Chief Operating Officer, The Grass Roots Group
Zarin Patel has finance in her blood. One of her most vivid childhood memories is going with her father, a bank manager for Barclays, to his place of work and playing in the vaults.
“It was one of those old-fashioned branches where the manager would sit on a raised platform literally overseeing everything. That sight of my dad sitting on a pedestal always intrigued me and partially, I think, sowed the seeds of my desire for a career at the heart of business.”
For nine years until 2013, her role as Chief Financial Officer of the BBC couldn’t have been more visible – essentially tasking her with demonstrating to every TV licence fee payer that their annual fee is well spent. “My role is to make every licence fee payer feel that they are getting far more value than they are paying. That’s my purpose,” she said at the time.
After graduating from the London School of Economics, she chose Chartered Accountancy as a way to maximise her opportunities in the business world. Running her own team at KPMG meant adapting her skills and training across multiple business situations – a challenge she relished.
“There were about 50 of us in the team and we did everything – tax, audit, investigations, corporate finance – the full range of work. My speciality was property and construction but we also worked with leasing companies, investment companies, even a high-street men’s retailer. The variety of challenges was fantastic – I just loved going into a business, figuring out how it works, working out what to do with it, and then moving on to the next challenge.”
Zarin joined the BBC in 1998 as Group Finance Controller. Over three years, she was credited with substantially reducing overheads to enable more money to go into programming. In 2001, she was invited to become Head of Revenue Management – shouldering prime responsibility for collecting the BBC’s television licence fee income, which by 2013 totalled over £3.4 billion a year. Under her leadership, fee evasion dropped to an all-time estimated low of 5%.
Making an impact
Becoming Chief Financial Officer in 2004 meant taking the helm at a time when the BBC was under pressure to achieve significant cost savings. Zarin embarked on a comprehensive programme to outsource more non-core services and implemented two major efficiency programmes across the whole corporation. This enabled the corporation to return savings into programme-making and consolidate its position as not just a national but a global franchise.
More recently, an achievement she is particularly proud of is the role she played in negotiations with the British government in 2011 to secure the licence fee settlement, providing the BBC with funding certainty.
December 2012 marked Zarin’s eighth year as Finance Director at the BBC – a remarkable achievement at a very public institution that can never be seen to have less than the very best at its helm. So what does she think it takes for a Chartered Accountant to make their mark as Chief Financial Officer?
“I think there are four skills – other than your financial and business acumen – that you need to really stand out as a CFO. The first is unquenchable curiosity. When you take your seat at the board table as CFO you must have a passion for your own part of the business, but also the curiosity to really understand the part played by every other person around that table too. You have to aim to walk in their shoes, to see the business from their point of view, to feel the pressures they feel, to take pride in their successes and understand their failures.
“Second, you have to be able to relate well to people and build strong and supportive relationships with colleagues. When you have to bring difficult news – and CFOs who don’t ever bring difficult news aren’t doing their job – then it helps a lot if you can present that news in the context of tried and trusted relationships.”
Third on her list is strength of character to resist ‘groupthink’ and, when necessary, to say the unsayable. “Finally you have to understand every aspect of your business – the people, the operational processes, the customers and the market. I have driven real change by using my deep knowledge of the BBC to suggest new ways of looking at a business problem and creating value for our audiences.”
Being a Chartered Accountant has, she believes, played a crucial role in her success. “The qualification gives you a robust technical grounding and teaches you to think in a deeply analytical way which stays with you. And the sheer variety of work experience really builds your business acumen. The best decision of my career was to train as a Chartered Accountant.”
That appetite for sheer variety continued to keep her passionate about her role at the BBC: “There are so many new challenges you face in the media industry largely because of the furious pace of change in the way audiences are using new digital technologies to access programmes. So, one day you may be dealing with how to make all the BBC’s archive programming available online and another day you are involved in a commercial negotiation over music rights.”
The biggest buzz of all, she says, is knowing that what we do matters to people’s lives in Britain – whether it is covering the news from the Middle East or delivering David Attenborough’s awe-inspiring series on Africa. The role put Zarin Patel at the centre of business – and the centre of British life.