“Shifting the mindset of SMEs to embrace treasury technology is one of our priorities”
Welcome back to our CFO Brain Interview Series! Some days ago, we had the chance to talk with Martin Bellin, CEO of BELLIN, a global leader in providing web-based treasury software and services to multinational corporations (and Kantox’ new partner). Hope you enjoy it.
Arturo Pallardó: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
Martin Bellin: In 1992, I graduated from the University of Mannheim where I had specialized in banking and finance combined with information technology. It was this combination of finance and IT that was to shape my entire career. When I started working, I encountered one decisive obstacle – the (in)ability to collect timely treasury data from all around the world. This was an issue in both large and medium-sized companies. Instead of waiting around for someone else to come up with a solution to address this problem, I decided to take matters into my own hands and put my IT skills gained at university to good use and develop my own solution. For 20 years now, BELLIN has been driving industry development in treasury – always true to our core values of practicality and innovation – to help finance departments achieve a solid overview of their financial position.
You founded BELLIN in 1998 when technology was, at least compared to now, still in the stone age (but entering its first internet-powered golden age). What treasury pain points did you see at that time that could be solved with software?
At the start of my career, it was mainly the structured recording of all sorts of treasury deals, something which more and more companies had started using, that we struggled with. The discipline of corporate treasury management was still in its infancy and simply not equipped with the right tools. Recording was one issue but maintaining data from all subsidiaries and making sure it was accurate and up to date was also an obstacle from the outset. When it started to emerge just how powerful the Internet is, we immediately picked up on this trend and developed our first web-based treasury management system as early as in 2001, with any non web-based, traditional code replaced by 2005.
Your products are meant to improve workflow in the treasury. Part of this transformation means automating repetitive and standardised tasks. Of course, as a side effect, the role of the treasurer changed. As technology continues to redefine the role, where do you see the role of the corporate treasurer heading towards?
It is up to treasury, in consultation with management, to define the risk appetite of a company. Based on this assessment, a hedging strategy must be defined and executed. Everything which follows from this strategy can more or less be automated. Deciding on a strategy has an impact on the entire corporation, at least on its P&L. While software and available data will go a long way, nothing will ever replace this responsibility and strategic thinking.
Germany is famous for their Mittelstand (or SMEs) who, despite their small headcount, generate an enormous percentage of German exports. Of course, Germany isn’t the only country with SMEs and its business and social model is attracting interest in other economies as a way to compete in a global environment. That said, the finance department in these firms is often small. What challenges do you see these companies facing that treasury automation can solve?
Given their international customer base, many of these “smaller” companies face the same challenges as larger corporations. Nowadays, technology offers sophisticated solutions at a much more affordable price level than was the case years ago. This enables a wider audience to benefit from the potential leveraged by applications and technology. In the past, this was considered too complex and too expensive. Shifting this mindset and getting SMEs to embrace treasury technology is one the toughest challenges we currently face. Raising awareness for treasury in this “Mittelstand” business sector is therefore one of our top priorities.
Let’s talk Excel. Everyone loves spreadsheets but at a certain point spreadsheets and macros can only do so much. However, companies of all sizes are more dependent on them than they’d probably care to admit. How do you convince firms to abandon Excel and use more advanced and stable tools for automating tasks and controls?
Excel is extremely powerful when it comes to calculation but nobody would ever consider using Excel to design, organize and control workflows, to protect a company from fraud or to process payments and manage banking communication. Treasury software on the other hand allows for very complex calculations, which could probably also be done in Excel, but more importantly treasury software protects your company, brings structure to your treasury, enables your company to become bank agnostic, integrates banks, trading platforms, ERP systems and much more. Using Excel in treasury is like putting on shoes to walk across the Atlantic. Just because everyone wears shoes doesn’t mean they’re fit for every purpose!
BELLIN’s TaaS is meant to capitalise on the growing trend of 3rd party ‘plug and play’ solutions for the treasury. Which processes – i.e. FX, risk management, liquidity, dealer – do you see benefitting the most from this operating shift?
I see the biggest potential in payments. Companies are required to monitor their payment flows much more diligently than in the past, and today they can achieve this. There is no need for multiple banking platforms with different banks applying different tokens for authorization purposes. Every company should be equipped with the right tools to 1) have a continuous, automated overview of their global liquidity (without using Excel) and 2) be able to see and potentially stop any payment about to be debited on any of their global accounts – whether in Spain, Switzerland, Germany or Chile, Australia or Alaska. This is the be-all and end-all of treasury. All other processes are based on the morning’s account statement and the account settlements at the end of the day. This is where we’re the market leader.