Ola Thomson - Head of Treasury at Oatly

Finance & Accountancy
19 February, 2024

Ola Thomson is the Head of Treasury at Oatly, headquartered in Malmö, Sweden. He has over 20 years of experience in senior Financial Services and Commercial roles.

In his current role, Ola is responsible for Treasury transformation at Oatly, and created a Treasury function from scratch, taking it through an IPO with a focus on lean and digitalisation.

What would you say is a memorable moment from your career and why?

When you impact a decision and realise what you do makes a difference, such as a recent funding in the debt capital markets last year.

It was memorable, because it was at the beginning of the year, when we had all these macroeconomic challenges and when we decided to go to the debt capital markets.

It was really a moment where we had to work with different levels of stakeholders; it was a multi-party negotiation. We had to work with banks, investors, the board, shareholders, and those internally, of course, so it was a classic example of where collaboration matters.

What have you learned as a leader over the past 12 months specifically?

For me, balance. No matter how interesting and fun work is, you need a balanced life, meaning work-life balance.

It’s important to take good care of your sleep, exercise, and eat healthy food. So, that is what I've learned this year. I was almost on the wrong path, but I managed to get back on track.

How do you ensure that you have the time to do that?

I have signed up for things to make it easier, such as signing up to a gym and having a small home gym. Also, I make sure that I plan ahead for healthy foods so that I don't end up without them in the fridge, etc.

Sleep has been a big focus for me. No matter what, I try to ensure I get a good sleep. One way to do that is to either take a walk outside or go to a pool to swim, or similar.

I focus on making sure that I don't work too many hours and try to ensure that I allow myself time for the private side of life.

When you reflect on your career, are there any risks that you've taken that have helped you get to the level that you're at?

I think the change we fear most is the one that we should face to develop - it's easy to take the easy way out and not face that fear.

For me, since the start of my career, I really wanted to move to a new country and learn about a new culture and a new language; to live and work in a country where I had no previous experience.

I've always been curious about different cultures and people and how to improve business or processes. So, having the opportunity to live and work abroad in an international business was my number one priority while studying at university.

Being open-minded and taking the risk to work in countries where you must learn something new can be scary, but - at the same time - it can accelerate your personal development. So, those are probably the biggest risks that I have taken during my career.

What would you say is the most rewarding part of your role?

To have the benefit of working with the nicest and kindest people that you can find, and having the opportunity to see different people profiles work together and complement each other. That is the most rewarding part.

Do you have a personal highlight from your career so far?

There are probably several, but one recent highlight is to have built a Treasury function from scratch and take it through an IPO back in 2021.

From scratch, I had to understand the vision I had for the Treasury function, looking ahead three years from the start, because there was nothing in place to look at regarding what should be within the mandate of the Treasury function.

That started with the Treasury policy, designing the end-to-end processes, and looking at hiring the right people with the vision to build that team. And the function should be based on lean and digitalisation or automation as much as possible.

It also included investing and implementing a Treasury Management System. So, all of that together was how this process was done. At the same time, of course, looking at establishing an FX strategy, establishing a banking strategy, and implementing a set-up based on several core banks, etc.

What would you say are three to five key drivers for success in Oatly and what are the things that you look for specifically in employees?

I would say being fearless, getting in the game, and feeling at home.

To expand on those three, being fearless is daring to challenge each other and daring to speak up when you don't agree.

If we look at getting in the game, it's about having a mindset of there's always a way - a solution-driven mentality - and helping and supporting each other.

Feeling at home is saying, “Let’s talk about it” - bringing issues, if any, to the table sooner rather than later. Along with making sure that all team members are given the same space to talk and voice their opinions and always remember that we value each other equally.

Besides that, Treasury is built not only as a traditional back-office/middle-office but more as a financial advisor; we need strong analytical skills paired with the ability to see the big picture.

What does your organisation do to raise awareness around mental health and wellbeing? Is there anything that you specifically do to raise awareness about that?

Since I joined back in 2019, I have realised this is a high priority for our organisation. Everything from encouraging managers to start meetings with check-ins with the team members and for other cross-functional meetings, as well.

Everything from that to offered sessions on meditation and other company initiatives on leadership. At Oatly, leadership also includes the empathy side of things, as well.

We apply check-ins at most of our weekly meetings. I have also tried out some meditation sessions, because I've been curious. I'm not fully there yet, but it's on my list to develop further as part of the learnings we discussed earlier.

What would you say excites you about working for Oatly?

This may sound naive to some, but most of us working at Oatly believe that we contribute to something good for the planet and that purpose excites me.

What is the culture like at Oatly? How would you describe it?

We believe in the importance of openness, transparency, integrity, and trust in everything that we do - and again, to link back to what I look for in the team, we should feel at home, we are fearless, and we get into the game.

Looking at recruitment, what would you say your onboarding or hiring process looks like generally?

It focuses a lot on company culture and expectations from the company. Meeting with other colleagues is very important in the beginning and having an introduction to various stakeholders.

Then we have the traditional e-learning and internal training courses coupled with that.

In general, it's been quite a difficult market in Sweden. Are there any specific recruitment challenges that you're facing currently?

For us, specifically - and this is my opinion - having a fast-growing organisation with a large number of newcomers at the same time can present some interesting challenges for the company culture. That is where I think leadership at all levels is key.

That is the main difference and a challenge for a company like Oatly versus others, as we have been growing very fast.

Looking at Sweden as a whole, would you say that Sweden is a good place to live? If so, why?

I think we are very fortunate to live in Sweden; everything from freedom to the level of democracy to social security… And also simple things taken for granted, such as being able to drink tap water, but also our environment and nature.

2023 was quite a turbulent and challenging year. Do you see the Swedish economy evolving over the next five or so years?

It’s difficult to say. Sweden faced challenges for sure, and, unfortunately, I think the situational risks will get worse, not only for the Swedish economy, but over the next few years because of what is happening around the world with macroeconomics and geopolitical situations.

What would you say is the secret to building a strong network?

Curiosity and listening skills, together with a transparent, authentic approach to understanding and communicating value propositions. To improve those skills, I would encourage participating in cross-functional projects.

If you are studying, then try to seek an internship at the same time - those are probably the things that can open your view to other angles, other functions, and other profiles that will help you to develop your listening skills. Also, just be curious to work from other functions and other inputs.

For a job seeker trying to stand out in quite a competitive market, what advice would you give them?

What I look at is if someone can express not only why you are the right candidate, but also the other way around - why the hiring firm is the right one for you. If you can express both of those, then usually there is a very easy click, so you know if you are the right candidate.

Looking back on your career, is there any advice that you'd go back and give your younger self?

Yes, I would say take better care of my work-life balance.

When you have a very interesting job, it's so easy to forget the things outside of work. Work is part of your life, but it's not your full life. You have to remember that work is not everything.

Did you plan out your career development path?

I planned out a part of it and adjusted along the way, but it really started with the vision. It links back to what I said about curiosity and wanting to learn about different cultures.

I had a vision when I was at university that I wanted to work abroad. I wanted to work in international business, and I wanted to learn about different cultures. That vision took me along the path to work with different international organisations.

Of course, along the way, you can adjust the career development targets that you have, but I happened to stumble onto the right path from the first few steps.

Speaking to aspiring leaders or people who want to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?

My advice would be to always be kind and always remember that everyone has a story. Taking risks is part of developing yourself and the business.

Also, an authentic path may take longer, but the moves and the impact are what make a difference and creates the magic in the daily work.

What is the best compliment you've ever received?

Apparently, my perseverance and my smile are contagious, even during challenging situations. I received that compliment from one of my main stakeholders, an executive.

We've spoken about memorable moments, but what has been the most surprising thing that has happened during your career?

How something is presented can make all the difference for the audience. So, it's about finding out what makes it tick for the counterparty - you can basically present the same thing, but the way and how you present it can have a completely different result.

In business, or maybe outside of business, is there a person that inspires you?

Warren Buffett, because he has a delegate, hands-free leadership style, and he surrounded himself with a very skilled and trusted team. His vision turned into reality, and he inspired his employees to see the same vision and strive towards it.

Having an engaging style is what I try to always pass on to people I work with. The hands-free leadership style is what I value from my managers, and what I try to pass on to my team, as well.

How would you define the role of Head of Treasury?

I would define it as making financing available, securing the money logistics, and defining financial risks and how they are to be managed.

When it comes to digital transformation, what are your guesses on how it would change the role of Head of Treasury?

It's an opportunity to strengthen internal controls. At the same time, it supports a lean, effective function - this is how we built our Treasury function from the start. Again, it's an opportunity.

Thank you to Ola for speaking to Hanna Gibson, Senior Consultant in our Nordics division.

Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment