Katherine Lee, chief financial officer of opinion pollsters YouGov, has only
been in the job since July last year; her first FD role. It hasn’t taken long
for her to be noticed. Headhunters have already identified Lee as a successor to
the likes of Margaret Ewing and Alison Reed and analysts have been impressed by
her self-assuredness and direct business style.
‘Katherine Lee is an excellent CFO. I definitely rate her,’ says one analyst
that tracks the AIM-listed online market research company. ‘She cuts through the
fluff and answers questions directly.
‘She is still so young, but she is confident and runs her finance team with a
very small back office. You can already see that she is going to go places.’
This is high praise indeed for an FD who only presented her second set of
final results just over a month ago.
Route to the top
But just how has Lee progressed from being just another accountant grinding
through due diligence reports at Coopers & Lybrand and later Grant Thornton,
to a precocious talent that has the recruitment agencies circling and analysts
singing her praises? Lee studied psychology in Sheffield and never even
considered working in finance until a visit to a career planning centre.
Lee comes across as so confident that she leaves no doubt she can cope with
whatever comes her way. Lee’s approach to broader trends affecting FDs reflects
this confidence. Regulatory creep and IFRS? Simply part of the business
landscape, Lee says. Clamouring for investor attention on the very crowded AIM
market? Not much of a concern.
When encountering this kind of unruffled composure, it shouldn’t come as a
surprise that the headhunters and analysts have touted Lee as one of the City’s
big names for the future.
Yet for all her poise in the YouGov CFO role, making the decision to move
from the structure and security of an accounting firm to the risk and
responsibility of a leadership role at a listed company was not an easy one.
‘It was a very difficult decision. The initial reaction was that it was a
fantastic opportunity, but bear in mind I was coming from ten years in a
risk-averse environment. Then, I suppose I put to bed my inherent risk aversion
and jumped at the chance,’ Lee says.
‘It is probably the biggest career challenge I have ever faced. In the
accountancy world you are supported. There is a review structure, there is a
consultation structure. When you take a job when you are accountable for the
finances, you lose that support.’
Taking the plunge
When she arrived at YouGov Lee was immediately immersed in taking the company
through its first public audit. She had to overhaul a finance system that needed
to be adapted to cope with the demands of City reporting.
She also had to build up her support network, carefully picking out a team of
trusted advisers, and recruiting a financial controller and finance manager. A
year and a few months on from Lee’s appointment, and the finance structure has
been completely transformed, but with minimum fuss.
‘One of the first things that I did was to build a network of people that I
could rely on as trusted advisers. I wanted to make sure that there was a
structure in place to support and meet the objectives of City reporting, where
timeliness, accuracy and being all over the numbers are a requirement,’ she
In many ways her rapid personal progress at YouGov has mirrored the rise of
the company. Founded in 2000 by Nadhim Zahawi and Stephan Shakespeare, five
years later YouGov was listed on AIM and is now established as the leading
online market research company.
The company has become well-known for the accuracy of its poll results,
correctly predicting the margin that David Cameron would beat David Davies in
the Conservative Party leadership race last December.
The credibility of the brand as a result of such polls has been translated
into growth. In its most recent set of preliminary results for the year to the
end of July 2006, YouGov increased operating profit by 302% on the previous year
to £3.9m. Sales more than tripled from £2.9m to £9.5m and pre-tax profit
quadrupled from £1m to £4.1m.
‘We have great, great growth ambitions at YouGov. The company floated in
April last year at £1.35 per share. It is now up at around £7.40. It is an
extraordinary growth story,’ she says.
Taming the beast
Ambition needs to be tempered by prudence, however, and keeping YouGov’s
explosive growth under control is one of the major challenges Lee has to manage.
‘It is the biggest dichotomy for a growing business. Do you put the cart
before the horse, do you anticipate the growth, or do you manage the growth
within a budget? The approach that I have taken is to manage growth within the
budget. I know about every single item of expenditure throughout the entire
company,’ Lee says.
Lee’s role at the company has extended well beyond building reporting
structures and controlling costs. With her extensive experience in transaction
services Lee has played a crucial role in YouGov’s acquisition programme.
YouGov isn’t imposing any constraints to growth either as it plans further
expansion abroad. It recently completed its first acquisition with the purchase
of Siraj in Dubai. The deal has been such a success for YouGov that the Middle
East business now accounts for close to half of the group’s combined revenues.
‘I am extremely involved in the acquisition process. I work very closely with
chief executive Nadhim Zahawi in terms of identifying targets, assessing the
fit, doing initial diligence,’ Lee says.
The next territories analysts believe YouGov will look to expand into are the
US, Canada and mainland Europe. The company has a £5.5m war chest to pursue
Lee says the main product YouGov is keen to push into overseas markets is
BrandIndex. Launched towards the end of 2005 BrandIndex is one of YouGov’s
newest and most innovative products. The service tracks consumer preferences for
1,149 brands on a daily basis. The product accounts for 2% of YouGov’s revenues
and Lee believes it is ideally placed for expansion into new markets.
‘BrandIndex has done extremely well in the UK market. For us to maintain our
position we then need to look at rolling that out to other jurisdictions. The
plan is to plug our product, our brand and our methodology into existing
infrastructure,’ Lee says.
The next generation
When Alison Reed and Margaret Ewing left their FDs roles at Standard Life and
BAA, respectively, in quick succession, a massive void of top female talent
suddenly opened in the UK’s most prestigious blue chip index the FTSE 100.
With Ewing and Reed out of the picture, Lloyds TSB finance chief Helen Weir
and Ladbrokes FD Rosemary Thorne are the only senior FDs left in the top flight.
Rather than a blow for diversity, however, the exit of Ewing and Reed has forced
the City to look for the next generation of top female FDs, and luckily there
are a number of excellent prospects lining up to pick up the gauntlet.
One of the names that has repeatedly cropped up when conversation turns to
female FDs of the future is Katherine Lee, the chief financial officer of
YouGov. Lee joined the YouGov board in July last year, but has already caught
the attention of headhunters. The YouGov CFO, however, has no plans to leave her
current role for a job at a big FTSE 100 group just yet.
‘I have never really planned my career. I have always been open to
opportunities, but as long as I am happy where I am working then I will stay on.
YouGov is a young and vibrant company and I work with an excellent board,’ she
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