Back in the early 2000s, Catherine Birkett found herself being pulled into confidential meetings where her company’s senior management was discussing restructuring plans with the company’s largest investor.
The company—a fiber optics telecom firm known as Interoute—was not yet 6 years old, but its days appeared to be numbered as the company sought to weather the telecom industry’s historic collapse.
As Interoute’s top FP&A executive, Birkett knew from the ongoing business plan’s numbers that massive changes were urgently needed, and she as well as others were not optimistic about the restructuring options available to the company.
In fact, Birkett recalls, she and many executives had to tamp down the feeling that “this was not going to end well.”
From a career perspective, Birkett arguably had less at risk than the other more senior executives sitting ringside during the restructuring discussions. Not yet 30 years of age, she joined the discussions knowing perhaps that other more gainful career opportunities were available to her outside Interoute’s four walls.
Nonetheless, she had been given a seat at the meetings out of recognition of not just her ability to recite numbers but also her grasp of the intellectual property that governed the numbers.
“I owned the business plan,” Birkett explains.
In the end, the company’s multiyear restructuring allowed Interoute to find a new path to growth while operating under a new management team—one that included the 32-year-old Birkett as CFO.
“I was thrown into the deep end as a finance leader—I basically had to learn on the job,” recalls Birkett, who entered Interoute’s CFO office in 2003 and went on to serve in the role for the next 15 years.
“We managed to transform the company,” says Birkett. Along the way, Interoute marched in step with a new private equity firm owner and closed a string acquisitions. Ultimately, the company was sold to GTT Communications in 2018 for $2.3 billion.
“Being promoted so young, I definitely made mistakes,” admits Birkett, who credits her CEO and other members of senior management for standing behind her as she ran at breakneck speed to acquire the skills necessary to manage a quickly expanding finance team. –Jack Sweeney
Guest: Catherine Birkett
Headquarters: London, United Kingdom
Safety-minded consumers drawn to online payments.
CFOTL: So tell us a little about your arrival at GoCardless and your priorities going forward?
Birkett: We had just closed our series e funding round when I joined the business. So that was nearly two years ago. And that was about a $100 million that we raised at that point in time.
So we’re continuing to grow and continuing to invest. And we’re really excited about our opportunities in the U.S., because there is still such a large amount of business being done using check payments in the U.S. We have a great replacement solution for check payments, because ultimately completing a transaction involves somebody’s bank account, which is exactly what our (technology) facilitates. So we are just starting to build our brand over there. We set up an office in San Francisco, where in the UK, we’re actually already well established.
Over the next 12 months my goal is to ensure that GoCardless comes out of the COVID pandemic in the strongest possible way. And we simply must continue to help all our customers succeed. And then my final point, would be that I want to really continue to help push diversity and women in leadership. Twelve months is probably a little short when it comes to achieving all of that. But, being a mom of two girls, helping that effort continue and improving that is important to me.