LIVE WELL AND DIE OLD
Alison Wilson, Head of Treasury and Governance at innocent drinks, has an enviable role that weds sound financial management with good corporate conduct.
Think of the innocent brand and you are likely to think of fruit smoothies, small knitted hats and ethical business practices. From ingredients to packaging, sustainability is at the heart of the innocent philosophy.
“One of the things I love about working here is that we have a philosophy, which is made up of our purpose, our vision and our values,” remarks Alison Wilson, the company’s head of treasury and governance. “Our purpose is to provide people with healthy food and drinks that allow them to live well and die old. Our values – which are displayed in every loo and on every floor – are to be entrepreneurial, generous, responsible, commercial and natural.”
In her current role as treasurer of the smoothie maker, Wilson says this means supporting the company’s commercial strategy – but also supporting responsibility, which is realised through the ethical sourcing of fruit, as well as by using sustainable packaging and giving money to the innocent foundation every year.
"As treasurer, I’m trying to execute the optimal financial strategy that delivers our one- to three-year goals – and as head of governance, my role is to make sure that we focus not just on the business, but also on the way in which we do that business.”
Wilson’s route into treasury was somewhat unconventional. Graduating with an economics degree, she reached a crossroads: she was torn between moving to London to join the Bank of England and staying in Edinburgh to work for a fund management company. “I wanted a change and I wanted to work for a central bank where I could directly use my economics degree,” she recalls. “So I spent a number of years at the Bank of England, both in its international division and in its banking supervisory division.”
Her next move was to join Citigroup, where she worked for 10 years. “I was almost exclusively working with financial institutions business,” says Wilson. “My responsibility was to ensure that we understood the credit risk attached to portfolios for banking, insurance and fund management customers. I also did a brief spell in structured leasing, as well as working as chief of staff for the global industry head.”
A fruitful journey
In 2003, Wilson left Citigroup to establish her own business, Cameron Graham Ltd, which makes eye-drop dispensers. “I learnt a huge amount during that time about how to run a business and how to wear multiple hats,” she explains. “When you are the founder, the only employer, the only director and the only manager, you have to know a little bit about a lot – from patents to marketing and from manufacturing to sales. I spent five years on a very steep learning curve.”
Once the business was up and running, Wilson says she looked in the mirror one day and wondered whether anyone would ever employ her again. She decided to test the theory and, after looking at her transferable skills, she applied for – and was offered – a role as finance manager at innocent.
In 2012, Wilson was appointed treasurer. “My opportunity to take on that role came from having been on the other side of the table as a banker, talking to treasurers about what they needed and what banking products we could offer them,” she says. “I had an insight into the challenges and opportunities that treasurers have within an organisation – so I jumped at the chance.”
This meant starting with a blank piece of paper and asking what the treasury function should look like – from its purpose and capabilities to the processes and systems that would need to be put in place. The first steps included looking at existing spreadsheets that were used to track cash movements and FX transactions, and making them fit for purpose. Wilson describes this as establishing the baseline.
“Once we had the processes and systems up and running, the opportunity I was really interested in was moving the treasury function from one that was very tactical and operational to one that was really informing decision-making at a strategic level within the company,” says Wilson.
"Treasury can help deliver company strategy by managing not just financial risk, but other types of risk across the business – and by making sure that the company is well funded.”
An ever-expanding role
Today, Wilson has a direct report in treasury, as well as working with a network of stakeholders and business partners across the business. Crucially, this includes business-partnering relationships with colleagues in supply chain, focusing on areas such as working capital, as well as managing risks related to FX and diesel exposure. Wilson’s role has also recently expanded to include governance.
Wilson says her approach to treasury has evolved over time. In particular, she says she has become more confident in her ability to offer valuable input into discussions. “It’s a two-way street,” she observes. “You have to feel confident in yourself – but your other stakeholders have to feel confident in your ability, too. It takes time to build relationships and a track record of good judgement.” Today, Wilson says her approach has become more self-directional – rather than standing back and waiting to be told what needs to happen, she is taking a more proactive role in expressing where the company should be going in terms of treasury and governance.
In order to do so, she believes in ‘bringing the outside in’. “We are growing really quickly still. If you’re not careful, all you do is run at 100 miles an hour with your head down, focusing on whatever you’ve been asked to do,” she comments. “But actually, a lot of insight can only be sought from outside the four walls we’re in every day.”
The ACT plays a key role in providing that insight. Wilson says she values her corporate membership for two important reasons. “Firstly, the ACT does a lot of the heavy lifting for me when it comes to keeping up to date with technical and regulatory issues, as well as current thinking around treasury capabilities. In addition, the seminars they organise allow me to do a deep dive into particular areas of interest, to ensure that I’m bringing external thinking into innocent.”
A challenge a day
This year, Wilson is focusing on several key challenges. One of these relates to FX risk management. Until recently, innocent was largely UK-focused – but in the past few years, the company has focused on pan-European growth, giving rise to more significant currency exposures. At the same time, the recent strength of the dollar against the euro and sterling has presented some strong headwinds.
“One of my challenges this year is to make sure we optimise the hedge we have on the currencies that we need. I also need to ensure that I am a credible voice in all the discussions that happen internally on what those headwinds mean for our product mix, our pricing, our cost structure with our supply chain partners, and all the other elements that go into determining what the profit and loss looks like for next year,” says Wilson.
Other challenges include building on the work done last year to adopt an enterprise risk management approach. This will involve understanding any risks that could impact on the company’s business objectives and mitigating them where appropriate – or dialling up those risks in certain areas. Wilson’s role is to join up pockets of risk management across the business and lead various levels of management through the process of identifying, assessing and mitigating those risks.
A further area of focus is governance. “We are a very entrepreneurial company – we like to be nimble and flexible, and there’s a natural tendency to veer away from anything that would appear to be too bureaucratic,” explains Wilson. “I completely applaud that starting point, but when you get to £250m turnover and have a complex and outsourced supply chain spanning multiple geographies, you need to have a good standard of governance across the group.
"I’ve been challenged with making sure that everyone is clear on what is expected in areas such as business ethics, having a good contract-management process in place and making sure that we are proud of our supply chain, because they share the values and ethics that we have. It’s not about bringing a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy into the company, but about saying that good governance is critical to our longevity.”
Meanwhile, low oil prices have made diesel hedging a particularly tricky subject – but Wilson says it’s important to remember that hedging is about delivering certainty, rather than about delivering the best price. “If we’d all sat back with our crystal ball 12 or 15 months ago and knew that the oil price was going to fall off the edge of a cliff, you probably wouldn’t have locked in at a slightly higher rate,” she says. “But the logic behind the hedge absolutely works. It’s a difficult message to take to the board, but I’m proud to be having these discussions with an educated group of people who understand the purpose of the hedge.”
With a varied career path to date, it is clear that Wilson enjoys her current role. “What I particularly like is that I get access to decision-makers really easily,” she explains. “I also enjoy getting involved with so many different things here – whether that’s looking at commercial contracts with the sales guys or trying to protect IP with the marketing team. It’s very difficult to find an activity within the company that I haven’t been involved with recently.”
This profile appears in The Treasurer March 2016 edition. Author, Rebecca Brace is a freelance journalist specialising in corporate treasury and banking.