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TREASURY – If you want to be a well-rounded FD, maybe you should try a little treasury.

It is a truism to say that nowadays people know more and more aboutrs in UK boardrooms, too, says Jeremy Wagener. And they probably make better finance directors than most accountants do. less and less. This is a consequence of the huge increase in knowledge, and the application of knowledge that has taken place, and the resulting specialisation in most fields. Yet the professional who can bring a wide range of skills and a wealth of experience to a problem is still highly valued.

Recently I heard some wise words at a school prize-giving from Professor Sir Alec Broers, the vice chancellor of Cambridge University. He gave this advice about careers: Gain a deep knowledge of your own speciality (and, he added, before you start to drown in administration and management); broaden your knowledge of subjects around the chosen speciality; keep a breadth of interests, eg, in culture and sport, science and the arts; have personal goals which are based on accomplishment, not hierarchy or reputation; and have the intellectual self-confidence which accepts new ideas.

I was reminded of some of these truths when I read Financial Director’s cover story last month “Counting the Beancounters”. It set out the professional qualifications of the FDs of the FTSE-100 companies; not their GCSEs or A-levels, mind you, or even their first degrees all of which might have been more revealing about their suitability for the boardroom. Not surprisingly for a UK group of chief financial officers, three-quarters of them have an accountancy qualification. What the article didn’t say is that 22 of the group (incidentally, rather more than was indicated in the table) are also members or fellows of The Association of Corporate Treasurers (outnumbering every accountancy institute except the ICAEW); and if chairmen and chief executives are included, the ACT’s representation in the boardrooms of FTSE-100 companies rises to one quarter of the total. In addition, of course, virtually all these companies have ACT members working in their treasury and corporate finance departments.

What light do these statistics shed on Sir Alec’s precepts for a happy and successful career? Without seeing full CVs for each of the FDs (and wouldn’t it be nice to have a glimpse of the head-hunters’ confidential databases!), we cannot know how well they are doing against the third, fourth and fifth ideals. But it does seem that about one-quarter of these successful beancounters have heeded his advice about broadening their knowledge around their chosen speciality (in this case, finance) by direct or indirect experience of treasury work. It has to be said that some of those who presently hold a treasury qualification, gained it by experience and not by examination (such is the relative youth of the treasury profession and the ACT itself), but there is a new generation in their thirties and forties who are exam-qualified (now, the only route to membership) and who are the group treasurers and FDs of the future.

What is it about treasury which helps the ambitious finance professional reach the top? Oddly, there is a misconception that treasury and the ACT exams imply a narrowing of career prospects when the reverse is true.

While it is certainly the case that for many people treasury is rewarding enough in itself as a career, others will want to progress further and for them the different elements of the AMCT (associateship) and MCT (membership) syllabuses – which include corporate finance, money management, funding and risk management – provide a commercial dimension to finance which may have been lacking in their education and training up to that point.

And applying those techniques in live situations, as treasurers do, introduces them to the dynamics of finance in a way which often eludes accountants brought up in purely a control environment. For non-accountants, the AMCT syllabus includes papers on accounting, financial analysis, taxation and law adding up to a broad financial qualification.

Risk management is an ambiguous term meaning one thing to a bank selling risk management products and something quite different to an insurance specialist. To an enlightened board of directors concerned to manage risks across the business, the term is becoming an increasingly important discipline backed by a methodology and process in which the treasurer plays a vital role as risk champion.

Reading last month’s article, I had some sympathy for the view expressed by one person that an accountancy qualification was unimportant in an FD. He said that the idea was to employ accountants – and, he might have added, treasurers. That is fine for the larger organisation with a good supply of bright generalists and indeed it is the practice of firms such as ICI and Unilever to move managers between functions in this way to prepare them for senior line management jobs. But for other firms without the strength in depth, more reliance will have to be placed on the jobholder himself for the technical knowledge. Either way, broad-ranging financial experience somewhere within the finance department will be essential.

Many FDs are said to be frustrated because they are not chief executives (although the article showed that about one-in-six CEOs were accountants – a peculiarly UK phenomenon which causes surprise in other countries). Treasurers probably go through as much angst as their accounting cousins because they want to be FDs. Although for the reasons already given, I would argue that a treasury-qualified person would make a much better FD than someone with only an accountancy qualification, boards should be looking beyond technical competence when considering appointments. And then the chairman and the CEO should examine candidates against Sir Alec Broers’ five ideals and see how they measure up. Accountants, treasurers and other professionals should actively manage their careers accordingly if they aspire to the highest positions.

This is Jeremy Wagener’s last contribution as director general of The Association of Corporate Treasurers. He will be succeeded in that role by David Creed, formerly group treasurer of Tate & Lyle.

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