Mike Richards, CEO and founder of the Treasury Recruitment Co, has more than 20 years’ experience in treasury recruitment, matching candidates with employers of all sizes in the UK, the US and Europe.
He spoke to The Global Treasurer about the current state of the recruitment market, the impacts of technology on treasurers’ roles, and why he thinks promoting knowledge and advice is so important to treasurers’ career development.
What are the most notable trends in treasury recruitment that you have picked up on recently?
Three or four years ago, people weren’t getting bonuses. We were just coming out of the financial crisis, money was tight, people had got used to getting bonuses previously, and then suddenly that all stopped. That had an impact on the flow of recruitment and how much people moved around.
Recruitment had slowed – certainly at more senior levels it was markedly slower because, unless you had another role to go to, you weren’t out there actively banging on recruiters’ doors. There was always operational recruitment – in the UK [jobs with a salary of] £20,000- £60,000, or $30,000 to $80,000 in the US. But as you go into more senior levels where people are perhaps becoming more career-focused, I wasn’t seeing so much movement. It has started to pick up again but I think the life cycle of someone looking for a role has probably lengthened. The market’s not tumultuous and there’s not a lot of stuff out there. It is moving, but it’s gradual.
I think there are three sides of a triangle here; treasurers have always been technically strong, so for jobs of up to £100,000, the questions employers ask are ‘have they done cash management, or have they done FX?’ – it’s about ticking boxes. When you get to more senior levels it’s more about handshake; you know the candidate’s going to be technically strong, but do they fit in with the company?
The next side of the triangle is, are they going to be IT-savvy? This doesn’t necessarily mean to say they’re systems guys, but are they going to be able to hire good systems guys or project manage the system, or make sure their treasury really is versed in things like straight-through processing, or SWIFT, or cryptocurrency.
When you talk to senior treasurers or CFOs, they’re looking for a treasurer who can really manage people and inspire the team, but often they haven’t been given the training
The third point, which I think has really been the biggest thing and I’ve been banging the drum about for a couple of years now, is that treasurers and treasury professionals have been asked to be people managers. And often they’re not very ‘people-savvy’. Those who are have often done really well, and those who aren’t have suffered. A lot of the time when you talk to senior treasurers or CFOs, they’re looking for a treasurer who can really manage people and inspire the team, but often they haven’t been given the training.
They’re being put in charge of managing a team of anywhere between three and 25 people, and often there’s very little input on that [from senior management]. The expectation level is there, but what are [their bosses] doing to help them? I think that’s the input they need.
I’m going to be running a course about personal profiling and personal branding, but also interviewing skills – when you’re interviewing someone to come and join you, how effective an interviewer are you? Getting the best out of candidates is not something most people have ever been trained on. And that’s where I think the missing part the triangle is a lot of the time.
As the lines increasingly blur between businesses such as retailers and tech companies, for example, how are the required skillsets in treasury roles changing?
I was talking to the international treasurer at Johnson Controls – a big corporate with a technology core – about team management. I asked him what he would say is the biggest thing that’s changed in the last 15 to 20 years. And he said, ‘My treasury systems guy – he’s really got to be the hub of everything, to manage all these different technologies and be a translator between the IT guys and treasury. Without him I literally don’t know how we would function.’
He said he is the critical linchpin – without him joining up the IT and treasury functions, the two sides would just drift off over the horizon like the train in Westworld.
The key skill is actually translating these things into business needs. You get [a disrupter like] Amazon that becomes the centre of everything, and everything starts moving really quickly. It’s the companies that get on board with that stuff that are making progress.
Treasurers often aren’t early adopters. They have to de-risk everything because that’s what they’re paid for. They’d like to be at the leading edge, but that’s not their job. Their job is to look after the cash and then make the best utilization of that cash.
Automation in treasury departments is a hot topic at the moment. Have you seen this affecting recruitment, and is it something treasurers are concerned about?
Previously with manual, repetitive, routine tasks, they got outsourced or moved overseas. And then as soon as technology caught up in some of those areas you could move to a system that could do them. Routine tasks will always be gradually systematized, and if you can you will put them into a system that can handle them far better, 24/7 – which is brilliant.
But at the end of the day you’ve still got someone at the other end to turn the handle and input the stuff. It’s not just employing someone to feed in Charles Babbage cards; you need someone who actually knows what they’re doing. But the fact is, if you can replace two people earning £40,000 with one person earning £60,000 who knows what they’re doing, you save £20,000 and also you’ve got a system.
Also, if you were to employ a new person you’d check their references; if you bring in a new system how much reference checking would you do? Do you speak to three other people that are already using it, to find out what the problems are with it before you bring it in and actually switch it on? A lot of the salesmanship around these things can be prone to overstatement.
You recently wrote a post about the role of women in treasury. To what extent do you think gender plays a role in the recruitment process?
Whether you’re a man or a woman, getting into treasury isn’t necessarily an issue. There are some extremely talented women who go into treasury. I was speaking to a FTSE 100 treasurer and she said she’d been lucky to have had bosses who have been supported her in her career growth.
I do see that it can be difficult in terms of having a break in your career due to having children. I’ve seen cases of men who might have had to take time off, due to health issues for example, and often they’ve been treated far better than women who’ve taken time off to have kids. It can be frustrating.
Ultimately, if I’m recruiting someone I will try and recruit the best person for the role. White or black, man or woman, it doesn’t matter as long as they’re the best treasury person for that job.
I recruited all the treasury team for a big retail company, and at one stage it ended up being a team of five women and one man. And people said, ‘You’re just putting women forward for this.’ But no, at that time they happened to be the best candidates for those roles.
What do you think are the benefits of taking a risk when it comes to applying for a new role?
I would say that treasurers are not necessarily risk-averse; they’re risk-aware. They take a very balanced view – they’re like bookies in some ways, in that they’re constantly measuring the odds of success and they are constantly hedging their bets. They’re looking after their company’s money and they’re looking at the risk.
I think that can directly transfer across if they’re looking at a new role. It’s going to depend on their propensity to and attitude towards risk. I just had a client who has moved from a FTSE 100 group treasurer job because they were being taken over, and he’s gone into a consultancy role. He said ‘I can afford to at the moment because I don’t have a direct role to go into, and the market itself isn’t flying.’ He said he could take a risk. He can look at this role in terms of building his career.
I think there are more diverse industries now and that give treasurers more opportunities
Now you’ve got new things coming in such as new payment companies and tech start-ups, and people are saying they could try something different and see what else could that be out there.
It used to be that people would stay in roles for probably five to seven years, whereas it’s much more accepted now to make a move every three years, whether that’s internally or externally.
You might get a FTSE 100 treasurer looking to move to a company further up the FTSE, but there are only 50 of those big jobs, so what do you do next? If there’s a new payments provider, for example, that might float and become bigger, that might become an option. I think there are more diverse industries now and that give treasurers more opportunities.
You’ve recently joined the IQPC Advisory Board and you’re hosting a ‘Treasury Career Corner’ event in September. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
The aim is to explain to treasury professionals how other treasury professionals made it and how they got there. What was their career path? What did they do to make themselves different and stand out?
Treasurers can sometime be seen as being a bit boring, but believe me, they’re not. They’re generally the first people at the bar and the last people to leave! They’re very outgoing, forward-looking, proactive people, really gregarious.
Treasury Career Corner is about talking to treasury managers about what their magic moments were in their careers, and passing on that advice. That’s why I love doing the job I do.