MONA'S STORY

TAKING ON THE CHALLENGE

Centralising treasury and boosting cash visibility at food and FMCG group Webcor have been top priorities for head of treasury Mona Lockett

ON HER COMPANY...

No challenge is too great for Mona Lockett, head of treasury at food distributor Webcor Group – from pioneering the use of treasury management systems (TMSs) in Angola to managing stock levels during an economic crisis.

Established in 1978 in Zaire – modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo – Webcor Group began as a food company. By 1992, the company had become a leader in soft commodities and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) in Angola.

Today, the company has a global presence in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Southeast Asia, as well as its core operations in Africa.

Ninety-five per cent of the company’s revenues are generated in Angola, where the company imports commodities and FMCG, and sells them through its own distribution company.

In total, Webcor Group distributes more than 300 consumer products across Angola, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo using door-to-door and route-to-market methods.

Lockett is based in the company’s recently established corporate headquarters in Dubai.

 “We’re a very decentralised group, so a lot of my role is to centralise much of the treasury function,” says Lockett. “This includes trying to manage the group debt and group cash from a central perspective in order to bring visibility to the group. I also work on the trade finance arm, and I get involved in project finance, because we have a lot of industrial projects in Angola.”

Lockett’s career path has incorporated a number of roles in treasury, although her focus was initially on accounting. After studying accounting and finance at university, she moved into a private practice. A period of travel followed, after which Lockett returned to the UK and took on a contract treasury role at EDF Energy, as the company prepared for the London 2012 Olympics bid.

“It was interesting – I thoroughly enjoyed it,” she says. “They needed somebody with a bit of accounting experience, which always seems to help when you’re going into treasury.”

Lockett established a limited company, MPL Treasury Consulting, in the UK in order to cherry-pick the treasury projects she wanted to work on as a consultant, which enabled her to gain considerable experience, before joining Webcor Group in 2014.

Lockett attributes her rapid progression to her ACCA accounting qualification, as well as her AMCT. “These qualifications bring the foundation that will help you throughout your career,” she comments. “It’s all very well having the experience, but having the piece of paper adds weight and shows not only commitment, but trains you in the principles.”

A member of the ACT, Lockett also notes the value of the networking opportunities and the ability to consult with industry peers. “A lot of times, we find in this region that everyone is in a similar situation,” she explains.

“When things go wrong, they tend to go wrong for everyone – so reaching out to your network to help find a solution has been very useful.”

OVERCOMING THE OBSTACLES

Indeed, the company’s geographical footprint has led to considerable challenges where treasury is concerned. When working with local banks, for example, Lockett says that it can take time to find the right person to speak to. She adds that treasurers may also find themselves having to educate their banks about what they need.

Even straightforward processes may take considerable time and perseverance. Lockett has experienced delays on opening bank accounts, for instance. “So there are parts of the role that can be frustrating and compliance now also plays a big part in these delays.”

Undaunted by these challenges, Lockett has made considerable progress in the past couple of years in streamlining treasury processes and using technology to drive improvements. When Lockett joined Webcor Group, the organisation had no treasury system in place.

As such, the treasury was dependent on spreadsheets provided by finance managers based in Angola, Beirut, Dubai and Geneva. “We were looking back two months, rather than looking ahead,” observes Lockett.

All this is changing. Lockett has recently started implementing a new TMS in order to achieve greater visibility over the organisation’s cash. With phase one complete, Lockett says the new system has begun to bring things to life.

She adds, “It has also helped identify talent within the group and a few hidden treasures!” For example, the senior management and treasury is able to receive data on a daily basis, with visibility over the group’s position both by company and by bank.

 “We never thought we would have visibility from Angolan banks – but we now have more than 100 Angolan bank accounts spread across over 20 banks reporting onto the platform,” says Lockett. “In fact, Deloitte informed us that we are in the less than 2% of companies in Angola that currently have a TMS working.”

While the TMS has provided considerable benefits, managing cash and risk continues to be a sizeable challenge – particularly given the crucial role that Webcor Group plays in Angola as an importer of staple commodities, such as flour, rice and maize flour.

“All our cash is in Angola, and all our debt is outside of Angola,” says Lockett. “If we don’t have financing from the bank, we won’t be supplying food into Angola – and we are the market leader.”

Over the past two years, with the country’s economy in crisis as a result of falling oil prices, the company’s dynamics have shifted drastically. As a result, treasury has been involved in matters such as managing the stock levels in line with transfer of currency in a controlled exchange market.

“Day to day we had zero visibility on how much cash we could transfer out of Angola to the sourcing companies in order to settle our bank financing,” says Lockett. “The economy went through stages of offering purchase at auction, then came the priority on food, medicine and raw material. More recently, the focus is on food imported into the country.

“This was the biggest challenge across the whole group – not just for me, but also for everyone else, like the general managers based in remote provinces, who needed to know when the trucks would come to fill their warehouses. But we’ve come together as a team and we’ve seen this through.”

LOOKING FORWARD

Despite facing significant challenges over the past couple of years, such as the devaluation of the Angolan kwanza, the company has recently completed a major strategic project in the country with the launch of a state-of-the-art flour mill.

Where treasury projects are concerned, meanwhile, Webcor Group has recently obtained its own SWIFT code.

“My biggest challenge this year is getting the whole treasury centralised,” comments Lockett. “We have one centralised hub in Angola that will take care of all central payments through SWIFT in Angola. We’ll also continue getting SWIFT up and running, which means going back to the banks to renegotiate fees and explain that we have our own SWIFT gateway.”

Lockett is also in the process of implementing a cash-pooling structure, in order to push cash up to the parent company and fund back down when needed. “During the crisis, we often found that there would be one company that had a bit of cash, but the other one was struggling, and we’d have to find a solution to pump the cash,” she explains.

“Rather than having to touch the shareholders, we intend to build a pocket at the holding level and fund back down. This would be the ‘norm’ in an established treasury – but driving governance is challenging when local businesses are used to holding on to their cash.”

With so much accomplished over the past couple of years, Lockett is philosophical about the challenges that treasury brings – and the rewards that can be gained by overcoming them. “In the past, the part of the job that I least enjoyed was not having control over visibility,” she concludes. “Now that we do have visibility, it’s one of the parts of the job that I enjoy the most.”

Mona's top tips for other treasurers

Be prepared to get out there. A treasurer’s role involves a lot of communication at all levels – networking is an important part of the job. The treasury world is small, so building and maintaining relationships is key.

The AMCT qualification gave me the solid foundations on which I have built my career today. It’s true that what you do in practice varies from what you learn at school. However, learning and understanding the principles of treasury through the programme has added immense value to what I do today.

Where gadgets are concerned, I am quite old school. While most people are attached to Apple’s latest invention, I am still going strong with the ‘almost-out-of-date version’.

Every day brings a challenge. No question is too tough – my role is to find the solution.

The best way to wind down after a stressful day is a good workout. However, living in Dubai has its benefits, and beaches are plentiful.

MONA'S TOP TIPS FOR SUCCESS

  • Be prepared to get out there. A treasurer’s role involves a lot of communication at all levels – networking is an important part of the job. The treasury world is small, so building and maintaining relationships is key.
  • The AMCT qualification gave me the solid foundations on which I have built my career today. It’s true that what you do in practice varies from what you learn at school. However, learning and understanding the principles of treasury through the programme has added immense value to what I do today.
  • Where gadgets are concerned, I am quite old school. While most people are attached to Apple’s latest invention, I am still going strong with the ‘almost-out-of-date version’.
  • Every day brings a challenge. No question is too tough – my role is to find the solution.
  • The best way to wind down after a stressful day is a good workout. However, living in Dubai has its benefits, and beaches are plentiful.