How UBM’s George Sawtell makes treasury the main event

Repatriating cash, streamlining bank relationships and fundraising are top priorities for UBM head of treasury George Sawtell, writes Liz Loxton

The view from the 19th floor at UBM’s Blackfriars address in London provides an enviable panorama that takes in landmarks such as Tate Modern and The Shard when you look towards the City, and St Paul’s Cathedral when you look northwards over the River Thames.

UBM plc’s head of treasury, George Sawtell, is captivated by the peregrine falcons that can be spotted using Tate Modern as an urban cliff face, while as a culture lover he also enjoys the proximity of the art gallery.

With these landmarks as a backdrop, he expands on a career that provides proof, if any were needed, that the treasurer is an adaptable breed. Their priorities can vary hugely from one role to the next and are inextricably tied to the needs and strategic direction of whichever business provides their latest perch.

The cash-flow cycle of his two most recent roles, for instance, could scarcely be more different. As head of treasury at UBM, cash management, repatriating cash from the business’s 20 territories and funding acquisitions are top of the agenda.

At his previous employment, as assistant and then deputy treasurer at capex-intensive Inmarsat plc – previously known as International Maritime Satellites – long-term fundraising measures necessitated close attention to debt and relationship management.

Journey begins

It is fair to say that Sawtell gave a number of professional disciplines a good try in the first stage of his career before alighting on treasury.

He studied law at Liverpool University, but couldn’t see himself as a lawyer and so detoured into accountancy, qualifying as a chartered accountant with Deloitte Haskins & Sells.

However, far from giving him a sense of how businesses function, audit work proved repetitive and lacked scope. “I’m interested in how businesses work,” he notes, “but the audits I worked on could just involve auditing the debtors ledger, for example, for months on end, and I got no sense of how the business worked.”

 I can genuinely say these were the most useful exams I’d sat in my life 

To get a better view of how corporates functioned, he took up a role as a treasury accountant at Delta plc. At that time, Delta was an international engineering firm with no treasury function. “It was a fantastic opportunity. I was there when the treasury department at Delta was being created,” he says.

Sawtell quickly realised that sitting the ACT exams would be the most helpful next step and the move proved to be a decisive one for his career. Like many treasurers, he found the course content to be immediately applicable: “I can genuinely say these were the most useful exams I’d sat in my life.”

Completing his first round of ACT exams swiftly, he immediately began working towards his MCT, completing his studies at Delta. In the course of the day job, he helped implement a treasury management system and gained his first experiences in dealing. “I can still remember the day my boss told me to carry out a huge Deutschmark swap,” he muses. “You have to learn by getting on with it.”

Communications

After three years, Sawtell decided he would have to move to a bigger company to expand his skills and move up the career ladder. He secured a role at Cable & Wireless, which had a treasury team of 10 at the time. Again, his route in came via accountancy; he initially took charge of the back office.

Very quickly, however, he found himself moving on and involved in FX transactions once again.

“Cable & Wireless was very international, operating in many ex-colonial countries. The jewel in the crown at that time was Hong Kong Telecom with a significant amount of profits coming from that one entity,” he says.

Aware that it had to diversify before regulation forced its hand, the company sold off part of Hong Kong Telecom, and Sawtell managed the FX risk for the HK$6.5bn transaction. “You did see the market move; it was unavoidable given the amount involved.”

Calling all ships

In 2004, Sawtell joined Inmarsat in a move that was to provide much more experience in debt. Inmarsat was formed some 30 years ago to provide safety at sea. Its network of satellites is sited over oceans so that shipping can navigate safely, port to port, around the world.

At the time he joined, Inmarsat was backed by private equity, but within a year of joining, the company floated successfully. “It was a really interesting year, experiencing a little bit of private equity ownership, but also preparing the company for flotation.”

One piece of work focused on the ability to pay future dividends through the holding structure. Since this was a new requirement, Sawtell was tasked with looking closely at, and modelling the points at which cash came into the business to assess how future dividends could be paid.

He set up Inmarsat’s hedging programme in 2005 and a new treasury policy, and was in charge of the quarterly treasury committee meetings with the CFO.

Most of the day-to-day work was around debt, however. Typically, Inmarsat periodically commissions four satellites at a cost of more than $1bn built over a three- to four-year period. Three would be launched into a constellation over the oceans, in such a way as to communicate with each other and shipping.

“You would also have to anticipate launch costs and factor in insurance payments in case of a failure – a big cost centre in itself,” he points out.

Fortunately, to this day, Inmarsat has a 100% launch success rate. The fourth satellite acted as a spare, but would typically be launched as well.

Funding satellite-build programmes is big-ticket work, supported by layers of debt sourced from banks, governments and bond markets.

Over the period he was at the company, the funding mix included a convertible bond, $900m in government debt from US government bank EXIM, a loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB), high-yield bond financing and a $750m revolving credit facility (RCF).

In 2011, Sawtell secured $700m of long-term US government financing from EXIM after satellite builds were awarded to Boeing. It also involved rounds of negotiation and relationship management with government bank officials.

As well as working with EXIM, Sawtell led on negotiating $308m in EIB funding, arranged in 2009. Sawtell led two renewals of the RCF in 2009 and 2011.

All change

After 10 years at Inmarsat, Sawtell decided the time was right for a change of direction and joined UBM as head of treasury in December 2014. He joined at a time of change.

New CEO Tim Cobbold was ushering in a new strategy, refocusing this long-established news and media company into a B2B events business, clustered around market-leading and cash-generative events with common sales, marketing and procurement platforms.

UBM’s strategy is to own ‘must-attend’ B2B trade shows in a number of industry sectors across the US, Asia and Europe. Some of UBM’s most well-known events include Black Hat, a cybersecurity event held in Las Vegas, and CBME, a child, baby and maternity show held in Shanghai.

UBM also stages events ranging from pharmaceuticals and construction to jewellery and furniture.

Sawtell worked on the $841m disposal of US-based PR Newswire, which closed in June 2016. “It was a great transaction for UBM,” he notes, “allowing the business to use half the proceeds to reinvest in more profitable events, as well as return £250m to shareholders as a special dividend.

“The transaction had a few moving parts, such as FX management, disaggregation of bank accounts, investment of funds, and rating agency and pension management.”

In line with Cobbold’s drive to simplify and streamline processes, treasury has been looking closely at bank accounts and the efficiencies and cost savings that can be gained through rationalisation. When Sawtell joined, the company had too many bank accounts and, over three years, 300 have been closed.

“It’s about simplifying,” he says. “Bank accounts have costs and risks; so that’s the first part of the strategy, to become more operationally efficient.”

Cash management is the heartland of the UBM treasury operation and the team has put time and resources into making sure cash is swept back to the UK as efficiently as possible. While cash repatriation is relatively straightforward for the UK, the US and most of Europe, other territories present a greater level of challenge.

UBM has subsidiaries in Brazil, Mexico, Turkey and many across Asia. Sawtell’s team works closely with colleagues on how best to bring that money back, bearing in mind the differing regulatory frameworks from one territory to the next.

“We work with our colleagues across Asia,” he says, “whether it’s loans or dividends, or prompt intercompany payments. UBM benefits from a cash-conversion rate of around 100% with all customer receipts received before an event is run.”

A substantial proportion of the company’s revenues and profits comes from outside the UK. “Repatriated cash is used to pay the dividend and short-term RCF drawings used to finance bolt-on acquisitions.”

A significant acquisition last year brought more financing and cash management. Sawtell completed a $365m bridge financing in December 2016 for the purchase of Allworld, an Asian family-run events business.

In March 2017, he completed a debut US private placement for $370m after an investor roadshow in the US and London, together with CFO Marina Wyatt, which repaid the bridge debt.

As well as integrating Allworld’s portfolio of shows, UBM is integrating offices across Asia. “The transaction has accelerated the requirement to rationalise UBM’s existing and new banking relationships across Asia,” he says.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to better streamline bank relationships and reduce bank accounts. The project involves working with colleagues in UBM Asia’s head office in Hong Kong and in each country, as well as best practice in accounts payable and receivable processes.”

In fact, Sawtell has been overhauling banking relationships since he joined UBM. “My first task was to renew UBM’s maturing £300m RCF. That was interesting because I had to look at the bank group and assess whether the bank’s abilities matched UBM’s future requirements.”

He completed a new £400m RCF in April 2015, with a lower margin and two one-year optional extensions bringing in four new banks with two departing.

Other responsibilities include pension management, presenting to the board on issues such as capital structure and refinancing, and managing relationships with rating agencies.

It is the wide-ranging nature of the role that provides its appeal. “One of the things I like about treasury is the variety of work,” he says, “especially within an international business, whether it’s debt management, external relationship management, dealing with banks, rating agencies, cash management, guarantees, derivatives or working with colleagues around the group – I enjoy being involved in all of this.

“In a company the size of Inmarsat or UBM, with a small team you can get involved in everything.”

UBM in numbers

300+ market-leading B2B events staged each year

3,500+ staff in 70 offices in 20 countries

$485m sum the firm paid in December 2016, upon acquiring Asian events business Allworld

£863m global revenues for 2016

George’s top tips for other treasurers

Consistently adding new treasury areas has expanded and rounded out my treasury knowledge. That keeps the day job interesting and, in turn, has enabled me to be better equipped for other risk management likes, such as pension work. I think networking is important, too, as you can learn a lot from fellow treasurers’ experiences.

I passed my ACT and MCT exams during my first treasury position. The exams helped my day job and my day job helped pass the exams. Adding this qualification to my accountancy and law degree added real practical skills to better understand financial issues.

The best way to unwind after a stressful day? Popping into the nearby Tate Modern perhaps on the way home, and then finding out what my 11-year-old twins have been up to.

George’s CV

2014-present Head of treasury, UBM

2004-2014 Deputy/assistant treasurer, Inmarsat

1996-2003 Various roles, including assistant treasurer, international, Cable & Wireless

1992-1996 Treasury accountant, Delta

1988-1992 Treasury manager, Deloitte Haskins & Sells

Qualifications

  • MCT (with two distinctions) and AMCT (one distinction) 1995-1996
  • Chartered accountant, ICAEW (1990)
  • Law degree from Liverpool University (1988)

About the author

Liz Loxton is editor of The Treasurer.

Enjoyed what you've read?

This article was taken from the Nov/Dec 2017 issue of The Treasurer magazine. For more great insights, log in to view the full issue or sign up for eAffiliate membership

Scroll to top