Watching and Waiting

The Internet was going to transform corporate treasury operations. So what happened?

If the Internet is the future of corporate treasury management, few treasurers or other finance executives seem in a rush to get there.

A recent survey by the Association for Financial Professionals (AFP) of nearly 1,000 of its members revealed a definite ambivalence toward the Internet and treasury-oriented Web-based software. More than 80 percent of the survey participants said they expect the Web to have a major effect on functions like payment processing, collections, and investments in the next several years. Nearly as many expect it to reshape corporate borrowing and foreign-exchange (forex) practices. Yet only 29 percent of respondents said that E-commerce and the Internet had had a major impact on treasury functions in the past 12 months.

This creates a half-full-versus-half-empty debate: Do most treasurers believe that the Internet has not made a major impact recently because the trend has yet to take off, or because it is already well established? AFP president Jim Kaitz takes the latter view. “It’s not as big a novelty anymore — it’s simply how companies are conducting their business,” he says. “People now take the Internet for granted.”

Many seem to take it with a grain of salt. A decidedly ho-hum attitude toward Web-based treasury management tools has emerged in many quarters, largely as a backlash against highly touted benefits that have yet to materialize. The Web was going to revolutionize the treasury function — transform it from a conservative, reactive department into a streamlined, proactive partner to senior management and the company as a whole. But like everyone else, corporate treasurers have been disabused of the notion that everything is necessarily better on the Web. “The hype has definitely exceeded the delivery of benefits,” says Andy Mayer, a managing director with ArcPartners, a management consulting firm in New York.

Along with lowered expectations, the downturn in the economy has also dampened the interest in new Web-based initiatives. “All the craziness about everything going to the Web has ground to a halt,” says Hewlett-Packard treasurer Larry Tomlinson. “Companies are no longer asking which investments they should make, but which ones they can do without.” In Tomlinson’s case, the lousy economy isn’t the only reason he’s holding back on new Internet projects. If shareholders do in fact sign off on HP’s proposed acquisition of Compaq Computer, Tomlinson will inherit the task of integrating Compaq’s treasury systems and processes with his own. “We’ve got a very full plate,” he says.

But Tomlinson, like most treasurers, believes that the management of treasury operations will evolve from desktop and workstation applications to Web-based platforms, and that eventually HP will handle more of its treasury functions over the Web. Despite the hype, he says, the advantages of the Internet are clear. Data can be entered and extracted far more easily and consistently on Web-based systems than with stand-alone workstations. Seamless connectivity provides better information faster and more cheaply to larger numbers of people, both inside and outside corporations. “A workstation can’t handle 1,500 users,” says Gonzalo Naranjo, CEO of Calgary-based liquidity management software maker Alterna Technologies Group Inc. “It can’t handle a transaction initiated in Singapore, approved in New York, and settled in Amsterdam.”

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