How National Grid’s Alexandra Lewis has electrified treasury
11 Feb 19
National Grid’s group treasurer Alexandra Lewis tells Liz Loxton what it takes to lead an award-winning team
Like many treasurers, Alexandra Lewis is dual-qualified.
She began her career in accountancy and spent the three years following her Maths degree training within the audit function at what was then Price Waterhouse, one of the Big Five firms.
While she found the role interesting, an early assignment with British Gas – at the time demerging from Centrica – effectively knocked audit into touch, giving her a first taste of treasury, along with a strong sense of the contribution that it can make to a business.
Working with Malcolm Cooper, who at the time was head of corporate finance at British Gas, the assignment included plenty of non-audit work, particularly around the preparation of working capital statements that would form the financial underpinnings for the demerger.
I absolutely think we drive value by managing risk
Lewis found herself enjoying the work and, when Cooper made contact in 1997 to invite her to apply for a position on the corporate finance team of British Gas’s successor BG Group, she readily made the move.
At the time, BG’s corporate finance sat outside the treasury function. But while her role wasn’t yet core treasury work, it began to cement an understanding of the discipline for Lewis.
Lewis’s early exposure to corporate finance enabled her to quickly gain a detailed understanding of British Gas’s business drivers and the impact of regulation on the business.
Delving into the listing regulations, for instance, gave her a sense of what could be achieved by the demerger as well as giving her an opportunity to apply her analytical skills – “I’m a detail person; I have a predilection to dive into fine detail,” she says.
Changing face of BG
From that point, Lewis’s career moves tracked to a degree the structural evolution going on at BG.
When the company demerged its gas transmission and distribution business, Transco, into Lattice Group, she moved to Lattice’s headquarters in central London as manager of corporate banking – putting to an end a tiresome commute from central London to Reading and broadening her treasury experience and responsibilities at the same time.
“Of course,” she says, “Lattice Group had all the debt and so my role developed into managing bank relationships and all the committed bank lines. So I was in treasury proper then.”
Lewis also took charge of relationships with credit rating agencies and all bank lending in a period lasting until May 2004.
Two years previously, Lattice Group had merged with National Grid to form National Grid Transco (it would revert to the name National Grid in 2005), and in 2004, Lewis made a move out of treasury into investor relations, a role she would carry out for two and a half years.
“When I went into investor relations,” she explains, “understanding where we made money and where the risk/reward trade-offs were paid off in discussions with investors brought me more insight into the business.
“Every job has given me a bit more insight into what National Grid does, where we take risk and where we want to take risk.”
In November 2006, Lewis moved back to the treasury function to head up corporate finance. By that stage, corporate finance came under treasury, with Cooper by then the group treasurer.
In 2008, Lewis was made assistant treasurer in a role that would turn out to be dominated by a governance issue, then exercising the best minds in treasury – how to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley. In 2009, she moved again and became head of risk and insurance.
In 2013, Lewis made what would turn out to be one of her most significant career moves when she became group head of reward on National Grid’s HR leadership team.
As her first role outside of finance, Lewis made the move conscious that she was taking something of a risk.
“You never know whether you’re going to get back into your main discipline,” she says, “but it turned out to be a really good opportunity to see the business through a different lens.”
In fact, 2013 was a time of reform in director remuneration and therefore a very good time to go into the rewards space in the UK.
Working with extremely sharp people is what motivates me
Business secretary Vince Cable had introduced a binding shareholder vote on executive pay as part of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. Lewis had one year to pull together a strategy that would enable National Grid to both comply with the bill and align pay and reward with value-driven incentives.
“The consultation process was really interesting,” Lewis explains. “I was pulling together strategy that was to be voted on in the 2014 company annual general meeting, and my finance background was helpful, because it enabled me to marry that deep understanding of how the business made money, how the risks balance with rewards – and that was super helpful when it came to thinking through the strategy.”
The executive remuneration and strategy work also provided a solid foundation across the business for wider discussions on reward, management and succession.
She says: “I found myself giving a view on talent, recruitment and performance, and taking part in discussions on leadership potential and how frequently we should give feedback – and how all of these elements played a role in the business.”
Finally, in November 2017, Lewis landed the role she had aspired to for the past decade, group treasurer of National Grid.
The role puts her at the head of a team of 40 treasury professionals – 20 in the UK and 20 in the US – and at the helm of an active issuer. National Grid has a significant debt book, makes several issues each year and its team is driven and enthusiastic.
Its achievements have been rightly recognised in The Treasurer’s annual Deals of the Year Awards. National Grid won the Corporate Finance award and was overall Deals of the Year Awards winner in 2015.
The following year, its treasury team won the Large UK Treasury Team award, following a year in which it completed one of the largest M&A transactions in the UK corporate sector, the divestment of its UK gas distribution network, issuing £3bn of fixed-rate bonds across four tranches and a €750m eight-year note with associated cross-currency swaps executed to take the proceeds back to GBP.
More recently, Lewis has restructured the team, strengthening the corporate finance element – currently four people – reinforcing front, middle and back offices in London and bringing the US cash management function under the central group treasury control.
This in turn paves the way for US-based treasury team members like Jonathan Cohen to evolve his role into business partnering and implementing strategic financing for National Grid in New York.
Hiving off the cash management element means the US team can focus on the complex interaction of federal and state-driven regulation – the better to refine strategic funding needs there.
Lewis regards her team as an expert one and believes that leading a team of experts is a skill in itself. “You’ve got to be collaborative,” she says. “It would make little sense if I didn’t get everyone’s views out on the table.”
Lewis is an exponent of brainstorming and keen to ensure she understands everyone’s positions, testing their ideas and assumptions to ensure opportunities are not missed by taking a particular route.
Risk – a first-principles exercise
Since becoming group treasurer, Lewis’s interaction with the C-suite and board committees has also evolved.
She has recently led an exercise to evaluate the question of financial risk across the group, looking at the fundamentals of the business and translating that into specifics for the treasury function and treasury policy.
“We have three non-executive directors and two executive directors looking at financial risk appetite,” she explains. “At how we create value by taking risk that has gone right back to thinking about the terms of reference we use around risk, testing our thinking and [ultimately] clarifying when we as a team have the authority to fix or float interest rates, issue short- or long-term debt or take decisions around transactional risk.
“More broadly, we’ve looked at what being risk-averse or risk-tolerant in each of the areas of financial risk would mean. It’s been fascinating. I absolutely think we drive value in the first place by managing risk.”
Looking at her role and how it has evolved over time, it is clear that Lewis enjoys engaging both with her team and its day-to-day agenda, and the board and its more strategic group-wide perspective.
“It’s highly varied,” she says. “One day I can be thinking about how I should input into a business plan for the group for the next 10 years, the next we can be looking at the credit risk of a particular part of the business.”
It is the interaction with her team that brings the most satisfaction, however: “Working with extremely sharp people is what motivates me. I am working with people who keep me on my toes and push back.”
Alexandra’s thoughts on…
What I value most about the ACT is…
I really value the MCT qualification – every day I use the skills and methods I learnt for the exams and appreciate how useful that learning has been.
Post qualification, I value most the network of treasury professionals and the opportunity to share experiences and gain inspiration from a like-minded peer group.
What I like best about treasury is…
Treasury is a function that really makes a difference to the business at all levels, from the strategic (in terms of gearing and long-term funding) to the operational (liquidity and cash) and everything in between.
I find that breadth and the opportunity to influence business performance very rewarding – no two days are ever alike.
The work challenge I would most like to fix is…
The treasury function needs to ensure that its workings and decisions are transparent and comprehensible to a wide audience, and remain relevant and aligned to overall business objectives at all times.
This is particularly important in an environment where markets are increasingly complex and volatile, and therefore where articulating to the board how and what risks are managed (and not managed) is becoming ever more vital.
2017-present Group treasurer, National Grid
2013-2017 Group head of reward
2009-2013 Head of risk and insurance
2008-2009 Assistant treasurer
2006-2008 Head of corporate finance
2004-2006 Head of investor relations
2000-2004 Manager, corporate banking
1997-2000 Corporate finance manager
1993-1997 Assistant audit manager, PwC
University of Oxford MA, Mathematics (1993)
About the author
Liz Loxton is editor of The Treasurer