Date posted: 1/12/2016 8 min read

How to cut it as an iconic leader

Anna Lee talks about her role as CFO for THE ICONIC and the fast-paced digital environment of online fashion

In brief

  • Online fashion website THE ICONIC is rapidly becoming a market leader
  • Lee’s role is broader than just finance and influences the overall direction of the organisation
  • A digital organisation requires a different mindset – and people want an instant fix

Anna Lee CA is unequivocal about her CFO role at THE ICONIC, a leading Australian online fashion retailer.

“It’s got to be one of the most prized CFO roles in the country,” she says.

Since its launch in 2011, the e-commerce site, with a whopping 10 million visitors per month across all its digital channels, has sorely tested traditional stores. It has a savvy combination of 700-plus national and international brands for women and men, and an aggressive marketing and innovative retail strategy. Offering multiple delivery options, free returns and, now, its own fashion magazine, it proves that Australian and New Zealand fashionistas are dedicated users who treat shopping online like any sport: with focus and time-honoured skill.

Founded by Berlin-based Rocket Internet, a leading global start-up incubator, THE ICONIC received a reported A$78m in initial funding, followed by A$19.2m from JP Morgan in a “cash-for-equity deal” providing the company with a solid foundation. But like any start-up, there have been bumps along the way.

In 2013 The Sydney Morning Herald reported job cuts and slashes in multi-million advertising campaigns and Adam Jacobs, one of the four co-founders and current MD, admitted back then that the company wasn’t profitable, noting that Amazon took six years until it turned a profit.

Yet THE ICONIC, part of Global Fashion Group (the world’s leading fashion group for emerging markets), continues to outstrip its competitors as it barrels towards becoming the market leader in this online space. In less than five years it has grown from five to nearly 300 staff.

As it’s now company policy not to reveal figures, Lee will only say that they are tracking well. The fact that Rocket invested from the outset assisted THE ICONIC’s accelerated growth. Rocket scales notoriously fast, aiming “to turn out 80 per cent of its new businesses in less than 100 days,” according to The Economist. To date Rocket has launched more than 100 online companies globally. With clone-like precision, each start-up operates with the same launch blueprint and back office systems. In October 2014, when it floated on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, the company acquired a market capitalisation of almost five billion euro. Now it’s being held up as a beacon of innovation.

Fast pace

This fast-paced environment suits Lee perfectly. Early in her career she realised that her strengths were being “adaptable and agile. I love challenging the norm. I thrive in businesses in hyper growth.”

Last year she was a finalist for the 2015 Thomson Reuters Accounting Excellence CFO of the Year, while her team was a finalist in Finance Team of the Year.

Ever since her first managerial role at PwC, Lee knew she wanted to be a chief financial officer but “on the other side to help organisations grow”.

After PwC, Lee worked as finance director at Adshel for eight years, one of the largest out-of-home media operators in Australia and New Zealand, where she was involved in the biggest street furniture tender in Australia, before moving to Groupon in 2011, a forerunner in online group buying. There she moved quickly into an APAC regional role overseeing 80 finance team members. Two years later, she was appointed as General Manager at NORA and now gives back to the industry and peers as a mentor as part of the NORA Talent Network and the Chartered Accountants ANZ Mentor Exchange Program. When looking back at her career she sees “many micro successes” that paved the way to her appointment as CFO at THE ICONIC in July 2014.

So, why is her current job so coveted?

“My remit isn’t just finance. I also look after the people and culture side of things that includes talent acquisition and HR functions, as well as legal and compliance. It is much broader than a finance role and can directly influence the direction of the organisation [and] commands a huge amount of influence.”

This, she says, is something she has deliberately shaped.

“When you go into an organisation you can either put yourself in a box or choose to speak up and add something of value. For a finance professional, at some point your technical knowledge is probably going to peak and that for me was a number of years ago. There is only so much more technical finance that you need to know to be effective. Beyond that the real success of being part of a senior executive leadership team and a CFO role is really about people — and project — management.”

Lee’s focus is on her team, ensuring they are motivated, up-skilled, happy and “ready to deliver what needs to be done”. It’s about ensuring her relationship is “tight with the rest of the business” and harmonious with the CEO.

That’s what makes the difference between a traditional CFO and a really great CFO who becomes a fully rounded business person and executive, she says.

And how important is compliance? While both financial and legal compliance are “extremely important”, she says, these are “hygiene issues” that come down to having the right controls and processes in place. Once they are there, CFOs shouldn’t have to spend very long on compliance.

“The value that my teams and I bring is to focus on business partnering and adding value. We should be spending as little time as possible on compliance. Most of my day is [focused] on growing the business and doing the right thing by our customers.”

Today people want an instant fix: to shop on the train in the morning and wear the new breezy Camilla and Marc frock that night.

Online wisdom

THE ICONIC website is known for its mobile-first responsive design, the fastest load times in the market, easy-to-use interface and a pioneering app. Lee doesn’t particularly view the digital space as any more challenging to work in than a bricks and mortar company.

“It’s only a different mindset. You have to work closely with every department and perhaps be more interested and have an understanding of marketing metrics, but I think the challenges are probably semantics.

“Whether you’re working digitally or a merchant going to market a thousand years ago, it’s the same problem: how to satisfy your customer.

“Today people want an instant fix: to shop on the train in the morning and wear the new breezy Camilla and Marc frock that night.

“That is one of the best propositions you can have in the market,” says Lee.

“Our key is we offer a number of delivery options — a three-hour delivery, overnight or Saturday.”

While she doesn’t claim to be a fashion guru herself, she is partial to online shopping and knows the site intimately. She is passionate about having the best products for any event and enjoys THE ICONIC private label Atmos & Here.

“I’m a pointy toe pump lady,” she laughs. “I own 50 pairs of that style. I’m a firm believer in that if it works, buy it in 50 colours.”

For Lee to feel confident, she needs to wear clothes that are practical.

“I have to be comfortable to sit in meetings and at the end of the day, still look as fresh and as good as when I walked out of the house [that morning].”

As a CFO “you are judged and held to a much higher level of integrity because that is probably seen as the most neutral and objective role in the business” so it’s particularly important to “lead by example and walk the talk”. It’s also paramount to keep abreast of what’s happening in the markets — what your competitors are doing — to not only look inside your business but what is happening in global technology.

Over the years, she’s learned to prioritise work/life balance.

“When you’re productive and a high achiever the only thing limiting you is how many hours there are in the day. In the past I tried to say yes to everything. One of the lessons I’ve learned is setting boundaries.”

And her top tip to thrive in the online sphere?

“Be where your customers are and be there better than anyone else. Find out how your customers want to interact with your business. If they are telling us they want their products quicker, or they want particular brands, that’s what we go after.”

And her forecast for 2016?

“The penetration and uptake of mobile devices will continue for the next few years. As we have an incredible app at THE ICONIC, this is a great position to be in. It’s an exciting time for us.”

This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.