- Caroline Preuss is the award-winning CFO of the Perth Mint.
- Preuss helped guide a major restructure of the Mint to help it create new global opportunities.
- Australia is the world’s largest exporter of gold bars made from newly mined gold.
By Tony Malkovic.
Caroline Preuss FCA reckons there are probably two types of CFOs: the “transformational CFO who goes out with a mandate to drive change through a business”, and the other who “stabilises the ship, probably going out and raising capital for the organisation.
“I think I enjoy the transformational part of the role,” she says. Which is just as well, since it’s been such a prominent item on her to-do list.
Reshaping a business
Preuss is the chief financial officer of a 120-year-old business that employs 450 people, has clients in more than 130 countries and distributes more than A$18 billion of precious metals.
Preuss has helped reshape the business from top to bottom since she was appointed CFO of the Perth Mint in mid-2015. As a result of this process, revenue jumped 36% in 2016 and income before tax doubled to a record A$41 million. She also spearheaded a cost reduction programme that cut corporate overheads by A$1.5 million. Not bad for your first year in the job.
Preuss and the executive team have been involved in refining and implementing a new business strategy for the Mint to identify new markets and opportunities.
As part of that, Preuss led a 42-person team in rolling out its “One Future” business transformation project. “What we’ve done is gone through and looked almost top to bottom at every part of our business, and challenged ourselves around what have we done and how can we do it better,” Preuss says.
“We’re taking a number of our legacy processes, platforms and systems and [we are] modernising and streamlining them, giving us the ability to go to market in a different way.
“For example, we can only trade [precious metals] if there’s a human sitting at the trading desk. Part of this program is implementing an automated hedger and price aggregator so we can trade when our treasury team isn’t here, which opens the way to 24/7 trading.
“Then we can take that technology and roll it out to our customers so they log onto a website to trade at times convenient to them, rather than having to pick up the phone at a time convenient to the Mint.
“That all flows through to re-doing our retail websites, wholesale websites, and then rolls out to things like our logistics - once someone purchases a product, how do you actually ship it to them in the most efficient and cost-effective manner while mitigating the risks?
“Because obviously putting a gold bar in transit carries significant risk.”
The risk factor
Dealing in gold and precious metals is fundamentally a risky business. In the Perth Mint’s case, it’s exposed on a number of levels, including price risk, credit risk, settlement risk and foreign exchange risk.
A more prosaic risk is that people – think criminals – just want to get their hands on the Perth Mint’s gold.
Preuss’s history shows why she’s in charge of managing risk. Before joining the Mint in 2013, she spent 10 years with PwC (then PricewaterhouseCoopers), joining the firm after doing vacation work with it while at university. While there, she was seconded to the firm’s Melbourne risk and quality division, a national advice group.
“In doing that, I then became a risk specialist and was involved in rolling out a lot of the risk training in Perth,” she says.
The changes Preuss is helping to roll out at the Perth Mint are part of its key role in creating demand for gold and precious metals worldwide and supporting the Australasian gold mining industry.
Australia is the second-largest producer of gold after China, and the largest exporter in the world of bars poured from newly mined gold.
The Perth Mint (with parent body Gold Corporation) is owned by the WA Government. It refines nearly all the gold mined in Australia, as well as gold from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Malaysia and Thailand.
It also deals in other precious metals such as silver and platinum, and provides investment and storage services.
While the Perth Mint doesn’t make the coins in circulation in Australia – the Canberra-based Royal Australian Mint does that – it mints Australia’s official legal tender bullion coins and manufactures a variety of precious metal collector and commemorative coins which are also legal tender.
Technical skills and the strategic picture
Richard Hayes, the Chief Executive Officer of the Perth Mint, says Preuss has what it takes for the CFO job. He should know – he was the previous incumbent.
He says he wanted to recruit someone with good technical skills who could also appreciate the bigger strategic picture.
“Caroline has been able to marry both,” he says. “She’s got deep technical expertise, along with a mature and broad understanding of the company strategy, what our competitive advantages are, what our real reason for being is – and how we can translate that into global dominance.
“The organisation was growing quite rapidly, we were looking at entering a range of new markets not only in Australia but globally, and I was looking for somebody who could bring a different skills base … to the CFO position.
“She did a fair amount of restructuring fairly early on as CFO and I was pleasantly surprised at the confidence she had as she moved through that.
“We run tens of billions of dollars through our books every year. She was young for the position and relatively inexperienced as well, but she moved decisively in terms of the restructure, what she wanted to do and what she needed the finance structure to look like.”
Preuss has a slightly different take on her early days in the job.
“If I had my time again, I probably would have approached that period slightly differently and tried to carve my own way as CFO out from the start,” she says.
“You’ve got to come up with your own way to get the best outcome in a room of managers or experienced leaders – and copying someone else isn’t being true to yourself.” So what is her style?
“I think it’s very much understanding what different stakeholders want in terms of an outcome and trying to work through it before I walk into the room, what the middle ground is and ideally having sounded them out individually about the middle ground before I put it up in the room,” she says.
Being younger and female, it meant I couldn’t bang my fist on the table of older gentlemen and say ‘we’re going to do it this way’
Preuss has already won acclaim for her work at the Perth Mint.
A year ago, she won the government Chief Financial Officer of the Year award at the WS Lonnie Awards given out by the Institute of Public Administration Australia (WA), a category sponsored by Chartered Accountants ANZ.
Preuss is obviously fired with enthusiasm for the CFO role.
“Our turnover is in the tens of billions of dollars and we’ve got A$3 billion of gold sitting in vaults,” she says. “It’s such a huge iconic WA business and to be appointed in that role at only 33, I was absolutely delighted.”
Preuss also volunteers with CA ANZ’s chartered accountants program as a facilitator and examiner, sharing her practical experiences with the next generation of CAs.
“It’s been lovely as I’ve progressed through my career and being a female and standing up and saying: ‘I’m CFO of one of the iconic businesses – you can do this’.”
Change of perspective
Witnessing the aftermath of a traffic accident on the way to work about five years ago has changed the way Preuss approaches life, and even her work.
“I was driving one morning and drove past a man who was lying on the middle of the freeway next to his motorcycle,” she recalls. “He was moving, and people stopped but no one was actually helping him.
“At that point, I realised I couldn’t help him because I didn’t know what to do. So that afternoon, I joined St John’s as a volunteer.”
She’s since been involved as an ambulance first aid officer at scores of sporting events and functions around Perth. “I’ve seen everything from drug overdoses to sporting injuries, heart attacks and near-misses,” Preuss says. “For me, it reinforces there is a bit more to life than just work and it puts a different perspective on things.”
There’s one aspect from her volunteering that she would like to be able to emulate: “I don’t think I’ve perfected it, but one of the things I’ve noticed is that when paramedics walk into a room they have a calming effect,” she says. “It’s a skill, I’d love to say I’ve got it but it’s one I’m still working on and trying to perfect.”
New York bound
In July, Preuss is due to fly to the US for an event at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), one in which she will play a key role.
The Perth Mint is looking at launching a product for the US market to stimulate demand for Australian gold, and she’ll be ringing the NYSE’s famed bell on the day of the launch.
The bell may be brass, but the moment will be golden – and another milestone in what is shaping up as a glittering career.
Tony Malkovic is an award-winning Perth-based journalist with a special interest in business, science and innovation, and engineering.