Days after starting her first job in the male-dominated tech industry, a then 22-year-old Vin Murria was told she would never be successful because she was young, female and Asian.
Fast forward four decades and Vinodka (or Vin) Murria’s career highlights include the creation of three tech companies that reached a “unicorn” valuation of about $1bn (£820m). For her latest challenge, she is fighting the Mad Men of Soho in a rollercoaster takeover battle to buy M&C Saatchi, the advertising agency that created the 1997 “Demon Eyes” poster for the Conservatives.
She still knows the person that told her she wouldn’t make it. “Whenever I meet that person now, I say, ‘Guess what? I’ve fixed one of those. I’m not so young any more’.”
Murria, 60, has made a series of offers for M&C Saatchi, where she is the largest shareholder and until recently was deputy chair. However, its board is resistant, having overseen a recovery trajectory that includes reporting the best profits in its 27-year history last year.
In May, chairman Gareth Davis rejected her fourth offer in almost as many months as “derisory”. She is dangling a £254m deal mostly in shares in her London-listed AdvancedAdvT takeover vehicle.
Shortly after, M&C Saatchi approved a £310m takeover from rival agency Next Fifteen. However, in the latest twist, M&C reversed that decision, announcing on Friday it no longer regarded the terms as “fair and reasonable”. The bid was a mixture of cash and Next Fifteen shares, and its value has fallen after tens of millions were wiped from the bidder’s share price in the latest stock-market rout.
Murria and AdvancedAdvT, which is backed by private equity group Marwyn, control 22% of M&C Saatchi and claim to have secured the backing of other shareholders to take her overall support to 43%.
“She has made a lot of money, but leadership is multidimensional,” says one source at the agency. “She is very dogmatic, her incredible energy is only matched by her ego. She is not particularly embracing of other views – it’s my way or the highway – and that points to a lack of respect towards other people and their roles.”
However, other sources who have worked with Murria for decades say that while she is “incredibly demanding” she is “very willing to listen to other people’s opinions – they just have to be strong in voicing them”.
“She is generally, the smartest person in the room, and she can be very direct and will say things that need to be said in the boardroom,” one long-time colleague says. “She’s a challenging person, you’re never going to have an easy ride, you have to plan what you’re going to say and be very clear about it.
“She also very principled, more so than other people that have risen to similar positions.”
Another boardroom colleague described her knack for picking the best ideas, and attracting the best talent. She has, they said, a “unique ability to make you feel special”. “She will do it with everyone,” he says. “One minute she will speaking to the chairman, the next she will sit down next to a junior programmer and chat to them – and you can be sure she will have remembered the name of their kids and any illnesses in the family.”
Born in Punjab, India, Murria came to the UK when she was three years old. The family lived above the corner shop they ran, which is where she developed the work ethic that continues to drive her today.
“If you weren’t home after school at four o’clock, the search parties were sent out,” she has said. “You were home, you studied, or you worked in the shop. We were very conservative, very sensible, very focused.”
In her teens she took a year out to fight to save the shop when it ran into financial difficulties, her first taste of the often tough realities of the world of business.
Murria attended the local comprehensive, going on to gain a BSc (first class) in computer science and an MBA from the University of London. In the final year of her studies she undertook a project in industry and met Kevin Overstall, the chief executive and co-founder of Kewill Systems, a logistics software company. Starting as a sales executive, she rapidly climbed the ranks, making 13 acquisitions in 15 years as the company’s market value soared from £3m to £1.2bn by the time she left in 2001.
In 2002, she set up Computer Software Group, a shell company operating in the legal software industry, and replicated the Kewill model before selling to HG Capital for £91m in 2007. Weeks later, it was merged with Iris software and sold to Hellmann & Friedman for £500m, after which Murria left and took some time out to travel.
In the same year she set up the PS Foundation, named after her mother, to help educate young women in India and the UK.
“When I go back to India I see a lot of young girls who just don’t get the opportunities,” she has said. “When I look at those girls in India, I think ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.”
In 2018, Murria received an OBE for services to the British digital economy, as well as for advancing women in the software sector.
Her third major play was the healthcare applications business Advanced Computer Software Group, which she joined as chief executive in 2008. Seven years later the company was acquired for £765m by US private equity investor Vista Equity Partners.
One industry executive who has served on a board with Murria for several years says that, while her style may divide opinion, she will believe she is targeting M&C Saatchi for the right reasons.
“The bid is part of her fearless approach to life,” he says. “She wouldn’t be doing it if she doesn’t think she can win – but if she doesn’t, she will think she was right for trying.”