Ian Ousey learned much of what he knows about business from Björn Borg. In the late 1980s, shortly after qualifying as a chartered accountant in the U.K., Ousey moved to Monaco to run the finances of the Swedish tennis star’s fledgling fashion and design group. Leveraging its owner’s personal brand, the company produced clothing, fragrances, accessories and much else. But when Borg ran into personal troubles, including a rumored suicide attempt, the company lost its luster and went bankrupt in 1989.
Today, Ousey’s work is similar to what he did for Borg, but on a much grander — and more profitable — scale. In 2002, he was appointed finance director of FremantleMedia, a €1 billion unit of Luxembourg-based media group RTL. The London-based firm is a leader in television “formats” the biggest thing in broadcasting today. It produces, distributes, and licenses reality shows such as the music talent show “Idols” now running in 35 countries. It also buys the rights to regional hits and adapts them for other audiences, as in “Verliebt in Berlin” a German version of a Colombian telenovela. In the first half of 2006, FremantleMedia grew its profits three times as fast as RTL as a whole, posting Ebita of €84m, a 75 percent annual rise.
Broadcasters turn to FremantleMedia — and its main competitor, “Big Brother” creator Endemol of the Netherlands — for proven show ideas that are relatively cheap to produce. In addition to license fees, format owners get a cut of merchandise, live events and other spin-offs.
Few companies have a business model and assets similar to those of FremantleMedia. Is your role different from a traditional finance chief?
There are generic responsibilities common to all CFOs, in any sector, from Australia to the Arctic. When it comes to governance, risk management, accounting, reporting and controlling, I’m no different.
The group has a unique structure. Unlike the broadcasters in the rest of RTL, we’re a content producer. We sell shows to sister companies within RTL as well as some of RTL’s competitors. That makes my life interesting.
Also, as a business unit, my finance team’s involvement is focused on the top end of the P&L — the financing and tax duties are managed in liaison with our parent. This allows us to get more involved in operations, supporting producers and other sales executives to roll out their business plans while reminding them that there are costs to control. We’re not a company that’s full of clerical staff.
Is it difficult to find the right people to work in such an operations-minded finance function?
By its nature, television attracts a lot of people, so we always have plenty of applications. This allows us to think deeply about a candidate’s cultural fit.
Creative people have a natural suspicion of accountants. I tell new finance staff to expect a cold shoulder at first, because this is how the creatives test them. If the fit is right, the creative side will eventually adopt them and barely leave them alone. If you enjoy working in a people-heavy business, this is a wonderful place to be.