The digital revolution in treasury may have been under way for some years now, but the past few months have shown there is plenty of room to improve and refine. We talk to Frank Nicolaisen, UniCredit’s Head of Global Transaction Banking, Americas, about how the coronavirus pandemic has intensified the need for corporates to upgrade their treasury infrastructure and what they can do to get started.
Q: The pandemic looks to have added significant impetus to the digital push in treasury. How has the use of financial technology in the treasury space evolved in recent years and where does this fit into the story?
The narrative of innovation around treasury has been building for some time – and for good reason. A host of recent innovations, such as application programming interfaces (APIs) and optical character recognition (OCR), are already live and streamlining treasury processes for corporates of all sizes.
At the core of this is the rise of e-banking – following experiences in the retail sector, corporates have moved away from branch-based or over-the-phone banking to platforms, with many banks, including UniCredit, investing to make this a seamless, fast and more efficient experience. This, in turn, paves the way for other efficiencies, such as virtual accounts – a concept that sees corporates hold a single physical bank account that can be sub-divided into “said virtual accounts, which work much like real ones, with their own budgets, permissions and account numbers, all whilst feeding into the physical parent account. This solution is growing in popularity and is especially beneficial to corporates with multiple banking relationships and complex account structures, minimising the number of physical accounts they need to maintain.
While these technologies have been around for some time, they have seen a spike in adoption during the recent economic downturn, enabling corporates to rationalise accounting processes, cut maintenance costs, increase transparency over funds and efficiently optimise their financial assets from a remote basis.
To take treasury management to the next level, even newer technologies are emerging, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, which promise to bring a raft of benefits, including the streamlining of bureaucratic processes in a safe and secure manner.
Q: What should a successful treasury set-up look like today?
For some time, a digital, real-time treasury set up – with fully-automated routine processing – has been the vision and the gold standard. This has the capability to turn the sheer amount of data that many treasurers handle on a daily basis from an administrative burden to a source of strategic insight.
With the right technology, corporates can automate a huge range of previously time-consuming administrative tasks, such as opening, closing and managing accounts, generating cash-flow forecasts, executing routine payments; reconciling incoming payment flows, calculating FX exposures and even executing FX conversions. All of this frees team members to focus on more value-adding tasks, while reducing human error in the workflow.At the same time, the data captured in these digital systems can also be reviewed and mined for valuable insights, helping treasurers further refine their processes.
Implementing such a system, of course, will be easier for some businesses than others. Young companies, for instance, will not have to overhaul any legacy infrastructure, and can simply implement a new, modern system. Older or larger companies, on the other hand, will likely be less agile, and have to undertake the more time-consuming process of updating existing systems, while managing operational risks during the transition.
Nevertheless, establishing a robust digital set-up remains central to most treasurers’ strategic vision. Once complete, this switch-over promises benefits to corporates of all kinds – and an opportunity to future proof their business against economic shocks, the likes of which we’ve seen over the last year.
Q: How can corporates yet to initiate the transition to digital treasury get started?
The first step is to investigate the process. Treasurers can speak to their banks and other potential partners, asking questions such as: What are the stakes? What can be achieved? What treasury set-up best suits my business? What benefits is the transition likely to bring in the long-term?
This conversation typically begins either when a treasurer notices the benefits the transition has brought to other businesses, or when triggered by an urgent business need. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be prompted in this way. Starting the conversation now means treasurers are forearmed should necessity arise.
Q: How will you leverage your position as UniCredit’s Head of GTB Americas to deliver these treasury solutions to corporates?
Broadly speaking, my mandate is to continue to develop the Group’s unique, digital Global Transaction Banking (GTB) offer – helping US multinational clients thrive in Europe, and European clients access the US markets.
As part of this, I’m looking to facilitate the delivery of UniCredit’s proprietary GTB solutions from our core European markets to businesses operating in the Americas. Having previously played a key role in the expansion of UniCredit’s Tech Team in Germany – which focused on serving fast-growing technology companies – I am hoping to draw on this experience to oversee the first step in this process: the roll-out of the bank’s global e-banking portal. Once complete, this innovation promises to vastly improve the banking experience for our corporate clients in the US.
It’s one of a number of digital tools corporates can leverage to help them through the many challenges of the current environment. Over the next few years, I think we’ll see adoption continue to climb across the board and I’m looking forward to playing a part in it.