting.

We had to move a hedge we had in Chicago across into London, which we did as soon as LIFFE opened. Going into other corporates, it was interesting to see the different priorities in different companies.

What has been key throughout is how important it is for treasury to be part of the business and not just part of finance.

PFB I would certainly echo that. At Bowater and Thorn EMI I was involved in demergers. A highlight for me was the central role that treasury had to play in making sure both entities would be up and running with the necessary facilities all over the world on day one after a demerger.

Treasury was one of the central functions in that whole process.

People think about the corporate finance element, but actually the most important element is cash, and that’s what treasurers are known for husbanding.

What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen in treasury?

FC The first thing I would say is technology. If you look at market information, for instance, we used to have a Reuters machine when I worked at BICC. You had to know the page numbers and it was a nightmare to work.

You look at the enormous diversity of management information and market information today and it’s quite staggering.

Treasury management systems (TMSs) also – at BICC, we had dial-up hosted transaction recording systems, effectively. I managed to break ours.

We had more than 100 transactions coming to the year end. We’d hedged everything for the year and the system was only built for 99.

Now we have cloud-based TMSs; we have fully interconnected systems and the controls are so much better.

PFB Besides technology, one of the biggest changes has been the move from relationship operations to a more transactional operation with bankers.

With relationship bankers you definitely had the feeling that it was the whole bank, as it were, behind the personal interactions. With more transactional banking it became quite obvious with some of them that they were there for their own purposes, targets and bonuses.

I felt very uncomfortable with that. I preferred the old style where you felt you had a whole relationship with a person. Did you sense that, Fiona?

FC Very much so, particularly now.

Treasurers still need to know their banks; they need to know what their banks are particularly interested in, but you’re absolutely right – even the very best of the relationship bankers still have targets in terms of M&A-type activities, debt, FX and cash management business.

And they have targets rather than the traditional recognition that this is a relationship and that they will have opportunities to quote for other business.

What are the opportunities like in treasury for women and, more generally, for the younger generation of treasurers coming through?

PFB I think the ACT has been very welcoming to women. Treasury is a good profession for a woman to go into. I’ve always seen the profession as very egalitarian.

FC I think the fact that a lot of the training has gone online has made it accessible not just for women, but for a range of people – people who want to work part-time, people who are international and people who can’t take time out a standard one evening a week for studying. And that is a really big benefit.

Who has been important to your career?

FC I know I was very lucky in having John Grout as my mentor. I really felt like he was backing me at every opportunity.

More generally, in terms of building relationships, I think the ACT’s Mentor Me programme has been valuable to a wide group of people.

PFB I certainly thought that with Geoffrey Jones, group treasurer at Bowater and one of the founder members of the ACT.

He pushed me in ways that in those days weren’t necessarily comfortable, but in the knowledge that if you wanted to get anywhere you had to put yourself forward.

Even in today’s world, the attitude of one’s boss in terms of recognising the need to get out and network – that is backing you really do need.

What has been the greatest source of satisfaction in your treasury career?

FC The opportunity to go and do all sorts of things that you might not otherwise get to do.

I spent a year at the pensions regulator, for example, running a risk management team. If I hadn’t been in treasury, there is no way I would have got to do that.

PFB Variety, I would agree. At one level you are a jack of all trades; you have to be able to understand different professional disciplines from tax through to law through to accounting and beyond.

In addition to that there is the sheer complexity within the issues you might come across. Why would you become a treasurer? Well, for an exciting career.

Further reading

Find out about the ACT’s Mentor Me programme here.

This article was taken from the 40 Years Edition 2019 issue of The Treasurer magazine. For more great insights, log in to view the full issue or sign up for eAffiliate membership

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