Lee Cowles has enjoyed a varied and challenging career, starting as a marine engineer in the Royal Navy before jumping ship into bespoke manufacturing. He then made a major turn in career direction by studying for his MBA and moved into the world of business and worked his way up to director at Betfair, the phenomenally successful online gaming company. Today Lee is leading another exciting internet business, the fast-growing online publishing company, Blurb.
As a youngster, what were your career aspirations?
As a teenager I couldn’t possibly have imagined that I would be running an online publishing business as it was pre-Internet days! Back then, I was instinctively drawn to engineering because I saw myself as a problem-solver; I liked the idea of ‘making things work well’ though at that point, I had no idea what I might make work.
Why did you study engineering?
My first job was a marine engineer in the Royal Navy where I had ample opportunity to make things work! I resurrected damaged equipment, bringing things back to peak performance. That experience led me into a manufacturing job. When I left the Navy, I joined an unusual manufacturing business in Huddersfield – it produced customised winches and gearboxes. Yes, I know this doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but imagine selling a concept to every new customer and then having to go away and make the product? It was quite a challenge, as each product was a turnkey solution. No off-the shelf products, meant no standard price list, yet it was essential to get the price right to make a profit and keep the customer satisfied. Sometimes I had to take a leap of faith or we would have missed out on brilliant business opportunities.
Why study for an MBA?
My employer at the manufacturing firm was keen for me to develop in the business and offered to sponsor me to study for an MSc at Warwick University, but I already knew engineering. I had been so involved in product development and sales at the firm, I started hankering after learning more about business. When you’re in the Armed Forces you know exactly why people do the things they do – everyone has a shared understanding otherwise things can go horribly wrong. But in business it’s different – there are lots of stakeholders with competing or hidden agenda. I felt that an MBA would help me to learn what I needed or at least get me started.
How did SMF help you?
Realising that I would be unlikely to return to the firm after studying for an MBA, my employer understandably didn’t want to sponsor my MBA study. I was fortunate to discover the SMF scholarship and to get through the selection process. Without the funding, it would have been a struggle financing my MBA and I would have had a larger debt at the end, which might have influenced the job I took at the end of the course.
By providing the funding, SMF gave me the opportunity to start a different career and explore different options. SMF doesn’t look for people based on the particular career they want to go into so you get a very mixed set of people. SMF is about getting people into senior jobs across the board. This helps Fellows to stretch their careers in different directions.
And the biggest benefit of your MBA?
The real revelation – and benefit – for me was studying with such a diverse and vibrant group of people; there were students from many different backgrounds and cultures. The university places students in very mixed groups to maximise friction and learning!
Has the SMF Network been useful?
You make lasting friendships and, because everyone takes different career paths and are not competing in the same arena, you can contact them and ask their views and advice without any conflict of interest.
How has business education changed your life?
My first job after graduation was with Ford, where I worked on the accelerated Manufacturing Leadership Programme. I also undertook a government research project into adult education for the workforce. The project brought together civil servants and the private sector to explore how business might help to tackle adult illiteracy. While this project was intellectually stimulating, working in a very large corporation wasn’t for me. I wanted to be in a more entrepreneurial environment.
The game-changer for me came in 2003 when I become Head of Operations at the innovative online gaming company, Betfair. Betfair has a great business model – it allows customers to choose their own odds, matches all the bets and charges a small commission on winning bets.
Moving money around is a bit like logistics and works like an engineering business; that’s how I positioned it at my interview and they liked my pitch! Betfair was a small business when I joined, but it grew rapidly. In a small business you take on many different jobs and build very quickly. My division went from two to 50 people in 18 months and I must have hired 200 staff during my time with the company.
Initially, I set up the back-office systems and then progressed into other roles. I professionalised processes and systems in one area, and then moved onto the next. This included product management, product development and even the software development area. By the time I left in 2011, I was Director of UK running half the business. When the business floated it was valued at £1 billion and today it employs around 2,000 people. In a small growing business you do many different things which may not be your area of expertise. The MBA prepares you to deal with unexpected challenges.
What are you doing now?
Scaling up the business at Betfair prepared me for my current role as MD of Europe at Blurb, a venture capital backed online publishing business, which allows customers to produce everything from personalised e-books to professional books on demand. Blurb publishes around 2 million books a year, the same as a medium size offline publisher. In the online publishing world, authors can create demand for their books through social media.
What is the biggest challenge in your business sector?
The Internet has increased the speed of every aspect of business. It’s imperative to keep your eyes on the ball – on everything from systems and processes to sales and marketing – otherwise you will be outflanked by new competitors, trends and customer behaviour.
How can engineers help the UK economy to grow?
We need to embed flexibility and skills into the economy. Engineers have valuable skills, for example, analysis and problem-solving; bundle these with business education and they have a big role to play in growing the economy.
What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs?
People who start a career in engineering are pretty risk averse. That’s probably why we don’t see many traditional engineers, compared to software engineers in Silicon Valley, become entrepreneurs. My tip is to ‘just do it’ – don’t let fear hold back a great idea. Often the risk is not as great as you think it will be.
Which engineering pioneer do you admire and why?
Brunel – he was audacious! He was a hands-on engineer, who was never put off by failure. He achieved so much and left us some wonderful structures. In Brunel’s time engineers had the advantage of being able to over-engineer and learn from their experiences. There’s no room for that in modern engineering!