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Vulnavia Gura, CFO at The Student Hub Online
Faces of Finance

Catherine Birkett from GoCardless on Harnessing Data for Hyper-Growth

Tim Whitehead
Tim Whitehead Head of Content at Spendesk

Everybody loves to buy online. But while credit card payments are commonplace, direct debit isn’t. And even though 18% of all online transactions are now recurring, most banks don’t offer a solution that allows businesses to debit their customer accounts easily.

GoCardless is changing that, building a global payments network that connects businesses to customers through direct debit. The company processes US $12 billion of payments a year for over 45,000 businesses, and recently raised US $75 million in funding to drive international expansion.

CFO Catherine Birkett leads the rapidly-scaling GoCardless finance team.

Catherine joined the company in January after a 15-year stint as CFO of telecoms company Interoute. During that time, she oversaw 12 acquisitions and a remarkable revenue turnaround that resulted in the business being acquired for US $2.3 billion in 2018.

We caught up with Catherine to find out how she’s adapting to her new life in a hyper-growth startup, the role of finance in helping business scale and why she’s committed to giving back to the finance community.

How did you become CFO at GoCardless?

I spent 15 years as CFO of Interoute, and over that time helped build the company to a point where it was in a strong financial position and an attractive takeover target.

When Interoute was acquired by a US buyer in 2018, it was a great outcome for the business but also meant the end of my career there.

After reflecting on what I wanted to do next, I realised that I wanted to experience working in a smaller business, but one that had a big opportunity to grow.

GoCardless was the perfect fit; we believe that we can change the way that people pay for recurring payments across the world, and I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity.

Interoute was a more traditional business compared to GoCardless. How have you found the transition?

I’ve actually found that most of the finance issues we’re facing are the same – just at a different scale!

At Interoute, we were operating on a much larger cost base, which means at GoCardless we have to be more disciplined about financial control and staying on top of spending.

But overall we’re focused on similar things. For example, our tax and financial reporting obligations, understanding trends and forecasting where we expect revenue to be going.

In any business, the finance function is always going to be about the numbers. But it’s actually relatively easy to know where you are – costs are more predictable than revenue will ever be.

Finance also needs to focus on trends that will impact revenue in the future, and provide insights and analysis to inform business decisions and strategy.

How is the finance team structured at GoCardless?

We’ve split the finance team into two, with the first team focused on control and the second team on analysis.

The control team is responsible for core financial operations such as bookkeeping, audit, treasury and compliance.

The analysis team is responsible for both short-term and strategic analysis. Short-term analysis could be understanding what the rest of 2019 has in store, whereas strategic analysis involves looking at more long-term initiatives, such as our pricing model.

The team is currently 12 people, and while I expect it to double within three years that’s still much smaller than the 200 we had at Interoute. A big part of that is the processes and automation we’ve put in place here. We’re much more advanced which sets us up for scale.

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What are the biggest trends shaping the future of finance?

It’s all about data. The volume of data we deal with today is unprecedented.

When I started my career pencil and paper were still around, and the big technology promising to shake up the finance function was Microsoft Excel.

Today, finance professionals have to be able to process, manipulate and understand huge amounts of data, which requires a very analytical mind as well as the ability to effectively communicate the insights they find.

Of course, we have more tools available than ever before to help us manage big data, but the problem with many of them is their lack of flexibility.

Excel is king of flexibility, and that’s why it still has a big part to play in any finance team!

As a CFO and leader of a large team, how do you manage your time and make sure you get things done?

As you get more experienced, you start to understand what works for you in terms of time management and how to juggle the various demands of professional life.

For me the biggest thing is delegation. You have to embrace the fact that you can’t do everything yourself. I spend an enormous amount of time in meetings, helping to make decisions across the business.

So while I will still do a little bit of core analysis in my day-to-day role, usually I’m relying on my team to perform these tasks and make sure I have the information I need on hand.

Communication is also critical. That means regularly checking in with my team to understand what’s happening, both as a group and for 1:1s, and on my side making sure they are aware of what’s going on in the business.

The final thing is to always be open to learning and new ways to work more effectively. For example, working with Private Equity investors who joined the board of Interoute in 2015 exposed me to a whole new way of operating, but one which I learnt from and thus became a more effective communicator.

What’s your favourite finance tool at the moment?

Apart from Excel? For me at the moment it’s Looker – I’m incredibly impressed by the way it’s able to present data, and it’s also perfect for data manipulation.

Salesforce Tableau is similar and also a great tool, but for me Looker is leading the pack.

Any books you’d recommend?

My spare time is spent not being a CFO! So if I’m reading a book it’s usually unrelated to work, or one which my daughters enjoy.

Why did you join the CFO Connect community?

I think the opportunity for finance professionals to come together and learn from each other is invaluable. It wasn’t there early in my career, and as a result I certainly made a lot of mistakes which could have been avoided.

On a personal level, communities like CFO Connect offer a great opportunity to learn more about trends and new ways of doing things in finance.

But as someone who has had a lot of experience in finance leadership, I also hope to give back to the community by sharing what I’ve learned, and being available as a mentor to the next set of finance leaders as they progress through their careers.

One area I’m particularly passionate about diversity, and I’m committed to supporting female leaders in finance, and business more generally, succeed in their careers.

Catherine Birkett is CFO at GoCardless and recently shared her insights on M&A as an expert speaker for CFO Connect London.