How PageGroup’s Joanna Bonnett is transforming treasury

With a transformation project at PageGroup complete, the firm’s group treasurer Joanna Bonnett intends to keep challenging herself, she tells Sally Percy

FTSE 250-listed recruitment company PageGroup has revenues of more than £1.5bn and operates in 36 countries worldwide. Nevertheless, it is a “pretty simple business model”, according to its group treasurer, Joanna Bonnett.

“We only ever grow organically,” she explains. “We are not delivering products to complicated jurisdictions; we are a specialist recruiter operating domestic businesses.”

While PageGroup’s business model might be straightforward, the same cannot be said for its recent treasury transformation project.

This project, which largely took place in 2018, involved the rationalisation of the group’s transactional banking in 94 subsidiaries, across 41 banking jurisdictions, alongside the simultaneous automation and centralisation of its banking interfaces into a new global finance system.

The group’s objectives were to gain cost and process efficiencies, to consolidate transaction processing into its four shared services centres, and to achieve centralised visibility and control over all its bank accounts globally.

Key to the implementation were NetSuite, its new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which replaced the three existing ERP systems, and City Financials, its new treasury management system.

To say that the implementation of the treasury transformation project was a mammoth task is an understatement. “Last year, our team migrated more than 1,800 documents, including bank account opening forms, know your customer documents, and terms and conditions,” explains Bonnett.

“We migrated thousands and thousands of pages and more than 200 files across all systems. We also had to engage with 23 payroll providers and we reduced our banking partners from 19 to three.”

Furthermore, PageGroup’s treasury dismantled its existing European-wide cash pool and re-established another pool with its new primary banking partner.

Already, the new system is delivering strategic benefits as well as operational ones. “From a purely treasury perspective, because we can now see all payments, we can forecast exceptionally accurately,” says Bonnett.

The group also benefits from straight-through processing, while bank account reconciliation and cash sweeping happen on an automated basis. Going forward, there are plans to automate other core treasury processing activities, such as FX dealing, and possibly investment of excess cash.

Small-team recognition

Since PageGroup has a small permanent treasury team of just two, including Bonnett, three contractors were brought in for the duration of the project. A considerable amount of work needed to be accomplished within a limited time frame. So, how did the team manage this?

“We had very strong project management internally within the treasury team,” Bonnett explains. “We had to liaise with many different stakeholders, so we were constantly on either phone calls or Skype calls or, on occasion, both simultaneously.

“As we didn’t have an army of people, we needed to have open communication with each other and be well aware of what everyone was up to within the project at any point in time. Working in a very close-knit team was to our advantage.”

With a project of this scale, fitting in the ‘day job’ could be challenging at times, Bonnett admits. And were the hours horrendous?

“I would say no, I’ve seen worse,” she responds with a laugh. “But the hours could have been horrendous were it not for us working smarter and focusing on quality rather than quantity.”

Indeed, the quality of the team’s work was recognised by The Association of Corporate Treasurers (ACT), which ranked it as the Highly Commended UK Small Team of the Year for companies with a market capitalisation of less than £4bn in The Treasurer’s 2018 Deals of the Year Awards.

Bonnett’s advice to other treasurers about to embark on a similar project involving bank account rationalisation is: “Make sure that you know not only your own business, but your banks’ business very well. You need to know their strengths and their weaknesses.

“Also, you need to understand the banks’ costs of funding. Transactional banking forms a key part of ancillary business, so if you remove it from a bank, you could place pressure on other banking products you use, such as your revolving credit facility.”

Rise through the ranks

To get to where she is today, Bonnett has literally been on a journey. Born in the UK, she emigrated to Australia as a child, with her family.

After growing up in Canberra, her first taste of treasury came when she did a succession of accounting jobs that would now be regarded as treasury roles – roles that involved bank reconciliations, confirmations, FX dealing and trust accounting.

“These then progressed into genuine, full-blown treasury roles,” she says. “As the years progressed, the projects became more complicated and the roles became higher profile. I found the diversity of work challenging, but also very rewarding.”

The high point of Bonnett’s blooming treasury career in Australia came when she joined the Australian Federal Department of Defence in 2009, first as assistant group treasurer, and later as group treasurer.

With responsibility for the department’s treasury and banking function, she oversaw a team of 21 who covered treasury accounting and reporting, treasury cash management and treasury operations.

The role was challenging for a number of reasons, including freezes on public-sector spending, a major transformation project and the requirement to centralise the FX function of 13 groups within the department.

One challenge was staffing, since Bonnett had inherited a struggling team.

“I had poorly performing team members,” she says, “and I had other team members who were very good at their jobs, but hadn’t been motivated properly or given the right opportunities.”

Since there was no prospect of bonuses, Bonnett could not use money to incentivise her team. Instead, she had to be resourceful about finding other ways to motivate them.

She set up weekly staff meetings to encourage her team members to get to know each other better and to collaborate more effectively. She also invited bankers and other senior leaders from within the Defence department to come in and speak.

Where staff had potential, she encouraged them to explore new opportunities, go on courses and try out new and different work. Other staff she let go, which helped to reduce absenteeism and poor performance, improving the morale of the team overall.

“On a very basic level, I used to provide chocolate cake,” she reveals.

The success of her interventions is demonstrated by the fact that a number of her staff members subsequently received several promotions.

Across the globe

Although Bonnett’s career in Australia was progressing well, she had always longed to return to Europe – a longing that intensified after she and her husband bought a farmhouse in Normandy, France, in 2011.

So, in 2014 she made the big decision to pack up her life and transfer her career to Europe. “I wanted to broaden my horizons, broaden my treasury perspective and understand how different companies worked away from the Australian market,” she explains.

“The easiest way to do that was to migrate to the UK. On a personal level, I also wanted to have different development opportunities and experiences.”

Bonnett’s first role in the UK was as a contractor for FTSE 250 engineering company IMI. She joined to support the assistant treasurer and was soon running a major bank tender following RBS’s decision to downsize its cash management business.

 I’ve found helping the ACT very rewarding because it enables you to meet great treasurers as well as other people that you might not naturally cross paths with 

Next, as a contractor, she took on the group treasurer’s role. In 2017, Bonnett moved to PageGroup as group treasurer, where she is responsible for the group’s global working capital facilities, debt, investments, insurance and transactional banking.

She also has a hand in the investor relations function, where she manages several market analysts and investors, and sits on a committee that reviews the business cases for opening subsidiaries in new markets.

Additionally, she is a senior sponsor on behalf of the group support functions for the Women@Page gender diversity initiative, which aims to improve gender balance and inclusion at all levels within PageGroup.

Through her association with Women@Page and the ACT’s Mentor Me service, Bonnett is also involved with mentoring – a subject close to her heart. She currently mentors four women who work in finance – one through Women@Page, two through the ACT and one by private arrangement.

“I find mentoring to be a mutually rewarding experience,” she says. “You give your mentees a safe zone where they can talk through an idea or a problem. This helps them to work out what they want to do and build their confidence.”

As well as being a mentor, Bonnett contributes to the treasury profession more broadly by reviewing technical content for The Treasurer and speaking at events held by the ACT and other industry bodies.

She notes: “I’ve found helping the ACT very rewarding because it enables you to meet great treasurers as well as other people that you might not naturally cross paths with. Reviewing the magazine also keeps up my continuing professional development hours.”

One thing that Bonnett is quite clear about – which is evidenced by her impressive CV – is that a career in treasury is a never-ending journey.

“You don’t suddenly become qualified and a senior person,” she says. “And your growth never stops. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve got – there’s always something else to do.”

Joanna’s thoughts on…

What I value most about the ACT is…

Its determination to advance the treasury profession. Despite having limited resources, the ACT does a brilliant job of championing treasury with legislators and provides leading treasury qualifications.

The ACT sits right at the heart of a community of passionate treasury professionals and acts as the lifeblood of the industry. By facilitating conferences, dinners and networking events, the ACT allows treasurers to exchange ideas, share a drink and even have a laugh.

Like many other treasurers, I have developed some of my strongest friendships over the years through the ACT.

What I like best about treasury is…

The diversity and complexity that each role brings. Although the fundamentals remain the same, each industry and organisation has areas of focus that present a unique blend of opportunities and challenges.

I personally enjoy how treasury sits at the centre of internal business operations, acting as a business partner and engaging externally with a vast network of stakeholders. It is impressive to see how the profession has matured over the 40 years since the ACT was established.

I believe the next phase of treasury will evolve at tremendous speed as the profession keeps pace with technology, the development of new treasury products and the changing interactions between individuals and organisations.

The person who has most inspired me in my work life is…

It’s actually not one person at all. Over time, I have drawn my inspiration from a broad spectrum of current and past business leaders, political figures, influential people within society and individuals with whom I cross paths.

I have just finished reading the book Becoming, by former US First Lady Michelle Obama. I found it very insightful and, given her early struggles, ever so inspiring.

I have been fortunate enough to work with some incredibly talented individuals and I have delivered a wide variety of projects that have enhanced shareholder wealth.

Looking back on my career to date, I feel a deep sense of pride. Even in the most challenging of circumstances, I look for the positives and feel there is always room for personal growth.

Joanna's CV

2017–present Group treasurer, PageGroup, UK
2014–2017 Independent treasury consultant, IMI, UK
2012–2014 Group treasurer/director of treasury and banking, Australian Federal Department of Defence
2009–2012 Assistant group treasurer/assistant director of treasury and banking, Australian Federal Department of Defence
2007–2009 Treasury analyst, ActewAGL, Australia
1999–2006 Various treasury and accounting roles, Australia

Qualifications

CA
AMCT
CertICM
Bachelor of Accounting, the University of South Australia

About the author

Sally Percy is a freelance business and finance journalist

This article was taken from the Cash Management 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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