My Life in Treasury
John Chamberlain, Group Treasurer, Entertainment One Ltd
Technology may have transformed many elements of the job, but John Chamberlain believes it also makes things too easy for junior members of the profession. Which is one reason why, when recruiting, he looks for candidates with the ability to continue learning, people who are keen to broaden their knowledge and become ‘effective and sympathetic partners’ within their organisation.
How did you come into treasury and what attracted you to the profession?
I was initially attracted to treasury through conversations with various treasury professionals. The role sounded interesting and challenging. As an auditor, my role was to check the reporting of the performance of a company whereas the role of treasurer has a direct impact on that performance so was inherently appealing to me as it felt more meaningful.
I’ve very much enjoyed making the move into treasury so, in hindsight, I’m pleased I switched.
How has your career progressed through to the role that you hold today?
My very first job was working for a civil engineering firm and included counting the number of trees on a city street – fun but I didn’t see a career in it. So, I quickly moved on from that and joined Deloitte to train as an accountant. This gave me a good overview of the corporate world and was a brilliant way to start my career proper. I also enjoyed working in large teams there as, during busy season, a strong team-spirit would often develop whilst we tried to get all our work completed in time.
I eventually moved into my first treasury job where I worked in a team of three, reporting into the Group Treasurer. Working in a small team gave me a great grounding in the profession since, as well as working on projects, I also acted as holiday cover for both the dealer and the accountant. I was therefore able to experience all areas of the treasury function and appreciate the skills required. Both the dealer and the accountant were very experienced and have now retired – I still feel a debt of gratitude to them and the Group Treasurer for guiding me in my first steps in the world of treasury. I’ve therefore taken on their ethos of seeking to train up the next generation in my career.
Since then I’ve worked my way up to Assistant Treasurer and then Group Treasurer which is my current role and have enjoyed the process as I get to know how treasury works in different businesses and different markets. They are the same core skills but the key is how best to apply them.
How have the demands and needs of treasury changed over the course of your career, and what particular skills does the role require today?
I feel very fortunate to have begun my treasury career whilst telephone dealing was still the norm. When I picked up the phone to ask for the two-way price on a cable swap, I had to be sure that I fully understood exactly what I was doing. I worry that the electronic dealing platforms of today make things too easy and so do not enable adequate training for junior staff. For example, it’s of course important for treasurers to understand the bid/offer spread but the platforms do not require this. That’s really been a fundamental change in treasury.
Secondly, treasury management systems have developed significantly during this time. Data is now readily available in a timely manner. This has presented the challenge of having to sift through this data and work out what’s important. As a result of the large volume of data, I do seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to reconcile one report to another – another skill I’ve gained, but would rather have avoided!
What specific, or perhaps surprising, qualities do you look for when recruiting treasury personnel?
Number one quality for me is ability to learn. Treasury can often be complicated so it’s important for people to be able to grasp the concepts involved. They may not know everything to start with but as long as they can learn they should be fine.
How important do you think a formal treasury education is, as opposed to (or as well as) more general finance or accountancy qualifications?
Having qualified as both a chartered accountant and corporate treasurer I do have strong views on this. I took my accountancy exams prior to moving into treasury where I studied for and achieved my treasury qualifications. Moving from accountancy into treasury felt like learning a new language as many of the concepts were unfamiliar to me and are simply not taught to accountants.
For example, most accountants I’ve encountered tend to view the forward points on an FX deal as the ‘cost of hedging’. This is fine as a shorthand for the accountant but it fails to recognise that forward points can be beneficial and are driven by the interest differential. As treasurers we can take advantage of this via our hedging strategies and it’s important that we understand the mechanics behind this so we know when this will or won’t work.
Furthermore, I found there was an important distinction between the accounting and treasury qualifications. The accounting qualifications cover a broad range of specialisms within the accountancy profession. These include tax, financial reporting, audit (internal and external), corporate finance and a small amount of treasury. I was working as an external auditor whilst I took these exams so it was only really the external audit modules that specifically covered what I did in my day job. In contrast to this, the treasury qualifications directly cover what the treasurer does for a living. This not only makes them more immediately beneficial but also more interesting as they bring context to the day-to-day practical challenges of the treasurer.
So, for me, treasury qualifications are incredibly important.
What about wider experience in the world of business. Is that valuable too?
Again, some strong views. Yes, it’s absolutely important to understand the wider business world to be effective treasurers. We need to firstly understand the businesses that we are treasurers of – what drives the business’ cashflows; how sensitive the cashflows are to economic and other factors; and can they be managed effectively. Understanding the wider business context then helps us to appreciate this. This knowledge also enables us to be more effective and sympathetic partners to the wider organisation. Appreciating the issues Finance Directors might have whilst knowing when it’s appropriate to challenge them.
Based on your career so far, what would your advice be to finance professionals who are perhaps in their first treasury role?
Make sure to get the most out of each role that you are in before you look to move on – especially your first role. If you are still learning in a role and being challenged by it then that’s something to stick with.
What would your ideal holiday be?
I’m definitely not a beach person so for me it’s more about visiting places and doing things rather than going into complete shutdown. Like many people, I especially enjoy going for long walks to explore whilst on holiday.
What book have you read recently or what film have you seen recently that you would recommend, and why?
I finally got around to reading News from Nowhere by William Morris, the textile designer, during lockdown. It’s completely bonkers but makes for a thought provoking and fun read. The book describes a Utopian future Britain which has undergone a communist revolution. It’s particularly interesting to read now as many of its ideas seem to be undergoing a resurgence.