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Interview with Zarin Patel

I interviewed Zarin Patel, in June 2013 in the lead up to her last day at the BBC as Chief Finance Officer, when I was working as a BBC Divisional Financial Controller, Finance and Business; Zarin has kindly allowed me to publish the interview here.


After graduating in economics from the London School of Economics in 1982, Zarin trained as a chartered accountant with KPMG, where she gained 15 years’ experience at a senior level with multi-national corporations across the industrial and commercial sectors.

Zarin joined the BBC in in 1998 as Group Financial Controller. In October 2001, Zarin became the BBC’s Head of Revenue Management and was responsible for the collection of television licence fee income across the UK, which now totals £3.4bn. Under her leadership, evasion was brought to an all-time estimated low of 5%.

Zarin was CFO Finance and Business from 2004 – 2013. In this role she led BBC Finance through a period of significant change, reshaping the finance provision across the BBC, moving non-core financial services off-shore as well as implementing two major pan-BBC efficiency programmes. She was also a key player in the BBC’s strategy to outsource both core and non-core services and return significant savings to programme-making.

She is an alumnus of Harvard Business School Advanced Management Programme, and is also a Governor for the University of Arts in London.

How did you start out and get to CFO of the BBC?

The truth is I did not have a plan; when I look back now the extent of my plan was to go to LSE and after that join KPMG. I think it’s important to have a light plan and a framework but when an opportunity arises you can take advantage of it.

When you’re in a professional firm, you think “I am going to be partner one day”. You don’t think what it’ll be like to be a partner. You don’t think of other options. So when it came to partnership my managers said I needed to go out on secondment and try something different. I went on secondment to a very troubled construction company; all the partners had retired and taken the capital out so there was nothing left for the next generation. Within 6 weeks of me joining on secondment, they had run out of cash for me to pay the payroll. I had to ring the bank and I am pretty certain that based on the fact that I was trained accountant and from KPMG they extended the overdraft.

I remember feeling that sense of responsibility and also that sense that I did that; I didn’t advise, it wasn’t a report or a management letter, I did that. That was the moment I decided to leave KPMG; the power of that made me realise I would never go back to advising companies. You remember those big moments; but they aren’t planned moments.

I joined the BBC by accident. I was going to work for a multinational; they were looking for ethnic women at the time. Their gig was you had to travel anywhere in the world; I wasn’t completely sure. I was introduced to John Smith, my predecessor at the BBC and we got on like a house on fire and 3 weeks later I joined the BBC. Did I do any due diligence; no! The attraction to me was John Smith. John Smith recruited me because he wanted someone completely different; different voice, background, different industry. When I joined the BBC my first year was miserable because I was a fish out of water; I was used to real speed and commerciality and I’d worked in a real networked business. At KPMG the only things that matter are your people: who are your clients and your people who work for you.  It was a real people centric business. At the BBC doors were closed and I couldn’t find anyone; because the telephone directory worked on names, not job titles; I had to know who was in a job before I could find them.

When Greg Dyke joined, he allowed finance to flourish; he was a brilliant Chief Executive. He understood you use finance as part of the gang and you use them for leadership; not just for finance. We were all involved in all the changes he wanted to happen. I was Group Financial Controller at the time and it made me realise the relationship between Chief Executive and Chief Financial Officer; how you work together as a team. That period under Greg’s leadership was the making of me.

What were the biggest day to day challenges you faced in your role as CFO?

Getting the time to speak to people; I had 1900 people reporting to me and about £1bn spend to look after so I couldn’t do it all myself. When there’s a big decision such as the SAP upgrade, you need to know the 10 key things about it; you have to have a team of experts in place. You need to know enough to make a difference without doing their job for them or being too distant from the detail. It’s a balancing act and the more time you spend with people understanding what it is they do and using your knowledge to poke in the right places the better; it’s really hard finding the balance!

At the BBC a lot of my time was taken up with stakeholder engagement; I sometimes took one board report to 5 boards without adding anything. Think about the amount of time it takes me to do that. That was difficult. I wanted to spend more time with people; it’s when you engage with people and act as their coach and mentor and sounding board that you get them to do great work. If you don’t have enough time, everything becomes a transaction. If I had my time again, I would be harder and more disciplined about how many meetings I attend and boards I set up.

What’s been the biggest challenge in your career to date?

The BBC’s pension reform we did in 2010 was probably the most difficult thing I’ve done both personally and professionally. It was a difficult thing to do; I knew two to three years before the reform that we would need to reform as the licence fee income was going to stay flat or reduce and all I could see with pensions was people living longer, the economy was tanking and therefore the cost of pensions would be higher and higher. At what stage would the audience lose support for the BBC as they’re not getting pensions in their working lives and yet their licence fee is paying for pensions of BBC staff? Also, in order to maintain the pensions we would have had to cut a service and I felt that was a fundamental problem for the BBC.

I knew the mix was going to be the BBC being more efficient and finding more money, us as individuals paying more into our scheme, and reducing benefits. It was tough, intellectually tough too. We got there; I’m not proud that we lost some of our staff’s trust but I am proud that all our services are intact. Sometimes as a leader you have to make the tough decisions; that’s your job, that’s what you’re paid to do. You’re not paid to be liked; you’re paid to do the tough jobs. The CFO has to take the toughest of them all.

What’s the best training you’ve ever done and what was good about it?

My whole 15 years at KPMG. In a professional firm and consultancy you only get new clients because you have something special such as research or insight, to get across. So KPMG treated training and learning very seriously. That 15 years was like a big training ground; and the equivalent of an MBA.

Also of value to me was in 2008 when I went to Harvard Business School. I was incredibly lucky that they BBC recognised that its leaders needed time to invest in themselves. It was a 3 year MBA in 3 months. You networked with people across the globe, from different industries; you lived with them, studied together and relied on each other. I learnt amazing stuff.

It’s the one bit of advice I’ve given to all my senior leaders; invest in yourselves. Take the time for yourself; how do you get new ideas if you’re not going to conferences, seminars, meeting people with different life perspectives.

Thirdly, I do quite a lot of my learning through blogs. I’m signed up to three blogs:

Harvard Business Review’s daily management tip of the day;

MiT Sloan Management Review

McKinsey Quarterly

I also listen to Ted Talks especially if I’m recommended something. I think every woman should listen to Sheryl Sandberg’s 15 minute talk.

I learn from others; I learned a lot from Peter Salmon how he’s built North from scratch. He’s a brilliant understated, subtle leader. So learning from people is the best thing you can do.

You were declared “Client Marketer of the Year” by London based direct marketing trade magazine Precision Marketing in 2004; how did you develop your talent for marketing?

Yes I’m the only accountant that’s had the Client Marketer of the Year award. In essence TV licensing is a marketing operation; we’re persuading the audience to pay and we make it really easy to pay; that’s about above the line direct marketing. When I ran TV licensing from 2000 to 2004, I had a great team that’s still in place today with Pipa Doubtfire. I had great service partners in AMV and Proximity. My job was a bit like being an orchestra leader; you need to understand the music and bring the musicians together. That’s what I did and thereby transformed TV license’s reputation. What’s interesting is that they’ve continued that even though I haven’t run TV licensing for 8 years. They’ve created a YouTube channel that is amazing, funny, creative and fantastic. I left behind a legacy of different people with different skills working together as a team.

We improved the reputation, improved evasion, reduced the cost of collection and made direct marketing come of age. Direct marketing was the poor cousin. Actually direct marketing, like customer relationship marketing in terms of return of investment is far more superior. If I write to a customer in this way or on her mobile they will pay; I understand their life and what matters to them.

What’s your favourite business book and why?

I have quite a lot.

True North on leadership is written by Bill George. He has a simple mantra; Good leaders are humble and they listen. Good leaders are comfortable in their skin and with what they’re doing. He’s got a wonderful blog too and he’s my leadership guru.

My favourite book of John Kotter’s is My Iceberg is Melting. John Kotter is a Harvard Business School professor; he is an academic. When Greg Dyke was changing the BBC, John Kotter came to speak with the whole leadership team and he did a three hour tour de force about change using real life examples. For those of us who like John Kotter’s philosophy about change, we’ll only do change the John Kotter way. You can dip in and out of it when you need advice.

I’m currently reading two books about the digital age. I think the connected age is going to change the nature of who we are as a society. One of them is by Lynda Gratton, a professor at the London Business School The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here. It’s an amazing book about what things are going to change for people starting out now; what things are going to change in society in their working lives? Also, how should things change eg in terms of global developments, should you have one of the emerging markets’ languages and in a world where everyone is connected, how should we use our connections? The other book is by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen The New Digital Age. It includes amazing stories how fisher women in Africa use their mobile phones to work out the price of fish in the market and then go and fish.

I’m fascinated by what work will be like in 30 years’ time.

How do you feel about social media: love it, hate it or a necessary evil?

It’s a complete necessity to my life.

I use LinkedIn for professional connections; even if I’ve just met someone for a short while I’ll link in with them.

On a personal basis, I use Facebook more than Twitter; Facebook only close friends and family.

I think in this social age you need to decide how much of yourself you’ll share. I won’t share date of birth. I’ve started sharing where I live. Private things remain private.

In this day and age you need to understand connectedness.

For example creating an app to solve business problems; it’s a skill set I don’t have and haven’t developed in my working life. Should I have? I might do a course to learn how to do it.

What are the key challenges you think people working in Britain face today?

The age of austerity is going to kill off opportunity for a lot of people for a long time; it’ll have a generational effect. I worry about that.

I’ve lived through a few recessions and they can be healthy for an economy. This one feels different; like there’s no let out.

Growth is moving to emerging markets, not the western world. We are moving away from our reliance on financial services to something else. We’ve got generations of undereducated folk. There’s a disparity in education; if you’ve got money and are wealthy you’ll get it. You won’t otherwise other than by luck or chance.

Those long term generational effects bother me.

The world is going to increasingly get connected. Six to eight billion people with a Smart phone. We haven’t imagined what the world will look like. You have to think about the future; we’re going to work till we’re 70 to 90 as we’ll live till we’re 120.

There are opportunities in there too. One of the most inspiring people I’ve met in the last couple of years at the BBC is the round the world sailor Dame Ellen McArthur. I’ve always been gobsmacked that she could do that on her own. She came to speak to us about her foundation that’s about sustainability. She spoke about the close loop system; she used the example of the carpet that you send back to the manufacturer when you’ve finished with it and they unpick it and reform it to make a new carpet. That will be our future. Her foundation educates children at school about it; children won’t know anything different.

What’s been the best piece of business / career advice you’ve ever been given?

Three things I’ve learnt, and the BBC has helped me develop this understanding:

  •  Love what you do, whether it’s your profession or discipline, love it and care for it;
  • Have a passion for your company or product, for example when people come to the BBC for an interview I want them to understand what we do and why we do it;
  • Grow and nurture your people and always put them first.





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