Grosvenor Group’s Karen Toh on managing a transformation

How do you oversee a fundamental treasury shake-up while still managing day-to-day tasks? Karen Toh provides Ben Poole with some insights

“When I was appointed treasurer in January 2014, it seemed an opportune time to step back and look at the function, what it did and what we wanted it to be,” explains Karen Toh, treasurer at the Grosvenor Group.

The morning on which we are speaking is bathed in sunshine and the clocks have recently sprung forward into British Summer Time, so the theme of transformation could not be more apt.

For Toh, transformation in the treasury function was required to support the growing Grosvenor business and the level of treasury complexity that this was creating.

Toh initiated and is responsible for a multi-year treasury-transformation project. “I believed we would be better able to help and support the business through this. There is not an area of treasury that is untouched as part of the transformation,” she says.

Grosvenor Group Ltd is the international urban real estate arm of the Grosvenor Estate. In addition to the holding company, there are a number of operating companies: Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, which includes the London estate; Grosvenor Europe; Grosvenor Asia with a presence in Hong Kong, Japan and mainland China; and Grosvenor Americas, present in the US and Canada.

There is also an indirect investment business, where Grosvenor invests in property ventures globally that it does not manage.

In terms of the treasury remit, there is also the wider Grosvenor Estate, the Family Investment Office and the Wheatsheaf Group (which focuses on investing in food security and agriculture sectors) to think about.

“The GGL ethos is very much that property is managed locally,” says Toh, “so you have property professionals that focus on local activity via operating companies around the world. However, for certain specialist functions such as treasury, we try to maintain a coordinated approach, as distinct from a centralised function, across all of the different parts of the business.

“This is not always as straightforward as it sounds.”

Five fundamentals

The treasury-transformation project at Grosvenor covers five fundamental workstreams: organisation, governance, systems, processes and controls, and reporting.

The organisation pillar of the project is about developing a new structure and recruiting a new treasury team.

“It was important to recruit suitably experienced and qualified individuals who wanted to be part of a significant change journey,” says Toh. “I had to have a rough idea of what the vision of treasury was going to look like in the future to resource accordingly.

“There is now a new structure and new team in place, and we are currently a team of 12. Treasury is a centre of expertise that supports eight business units. Getting the team in place was a big step forward, and this will continue to be tweaked as needs evolve.”

The governance workstream is an ongoing part of the project that is focused on better defining the role of treasury in relation to the various operating companies and also in relation to the holding company. New ways of working are being bedded down.

“As part of the work within the governance workstream, there has been a general increase in treasury responsibilities, for example, in regard to the operating companies outside the UK. I would like to think that, as part of this, specialist treasury skills have been increasingly recognised.”

 The aim was to look at how we could use the available technology to better manage treasury activity 

The systems workstream is deliberately being used as a catalyst to improve processes and controls. There is an emphasis on treasury data, reporting and operational processes. “We wanted to make better use of systems and be more thoughtful about what we wanted to do,” says Toh.

“The aim was to look at how we could use the available technology to better manage treasury activity, to be able to build in flexibility for the future, and to cater for how usage might differ across the different businesses while still ensuring that a minimum standard, from a treasury perspective, was in place across the organisation.”

As part of this, SWIFT reporting has been introduced globally to enable daily reporting of bank balances and exposures. There is now an online dealing platform, a deal-confirmation system and market data feeds. Significantly, there is a global treasury management system (TMS) implementation and this is now central to the treasury team’s processes and controls.

“The processes and controls workstream is very much about getting the engine room right – something I believe very strongly in. There are a lot of sexy parts to treasury that I personally love – I am a bit of a deal junkie – but being able to rely on the engine room as a sound foundation for other treasury activities is critical.”

Last, but not least, the reporting workstream targets greater reporting integrity, greater efficiency, faster timelines and more insight and analysis. Working closely together with IT, the team quickly understood that there was opportunity to use a data warehouse to manage what can be quite involved reporting.

Transferable treasury skills

For Toh, there were several attractive reasons to take on the role at Grosvenor, including an increase in accountability, responsibility and the broader perspective that came with this. Perhaps the main pull was the opportunity to apply her corporate finance and treasury skills in a new industry.

“I had valuable experience from my time at Shell and Rio Tinto," she explains, "and this was a chance for me to apply this in a new context. It was about what was fit for purpose for this specific organisation. This is a different industry, a different size of company, a different structure and culture.

“For example, Shell’s treasury is very centralised, which works very well, whereas this required making something work very well within Grosvenor’s devolved structure.”

To be able to seamlessly move between roles in such different organisations, you need to be adaptable and have breadth and depth of experience, and technical knowledge that comes from achieving key professional qualifications, as well as the support and engagement of the treasury community.

“I value the ACT,” she says. “I was at an ACT dinner earlier this year and I found it was really helpful to discuss and exchange ideas, and to share and learn from mutual experiences. As I sat at the table, with a combination of treasury professionals that I knew and others that I didn’t, I found that there were areas that resonated across industries and across perspectives.

“If you talk about financing, cash management, bank accounts or how we might approach the implications of the latest regulations, for example, it is a useful forum to connect.”

Toh also holds the MCT qualification. “The MCT qualification is something that I believe is a way of differentiating yourself, as there are proportionally fewer treasury professionals around that hold this more advanced qualification. For me, it was also a way of demonstrating that I was serious about wanting a senior treasury role.”

Strategic objectives

Grosvenor Group Ltd has three strategic objectives. “The first objective is to deliver attractive long-term returns. Second, we are focused on developing and coordinating an internationally diversified property group. Third, we aim to ensure that Grosvenor’s reputation for quality, integrity and social responsibility is upheld.”

Of course, financing is very important for a property company. Depending on specific business needs, the treasury team will develop debt strategy, originate, execute, review and advise on financings. Toh’s team executes FX and derivatives for operating companies globally and develop treasury policy minimum standards.

“We now have estate-wide cooperation on treasury exposures, one source of truth for treasury data, a much better understanding of the specifics of treasury transactions Grosvenor-wide and a step change improvement in the treasury team’s own processes and controls,” says Toh.

“There is a significant increase in understanding of treasury risks and the need to be joined up in relation to financial institution relationships. Treasury is there to support the businesses and the holding company. There is obviously a more general need to clearly understand what the organisation is specifically seeking to achieve on a project-by-project basis.

“I very much see us as better being able to support the business in achieving its objectives by fundamentally improving our effectiveness and efficiency.”

 I was at an ACT dinner and I found it really helpful to discuss and exchange ideas and to share and learn from mutual experiences 

As the Grosvenor Estate is privately held and trustee governed, there is an overarching stewardship and custodianship mind-set to governance and management that drives the decision-making and thinking at the organisation.

“From a practical perspective, we have a considered long-term cautious approach to items such as cash or liquidity management, financing and risk management,” says Toh.

“Diversification, long-term partnerships with financial institutions based on mutual trust, reputation, being robust in stressed scenarios, being commercially savvy about pricing and terms, and being fussy about and focused on the details of documentation are all important features.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge that Toh and her team has faced is juggling what has been a fundamental change from all aspects of the treasury transformation in addition to managing business as usual at times of heightened levels of activity across the various businesses. But it is a challenge that she and her team have met head-on.

“The transformation has been a marathon, not a sprint. Initially, it was about getting the overall scoping and blueprint right. We were fortunate to obtain strong organisational support and the budget for the transformation,” says Toh. “Then it was about planning and implementation.

“For example, the global TMS rollout required significant time upfront on planning and design, a detailed needs assessment, an extensive request for proposal process and system demonstrations with each of the shortlisted vendors. There was a phased implementation, a dedicated team, regular project executives, steering committees, audit committees and internal audits."

She adds: “There were bumps, some significant, along the way and we navigated through these. The overall TMS implementation has involved more than 110 individuals globally, across multiple functions and all businesses. Rollout to the GGL Group operating companies has been completed and implementation for the remaining two businesses, part of the wider Grosvenor Estate, is on track. We are overall on scope, on time and on budget.

“As a result of the overall transformation, I genuinely believe that we have created a more robust and resilient function for the benefit of the organisation. Looking forward, there is a lot more to do in the short and medium term, but I am proud about what has been accomplished so far. Building on the foundation that has been put in place, I see us becoming an even more agile and adaptable treasury function going forward.”

Karen's top tips for success

Adaptability and persistence are key. Never underestimate the importance of stakeholder management. Because of Grosvenor’s devolved structure, we have eight CFOs and their teams as major stakeholders. They are very capable of asking difficult questions.

Acquire an ability to switch effortlessly between detail and the big picture. I think it is important for treasurers, possibly more so than for other professions, to be able to do this. It will help you to identifying risks in a complicated corporate finance structure on one hand, and then step back, develop the strategy and articulate the broader vision.

I can’t do without my tablet. Gadgets don’t tend to last that long with me, but the tablet is the exception; it has been used daily for many years.

The best way to wind down after a stressful day is a quiet meal with my husband or with friends. I love good food and sometimes simple meals are the best. Restorative sleep is important – I was a convert to the benefits of a good night’s sleep well before it became trendy!

Grosvenor Group: vital statistics

8% Total return

£12.6bn Assets under management

£4.8bn Shareholder funds

£136.8m Profit before tax

61 Number of cities where the firm is active

1677 Year of origin of the Grosvenor property business

1066 Year in which the history of the Grosvenor family can be traced – back to the arrival of William the Conqueror in England

Karen's CV

2014-present Treasurer, Grosvenor Group

2013 UK treasurer, Grosvenor Group

2010-2012 Manager, corporate finance, Rio Tinto

2007-2009 Treasurer, holdings and treasury/head of intragroup financing, Royal Dutch Shell

2006-2007 Head of treasury compliance and risk management, Royal Dutch Shell

2003-2006 Senior adviser, M&A and financing, Royal Dutch Shell

2001-2003 Senior fixed-income dealer, Royal Dutch Shell

1995-2000 Various business analyst, financial and management accounting roles, Shell Australia and Shell New Zealand


2003-2007 MCT and AMCT

2000-2001 Masters in Finance (Distinction), London Business School (2000-2001)

1996-1997 Certified Practicing Accountant, CPA Australia (1996-1997)

1992-1994 Bachelor of Accounting, Monash University, Melbourne (1992-1994)

About the author

Ben Poole is a freelance writer and editor, specialising in treasury and transaction banking.

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This article was taken from the June 2017 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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