Finance, People, Treasury

Chat with the Finance Director: Mr Tan Lee Thong Group Finance Director International SOS

January 12, 2018

Chat with the Finance Director: Mr Tan Lee Thong Group Finance Director International SOS

We had the chance to speak to Mr Tan Lee Thong, previously Group Finance Director at International SOS. Interestingly, Lee Thong is responsible for Treasury matters in his organisation. He shares with us his insights and advice for aspirants from his unique experience as being both a Finance and Treasury professional.

TFAGeeks: Hi Lee Thong, thank you for taking time from your duties as the Group Finance Director at International SOS and having a quick chat with us. You are a long time Exco member of the ACTS and have been with International SOS since 2001. It is an admirable feat, considering how fast things had moved and changed during this period of time. Could you share with us more about your organization and your roles, and more interestingly why are you so passionate about Finance and Treasury? What keeps you so motivated?

Lee Thong: International SOS is the world’s leading medical & travel security assistance company.  We are in the business of saving and protecting lives from more than 1,000 locations in 90 countries.  We have 11,000 employees, led by 5,200 medical professionals servicing multinational companies, governments and NGOs globally.

My role as the Group Finance Director of the company at the group level covers the full spectrum of finance function including financial controlling, financial planning & analysis, treasury & tax, mergers & acquisitions, and the deployment of ERP systems across the group.

What kept me energized over the last 16 years with the company was the opportunity to be exposed to the various areas of the Finance function, and many were outside my comfort zone.  The thrill of building a team just kept me going as I find it fulfilling developing the team both technically and personally.

TFAGeeks: I noticed that your role is Group Finance Director at International SOS, and you are active in the Treasury scene. Could you share with us your role as a Finance and Treasury Leader, and how do you actually manage your outstanding performance in these two different roles, that are known to be demanding and challenging?

Lee Thong: This is an interesting question.  Before I took up the Treasury function, my main focus was on Finance which essentially is about controlling and business partnering.  There were a lot of interactions with my Treasury counterpart then and sometime we all felt that both at the strategic level and operational level more could be done and better coordinated. 

When I took over the Treasury function, to my delight, I was able to find better synergy and more transparency between the two functions.  This has led to better management in the areas of cash flow, working capital, and foreign exchange to name a few.

But at the end of the day, it is really the teams executing that makes the difference.  

TFAGeeks: In recent years, many MNCs are setting up Regional Treasury Centers in Singapore, by far and large, most have relatively little experience in Treasury or the necessary talent or staff for their new setups. What advice will you give to these organisations and their new Heads of Treasury?

Lee Thong: This is in fact a real challenge I faced when I took up Treasury with no prior experience and minimal knowledge.  To gain the necessary knowledge, I initially relied on my core banks to learn about their various products and solutions and how they can fit into our strategy and target operating model.  At the same time, through the Association of Corporate Treasurer (Singapore) ACTS, I attended several of the events which exposed me to some best practices and also opened up my network with fellow treasurers, from whom I learned a lot.  

Talent acquisition was challenging, but we were fortunate to find the first 2 managers, and they are still with us, from where we started to build a team and collectively we learned together through the journey as we implemented various treasury solutions over the years.

TFAGeeks: There are many aspiring undergraduates and finance professionals who wish to join the Finance and Treasury industry, whether in the Buy or Sell side. What advice would you give to them? Apart from the necessary technical skills and knowledge, what other factors are necessary for outstanding performance?

Lee Thong: I am not a life coach, but let me give it a try.  I believe this is quite generic and is applicable to other professions.  To do well in anything, you need passion, without which you will not find enough energy to drive you forward.  Next, be humble, and keep learning with an open mind.  In this digital economy where things are moving so fast, one needs to stay agile and be flexible to make changes when necessary to stay ahead of the curve.  However, to make changes, you will need to be persuasive to convince those impacted to be onboard your mission.  Lastly, as you will likely meet various obstacles along the way, commitment & faith are key factors to ensure you stay on course and propel you towards your goals.

TFAGeeks: What are the changes that Technology has brought about to the Finance and Treasury industry, and how has it affected you and your roles? Given that you had been with International SOS since 2001, could you share some firsthand experience and what are your opinions on the adoption of technology?

Lee Thong: Technology has always been my friend since young, and today it is embedded within our everyday life.  When I first took on Treasury, we were all operating on manual document and spreadsheets, surprise surprise!   We were then approached by SWIFT and a TMS provider at the same time.  Seeing the benefit of straight-through processing, host-to-host connectivity, and housing all transactions under one single application thereby removing the dependencies on spreadsheets, we took the plunge and rolled out both at the same time.  This has proven to be extremely useful when we later implemented the ERP as many of the bank connection has already been established. 

I think technology is the way to go if you want to build a scalable operation that is sustainable as the company grows.  Another important element is that Technology inevitably forces you to simplify and standardize your processes, even before you start the system configurations setup, which ultimately lead to and enable higher efficiency.  With a standardized process and a good system, it will also help to attract talents to your team.

TFAGeeks: What are your views on technological disruptions? Do you think this will last or soon it be just another passing fad?

Lee Thong: I think from the Industrial Age, through the Information Age, and now the Digital Age, the technological disruptions will continue to accelerate, and hopefully it will develop in a positive way to make life better for all.

TFAGeeks: As a Treasurer and Finance Leader, what are the issues and problems that will cause you to lose sleep at night?

Lee Thong: From a Treasury perspective, two things come to mind, sudden swing in FX which impacts the profit & loss and cashflow; and changes in regulation that can impact liquidity. This is especially true when you operate in almost 100 countries including emerging markets.  Therefore visibility and timely information at your finger tips are crucial factors in order for one to take swift action when called for, and technology allows that to happen.

TFAGeeks: We have spoken with many undergraduates and graduate students, many of them aspire to be a CFO, Finance Director or Group Treasurer. What advice would you give them? Do you think it is necessary to embark on a paper chase in order for them to rise up on the corporate ladder, i.e doing the MBA, CFA and etc?

Lee Thong: To start with, I only have a Bachelor degree in Accountancy, no paper chase.  From what I can share from my personal experience and also some of my peers, the road to success is dependent on how much you enjoy what you are doing, your own aspiration, the can-do attitude, the effort you are willing to put in, whether you are able to find a good mentor along the way, and some element of luck.  With that, I wish all aspirants good luck and all the best in their pursuit of their dreams!


about author

Seng Ti is currently heading a Treasury & Finance team in a MNC and is serving as the President of the Association of Corporate Treasury (Singapore) aka ACTS. He enjoys reading and discussing about current affairs, politics, life, wine and lives a normal life with his wife and 2 young kids.