The LCN Property Interview: Kathleen McLeay

Kathleen McLeay, CEO of NCM Fund Services, talks about her career, the long-term effects of the Covid pandemic, and the future direction of the property sector.

Kathleen McLeay is CEO of NCM Fund Services, which she co-founded in 2009 through a management buy-out of Noble Corporate Management. The business, which is entirely employee-owned, has grown significantly and now employs over thirty people. It provides fund administration services for unregulated, unlisted, UK-domiciled vehicles, including many property funds.

How did you get into regulatory and compliance in the first place?

Well, bear in mind that that’s just part of what I do! A typical day might include legal work, regulatory and compliance, admin, management… it’s very wide-ranging, and the firm has a very diverse group of talented employees with different specialisms.

I trained as a lawyer with Dundas & Wilson, which is now part of CMS, and was sent on secondment to a merchant bank. While I was there, some people persuaded me out of the law and into corporate finance. So I joined Ernst & Young’s PLC team. Later my direct boss and I moved to a small corporate finance boutique, and then to Noble group, which is where I met Henry Chaplin, who’s now my Chairman at NCM Fund Services.

I was doing corporate finance: AIM listings, IPOs, fundraising, M&A work and so on. After a while they asked me to run the Regulated Operator business, which had historically been an internal function. The chance to grow my own piece of the group was appealing, as was the prospect of less travel between London and Edinburgh.

I’m still a practising solicitor – technically. I couldn’t draft now for love nor money!

Who has been the most influential role model in your business career so far?

Probably Henry. He’s always been a good sounding board, he’s good with the big picture, and he has the leadership skills and gravitas that you only get with long experience.

 

How has regulatory and compliance environment changed during your career?

Well, it has obviously changed hugely. (When you work in the law you expect things to change – they always do, and that’s part of the challenge.) We’ve seen big changes caused by politics – such as Brexit, of course. By increased regulation, such as the FCA rules on marketing, fundraising and so on. And big technological changes: the advent of peer-to-peer lending and crowdfunding, cryptocurrencies, and much greater digitalisation in every area.

Technology opens up many exciting new opportunities, but it also creates a need for lots of new regulation – in money-laundering, fraud, and so on. So we’ve had to build all of that into our systems and processes.

What is your business’s focus at the moment?

Growth. We’re growing quite quickly, and building up our fund portfolio. (Obviously funds might typically last for maybe ten years, so you always need a pipeline of new ones to replace the old anyway.) We’ve now got in place all the people, systems and procedures that we need to take the business to the next level. And we’ve just moved into a new office in Edinburgh, so we’ve got physical room for growth too.

As we move into the next phase we’re using one of our great strengths, which is that because we’re entirely employee-owned we’re very agile. We make decisions very quickly.

The Covid pandemic has seen huge changes in the way we live: which of these do you think will be permanent?

I don’t think we’ll ever go back to doing things exactly the way they were. I think people will continue to have less face-to-face meetings, particularly if they require travelling overseas. More stuff will be done by video.

Travelling less for pointless meetings is a good thing. But there are downsides too: I think there’s quite a lot that’s lost when you don’t meet people face-to-face. You can’t negotiate a deal without looking someone in the eye, and seeing the nuances of the behaviour between the adviser and the client. You can’t see that on a Zoom call: they’re not in the same room.

The same applies to working from home. One of the good things here is that people used to think that if you were at home you couldn’t really be working, but we’ve all been doing it for 18 months and the work’s got done, so we’ve proved that wrong. But I think younger professionals may not appreciate that working at home means that they miss the dynamics of an office, they miss the chance to overhear things and to learn by osmosis.

Also, when we get back to some sort of normal, people will need time to adjust – to retrain themselves into another routine. If employers want to make flexible working permanent, they have a duty to provide the training, processes and so on that people need.

 

In the near future, what changes and challenges do you think you’ll see in regulatory and compliance?

Technology is the big thing. People need to be more on the ball in adapting quicker to technological changes.

For example, new technology creates more sophisticated ways for people to do money laundering, banking fraud and so on. So regulators must have the necessary staff and resources to adequately assess the risks of new technologies. And the benefits, of course, and ways to harness those.

 

What trends do you see in the property sector?

I think we’ll see more innovative ways of financing deals. The banking infrastructure has changed massively, so I think people will find new ways to finance projects. And I think the market will become entirely global: it will become the norm to have investors from all over the world, especially in the bigger funds.

We’ll see more focus on ESG (Environmental Social and Governance) issues. Private and institutional investors will increasingly require property funds to be more mindful of their environmental obligations, both morally and socially, and will want them to demonstrate that in a really meaningful and tangible way.

Looking back on your career, what achievement are you most proud of?

Probably running NCM. When you get those emails that say, ‘Thank you for being a good employer’, or ‘We appreciate the consideration you’ve shown the employees’… when you get that feedback from staff that they like working with you. And it’s definitely ‘with you’ not ‘for you’. That means a lot.

And also just enjoying what I do, 99% of the time. Having built a team where you’d be happy to have dinner with any of them, or sit with them on a long train journey. That gets harder as the business gets bigger, but hiring well is another of Henry’s skills.

 

What would be your ideal job if you weren’t in regulatory and compliance?

I wanted to be a history teacher when I was younger, but I think that would probably drive me insane now! To be honest, I’ve always been very happy with what I’m doing, and I’ve never really yearned for anything else.

 

What do you do to relax?

The gym – which had to be replaced with walking during lockdown. But I also had more time for cooking and gardening too. And my husband and I love to travel when we can.

 

What is your biggest extravagance?

Anyone will tell you: I’m not at all extravagant! Probably travel.

 

How would you describe yourself in three words?

Organised, friendly, conscientious. (I always like to be busy.)

 

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Listen to everyone around you. Always treat everyone the way you want to be treated. Learn all the jobs: when I was a trainee you had to be able to fix the photocopier at two in the morning. And always be willing to pitch in – I always had that, so I didn’t have to be told it. But it’s really important, whether you’re the most junior employee or the CEO.


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