'Better for having been at the BBC', says CFO Zarin Patel

Zarin Patel

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Zarin Patel 'can't wait' to bow out of the BBC this week. She's exhausted after nine years in a job in which she's been mauled by the press over talent tax, harangued by staff over pension reforms and grilled by MPs over DMI.

But she still considers what might have been. 'Before I joined the BBC I was offered a position at British American Tobacco,' the outgoing chief financial officer tells Ariel. 'The job package included 400 free cigarettes a week and private health insurance.'

Start Quote

I literally knew nothing about media or the creative sector, but I think that was the reason why John [Smith] wanted me”

End Quote Zarin Patel

Luckily for her lungs, she opted for the BBC, lured by then CFO John Smith, who offered her a job just three weeks after they were introduced.

'I literally knew nothing about media or the creative sector,' admits Patel, an economics graduate who trained as a chartered accountant at KPMG, 'but I think that was the reason why John wanted me - because I brought something completely different.'

She leaves on Friday - 15 years to the day after she joined - as the corporation's longest-serving CFO. But it was very nearly a bad match.

'Creatively miserable'

The organisation in the late nineties was 'strategically strong but creatively miserable', Patel remembers. Director general John Birt's digital onslaught - including the launches of BBC Online and News 24 - demanded huge financial backing which left the cupboards bare elsewhere.

'I don't think the BBC would exist today if he hadn't done what he did,' concedes Patel, 'but there was so little money on screen.'

And it was hard for staff to find solace in one another. 'How did people get to know each other,' wondered the newcomer, who couldn't lay her hands on an organisation chart or a useful telephone directory, while there were 'three Rottweilers and three doors' between her and her new boss.

John Smith John Smith recruited Patel three weeks after introduction

Smith, who Patel describes as an 'incredible leader', did manage to send words of warning about a corporation that could be crippled by its own cleverness.

'It was the quality of the debate that mattered, not the speed of making a decision,' says Patel, who witnessed this at work in an early finance board meeting where finance directors deliberated over the design of an invoice stamp (which records invoices coming into the BBC).

'I'm sitting there, thinking, it's quite straightforward - date, authoriser, charge code… I wonder why such senior people are worrying about the design of the stamp. It was very funny.'

Funny, but also frustrating, as she found this kind of procrastination echoed across the organisation. It was only the arrival of Birt's successor Greg Dyke that prevented Patel leaving after a year.

Croissant killer

Dyke breezed in to a beleaguered BBC and set about 'cutting the crap' and 'making it happen', while Patel redirected overhead costs to content, having been told to cut the croissants, the cabs and the flowers.

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It was the quality of the debate that mattered, not the speed of making a decision”

End Quote Zarin Patel

'It was a rollercoaster ride,' she reflects. 'He was just fun - he understood what organisations needed. Plus we'd won a fantastic inflation-busting licence fee settlement so we had money as well and we put programmes back.'

There was investment in sports rights, the nations, the launch of BBC Three and Four, 6 Music and Radio 7 as well as 'serious' backing for BBC One. 'It was a huge creative revival - and real credit to Greg, he made sure that everyone in the organisation felt they had an equal hand in making it happen.'

Finance folk went from being considered 'pond life' - as one early study revealed - to being valued colleagues. 'I think finance grew in stature and strength because of his leadership style,' she concurs.

Meanwhile, John Smith was testing Patel's own leadership credentials with an invitation to move from group financial controller to head of revenue management. 'He saw something in me that I probably didn't always see in myself,' muses Patel, who considered her lack of marketing experience a major stumbling block in leading TV Licensing.

Twin Towers

But a trip to New York in September 2001 prompted her to reconsider. She had been in the Twin Towers the week before the terrorist attack at the precise time the planes hit and this close brush with tragedy overshadowed any fear of failure.

Patel seized the chance to 'change everything', bringing licence fee evasion to an all-time low and receiving an industry accolade as client marketer of the year.

Appointed chief financial officer at the close of 2004, Patel set about getting a similar grip on the BBC's finances. There were efficiency drives, outsourcing deals and the movement of non-core financial services off-shore.

Zarin Patel, Mark Thompson and Michael Grade take questions as the annual report is published Zarin Patel, Mark Thompson and Michael Grade take questions as the annual report is published

Most significantly, she brought BBC accounting under one roof - Cardiff's centre of excellence - where it was run along streamlined processes by a new breed of creative accountant.

'Everyone at the BBC now does these things in the same way,' says Patel. 'That's cut out a huge amount of wheelspin.

'It still needs to be nurtured, but the vision I had - we all had - has come alive in Cardiff. If you ask me what I'm proudest of, that's what I'm proudest of.'

That and the digital switchover help scheme, which aided 1.3m vulnerable people. 'I'm hugely proud of that team,' she says. 'They worked immensely hard knowing that success for them meant losing their own jobs.'

As time went by, Patel learnt from the BBC's programme makers how to be an effective storyteller.

Hate numbers

Admitting to an unlikely aversion to tables of numbers and a first budget book 'full of turgid text', she discovered how to consider the audience and get a point across.

These days - and unusually for a CFO - she's in demand as a public speaker. 'It's because the BBC has taught me how to tell a story. I think I'm a better CFO for having been at the BBC.'

Not that the audience always liked what she was saying. Making unpopular decisions comes with CFO territory and pension reform was the toughest tale to tell.

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'I only recently found out that it's called Duck Quick or you're Fired in the rest of the BBC'”

End Quote Zarin Patel

Patel had peered into the future, as CFOs must, and saw a licence fee that would never be linked to inflation again, workforce that was living longer and an economy in trouble.

'The thing that really drove me was that if we did nothing, and let it hit us, we'd have to close services. If we did nothing on pension reform we couldn't afford BBC Two and Radio 2. Or it was the whole of BBC Three and BBC Four gone. And those would be serious losses to our audience. Someone has to do the hard stuff, but in the end we lost the trust of our staff.'

Duck Quick

She has fewer qualms about Delivering Quality First ('I only recently found out that it's called Duck Quick or you're Fired in the rest of the BBC') which Patel believes has its heart in the right place.

'Part of DQF was about giving people skills to think about different ways of doing work, re-engineering processes, taking out work that wasn't yielding value… Sometimes in the BBC we pooh-pooh process, yet the most creative companies in the world are the most disciplined companies in the world.'

Even DMI, which she regrets not stopping a year earlier, was built on a creative vision that was ahead of its time, she believes.

Of course, any perceived waste or wrongdoing by the BBC is going to make headlines.

With her audit background, Patel backs openness and transparency, but does worry that it's gone too far. 'I think there's a balance needed between openness and the ability to give the organisation space to do the right thing,' she says. 'There can be a danger of running this organisation for the Daily Mail.'

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There can be a danger of running this organisation for the Daily Mail”

End Quote Zarin Patel

A compulsion to respond to press screams for answers rather than pausing and figuring out the facts for itself caused the BBC to 'stumble' during the Savile crisis, she judges.

Patel came in for a personal press attack after it came to light that the BBC was paying many of its stars through personal service companies.

The Daily Mail, for one, implied that she had forced talent to be paid in this manner so the BBC could avoid tax.

'For an accountant, that's impossible,' says Patel, who was on holiday at the time the article was published.

But she praises the BBC's legal and press teams, together with former DG George Entwistle, who sprung into action on her behalf.

'I had an apology on page two,' Patel relates with a smile. 'I know we rubbish ourselves here for being bad people leaders, but we're not. When your back is to the wall people do huge and heroic things to support you.'

She picks out supporters who have helped her do a difficult job - John Smith, of course, Mark Byford ('my first mentor when I came on the board'), 'partner in crime' Caroline Thomson and Peter Salmon.

She's tried to support others in return as the BBC's disability champion and by mentoring women - particularly ethnic women' - into leadership roles.

Her own ethnicity - she's from a Zoroastrian background (an old Persian religion, ethnically cleansed over the years from Iran) - has never been an issue at the BBC, she claims, and she's certainly never felt overlooked or outnumbered as a female BBC executive.

She joined a board featuring the likes of Jana Bennett, Jenny Abramsky, Helen Boaden, Caroline Thomson and Lorraine Heggessey - 'women you really look up to; powerful women with strong voices'.

Start Quote

I was offered a bus company but I just can't get passionate about buses.”

End Quote Zarin Patel

It was only after she spent two months at the Harvard Business School that it became apparent that this was unusual. 'In other organisations the cause of women was simply not done,' she says.

Patel's departure hasn't come out of the blue - it's been on her agenda since 2009 and was finally agreed with Entwistle last year at the Olympic opening ceremony - 'an extraordinary day of emotion'.

'I thought hard about doing something else at the BBC but there's a natural ceiling for me, unless I was going to run Worldwide.'

Besides, she adds, CFOs should move on after a few years. 'An organisation like the BBC needs to bring in fresh blood, particularly in the finance area.'

She's looking forward to a cruise in July, a staycation in August and dinner parties with neighbours who will no longer be familiar with her every expenses claim. The 'iPlayer junkie' will catch up with BBC programmes, and may add to her extensive shoe and handbag collection; she devotes an entire room in her house to them.

Come September, she'll look for a new job. It won't be in broadcasting ('once you've done the BBC you're not going to go to Sky') but could well be at a company going through a digital transformation.

Above all, she'll have to care about what they do. 'The BBC has changed me in that respect, and the companies I'm looking at will be where people have a real passion for what they do, a real purpose.

'I was offered a bus company but I just can't get passionate about buses.'

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