The Treasury Update Podcast by Strategic Treasurer

Episode 156

Strategies for Managing Treasury

On this episode of the Treasury Update Podcast, Host Craig Jeffery sits down with Holly Olson, Corporate Treasurer at AFL, to discuss strategies for managing treasury. Topics of discussion center around treasury operations with a view to automated payments, risk management, support of global business units, fraud prevention and more. Listen in to learn effective strategies for optimizing treasury operations around the world.

To learn more about AFL, please visit


Craig Jeffery, Strategic Treasurer

Craig - Headshot


Holly Olson, AFL

Holly Olson, AFL Global
AFL Global

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Episode Transcription - Episode #156 Strategies for Managing Treasury

INTRO  0:05   

Welcome to the Treasury update podcast presented by Strategic Treasurer, your source for interesting Treasury news analysis and insights in your car, at the gym, or wherever you decide to tune in. On this episode of the podcast host, Craig Jeffrey sits down with Holly Olson, corporate Treasurer at AFL to discuss strategies for managing Treasury topics of discussion centered around Treasury operations, with view to automated payments, risk management, supportive global business units, fraud prevention, and more listening to learn effective strategies for optimizing Treasury operations around the world.  


Craig Jeffery  0:56   

Welcome to the podcast.  


Holly Olson  0:57   

Holly, thank you for having me. 


Craig Jeffery  0:59   

As we look back at the beginning of 2021, and 2020, there was certainly a lot of disruption and activities and you know, your experience not only there but across yours is quite interesting you and I’ve had some good conversations over time. But for those that are listening to the podcast, I thought it’d be useful if you gave us an overview of your journey into Treasury and in Treasury, just from an overview perspective, so everybody knows where you’ve where you’ve traveled? 


Holly Olson  1:30   

Sure. I started out as an accountant believe that or not, I went to school for accounting, I got my CPA thought that would be my life, I would be an accountant my entire career, I still somewhat consider myself to be an accountant. Right out of college, and I think this is important to where I stand today kind of shaped me, the very first company that I was with, I worked for a company that speculated in the commodities market, believe that or not. And so, I wound up managing or administrating mutual funds. And I did that for about a good 12 to 13 years. And that this is exactly where I got the bug for finance I, I always swore from that job, that I would be in finance, no matter what role I was going to be in. And I did move to the Cayman Islands. So, I was there for about 10 years, I administrated mutual funds there to all the foreign investors around the globe, that exposed me to international operations and banking and a lot of different things there. So, I acquired some more knowledge during my stay there, and then when we moved back to the United States, you know, I really had to fall back more on my accounting, because a lot of places did not understand what I did for a living. So, I was very specialized in a very specialized, unique area. And I flip flopped around in various roles, I ran accounting departments, corporate accounting departments, I did SCC reporting, worked for a small credit union believe that or not, get back into that finance side. And then I finally landed in in larger public companies and doing the Treasury work. And I’ve done Treasury work now for the past 11 years and, and I’ve enjoyed it. 


Craig Jeffery  3:24   

Thanks for that background. And I’m sure it was a trial working out of the Cayman Islands for the for the decade, but now you’re at AFL global. You know, I think it’s clear that AFL global, if you’re looking on the on your website, that you make fiber optic there, you do a lot of activity around fiber optics, but maybe you could explain, just give everybody an overview of AFL. Just so we know, the types of business, you’re in the geographic region, and in some of those key highlights. 


Holly Olson  3:59   

Yeah, so we do consider ourselves AFL. I know that our website might say AFL Global, we actually obtained the AFL was actually used on the domain. So, we had used AFL Global to identify ourselves and so we have a campaign to definitely try to say, Hey, we’re we are AFL, and we not only say that, from our perspective of just to say this is who we are, but to say no matter what line of business that you’re going to, you’re coming to AFL, you’re going to get the same business across the board. And so we do manufacture a fiber optic cable. We’ve been around since 1984. I kinda really like that we connect people, and that’s really what we do across all of our business lines is we connect people, which is really cool. We have five core businesses, we are in the energy business, the enterprise business, which are data centers and healthcare educational institutions, hyperscale, which are the big cloud data server warehouses that you might see with a Google or an Amazon, or an Apple. We’re in industrial military, oil and gas, and then we’re a service provider, we go in and do it installations, we can design engineer, and install our products. And what’s really cool is we consider ourselves to be an end-to-end provider. So, we, we can design, engineer, we can provide you with our products, and then we can install them. So, we are essentially in a niche player. And we’re very proud of that. 


Craig Jeffery  6:04   

Holly, one of the things that you had said, when we were doing a webinar discussion earlier this week is I can’t remember if you call it a spider web or something else about fiber optics, maybe you can just tell us what, what that is, Do I have the term right? 


Holly Olson  6:17   

You do, it’s a spider, the spider web, it’s pretty cool. I like it. It’s, it’s a fiber optic cable that our parent company designed or they created. And it carries, like 10s of 1000s of more data bits than a typical fiber optic cable. And what’s really good about that is our customers don’t have to spend a lot of money to pull out old cable to put a new cable, they just kind of like on your electrical wiring your home, you know, it’s in a little conduit, they just pull it out, and then they push this back in. And so how cool is that if you’re the customer, and you don’t have to spend, you know, hundreds of 1000s of dollars in construction costs to upgrade your data lines to carry more data. So, we’ve found this to be a very huge benefit to our customers. 


Craig Jeffery  7:15   

Yeah, that’s great. I won’t ask any more questions about the spider web, but just seeing the capacities interesting. Now, now AFL Treasury, as you think about the operations, who you support globally, maybe you could just give us a sense of the activities that the Treasury does across the across the globe. 


Holly Olson  7:39   

Yeah, so we, we do a lot of different things. First and foremost, we handle the cash management at the headquarters. And for all of our domestic operations. We also support the banking relationships in the treasury of our global controllers, we basically want our global controllers to focus in on our business first. And let us work with the banks. We feel a lot of times the controllers have varying degrees of experience working with banks, in this, this really supports them and focuses their energy on on our business. We also concentrate all of our efforts at the corporate office on hedging our various foreign currency risks and other types of risks within the organization. And there again, we have the expertise at the corporate office, we’re able to work with our teams, develop strategies, and then implement them and then help them to achieve cash flow, hedge accounting. And then the other element that we do is risk management from an insurance perspective. We do manage this on a global basis, and we work closely with our brokers. 


Craig Jeffery  9:06   

Great, thanks, Holly, how big is your Treasury staff? 


Holly Olson  9:10   

Two! So, you could say that you have cannot be afraid of rolling up your sleeves and doing some hard work because it’s going to happen every single day. There’s some hard work that has to be done. And it’s not necessarily always the fun stuff, the strategic stuff. Sometimes we have to get right down into the cash management and focus in why haven’t we received our payment file? Why is this return this payment returning and so that even that minutia stuff, we both sometimes have to work on. 


Craig Jeffery  9:49   

Yeah, and you know, this, this idea of, you know, how do you how do you cope with the work the changes the dynamism, you know, what are the strategies for managing Treasury and any type of complex environment and you’re certainly in a complex environment, especially when there’s not massive numbers of people to do that. So maybe we could talk a little bit about your view on automation, and staffing, how those two things intersect. I know you’ve got lots of stories, maybe you have one here not. But maybe you could talk about automation as part of your, your strategy. 


Holly Olson  10:27   

Yeah. So, with two people, we have to automate. And that’s, that’s prime on our minds every single day. When I first came to AFL, there was a lot of manual processes, working in Excel spreadsheets, and there’s nothing wrong with Excel spreadsheets, but when you only have two people, it could be extremely time consuming. We also have a lot of questions coming back to us, you know, what is this? What does that mean? And so, what we decided we would do is think to ourselves, what can we shift somewhere else? Can we…should Treasury be doing this work? Should accounting be doing this work? should someone else be doing this work? Okay, if it’s supposed to be in Treasury, then how do we do it? The best way possible? How fast? Can we get it done? Can we automate it, so again, shifting the work somewhere else? So, we’re either going to shift it back to a department where potentially it should have been in the first place but was within the Treasury Department because both my counterpart and I are accountants, and just because we’re accountants doesn’t mean we should be doing accounting, we should be focusing in on Treasury. So, we’ve had to take a hard look at some of our workflow and in ask ourselves where it should be in the organization. And that was one thing. And the other thing is really automation. And we have done a lot of over automation over the years. One of the key things I think that had a huge impact on our on our operations was automating payments, we had implemented a treasury workstation, it’s been about a year or so now. And one of the elements that we automate it was payments. And before we did this, what we would do is accounts payable would go ahead and process it inside of the ERP system, then they would upload a file and then we would look at the file and we would validate it and then we would have to go in and approve it. It was a very, it was a very difficult process and, and maybe not so much difficult, but clunky, you know it, there was no streamline there. And anytime my counterpart entered a payment, I had to approve it. By automating the payments our Treasury workstation is the initiator. So, from a dual control standpoint, I kind of was able to back out of the day-to-day cash operations, not entirely, because obviously, there’s going to be situations where we need that dual control in there. But I would say it really reduced my day-to-day cash management. And it also reduced my counterparts, day to day management as well. And as sort of gave us some time back. Another element that had a huge impact was automating our cash accounting journal entries. And I believe we’re spending a good full week, 40 hours a month in just accounting and, and cash forecasting. And now all of that is done through our Treasury workstation, we probably spend a half a day a month. So that was a huge resource savings, there. 


Craig Jeffery  14:16   

Almost a month. I like those, those two strategies, the low shift to the right place or locate activities where they belong. And then this, you know, find the best way possible. And automation is a big part of that. We’ll get back to talk about some strategies. But I also wanted to talk about risk management, some of the risk management activities that you do there, right. One of the key elements of Treasury is, you know, reducing the risks and exposures that a company faces to bring them in line with the risk appetite and I know you have a number of them. So maybe you could just talk about what you what you see in terms of risk management, where that’s going. 


Holly Olson  14:58   

We’ve seen a lot of variability in the foreign currencies, as well, as we’ve seen some of the metal costs going up, skyrocketing, both from just a marketplace where there’s a lot of easy money out there that’s pushing base metals up in, and the cost of that is biting into our margins. And not only is there loose money out there that’s driving some of that costs up. There’s also a supply chain, or shall I say, a supply demand issue? Because of COVID. And the protocols put into place, you know, copper has to be mined, you can only have so many people in the mine mining and refining. And I’m sure we’ve all experienced that during the pandemic is how do we how do we have this social distancing and still get our work done. And then of course, you have all of this, the issues with moving the materials around the globe, seems to have become more and more of a problem. So, we, we see as a high demand and constrained supply at the moment in the base metals. And that is actually increasing the cost across the board. And, and we’re most interested in the copper base metal, and that goes into our low voltage wires that we in the harnesses for the vehicles. The foreign currencies are always a concern because they change depending on the geopolitical risks. The pandemic has definitely made a lot of countries uncertain. You look at Europe and India, for example, India’s have been a huge second or third wave of COVID and that places pressures on their economic system. And then that also has an impact on their foreign currency variability. Now, India is not one of the places we’re looking at, but there are other countries, emerging market companies where we operate, such as Mexico where the variability of the peso can have an impact on our operations. 


Craig Jeffery  17:27   

So, just in terms of scale, you know, you talked about volatility or variability of the precious metals that the some of the commodity markets, and you talked about copper, what what’s going on with copper? And what are some of the outlooks there? 


Holly Olson  17:43   

Well, the outlook there is that the slope or the ascent of price, pricing increases are actually almost straight up. They’re almost vertical. We went from $4, one day, one day, I was talking to our team, it was $4 a pound. And then and then just two days later, it was $4.25 a pound. And you know, when you’re buying millions of pounds, it’s a huge cost increase overall. So, you definitely want to manage that. 


Craig Jeffery  18:23   

Yeah, I don’t know, it’s 6% over two days translates annually, but that is pretty much completely vertical. 


Holly Olson  18:30   

And the other thing I’d like to add, though, Craig, before you move on, is the electric vehicle and green energy is also impacting the copper. Electric vehicles take four times more copper wires than a combustible car. So, there’s an increasing demand for copper and other metals as well, that would go into these green products. 


Craig Jeffery  19:02   

I’m trying to think of I should ask questions on that. Probably not. I was just thinking about the cost of the cost of cars, the availability of cars, there’s a there’s a big restriction on both new cars that’s overflowing into the used car market. It’s really surprising what’s going on right now. Coppers, what per metric ton now 10,000 or so or where? 


Holly Olson  19:26   

Yeah, it’s about 10,000. And Goldman Sachs came out with forecast of 15,000 per metric ton and B of A has come out and said it can go up to 20,000 per metric ton. And I mean, this is not in the very short term, like within the next six months, but within the next few years, that’s what we can anticipate. So, you know, that’s, that’s a concern. You know, we don’t want to make money on our copper, the copper that we buy, but we don’t want to lose our shirts on it either. And we have a limited capacity to pass some of those costs on to our customers. So, there is an increasing desire, appetite, if you will, to hedge our copper exposures. 


Craig Jeffery  20:18   

Yeah, I mean that the, that’s getting hot so high, it’s approaching lumber prices? 


Holly Olson  20:24   

Yes, it’s, it’s getting pretty hot.  


Craig Jeffery  20:28   

You know, the commodity discussion is useful. And there’s such a business and risk element there too. But there’s obviously other challenges and pain points that exists, what are some of those other pain points that that you’re working on to improve? 


Holly Olson  20:45   

Sure. Obviously, one of the key components of risk management that is needed for any program is to have good information. And good information involves not only our forecasts, which we need to forecast as good as we can. We also have about 10 to 13, ERP systems that are out there, they all operate differently. Our controllers all manage our foreign currency exposures differently according to their respective ERP systems. And it’s not that they’re doing anything bad or they’re doing something wrong. It’s just that that’s just how they’re handling it to meet the needs at their location. And so, getting that information and getting it timely and being able to review it, analyze it and develop a strategy is sometimes there’s a lag or the information is stale. So how do you manage that? So, finding ways of improving that process is a key mindset that we have going forward of trying to figure out how can we do this better? And one of the ways that we’re thinking of doing that is having cash forecasting inside of our Treasury workstation and having our global comptroller’s report their not only their cash flows, but also the currencies that they’re going to be using. And that would give us some insight to what potential risks that we have out there, it’s not going to be everything. But I think it’s a good start someplace where we can say, well, why, why are you doing this? or What is this for? How much volume do you have? And where can I find it elsewhere in the income statement or balance sheet? And can we hedge it? And does it make sense? So that’s, that’s probably one of the key pain points that we have right now is gathering data and making sure it’s reliable from a risk management perspective. We also need to standardize that process, that process right now, what we do it in Excel, it’s, it’s not standard at all, because everyone fills in our surveys a little bit differently. Right, you know, and, you know, again, it comes back down to the ERP system that they’re using and what information is available? And then it also comes back down to how are they interpreting what we’re asking for? So, we continuously have to go back and ask questions, and that adds to some of the delays in finalizing the numbers to a point where we can actually action it. 


Craig Jeffery  23:53   

Yeah, there’s a lot there about harnessing information from disparate sources with different uses and then being able to take advantage of it like your example in a TMS. Holly, you had mentioned one of the automation efforts you had worked on. When we were preparing for this, and I was I almost thought you were off by an order of magnitude, saying what you what you had to do with insurance, certificates of insurance issuance, can you say what, what you’re doing there and in what you’ve done to make that process more streamlined? It was it floored me mentally when you could describe? 


Holly Olson  24:38   

Yeah, so, you know, as I, as I mentioned, we have a whole big staff of two. So, what do we do? How can we offload some of the work and this is part of the strategies to some extent you have to decipher where do we have the expertise and what should we be doing and standardizing at the corporate office at the Treasury Department, and what can we push to other departments? And this is just one of those elements where we can push some of the work to our business units, where they are more intimate with the need of the organization. And that is with certificates of insurance, for sure. So, you can consider it a decentralized approach. And each one of them would, because we’re in various different businesses, our customers may have a need for a certificate of insurance, and we issue well over 2000 certificates of insurance. And I don’t even know if that numbers right. But it’s, well above that anyway, and that would be too difficult for two individuals to manage. So, what we’re doing now, and we have a pilot program that’s going on at the moment, is we’ve worked with our local broker, and they have a portal where we can standardize that process and our team can go in there, they could provide whatever key elements they need, do they need general liability to the need automobile umbrella? What do they need and complete the requirements online, and then that goes directly to our insurance and then they turn around and process it and issue that certificate of insurance. And that’s just on the issuance side of things. And so, we started that here, probably within the last week or two. We’ve been working on a lot longer than that, but I think we’ve got a solution that’s really going to help us oversee the process and then meet the needs of our various business units. 


Craig Jeffery  27:03   

Yeah, very good. I know another pain point for every organization that that seems to exist, especially with the use of automation by the different criminals, the attackers that use man in the middle, business email compromised fraud, fraud around payments, cyber fraud across the board is really scaling in some different ways. That’s been scary, especially the last five or six years, and certainly has been heightened during the work from home environment with COVID. What are your views on fraud? And the implications on Treasury as a steward responsible for protecting the organization? 


Holly Olson  27:48   

Yeah, that’s a really great question, Craig, you know, about maybe five years ago, I, if you were to ask me that same question, I would have boasted that we had never been a victim of fraud, never lost a penny in my entire career, and in and that would have been the truth. But now we’re seeing this uptick take place, especially since the pandemic occurred. More and more bad actors are finding opportunities, they’re getting smarter, and they’re getting slicker. And it actually is becoming more difficult to detect fraud than it ever did before. And I mean, they’re, if they steal somebody’s email, you say it’s AFL global, they might say AFLL global. And when you look at it really quick, quickly, you’re not seeing that extra L in there, you think, hey, this is from, you know, Holly Olson, or this is from you know, someone is this is a legitimate email. So, it’s becoming more and more difficult to detect fraudulent emails, and now they’re even getting into company emails, and communicating directly from within that organization. And we had a situation back in December, where one of our vendors did have a breach to their email system, and they asked us to update their banking instructions. And we said, Sure, you know, no problem. We’ll be happy to do that for you. By the way, here’s a form and we emailed them the form. Again, they had constructed this email from within their own email system and the verbiage sounded just like the sender would sound. So, very smart, slick, bad actors out there. And naturally, we fell victim to that and we pay the bad actors instead of our vendor and of course, you know, the vendor is not pleased with us having done that. And then it became a well, who’s responsible? You know, are we responsible because we did not pick up the phone and call them? Are they responsible because they didn’t have enough controls over their computer? So, this is a battle that I that I believe are still that still playing out between us and our vendor. And, you know, it’s just kind of like having two best friends. And one little, small thing comes in between us and it’s one thing you don’t need to have. So, what we have opted to do is change our practice around bank instruction validation, we’re taking a zero tolerance, on validating bank account changes. So, any bank account change that comes into our organization has to be validated verbally. Only verbally, we are not allowed to use telephone numbers on the invoices on an email, we must seek it out on the internet, go to their website, use the main headquarters numbers, and call in that way, it is very time consuming. And I can tell you that I did track this for a month, and it is taking our team about eight hours, eight to 10 hours per month to validate bank accounts. And that would be new vendors as well as changes that are coming in. And it’s challenging too because what happens when you have a vendor that’s in Vietnam, and they don’t talk English, you know, and so we tried verbally calling them and they’re like, do you speak Vietnamese? And we’re like, no, do you speak English? And they’re like, no, okay, well, I guess we can’t validate this in this manner. And we had, again, go back and get a little creative. And we were able to solve that problem by using pin numbers back and forth. And, you know, so it was verbally, the pin number was verbally provided. And then we were able to use that inside of an email. 


Probably not the best way. But it was the only way where we can validate that our procurement department is also not happy with us on by doing all of this, because it’s slowing down some of the onboarding of vendors by anywhere from two to three days and up to a week in some cases, those would be the rare cases. But on average, the delays top vendor onboarding is about two to three days. And that puts pressures on our operations, as well. And so, we’re been out looking for potential solutions to try to resolve the administrative burden there. And, Craig, I gotta tell you, if someone were to, to develop this service, I think they could make a lot of money. Right now, there’s not a lot of companies that are willing to do it. You can push all your payments through some vendors, and they will do it for you. But if you already have automation and payments, and you don’t want to take that project on, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of options available on that front. But we are working with our bank, and they are rolling out a solution in June, and we’re hoping to get on board of that service. And hopefully that will reduce some of the administrative burden we’ve been experiencing, 


Craig Jeffery  33:53   

You know, quite interesting, the zero tolerance, I think that’s become much more common because of the concern about the compromise of certain channels that occur. And this out of band validation is important, you know, that helps to prevent some of the system oriented or business email compromise areas. On the human side, there’s, you know, compromising systems can be through a firewall, through the process, through the structure and through people. Do you have any strategies on the human side, the human element part of the equation? What are you looking at there to keep things strengthen? 


Holly Olson  34:32   

Yeah, Craig, that’s another really super great question. One of the items that we found, and you could probably help me out with some of the statistics there, is that trading is a key risk mitigation strategy, and that if you train your employees, it could reduce your potential risk to fraud by I believe two to five times is that correct, Craig? 


Craig Jeffery  35:01   

Yeah, and I think that the way that we would say, because of the way we ask questions and some of our surveys, the correlation was two to five times depending on whether it’s business, email compromised, ransomware, etc. So, the correlation is really high, those that train their employees, especially in payments area, suffer losses at a significantly reduced level. It’s dramatic. 


Holly Olson  35:26   

Yeah, so we’re doing a couple of things on that front right now. So, the first thing that we’re doing is our IT team pushes out emails that are supposed to replicate a fraudulent email to get our employees accustomed to seeing emails that might not fit into their normal day. So far, I think I have 100. But I’m sure I’ve missed one or two, if you do, click on it and start responding, it’ll say “oops”, you’ve been snagged more or less. And, you know, but it’s supposed to be a teaching element. And, you know, trying to get our people aware of the fact that this can happen at any given day. And in fact, I’ve had several emails that have come into my inbox, where I’ve pushed it over to IT and said, can you please look at this before I open it up. And so having that awareness right out there helps from the BEC standpoint, the other is training, as, as you mentioned, there’s a huge benefit there. And we’re looking at various vendors to help provide us with that training. And we’re hoping to roll that out to our controllers and in our accounts payable specialist and anyone in the organization that we feel, has a need to know, so that we can mitigate the risk, we haven’t yet sat down and identified the various roles. But that is, as you say, on our to do list, something that we need to understand. So, that as we’re looking through these potential opportunities to train our employees, we can identify the appropriate material to meet the various roles within the organization. 


Craig Jeffery  37:29   

That’s excellent. Holly. You know, the, some of the other statistics are the corporations that are training those that are involved in payments, from executives to AP to Treasury, across the board, that those numbers are going up very, very rapidly. And there’s, there’s good reason for that. And, you know, in addition to some of these, well established over a year, a couple years, there’s a number of new scary things with the rise of ransomware and the payoffs there. Obviously, there’s been major breaches there, cyber activities, hitting, you know, water supply systems in Florida, by pipeline in the southeast, where we’re both located in the US ransomware, closing those down, as well as a healthcare system in California, you know, more than a week having a big impact, these are significant. The other thing we won’t get into too much is the man in the middle attacks, the sophistication and their success rate has really just started to skyrocket over the last couple of weeks. And that’s a whole other topic, because it’s, they’re not just trying to convince you like in business email compromised to send out payments, but they’re gaining control of your information and then have the credentials to issue payments, which is, which is a heightened level of concern. So, thanks for sharing some of those pain points and what you’re doing on that front in this discussion on strategies. But as we move towards, you know, final thoughts and closing remarks. I was I was wondering if you would just spend a little bit of time saying what’s the best part of being a treasurer The best part of Treasury that you would, you know, share with the audience? 


Holly Olson  39:22   

Well, that’s a really great question, Craig. I love everything about finance. I’m a finance geek, and I’m ecstatic to be a part of Finance. I read books on it during the week I read the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and many other research reports. I love keeping up on it during the day after work. And the reason I’m driven is because whatever knowledge I acquire from all of these sources, helps the bottom line of the company. If I can make one decision that helps the bottom line of our organization to me, that’s well worth it. And that’s what drives me every single day. And beyond that, it’s just it’s different. It’s not the same old routine when I was in accounting, it was counting for the same widgets month in, month out. And that’s the way I felt because it wasn’t a good fit for me. But finances because it is different every single day, and the market changes every single day. The strategies change, everything is dynamic, and I love that changing environment and I thrive on it. So, for me, that’s, that’s what Treasury is all about. I’m sure others may think otherwise. But that’s what drives me. 


Craig Jeffery 

Holly, thank you so much. Thanks for sharing strategies for managing treasuries and talking through number of the different issues confronting you and the finance profession. Thanks for your passion around finance.  


Holly Olson   

Thank you, Craig, thanks for having me. 



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