My Life in Treasury
Barbara Shortall, Treasurer, Northern Ireland Water
It’s not just technical abilities Barbara Shortall looks for when recruiting for her team. Communication and relationship-building skills are high on her list, as well as the ability to “enjoy the complexities” of treasury. And if any of those complexities ever prove to be unusually tricky, she sometimes finds the answer while reading a good book.
How did you come into treasury and what attracted you to the profession?
Like many treasurers I came into the job through an unexpected opportunity. I studied Accounting at university and trained as a charted accountant with one of the Big Four firms.
On applying for my first role in industry I was offered a treasury accounting role with Viridian, one of the few large groups of companies in Northern Ireland that were listed. Before that I hadn’t come across a treasury team, nor knew what it did. When I researched treasury a bit more I found it to be such an interesting and vibrant area of the business, and always looking to the future, so I grabbed that opportunity and haven’t regretted that decision once.
Being in such a central role to an organisation, ensuring that cash and facilities were available to enable the company to follow its objectives, was an exciting start to my post-practice career. Treasury also gave me opportunities to report directly to senior management at an early stage of my career and gain the ability to see how different company functions worked together.
How has your career progressed through to the role that you hold today?
After my first degree I completed a post-graduate Masters in Accounting. After graduation I joined Coopers & Lybrand, as a trainee accountant in the Audit and Business Assurance division and spent the next three years in various internal and external audit roles. I would credit C&L as the place where I found out how many businesses worked and how they best achieved their objectives. I also worked with some of the most technically brilliant people and I still admire their skills.
I was with C&L at the time of the merger with Price Waterhouse, so it was exciting watching that process unfold. That definitely gave me an insight into the impacts of business change and transitions on a personal as well as financial business level.
Being in a Big Four firm also gave me the opportunity to travel and I was fortunate to be assigned to audits across the UK and Ireland as well as to the USA. I also took a secondment to Hong Kong for three months. That experience was the pinnacle of my audit career with PwC and a return to Hong Kong remains on my to-do list. The opportunity to live and work in a completely different environment was second to none.
Following qualification as a chartered accountant I was ready for my first role in industry and little did I know at the time that it would also be my first step into treasury. I joined the Viridian Group at a time when there were lots of opportunities. The treasury team was small and led by a brilliant treasurer from whom I learned so much. We all had the chance to complete a wide variety of tasks. One moment we would be posting accounting journals for interest transactions, the next we were getting involved in the negotiations of foreign currency loans to build a new power station. It was there that I learnt the fundamentals of treasury, all of which stand me in good stead today. I still experience the excitement of trying to forecast cash needs and placing deposits with relationship banks.
While there I also worked on the disinvestment of one company through a management buy-out, building new bank relationships and the dissolution of two joint ventures. I also had the pleasure of negotiating many ISDA agreements for interest rate swaps with the support of our in-house lawyers.
Perhaps it was working on so many ISDA agreements that prompted my concern that maybe I was specialising too soon in my career. There weren’t many treasury teams in Northern Ireland companies at that time, and experience of preparing financial statements was a key skill for financial roles. I left Viridian and joined a small civil service department where I initially became responsible for leading the accounting team alongside budgeting and other finance teams. There I gained the experience of preparing the type of accounts that I was looking for. The department was then building a new operational system and I had the opportunity to work with the developers on this major project.
After preparing three sets of financial statements I became the Deputy Accountant General for Funds in Court in Northern Ireland. The Court Funds Office provides banking and investment services for money paid into court. During my time there I managed the assets of people who are unable to deal with their own financial affairs. This was a challenging role and probably one of the most important I have performed in my career. I was responsible for the funds of those who were frequently in need of lifelong care and support. My treasury skills were called back into action when dealing with the stockbrokers and bankers for the funds in court.
At this time the provision of water and wastewater services was undergoing transformation in Northern Ireland. These services had been provided by a government agency for many years, but now decisions were being taken by the government to move the operational model to a company structure, with the company being funded by equity and debt, rather than state grants. I spotted an opportunity to join the Northern Ireland Water team to build and operate the treasury function for the new company and that’s the role I am currently enjoying. I head up the Treasury team and we are responsible for managing the treasury risks faced by the company.
How have the demands and needs of treasury changed over the course of your career, and what particular skills does the role require today?
When I first started in treasury, our main focus was on cash management and cash forecasting and that remains the main focus of my current role. The challenges of ensuring adequate liquidity is in place to permit the company to carry out its plans remains fundamental to our team.
What has changed is technology. Technology’s ability to automate the more process-driven activities is paving the path for treasurers to add value in a more tangible and visible way. For example, we are exploring the use of virtual workers for process-driven data entry to our financial systems.
This means that entry-point skills in treasury have changed from needing to be able to follow processes accurately and systematically to being able to think constructively about how to build those processes and implement them. Having the ability to think of solutions to problems is more important now than it was before. Being able to communicate effectively to explain and promote complex ideas and transactions is a key skill for all members of our treasury team.