As a financial leader at a global technology company, Catherine Portman is familiar with balance. Drawn to opportunities where she can build strong foundations for a company to grow, Juniper Networks’ vice president and treasurer insists that finance is not all guidelines. “It is all about balancing trade-offs and communicating with management,” Portman says.
Currently, Juniper Networks is in the final stages of returning $4.1 billion in capital to its shareholders, a move that Portman says is not insignificant. “Embarking on all of the activities surrounding such a large undertaking required having a view on how we thought about our balance sheet, debt/leverage, and articulating our capital structure strategy to executives and to the board,” she explains. During her tenure at the company, Juniper Networks obtained an investment grade credit rating by both S&P and Moody’s.
Signing on with Juniper Networks nearly fifteen years ago, Portman was instrumental in creating the company’s first global treasury organization. Her passion? Thinking strategically within fiduciary guidelines. “The building phase is a lot of fun. You don’t necessarily need to be at a startup,” she says.
She joined the company shortly after its initial public offering (IPO), relishing the chance to set the strategy as it related to investments, cash, foreign exchange, and capital structure. At the time, the company had slightly less than 1,000 employees. Now it has nearly 9,000 employees.
With a passion for leading and growing high-performing teams, Portman attributes part of her career path to being born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she was consistently exposed to successful tech companies. As a post-collegiate, Portman landed an internship at Apple and worked her way up through the tech behemoth. It was at a time when the company was growing rapidly and becoming a household name almost overnight. From her time there, she learned the importance of having fun at work and how it can help encourage collaboration.
“Every Halloween there would be a company parade and everyone would dress up,” Portman says. She adds that experiencing that culture right out of college helped her to develop her leadership style. Her mantra is to hire a team of high performers and then focus on leading them rather than micromanaging. One endeavor that Portman is particularly proud of is her team’s work on the development of Juniper Networks’ enterprise risk management (ERM) program.
Team Up for The Wins
Juniper Networks’ vice president and treasurer is adamant that many of her accomplishments are thanks in part to a resilient team.
A big believer in communication, Catherine Portman manages four direct reports who encompass treasury activities, financial solutions, global risk, and internal finance support. In addition to quarterly all-hands meetings, Portman works to facilitate “cross-functionality” among her entire staff by holding semiannual team-building events.
She points to Juniper Networks’ inaugural public debt offering as an example of their strong teamwork. Her team was able to issue the debt efficiently, achieving a low financing cost thanks to their internal business partners, key banking liaisons, and a strong treasury team that executed and managed the entire process.
Comparing company insurance to the necessity of car insurance, Portman explains, “All companies have to think, where are the different risks? Are they in my operations? Are they in compliance? Are they on the financial side?”
In 2009, Portman hired a global risk manager to oversee and manage Juniper Networks’ ERM program, identifying the risks for the company. Her team spent the next twenty months creating a corporate governance framework. In 2012, Juniper Networks received the Alexander Hamilton first-place award in enterprise risk management from Treasury & Risk magazine for its efforts.
Yet, Portman’s path to becoming Juniper Networks’ instrumental treasurer wasn’t always clear. “Be open-minded. You are not always going to know in the early years of your career what you are going to do,” says Portman, discussing her path to corporate treasurer. “I think your dream job doesn’t really come until two or three, maybe even four or five jobs later. But you always have to be aware of your time line.”
Portman found her calling while at Apple when she transferred into an entry-level treasury role. Her passion for the work led her to return to school for an MBA. She describes her time at Santa Clara University as “awesome,” yet Portman doesn’t believe that business school is a prerequisite for someone interested in the C-suite. “It is all about the person, the work experience, what you bring to the role,” Portman says. “I think it is just part of your toolbox and your toolkit as you work your way through your career.”
Although she can count on one hand the number of peers she knows who are female treasurers, Portman feels that it should not be viewed as a disadvantage. “It is about who you are and your capabilities, and if you are the best person who is qualified for a job,” she says. She believes it is important for young women who are interested in finance to pursue their passions without worrying about the gender gap. “It is important to acknowledge how far we’ve come,” she adds.
Despite being headquartered and incorporated in the United States, Portman says that Juniper Networks thinks of itself as a global company. “The key is communication,” she says. With employees all over the globe, Portman explains it is important to appreciate local work customs. “I think it is about ensuring that you are aware and appreciate cultural differences,” she adds.
An added challenge in her role as treasurer is the firm’s adjacency in external markets, Portman says. She relies on strong global partners to keep abreast of critical financial or market news, and any implications to the company. “The most important thing in my job is understanding business requirements and strategic priorities,” Portman says. “You always need balance.”